Empty Classroom

The Legacy of Oppression at Private Schools for the Privileged

"As Nelson Mandela said, 'Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world'"

by Walter Cooper, Ph.D, March 13, 2018

Empty Classroom

There is a renewed focus on school segregation. That’s because in the nearly 64 years since, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education. School segregation is on the rise again after years of decline. As recently as last month, a federal court blocked an Alabama town that tried to secede from its school district to force Black students from a nearby town out of their schools. (The students are zoned to attend school in the predominantly white town to integrate the schools.)

Although many of us have come to expect such behavior in the South, research shows that school segregation is on the rise across the country. In fact, schools in the Northeast have the dubious distinction of being the most segregated of all. Most “apartheid schools” — schools where white students comprise less than 1 percent of the student population — are located in the Northeast and Midwest. And the problem is not confined to public schools.

While higher education institutions, like Brown and Georgetown, have explored institutional ties to slavery and begun to discuss remedies like reparations, the elite schools that feed such institutions have hardly begun to grapple with their legacy of oppression. Phillip Exeter Academy has a well-reported history of “racial tensions.” When victims of sexual abuse came forward at St. George’s School, reports of racism surfaced as well. The Milton Academy, Phillips Andover, Choate, the list of prestigious schools with reported acts of racism goes on and will continue to grow until America takes a new approach to racism.

In an attempt to desegregate, schools — from public schools in the South like Little Rock Central High to private academies in the North like Phillip Exeter — have filled designated diversity slots with students and faculty of color. Rather than address the systemic racism, of which segregation is a part, these institutions infuse people of color into their racist systems, subjecting students and faculty to racist abuse.

Like the elite universities that they feed, private secondary schools have begun to talk about the race. But they have too often failed to own the deep roots of racism within their schools. Many of these institutions were built on the backs of slaves — having been founded with the proceeds of the slave trade. All of them failed to approach integration holistically — for years turning a blind eye to the racism that was and is part of the institutional DNA.

Many of these elitist institutions, like St. George’s School, have rightly spent millions of dollars to resolve claims of sexual abuse — cases that involve predominantly white alumni, which date back to the 1970s or earlier. But they have failed to acknowledge the need for reparations to students of color who were subjected to similar torment and suffering because of their race.

We must admit that there are not just apartheid schools; there is an apartheid system of education in America today. Just as South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a restorative justice body to help dismantle racism, our country’s education system must do the same. As a nation, we have yet to tell the truth about racism — neither historically nor currently. We cannot begin to dismantle racism until we admit its depths and severity. We cannot begin to heal until we acknowledge the harm and impact of racism in our everyday lives.

It is not enough to set aside slots for students and faculty of color. Private school endowments should be placed in socially conscious investments. Minority and women business enterprises should get more than just token contracts. Finally, every elite private school should create Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to root out racism once and for all.

We are living during a time when white supremacists feel emboldened. But it is also a time of burgeoning activism as victims of oppression rise to declare that #BlackLivesMatter and #TimesUp. Young people are taking to the streets to demand justice. The hallowed halls of historic educational institutions should not sit on the sidelines and observe.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Surely the most prestigious schools in America must be the starting point for that change.

Walter Cooper, PhD is an educator, scientist and civil rights activist. He also is a New York State Regent Emeritus.

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