The New York Times had an article yesterday on controversial proposal to reorganize the Omaha school district, “Law to Segregate Omaha Schools Divides Nebraska.”
Instigated by Ernie Chambers, the longest serving member of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature and once described as the “angriest black man in Nebraska” (a friend described him to me as “the Louis Farrakhan of the midwest”), the new measure, as related in the NYT,
calls for dividing the Omaha public schools into three racially identifiable districts, one largely black, one white and one mostly Hispanic.
The law, which opponents are calling state-sponsored segregation, has thrown Nebraska into an uproar, prompting fierce debate about the value of integration versus what Mr. Chambers calls a desire by blacks to control a school district in which their children are a majority.
Civil rights scholars call the legislation the most blatant recent effort in the nation to create segregated school systems or, as in Omaha, to resegregate districts that had been integrated by court order. Omaha ran a mandatory busing program from 1976 to 1999.
For a deeper, more nuanced analysis of this issue, read this thoughtful blog posting by Geitner Simmons, the editorial page editor of the Omaha World Telegram, which quotes from some World Telegram editorials. An editorial that ran last Thursday, for example, noted:
Chambers said that people misunderstood his original wording, which directed that the new districts be aligned with the students’ “community of interest.” [The Legislature later voted to remove term from the legislation, but only days after it had been originally approved. — GS]
But if any member of the Legislature is known for his extraordinary precision of language, it is, of course, Ernie Chambers.
No, the meaning of his words, like the meaning of his intention behind his amendment, was clear. He wants to encourage racial and ethnic balkanization. He wants to dwell on racial alienation and fixate the minds of fellow African-Americans on it, rather than build bridges across the racial divide. Such has been the theme throughout his career in public life.
To get a complete picture of this issue, however, you really need to read Mr. Simmons’s entire post. Race, it turns out, was not the only issue involved. There were arguments both in favor of and opposed to the new proposal that had nothing to do with race, and thus proponents and opponents could not be identified by race. As the NYT article pointed out, some black leaders in Omaha are opposed.
“This is a disaster,” said Ben Gray, a television news producer and co-chairman of the African-American Achievement Council, a group of volunteers who mentor black students. “Throughout our time in America, we’ve had people who continuously fought for equality, and from Brown vs. Board of Education, we know that separate is not equal. We cannot go back to segregating our schools.”
I hesitate to state a firm opinion here because there are so many local, non-racial considerations involved. Although I don’t hesitate to say that I find the World Telegram editorials quoted by Simmons, and the integrationist values to which they appeal, to be appealingly powerful and impressive (and quite similar to the anti-segregation slant of the NYT news article), based on the material cited here I’m reluctant to jump on this particular pro-integration bandwagon.
My advice (not that anyone, as usual, asked) is that the question of whether the Omaha school district should be unified or somehow divided should be decided (like just about everything else, in my opinon), without regard to race. That is, if smaller, decentralized school district organization makes sense on educational or fiscal or other grounds, it should not be opposed simply because that might result in districts that are “racially identifiable,” and I say that even though apparent racial rabble-rousers like Ernie Chambers support such an outcome for racial reasons. On the other hand, a legislative intent to create “segregated” districts presumably would (and certainly should) be unconstitutional. As I said, it’s complicated.
Busing, after all, was defended with the same integrationist rhetoric that is so appealing here, and it was a disaster.