American liberals and leftists are in the midst of conducting an important debate about the orientation of just anti-racist policy. Broadly speaking, the liberals have focused on the hundreds of killings of minorities by police, while the leftists have emphasized the importance of economics, particularly the concentration of poverty among minorities.
It is a fallacy to present these two choices as a dichotomy, of course. But as someone who has been arguing that poverty is a deep source of racism, it's important to note cases in which an economic lens does not explain everything. Sometimes, straightforward gutter racism is the simple and obvious culprit.
We got an example of the latter last week, when the Tampa Bay Times published a remarkable investigation of some of the worst elementary schools in Florida. In these five schools, overwhelmingly black, some 95 percent of the students are failing reading or math (or both). And these schools are in Pinellas County, one of the more affluent counties in the state. Moreover, as recently as 2007, all five schools were average or better in quality. What happened?
In 1971, as a result of a civil rights lawsuit, a federal judge got final say over Pinellas' choice of school districts, demanding an end to segregated schools. After resisting for a time, the county eventually implemented a desegregation plan, which barred any school from being more than 30 percent black, complete with busing and integration efforts to make it stick.
But in 2007, the county got free from federal oversight. County officials immediately re-segregated the districts, cramming most of the black children into those five schools. The school board, admitting that those schools would now be disproportionately poor, promised special attention and resources. The board was lying.
Instead, with an almost audible sigh of relief, the board proceeded to ignore the county's blacks. Instead of extra funding, money was cut in some years. Since the schools' academic collapse was undeniable, various milquetoast reforms were proposed and forgotten, or implemented for a while and then cut off. With the precious white children out of the picture, the board quite obviously did not care a fig for the fate of the black kids.
Teachers began quitting in droves. In 2014, fully half requested a transfer, and three even just walked straight off the job. The schools became violent and unsafe, staffed with inexperienced administrators and a quickly rotating cast of teachers who couldn't control their classrooms, let alone build lasting relationships with their students.
The board had effectively set the educational clock back 60 years — or perhaps even further. Back in the Jim Crow days, the black elite would have been basically stuck in the black district, and many of them likely would have worked as teachers (one of the few white-collar jobs open to blacks in those days). Today, they flee just like the whites do, if they can possibly afford it. The Times' investigation contains a heartbreaking story about an older woman who moved back in with her daughter so her gentle, high-achieving grandson could escape from the bullies wrecking his academics.
One can't blame them, of course. That goes for the teachers as well. I have worked as a rookie teacher in a failing school, and I know the sense of soul-crushing futility that comes from seeing a broken institution flush its children straight into poverty and being utterly helpless to do anything about it.
At any rate, while the schools would surely be doing better if it weren't for the 32 percent black poverty rate, the Times' investigation shows that the Pinellas schools are doing much worse than other counties with equal or worse poverty problems: "One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math."
It's an example of straightforward racism, but it's also worth noting that integration was basically working as advertised. In most places it may take federal oversight to get it done — also note that of the most segregated cities in the country, many of them are in the North.
But it turns out that a good way to get the white elite to care about the fortunes of their black constituents is to intertwine the fates of the two races.