Review: “Race & Education in New Orleans” by Walter C. Stern (Louisiana State University Press, 2018)
Just over 100 years ago, the first public high school for black students opened in New Orleans. The debut of McDonogh 35 was a grossly overdue advance for the city’s black population. But the choice of location was hardly accidental. In picking the Rampart Street corridor for the school’s location, the city’s school board made a strategic decision to semi-officially designate it a “black” area — understanding that might lead over time to the departure of the neighborhood’s white residents, and particularly its many Jewish small business owners — even though blacks comprised just 39 percent of the school’s closest neighbors in 1920. The white majority did indeed flee, and public disinvestment in the area’s stability and upkeep followed.
“In the decades following McDonogh 35’s creation … perhaps no section of New Orleans experienced as much demolition, residential displacement, and redevelopment as this one,” writes Walter Stern in “Race & Education in New Orleans,” a thorough and pointed history of the city’s schools up to the start of desegregation.
“Affixing labels to the old, racially mixed neighborhoods was the first step in the sorting process,” he writes. “And it invariably involved winners and losers.”
The stratagem surrounding McDonogh 35’s location signaled the start of a racist and destructive pattern: Time and again 20th-century school leaders would use public-school placement decisions to literally bake in segregation and encourage a long-lasting white entitlement to the most desirable neighborhoods, as well as to conveniently situated schools.
In his recently published book, Stern delves deeply into the ties between schools and real estate.
“The connection that local power-brokers made between race, schools, and blight was anything but incidental,” Stern writes. “The city’s willingness to destroy black neighborhoods, which were recognized as such because they had a black school, revealed its blatant disregard for black residential stability.”
This was before Brown v. Board of Education made school desegregation the law — if not the practice — of the land. Jim Crow allowed, and encouraged, the segregation of public facilities on the basis of race. White leaders aggressively responded, reordering the urban landscape; not only did they place a black school like McDonogh 35 in a diverse neighborhood, causing the area to empty of whites, but they also placed black schools in areas that were physically unsuitable for almost any purpose. For example, white leaders selected a remote, virtually uninhabitable corner of the city known as Desire for the Carver Complex, which combined a black school and public housing. The soil quality in the area was so poor that school buildings required unprecedented seventy-foot pilings. The “Carver complex became an anchor for a new black homeland that was out of sight and mind for most city dwellers,” Stern writes.
Throughout the book, Stern shows how this proactive and calculated approach to segregation served as a model to South African leaders, who were also hoping to keep the races separate — and whites in charge. “The American conception of race as a means for herding society traveled further still as officials in South Africa looked to the South for guidance on creating and maintaining segregation,” he says. Stern likens the Carver complex to “an educational Soweto,” a reference to the isolation of South African blacks in the Soweto townships adjacent to Johannesburg. Plans for the complex “reflected the magical thinking — prominent among both white Americans and South Africans — that segregation would last forever,” he writes. “It also provided a framework for turning those dreams into reality.”
Indeed, although rooted firmly in the past (Stern’s narrative ends in late 1960 when New Orleans’ schools “desegregated” with the enrollment of four black girls in white schools) the book, like any good history, enhances our understanding of the present.
Stern helps us understand contemporary dynamics surrounding neighborhood schools. He observes repeatedly that white leaders prioritized building white schools to serve as anchors of white neighborhoods. In contrast, black leaders, who as a group possessed far less wealth and institutional power, and who had to fight as hard as possible to get even meager public resources for the education of their children, focused on increasing the number of black schools, period, regardless of where they were located.
Countless successful black neighborhood schools exist across the country today, but disparate access to quality neighborhood schools persists between white and black students. One recent study in New York City, for instance, found that black students are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to travel outside their neighborhood for school. Nearly 60 percent of black students opt out of their local school, the report’s authors found. “Families of color are bearing this extraordinary burden of having to go through school choice and making the trek every morning to just find a better school,” said Nicole Mader, one of the report’s co-authors, speaking to the education outlet Chalkbeat.
I think about this dynamic whenever reading about efforts by white parents or community leaders to develop programs in gentrifying neighborhoods that would appeal to their families while also maintaining at least some “diversity” in the school building. There’s an enduring sense of entitlement among white residents of these neighborhoods to a coveted, close by, and carefully proportioned school.
Stern doesn’t fully articulate a second key point — about the danger of viewing school history in isolation from other histories — until the end of the book. But it’s a powerful argument that should deeply inform contemporary education debates. He writes that “divorcing public education from the history of metropolitan change … encourages people to both expect too much from, and to ask too little of urban schools.” It’s an elegant way of devouring the arguments of those who believe that “better” schools, on their own, can end poverty and racism in America and those who believe that urban schools can never improve in such a racist, inequitable society.
Stern’s book goes a long way toward showing both how many of today’s inequities were literally hammered into the city’s landscape and how resilient and changeable that landscape remains.
This story about New Orleans schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.