Preethi Nallu and Jack Watling, 4 December 2014.
ST. LOUIS – “It was right here that Dred Scott sued for his freedom,” Kevin Pulley points, standing in front of the Old Court House in St. Louis, Missouri. Beneath the scorching mid-western sun the stainless steel arch built to symbolize ‘the Gateway to the West’ glistens in the background.
“Ironic isn’t it? It was here that the questioning of slavery started.” A somber smile lingers on Pulley’s face; despite a rich history associated with the civil rights movement St. Louis remains bitterly segregated. After the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by police on 9 August 2014, the St. Louis district of Ferguson has become the focal point for a new debate about race relations in the United States.
Almost a quarter of St Louis County’s 1.1 million residents are African American, and yet it is one of the “most racially divided cities” in America according to the Black-White Dissimilarity Index [PDF] with distinct white and black neighbourhoods.
EDUCATION AND ETHNICITY
Kevin Pulley has worked as a teacher in St Louis for more than two decades. For him “racism has set the stage” for all forms of inequality from the stop-and-frisk policies of the police that disproportionately target young black men to access to education and educational resources.
In 1954 the US Supreme court ruled that ‘Separate but Equal’ – the principle whereby schools could be exclusively for black or white students so long as they provided comparable education – was unconstitutional. In St. Louis however attempts to desegregate schools only got underway in 1982 by which time the desire to integrate in both white and black communities had withered. The result is persistent and stark disparities in funding, opportunities and academic achievement.
Although late to get under way, the government tried to break down community barriers through the largest desegregation program in the United States. The Voluntary Transfer Program sought to give students in predominantly black neighbourhoods the opportunity to be educated at better funded and higher performing schools in mostly white districts. Over 13,000 inner-city black students benefit from the program each year.
Success has been limited however and in some areas counter productive. The child’s residential district provides the funding, resulting in millions of dollars and the brightest students being taken from failing schools. For those on the program it can transform lives. For those who remained they are left in underfunded schools that struggle to remain accredited – a system for certifying that the schools meet national standards in the qualifications they issue.
In Normandy School District for example African Americans make up around 83% of the population. Normandy School has been chronically failing for a long time but rather than providing much needed resources the Voluntary Transfer Program forces the school to pay $15 million USD to fund its brightest students being sent elsewhere. Normandy is consequently at risk of bankruptcy with grades falling. In 2014 Normandy lost accreditation, stifling its students’ access to grants, scholarships and higher education.
Kevin Pulley observes in students how this process lead to dejection, fear of rejection, apathy that the status-quo will never change and ultimately resignation that their futures are stunted simply based on their race.
After two decades of mixed results at best, the desegregation program is being wound up. Many hope that the resources can now go into infrastructure and resources to turn around failing schools. Teachers however, who observe the transformative effect of the program on the students it supports hope that it can continue but with a more sustainable and equitable source of funding.
THE FORTUNATE FEW
While the transfer program has been decried as a resource drainer for already impoverished schools, it has provided unrivaled opportunities for thousands of students. Jadon Harrison is amongst them; a confident 14 year old with a calm demeanor and good grades. He collects his thoughts carefully when asked about race, identity and how his school has shaped his outlook and future prospects.
Harrison is well aware that attending Affton High School through the transfer program “has changed his life,” – from feeling safe and accepted, to a possible football scholarship and several options when he enters university.
As the anger and frustration over the killing of Michael Brown moves towards a broader debate about race relations in America rights activists are aware that keeping the momentum alive and pressing on with their “Black Lives Matter” campaign will need to aim to reduce both the material and psychological divide in Ferguson and other areas of St. Louis.
It is a common saying among teachers in St. Louis that “to change a school is to change a community.” It is widely accepted that lasting solutions for entire communities can only come from within already existing local schools, so the investment must focus on schools and not just individual students. The end of the transfer program and the momentum generated by the “Black Lives Matter” campaign may make this transition possible so that from the ashes of a tragedy sparks the opportunity for change.
Video by Preethi Nallu (@Preethi_Nallu), Writing and Data by Jack Watling (@Jack_Watling)
First Published by NewsFixed Insight on 4 December 2014.
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.