Evanston, a city north of Chicago with a diverse(ish) racial makeup and a kickass movie theater (there’s a bar! Right there in the movie theater! Genius!), is in sort of an educational upheaval. This is pretty normal for Evanston; there are a lot of terribly well-educated, painfully socially-conscious and intensely well-intentioned people living there*, and if it weren’t for the fact that they can’t agree on a god loving thing, they might be able to form a pretty sweet progressive coalition.

But they don’t agree, and they get all riled up, and there’s a lot of sincere, emotional debate, and it’s all coming to a head over an issue that, frankly, I didn’t see coming, or at least didn’t see coming BACK: segregated education.

There is a major achievement gap along racial lines in Evanston, such that 90% of white eighth graders are testing proficient on state reading tests where only 61% of black eighth graders are. This is understandably upsetting, and a committee has been formed, and the committee has come out with a recommendation that a small number of the city’s elementary school classrooms, starting in kindergarten, feature an African-centered curriculum. The theory, which should be familiar to teachers, is that kids need to see people who look like them being valued and talked about, need to see their culture honored in school, and need it to happen year-round, not just on MLK Day or Cesar Chavez Day or any other Special Recognition of the Significant Contributions of Minorities Holiday.

The fear, however, is that only black parents will choose to enroll their kids in the afro-centric classes, and the city will end up with a small number of segregated classrooms. This idea does not sit comfortably with a lot of Evanston residents, particularly with many white residents. NPR did a story on the committee’s recommendations yesterday afternoon. Maybe it was just the way they edited parents’ comments, but the white parents’ reactions tended toward either “I am very uncomfortable with the idea of bringing back segregation, even by choice,” or “I want multicultural education for all kids,” while the black parents’ reactions tended toward “this is a good idea. duh. white parents, get over it.” I thought that was pretty telling.

NPR did a nice job with this story, I think, and if I’m able to track down a link to the audio I’ll update this and post it here. But one thing they didn’t mention, and the thing that worries me the most, is this: what happens if this works? What if we see dramatic achievement gains? That would certainly be a tremendous victory, and great for those kids who are succeeding. But are we at all concerned about sending a message that the only way to educate “those kids” is to remove them from an integrated setting and teach them a separate curriculum? Does it matter?

Maybe it’s an imperfect parallel, but this reminds me of one of the hardest-to-rebut arguments against affirmative action: we stigmatize, in an even more insidious way than direct segregation did, when we provide for systems of special help, because we convey the message that racial minorities aren’t able to achieve without this special help. This argument has been posited by none other than my favorite Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas (because the internet is bad at conveying tone, I will note here, for clarity: that was sarcastic!) In his dissent to the University of Michigan Law School affirmative action case, he quoted Frederick Douglass:

“what I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy…if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall.”

The majority opinion in the University of Michigan case, which allowed the affirmative action to continue, was very very careful to endorse the case-by-case approach to law school admissions and the “strong state interest” in promoting educational diversity based on employers’ desire for a diverse workforce. Without that “compelling state interest,” they would have had a much harder time upholding the system.

Granted, this is not an official state action (as far as I can tell, the school board of Evanston has not so totally lost its marbles that it is planning to require kids to learn in one-race classrooms,) but the argument seems at least plausible- are we making it easier for racists and pundits everywhere to conclude, however uncomfortably, that there’s just something “different” about black kids that makes them harder to educate in race-diverse settings?

Most interesting of all, I think, is this: I can’t decide how I feel about it. That is rare indeed.

*Needless to say, John and I will move there shortly, as we and our 5 degrees and social progressive earnestness will fit right in.