Every time I see the callous way in which urban, largely Black, school districts are having their K–12 budgets drastically reduced by elected officials across the country, it reminds me, chillingly, of the Apartheid-era “Bantu education” that was designed to deliver a grossly inferior academic experience to the indigenous, Black majority people of South Africa (the Bantu).
It was developed because the country’s Apartheid rulers simply did not believe Black children were capable of comprehending traditional academic course work and because they had no plan, whatsoever, to include the Black majority as part of the country’s economic mainstream, beyond the level of menial labor.
As South Africa’s minister of native affairs said in 1954: “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”
With that unmitigated disdain, and that total lack of expectations for Black youths, it’s easy to see how the South African government spent just one-tenth as much on the education of its Black students as it did on its white children.
Today, in South Africa, 18 years after the end of Apartheid, the overwhelming majority of the country’s Black children are still denied educational opportunity through significantly underfunded public schools, 75 percent of which don’t have libraries, 50 percent of whose students don’t even have textbooks.
What’s the fundamental difference between “Bantu education” and that which is being provided in predominantly Black, largely low-income school districts across the United States?
Not much, it seems.
Using their highly publicized fiscal challenges as an excuse, states nationwide, including Pennsylvania, have slashed billions of dollars from K–12 budgets over the past few years. And, in a “Bantu-education kind of way,” as the L.A. Times, last July, pointed out, “school officials often reduced, or eliminated, personnel and programs vital to the most vulnerable populations: low-income and minority students.”
While it’s been a very positive sign that Pennsylvania state legislators have moved in a surprisingly bipartisan fashion to restore some of the most egregious K–12 reductions from last year’s budget, the long-standing inattention to that issue has had a disastrous impact to date, here, and across the country.
In the beginning there was that shameful pattern of “white flight” from public schools in the South, the West, and in major northern metropolitan areas, ever since Brown v. Board of Education. White parents, disinterested in having their children spend time in classrooms with African-American students, have since the mid-1950s, moved their primary residences to suburban and rural areas to “escape” the public schools. On the other hand, those who stayed in the cities opted to send their children to private schools, including Catholic schools, whether they were Catholic or not.
Indeed, a key finding in a report called “Condition of Education,” released last year, was that “White private school enrollments are highest in school districts with large proportions of Black students in the population.”
Consistent with these patterns, in Philadelphia, Blacks, at 63 percent of the student body, are substantially over-represented in the public schools, as are Hispanics, at 17.4 percent. At the same time, while Asians are enrolled at precisely their representation in the city’s overall population, at a little over 6 percent, white students have been gradually disappearing from the Philadelphia schools, and now stand at just 13.4 percent of district students, despite the city’s non-Hispanic white population of 36.9 percent.
The same kinds of ratios can be found in school districts in cities such as Chicago (10 percent white public school enrollment); Los Angeles (9 percent white student enrollment); and Milwaukee (14.9 percent white public school enrollment).
Are we starting to see an ugly pattern in this wonderful, post-racial society in which we all live?
Actually, no one seemed to mind very much as this deeply segregated, publically funded educational system began to unfold over the past sixty years, or so. Whites, generally, seemed pleased to have the economic wherewithal to be able to exercise their “school choice,” and Blacks, who were now the predominant racial group in most big-city districts, seemed virtually oblivious to the fact that the best teachers were siphoned off to other districts, that books and computers were in increasingly short supply, that school buildings were no longer maintained in an appropriate manner, or that the substantial economic opportunities available in even under-funded school districts were not accessible to them, as businesspeople.
When school quality declined, Black children were blamed, their parents passively accepted responsibility and our community simply grew to believe that these were the kinds of schools to which Black people were entitled.
Then, the bottom fell out of the economy in 2007, and neither white parents, nor Black parents, could comfortably afford to pay the freight at the private schools, for their children’s education. In fact, in January of this year, the New York Times reported that private school tuitions in and around the Big Apple were routinely approaching $40,000 per year.
Don’t be shocked!
In Philadelphia, even with a reduced cost of living as compared to New York City,
9–12 grade tuitions at private schools, Penn Charter, Friends Select and Chestnut Hill Academy, are $28,950, $28,580 and $27,750, respectively.
Suddenly, with the Catholic, private school option decreasingly available, middle- and upper-class parents began to turn to public charter schools. As a result, private school enrollments have actually dropped, from 6.3 million to 5.5 million students, over the 10-year period ending in 2009, while the number of students enrolled in charter schools has more than tripled, to 1.4 million, over the same, general time frame.
In my opinion, the shameful neglect of valid educational options for African-American students grows out of a similar lack of confidence in their academic potential, as was expressed by Apartheid leaders, in South Africa.
The same national culture that, even today, actively discriminates against the students’ parents, and deprives them of employment and contract opportunities, also works to deprive the students, themselves, of the academic resources, to become viable, economic contributors. As part of that pattern, the “powers that be,” in the main, have all but deserted the schools where Black children are enrolled, in the majority.
I remember vividly my first trip to Little Rock, Ark. There for a business trip, I made a point of finding the time to visit the city’s infamous Central High school, where brave Black students had once risked their lives to integrate the classrooms.
Upon my arrival, I was shocked to see that Central High was not integrated at all, but had become 100 percent African-American. I was informed that, as soon as the African-American students were admitted to Central High, the city’s “leaders” began to put into place a plan to construct an alternative, all-white high school on the outskirts of the city, along with an all-white shopping district and a white-admittance-only hospital.
Adding insult to injury, to ease the commute for white residents traveling to the newly developed area, the local government had approved the construction of a spanking new freeway that was built directly over what had previously been a viable section of Little Rock’s Black community.
That same, perverse thinking, apparently, is still alive and well in how this country educates its young people. Is there any wonder, then, why, in the most recent worldwide PISA assessment of students in “developed” nations, U.S. students ranked 30th in math, 23rd in the sciences and 17th in reading?
Add to all of that, the recent news that there are now more “babies of color” being born in America than any other babies. That, in my opinion, sets the stage for the prospect of a self-defeating expansion of U.S.-style “Bantu education.”
That is, unless we all intervene.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.