Sunday, May 24, 2009

Segregated proms in a "post-racial" USA

When Obama ran to be the democratic nominee for the US Presidency, many asked if it was the end of black racial politics. When he was nominated as the Democratic candidate, won the election in 2008, some people (like conservative Dinesh D'Souza) claimed that racism in the USA was over, and that the United States had entered a new post-racial era. Still, others note that one election won (no matter how historic), does not change the fact that the US has yet to deal with a major paradox of injustice in its national psyche: the belief in freedom and that all people are created equal and the long standing historical de-jure and de-facto discrimination against particular members of its citizenry.

As a teacher, I point out to my students that just because something has happened once, does not mean that it signals a permanent change, a new reality, or a confirmation of a belief. It's a blip, an anecdote. Until there is an existing pattern supported with evidence in the form of data, it unfortunately can't tell us much. This is not to say that one cannot find hope in that unique instance. One must weigh it against the data from the current reality.

So, imagine my classroom last week when I pointed out to a group of students studying urban education that segregated proms still exist. Some were shocked, and wondered how that could be so. My students are bright and from very diverse backgrounds and life-experiences. It doesn't change the fact that they have more or less been raised in an era in which social studies education teaches them that "we had the Civil Rights movement. Segregation is over." Imagine my reaction this morning when I read the NYT magazine article about segregated proms in Georgia.

The article tells me nothing new but I am sure it will be a surprise to some of my students. What really disturbs me about the article is the Times's failure to really dig deeper than they did. The piece basically focuses on the hurt feelings of the black students. It talks about failed efforts to integrate the proms, and the fact that white students are welcome at black proms (but black students can only stand outside white proms and take pictures of their white friends). I don't want to minimize the grave insult here, or the emotions of the students who were excluded. By focusing on the emotions of students, however, the Times reduces this act of segregation and discrimination to something that is committed against one or a few individuals, when in fact, it is institutionally and community-sanctioned against an entire group of the community itself.

But, some would say, the proms are paid for by the parents. But, other would say, it's the white parents who want to keep black students away from their prom and their children. If that were the case, why didn't the white students protest? Or, as one young black woman mentioned in passing, why did none of the white students text their black friends during prom, or choose not to go? This, in my mind is the crux of the matter: white students, while they may have black friends, girlfriends, or boyfriends, still observe the de facto reality of the community. It's OK to be friends or maybe date outside your race (as long as your parents don't know), but officially, you stick to your own.

The fact that the school does not pay for the segregated proms does not absolve the school administration from its role in this story. The reality that this is the way it has been done since schools were integrated in the 70's does not make the "tradition" (used in the article) does not make it right. This story does serve, however, as data point in a growing list of them that a "post-racial" USA is still a long way off.