Despite the proliferating analyses and reflections about Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray and subsequent social unrest, a significant social institution has escaped the critical scrutiny it deserves for its role in the creation, maintenance, and reproduction of the racialized social inequality of Baltimore.
The hypersegregated public schools of Baltimore, where I am a teacher, represent a massive failure of the American social contract and no political leader or party even contemplates a challenge to the de facto “separate but equal” ideological consensus that we have created and maintain 61 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Many Baltimoreans—black and white—have come to have a possessive investment in this city’s apartheid schools and people outside of Baltimore do not see their lives as citizens impacted by this intentional, policy-created educational separateness. While this segregation no longer has the sanction of law, we have simply given up on even imaging change to this sine qua non of institutionalized racism.
More perversely, that Baltimore’s educational racism is maintained and perpetuated without the sanction of law makes it even more pernicious in the present age. My public school students look around their school and are made to believe that their extreme racial isolation is the natural order of things, that such ghetto-ization has everything to do with them and not the body politic. They are taught about Brown and the civil rights movement but are denied a political vocabulary and analysis of the present to understand the structural oppression that limits their chances to succeed.
Moreover, because “public school” is the American civic institution meant to both represent and make practically real our national belief that we are dedicated to the proposition that all are equal and endowed with inalienable rights, we do daily intellectual, academic, and psychological damage to students, many of whom spend their entire education with only other black students. My students intuit early in their experience of public education what their country has failed to truly acknowledge: “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
A primary rhetorical method that we use to erase and deny the reality of educational apartheid in Baltimore and in America is our obsessive deployment of standardized testing—if everyone is measured by the same standard, the thinking runs, then we are treating everyone equally. Indeed, for many school reformers a commitment to standardized testing is the civil rights issue of our time.
However, it’s clear that more than a decade of mandated standardized testing in Baltimore and nationally has failed to meaningfully reduce educational inequality. As the Network for Public Education, a public school advocacy organization, recently described, “we know that high-stakes standardized tests, rather than reducing the opportunity gap, have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish students of color. This fact has been amply demonstrated through the experience of the past thirteen years of No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) mandate of national testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The outcomes of the NCLB policy shows that test score achievement gaps between African American and white students have only increased, not decreased. . . . Further, the focus on test score data has allowed policy makers to rationalize the demonization of schools and educators, while simultaneously avoiding the more critically necessary structural changes that need to be made in our education system and the broader society.”
Many of my students have come to think of their test-saturated school experience as not only a limited and limiting education, but one that is meant as a challenge to their very identity and sense of self-worth. “Why do they want to humiliate us?” was a question I fielded multiple times from students this year as they were forced to take the new PARCC tests alongside Maryland’s High School Assessments.
I regularly direct my students to the letter James Baldwin wrote to his young nephew in 1962 as a way for them to understand what educational apartheid in contemporary Baltimore is about. Baldwin wrote: “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish . . . You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
He went on to try and explain to his nephew why so many plainly see the segregation for what it is, but are unwilling to do anything about it. “Many of them indeed know better,” Baldwin wrote, “but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.”
Baldwin included this letter in his essay collection, “The Fire Next Time.” As long as Baltimore perpetuates and refines its system of educational apartheid the question really is not if students will rebel again, but when.