In 1989, over three decades after the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the small city of Rockford, Illinois finally achieved integration of a racially segregated school district. The Federal Government stepped in after a class-action lawsuit claimed that minority students were systematically being held back while white students were fast-tracked into honors programs.
A dozen years later, an aggressive Asian mother casually tossed a dangerously full bag of vomit onto a table seating the members of Rockford’s Board of Education.
“There’s your proof.” Was all she said, before walking out.
When she attended a previous meeting with the request for her son to attend the school less than a mile from home, as opposed to the assigned an hour and a half’s bus ride away, the Board responded with a request for proof of his cited motion sickness and a provided promise to consider her request.
The woman, my mother, had dealt with the Board before; my older brother had been in a similar situation. Among other things, the 1989 federal mandate of the desegregation of District 205 ordered:
- Numerous schools that were to be closed for the construction of a mega-school to remain open
- Rezone schools into 3 large zones, each based on the racial composition of the city.
- Strict racial quotas of each school’s population and honors programs
- Mandatory busing
- A real effort to close the achievement gap between whites and minority students
There is little question that before the lawsuit, District 205 systemically segregated its students. I was there to witness all of it. To understand the causes one must first understand Rockford, Illinois.
A small city with the population of around 150,000, Rockford is split down the middle by the Rock River. On the West Side lies the inner city as well as a majority of minority and economically downtrodden neighborhoods, while the East Side, which is where I grew up, is predominantly white. Before the lawsuit, the school district followed a zone policy where a child would attend the school closest to their residence.
This meant that minorities were more likely to attend schools on the West Side, which were downtrodden and supplied secondhand, whilst whites attended East Side schools.
To accommodate public outcry, the city would bus minority students to East Side schools to attend special ‘honors’ classes and accelerated programs integrated with their curriculum. Simultaneously, white students were sent to West Side schools.
Citing allocation of resources based on performance of students along with the presence of a powerful teacher’s union, white majority schools on the East Side received a majority of the district’s budget and quality teachers while West Side schools received hand-me-downs from the East. The community resistance reached its height in 1989, when the Board decided to close 6 West Side schools and construct a mega-school to accommodate those displaced, while East Side schools had vacancies in their enrollments.
The result was a mandate of these diversity quotas, federally enforced ‘positive discrimination,’ which did little to solve the cited social problems brought forth by the lawsuit. To pay for the $252 million in reparations, the city enacted a tort tax, raising the property tax of all residents in Rockford to pay for legal fees and the federally mandated changes.
After the dust from the lawsuit settled, the schools were ‘integrated’ and celebrated for their racial diversity. The great social wrong had been righted- equal representation everywhere! This mindset ignored the deep flaws within the schools.
I attended what was considered the top middle school. What I encountered was tribalism at its finest; social lines were drawn primarily by race. African-Americans, Hispanics, and Whites all formed three different cliques, with no mechanism or interactions from the administration to soothe racial tensions between the three groups. It was rare that a day went by without a fight breaking out.
It was made clear to us that race was more important to identify by than anything else. It wasn’t long until gangs formed.
Minorities and whites had their own bathrooms, separated locker groups, hallways, stairwells, lunch tables, you name it. It wasn’t systemically enforced; it was us, the students, segregating ourselves into tribes to maintain a social pecking order. If you used the wrong toilet or went to the wrong area of school, you got beat up. It was a fact of life and when the administration was needed, they were nowhere to be found.
The results of ‘desegregation’ only exacerbated racial tensions within the schools. It would be foolhardy to ignore the good that came out of it; minority enrollment in honors program, as well as graduation rates in general went up, with West Side schools receiving an equal share of funding. The academic achievement gap was even reduced, although it was due to all scores being lowered instead of minority scores being elevated. However, the overstepping of equality of opportunity to institutionalized, federally mandated discrimination did far more harm than good as tribalism took over schools.
Modern day Rockford is no less depressing. It is one of the most dangerous cities in America. In 2017, the city ended its desegregation efforts and started to move back to proximity-based enrollments. The high school graduation rate is hovering around 67%, with reading and math proficiencies and ACT averages all under national average. 51% of all students come from low income families and 6.7% are homeless.
As a student who went through the diversity solution, I was taught that facts take a back seat to race itself and to look at race as the limit of our personal development. The belief that equal distribution of race will solve a complex problem such as Rockford’s segregated school district is a racial implication itself and not the answer.
To perceive the problem through a racial lens will only produce a racial solution, a sentiment that is slowly taking us back to the days of Jim Crow. This is the danger of righting social wrongs.
When you identify a problem as a racial issue and recommend diversity and multiculturalism as the solution, you promote the idea of oppression as an excuse for mediocrity.