Saturday, July 9, 2022

Christopher Bonastia's "The Battle Nearer to Home"

Christopher Bonastia is Professor and Chair of Sociology at Lehman College-City University of New York and Professor of Sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His books include Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia (2012) and Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs (2006).

Bonastia applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Battle Nearer to Home: The Persistence of School Segregation in New York City, and reported the following:
In The Battle Nearer to Home, I recount the nearly seven-decade struggle of everyday Black and Latino New Yorkers to transform the school system into one that offers their children the same chances to thrive as white students. The final two chapters take us to the present day, in which youth activists are engaging in innovative campaigns to redefine and experience “real” integration–not simply the mixing of bodies in classrooms, but the creation of a school system in which they are no longer forced to choose between a school with ample resources or one where they feel part of a genuine community.

Page 99 of The Battle Nearer to Home examines the opposition of white New Yorkers to school pairing plans in the mid 1960s. The premise of the plans was as follows: rather than have two nearby schools–one segregated white and one segregated Black–serve students from Kindergarten through 6th grade, reconfigure them so that one school serves all students in the school zone from K through 3, and the other serves students in grades 4 through 6. Integration occurs…so long as families don’t flee these schools en masse.

In the five school pairing experiments, white enrollments declined markedly, even in one neighborhood (Brooklyn Heights) where white parents had requested a pairing plan. As I remark, “Opposition to pairing and other integration plans were not, at their core, rooted in white allegiance to the neighborhood school.” In 1964, when white parents throughout the city boycotted schools to protest pairing, “four hundred thousand New York City students attended private or parochial schools that typically required travel outside of their neighborhoods. The issue was the destination, not the transportation.”

The remainder of the page reviews public opinion data on pairing, revealing that 4 in 5 white New Yorkers opposed the experiment. Black New Yorkers were evenly split, with some likely concerned about hostile treatment of Black children in their new schools.

Page 99 hits on some important through-lines of the book, including a number of NYC Board of Education experiments that were intended to signal to Black families, “Hey, we’re doing our best to integrate schools,” while reassuring white families, “This is just a little experiment, no need to worry.” (The Board failed consistently to thread this needle.) What is missing from this page is the centerpiece of the book: the experiences of Black and Latino families as they fought tirelessly for a school system that served their children well, whether that would come via increased integration or greater control over the schools in their communities.

I have also recorded a companion album–under my musical pseudonym, Uno Collision–entitled Soundtrack to the Battle (available soon on all major streaming services). In this recording, which is primarily instrumental but incorporates several first-person accounts of former New York City high school students, I hope to evoke the determination, the struggles, the frustrations, and the resilience of those who have sought justice and equity in the nation’s largest school system. Perhaps this album will qualify me for extra credit points on the Page 99 Test!
Visit Chris Bonastia's website.

--Marshal Zeringue