The New York Times and Upper West Side Segregation

Of all of the taboo topics in today’s political landscape, absolutely nothing is more fraught with danger than race. Recall the old joke about how people dance at a nudist camp -- carefully, very carefully. Everything from vocabulary to tone of voice must be carefully calculated and the slightest mistake can be career-ending.

A complex etiquette per se is not, however, the problem. Civil society would collapse if everybody spoke bluntly. The question is whether taboos blind us from serious problems that demand forthright, honest discussion. 

A perfect illustration of how the race taboo undermines honest discussions of serious social problems can be found in recent New York Times articles (and here) about redrawing school district lines in Manhattan’s über-liberal Upper West Side. These articles abound in euphemisms and omissions guaranteed to obscure awkward truths.

Manhattan’s Upper West Side is home to a multitude of affluent white liberals and large numbers of poor blacks and Hispanics residing in public housing. Some schools, all overwhelmingly white, excel academically. Not surprisingly, “white” schools in this neighborhood have long waiting lists for prospective enrollees. But, often only a few blocks away, are schools with large poor black and Hispanic enrollments plagued by fights (often involving weapons), classroom disorder, and appalling academic outcomes. The polite nonracial euphemism for these schools might be “schools with low test scores.”

For those with school-age children who strongly care about their education, school district demarcations are vital. Having one’s offspring attend a stellar grade-school with bright classmates is seen as the first step to admission to an elite college. Equally crucial  is safety -- not even the most rabid Bernie Sanders fans would risk their children’s well-being, including the danger of acquiring bad habits (drug use, thievery, a penchant for violence, a rotten work ethic and similar underclass inclinations). As one education-minded parent said about these “diverse” schools, “My husband and I support public school education but not at the expense of our children’s educational and physical well-being,”

There are also major financial costs for parents in a lousy school district. For apartment owners, residing in a “bad school” attendance zone can substantially reduce the value of one’s residence, while the private school alternative can cost upward of $30,000 per child each year. If a private school is unaffordable, the remaining option is relocating to the suburbs, hardly appetizing to many Upper West Side liberals.    

Now, what happens when a Department of Education bureaucrat announces that junior may be bounced from his nearly all-white (and often-overcrowded) high-test score school, and instead sent to the nearby “diverse” school that, say the bureaucrats, offers junior a chance to benefit from diversity since “studies show” that such a racial/ethnic mixture is essential mastering today’s multicultural world?

Ironically, these well-educated, affluent “good thinking” Manhattan (white) residents now confront the same tribulations faced by down-market white Southerners over court-ordered integration post Brown v. Board of Education (1954). But, unlike these bigoted Rednecks, white liberal New Yorkers, aided by the racially hypersensitive New York Times, need not block the doorway of junior top-flight nearly all white school and shout, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow….” while the federal government orders the New York City’s police to forcibly enroll residents of nearby public housing as junior’s classmates. These white liberals are expert at walking on eggshells (I’m not a racist but….”) and playing politics to keep their kids in white schools; there is even a website on how to game the system.

As one follows the Times’ accounts of school attendance zone wars, one can only recall the nudist camp joke -- be careful -- and, no doubt, few Times’ readers will notice the glaring omissions from these stories. While the newspaper identifies multiple underperforming largely African American and Hispanic schools, the problems that plague them are handled with kid gloves. A naive Times reader would surmise that the roots of the city’s segregated school system reside in white resistance to the benefits of diversity, or an unfamiliarity with the wonderful programs at largely black schools. Off the agenda is the possibility that affluent white “resisters” are behaving rationally -- accurately perceiving unspeakable situations when it comes to their children’s well-being. To be impolite, these liberals are secret race-realists not fooled by experts touting the alleged benefits of diversity.

Why the Times eschews honestly depicting these disastrous “diverse” schools, is uncertain, but let me speculate. The silence reflects three PC Principles: First, “Thou Shall Not Criticize Black and Hispanic Educators No Matter How Bad their Performance;” second, one way or another, the educational deficiencies of blacks and Hispanics are all traceable to whites, so if whites would sent their smart kids to majority black schools, test results for everybody would soar; and third, calling attention to the black and Hispanic students themselves as the source of school shortcomings stigmatizes them, lowers their self-esteem and unfairly blames them for conditions over which they have no control, for example, institutional racism, underfunding, low expectations, and on and on.

To appreciate the harm inflicted by the truth-avoiding Times, imagine an alternative non-taboo universe. Here the Times’ headline might be “Concerned White Parents Resist Sending their Children to Dreadful Unsafe Largely Minority Schools.” The article would detail the education-killing chaos of these minority-majority schools and the inability of their staffs, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, to impose a modicum of order and learning. Moreover, the story would continue, these worried (white) taxpaying parents have a right to safe, effective schools, and unless they are provided, many might flee the city, as they did in the 1960s when public education almost collapsed thanks to race-related school violence.

Going one step further, this honest Times article would acknowledge what happens to other cities, e.g., Detroit, when affluent whites jumped ship rather than enroll junior in violence-ridden schools where, to be coy, nearly all students received free lunches and were staffed by “challenged” teachers.   

In sum, rather than address the real education problem -- awful schools dominated by victim-minorities -- the Times turns out story after story about how affluent whites scheme to keep their children out of these “vibrant” schools for largely unmentioned reasons. Nor does the Times examine why teachers and administrators in these appalling schools are incapable of imposing minimal standards of classroom behavior or imparting basic literacy, despite huge budgets and ample staff.  After all, past schools, particularly religious ones, with paltry resources accomplished this task.

But who knows where that opened can of worms will go? Better keep the lid on the can.

Especially taboo is the suggestion that forcibly ending widespread school segregation might undermine the education of thousands of whites with negligible benefits for blacks and Hispanics -- and that these forcefully integrated schools might lower property values (and thus reduce city tax revenue) and drive the middle class to the suburbs. Perhaps frankness about racial segregation might even resurrect the ghost of George Wallace!  In the PC world of the New York Times, it is better not to offend certain sensitivities or raise uncomfortable questions than honestly address educational disasters. One can only be reminded of proper Victorians struggling to discuss venereal diseases as if sex never happened.

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