A View from Glen Hill: Understanding racial discrimination
We struggle mightily as a nation with our legacy of racial hatred and violence that should be readily changeable for every good reason yet persists unremittingly.
In discussing our anti-discrimination laws, I review with my graduate students our nation’s racial history — necessarily too quickly given what else we must cover in these courses. I’m amazed at how new that information is to many of them.
We all need to understand that racial discrimination and hatred have been key drivers in this country from well before its founding, built into institutional forms as well as into mindsets not just for generations but for centuries. Understanding that is a key part of finding a fruitful — not ineffectual or hurtful — way forward.
The recent letter subscribed to by over 500 Wilton school students and alums asking our schools to do more to address racial inclusion and justice is beautifully written. To the credit of our Wilton schools, I was invited last fall by Superintendent Kevin Smith to speak to their regular meeting of senior administrators of the district and from all four schools (Miller-Driscoll through Wilton High School) for a one-hour presentation on racial inequality focused on education and housing.
My presentation underscored the role de jure (not “just” de facto) segregation has had in fostering a racially divided country.
De jure segregation refers to that kind of segregation which is brought about by the action of government itself and so should be corrected by government action. Our nation’s history is sadly replete with strikingly pervasive and irrefutable evidence of de jure segregation not just a century or two ago but right down to the time of the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond. The effects of those government-sanctioned racist actions persist to this day.
After my presentation, the discussion among these two-dozen school administrators on this subject went on for another 90 minutes focused on ways to expand student education in this field and to try to bring greater racial balance to Connecticut’s whole educational system and to Wilton’s in particular.
Thereafter, a special committee of our Wilton educators was formed under the leadership of Middlebrook music educator Michael Gordon to find ways forward.
Education needs to be a foundational part of the answer.
I was asked to do this school presentation based on my columns on the subject (Oct. 26, 2017, March 14, 2019, May 23, 2019) and testimony I’d given before our state legislature’s Education Committee. I spoke to that committee, as did many of you, in opposition to the very unwise school regionalization plan being advanced last year.
However, I also felt it important in those remarks to acknowledge the urgent need for our state — in very specific ways and with thoughtfully designed remedies — to address disparity in educational opportunity that is glaringly evident and tremendously troubling. In fact, one of the state representatives from New Haven in attendance at those legislative hearings referenced my October 2017 column and asked during my remarks that I speak further about the subject it addressed.
That subject is the role that our federal government, joined by state and municipal governments (and not just in the South but across our country), has had in fostering, and indeed creating, segregation.
That process has gone on under multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic, in an astounding variety of forms: from racially restrictive zoning and deed covenants both governmentally encouraged and court-enforced right here in Connecticut (and around the whole country) to explicitly racially restricted federal government housing projects from the New Deal in the 1930s to wartime housing during World War II to postwar FHA and VA home mortgage programs that restricted areas where blacks could obtain mortgages based on redlining.
This government-directed housing segregation further exacerbated already enormous government-supported school segregation and segregation in all aspects of life. In the South, governmental policy was even more explicit in Jim Crow laws and all of the denial of equal access to facilities and government resources and the limitations on voting rights that are much more well-known. Yet even those are but the tip of the iceberg of racist programs explicitly and specifically undertaken by our government at all levels across our nation.
Such things as the very well-attended town demonstration two weeks ago and the letters from Wilton school students and alums are part of the evidence from around the country that shows that for now the dialogue is happening. Let’s hope that this time it continues and leads to transformative reaction for the good.