There has been a persistent theme in the media, explicitly, and in scholarly studies, implicitly, that economic class is much more important as a basis for analysis than race. This is, of course, a Marxist position, one clung to by the Communist Party of the United States to its dying day.
But the basis of American society, as even some Communists admitted, is division by race. This was embodied in the original wording of the Constitution, with its three-fifths rule for counting enslaved Africans and their descendants. It dominated debates in the Senate until the imposition of the “gag” rule, barring discussion of slavery; led to the Civil War, and as Jim Crow, determined social structures and social relations in much of the country until the 1960s.
Despite Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act and similar legislation, de jure Jim Crow did not vanish; it was transformed into “Jim Crow by another name,” primarily through the operation of schools and prisons. The stronghold of what Michelle Alexander branded as “The New Jim Crow” is the “black belt” of counties in the former Confederacy, running from Norfolk Virginia to, say, Waco, Texas, with satellites in various urban centers, especially in the line from Louisville, Kentucky to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also including Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and New York.
Among the northern urban centers, New York City, because of its size and cultural and political significance, is of particular importance. New York City has an African American population of 2,089,000, a larger number than any other city in the country, more than in many states. How well do the New York public schools perform their task of educating all children, including Black children?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the standard by which education is measured in the United States. Among NAEP’s many assessments, that for reading is particularly crucial as an indicator, particularly reading at grade 8, when the schools have had sufficient time to overcome many issues arising from home and community.
Results for grade 8 reading for New York City show that 46 percent of White students are Proficient and above (compared to 42 percent nationally) as are 15 percent of Black students (compared to 15 percent nationally). Forty-four percent of Black students in the city’s public schools and 15 percent of White students were at the Below Basic (difficulty reading) level in 2015.
New York City’s public schools educate three times the percentage of their White students as their Black students to read at grade level in the crucial grade 8 year. And they leave nearly half of Black middle school students unable to read easily, therefore unlikely to graduate from high school “college and career ready,” unlikely to qualify for or to obtain middle class jobs and incomes.
The failure of the New York City public schools to educate Black students is particularly troubling for male Black students, only 9 percent of whom are at Proficient or above in grade 8 reading in 2015. Which means, of course, that 91 percent are not.
Student educational attainment in New York is also sharply divided by income. Thirty-six percent of White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, in the New York public schools reach the Proficient and above levels in grade 8 reading. Other White students, from more prosperous families, read at grade level 57 percent of the time by eighth grade. Among Black students, 13 percent of those eligible for the National Lunch Program read at or above the Proficient level, while 18 percent of those from more prosperous families do so. A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in New York is more than four times as likely to be brought to grade level in grade 8 reading than a Black student from a low-income family.
Notice, however, the different sizes of the gaps between students from relatively poor and relatively prosperous families among Black and White students. It is 21 percentage points among White students, five among Black students. Or, White students from more prosperous families are 58 percent more likely to read at grade level than White students from less well-off families, while with Black students it is 38 percent. NAEP’s records for New York City assessments of this type go back only to 2003, but if we analyze those, we find that the family income differences for White students are pretty steady, over time, but for Black students they are narrowing, from 13 percentage points in 2007 to 5 percentage points in 2015. The reading ability of New York City’s Black middle class students is declining, according to NAEP, while that of Black students from lower income families is remaining relatively flat.
How can this be interpreted? New York is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, as are its schools. While since the (Lyndon) Johnson administration formal housing segregation has been illegal, in New York City even middle class Black professionals are ghettoized. Therefore, their children go to the same schools as do the children of the poorest, single parent, families. In theory, this should not matter. In theory, all schools would provide educations of equal—high—quality to all students. Now, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn I want you to look at . . .
If we are done with that, it is obvious that all but 15 percent of Black children (and 9 percent of male Black children) in New York City are being provided with inferior educational opportunities because they are Black. And of those, comparatively successful students, many are the children of school teachers and other highly educated parents, in effect, home schooled: the home environment making up for the deficiencies of the school (rather than the idealized opposite).
The racism of the New York City public school system is more or less overt, as witness the unspeakable racial imbalance of the system’s selective high schools, which year after year admit so few Black students that those could be accounted for by the number of children of Black United Nations diplomats. The outcome of all this is that the 65 percent of Black students entering grade 9 in New York City who were given diplomas four years later include about 40 percent who could not read at grade level when they were in grade 8 and probably could not read eighth grade material when they were given diplomas. More than one-third of the system’s Black students do not graduate from high school, two-thirds or more of those who do are far from “college and career ready.”
If a system fails in its professed purpose—say, educating children—more often than chance would indicate, and continues to do so over time, it is probable that it is, in fact, achieving its actual purpose, in this case, perpetuating racism.