Thursday, June 21, 2012

School Segregation: Not Just Black and White

Image: Cesar Chavez, Odessa Newman, Juan Soria

California school districts segregated children of Mexican origins in California for much of the twentieth century. Like in Oxnard, school boards held that this segregation was a de facto (unofficial) manifestation of discriminatory residential developments that instilled covenants within deeds prohibiting the sale of homes to non-whites. But as the appeals process of the Soria v. Oxnard School District case (1971) revealed, the segregation of children of Mexican origins was obsessed upon by school boards in the early twentieth century. A classic film detailing this phenomenon in San Diego, California is the docudrama The Lemon Grove Incident. In this true story, Mexican parents fought against this discrimination in 1931 and won.

School segregation did not just mean separate schooling but also the inferior education of children of Mexican origins within substandard facilities. As a result, unequal opportunity started early in the lives of students of Mexican origins. The legacy of de jure (legislative) school segregation also affected the life chances (i.e., higher education prospects, professional career opportunities, property ownership, well-being, and the inter-generational passing of wealth) not only of those who had been segregated but also their progeny. In fact, student achievement from kindergarten to the university is linked to the household income based on life chances. This is the cycle.

This historical issue is personal for two reasons. First, in 1971 I was a first grader in the Oxnard School District and was bussed to el norte (the Anglo and more middle class part of Chiques) due to the Soria case. At the time, I did not know why my neighborhood friends and I were bussed across town. Classmate who wondered may still not know why they were bussed but I do. And even when I attended an integrated high school, I noticed that about half of my Mexican origins peers either dropped out after their freshman year or took non-college prep courses.

The second reason the educational hamstringing of students of Mexican origins is significant is because of my old man’s stories of living in the segregated city of Santa Paula during the 1940s. This community was, and to a large degree still is, divided by rancher families and agricultural workers, white theater patrons and the Mexican section, white churches and Mexican iglesias. This separation was so mundane that people in communities in and out of Ventura County internalized the mores of the divided societies in which they lived. Growing up, my father would tell me how when he was in high school most Mexican students took shop classes. So he encouraged me to take college prep courses at Oxnard High.

I often wonder how different the life chances of the majority of my extended family members and classmates of Mexican origins would have been if it had not been for the segregation policies in Ventura County. Would more of them be doctors, lawyers, or scientists rather than being chronically ill or ensnared in the criminal justice system for a large part of their lives? Would they have been upper level managers living in solidly middle class communities rather than taking orders and living in neighborhoods with overcrowded and underfunded schools? Would they have discovered cures instead of being victims of industrial petro chemicals?

Read any scholarly study on the demographic character of our nation’s schools and you will discover that the dynamics of segregation are to a greater extent still with us today. And there seems to be no answer to the residential flight from the presence of people of color and their school-aged children.

Con Safos

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