Conservative self-deception

By: - July 2, 2010 6:58 pm

Exploring and debunking the latest arguments in support of school re-segregation

You've got to hand it to some of the folks on the modern far right: their capacity for manipulating facts and statistics to the point of self-deception is often quite impressive. Take, for instance, two of the loudest voices in the debate over the move to re-segregate the Wake County public schools: school board member John Tedesco and the Raleigh News & Observer columnist, Rick Martinez.

While both men are loyal foot soldiers in the right-wing army (Tedesco speaks at Tea Parties and Martinez is a former Locke Foundation staffer), both also take pains to portray themselves as modern, untraditional conservatives. They may work closely with some of the hardcore descendants of the George Wallace and Jesse Helms – people who never really made peace with the passage of the Civil Rights Act – but Tedesco and Martinez genuinely seem to think of themselves as different and truly "color blind." Unlike many with whom they are often in league (i.e., unrepentant segregationists and the "what's in it for me and my kids?" crowd who simply don't give a darn about the common good), both men appear to have convinced themselves that what they are arguing for really is in the best interest of poor and minority kids.

Self-deception in action

Tedesco's weirdly contradictory stances have been on regular display over the last several months. One minute he's ranting online about the "liberal agenda of Forced Bussing" (sic) and the next he's claiming that his work to dismantle Wake County's socioeconomic integration plan is the modern equivalent of the anti-segregation work of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education.

This week, Martinez took a similarly convoluted approach in a column he wrote for the News and Observer entitled "Distraction from the classrooms." In it, on the one hand, he celebrates the narrow school board majority's "different set of beliefs" and lobs rhetorical hand grenades that would have resonated with Wallace, Helms or Nixon. He accuses the NAACP, the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and the mayor of Raleigh of "playing the race card," using "theatrics," "romantic rhetoric" and trying to "intimidate the school board majority." In short, he does everything but call them "communist agitators".

Then, like Tedesco, he quickly pirouettes. He attempts to defend the board majority's action by claiming that it's really an effort to respond to the fact that Wake's current system does a bad job of helping poor and minority kids. This is from the column:

"According to Wake County schools' own data published in October, the overall graduation rate for black students fell from 69.9 percent in 2006 to 63.4 percent in 2009. For Hispanics, it dropped from 57.7 to 51.1 percent. For black males, the graduation rate in 2009 was 57.4 percent, and it was a paltry 45.5 for Hispanic boys.

The graduation rate for students receiving free and reduced-price meals is also in a free fall. From a high of 63.3 percent in 2007, it plummeted to 54.2 in 2009.

This is the fruit produced by Wake County's socioeconomic student assignment system. Why anyone would want to preserve it is beyond me."

To complete the strangely contradictory column, Martinez concludes with this bizarre statement:

"Frankly, I doubt neighborhood schools will improve poor and minority student achievement one iota. But once the policy is implemented, local leaders, hopefully, will refocus on the academic output of Wake classrooms rather than being fixated on their racial and economic makeup."

Setting the record straight

Laying aside for a moment the holier-than-thou barbs Martinez directs at the re-segregation opponents, the gist of his (and Tedesco's) argument can be summarized as follows:

The performance of poor and minority kids in Wake County has slipped in recent years and is well-below where caring people would like to see it. During this period, socioeconomic diversity has been a factor in school assignment in the Wake County Public School system. Therefore: a) Wake County should re-segregate (Tedesco) or b) Re-segregation won't make any difference and is therefore just fine if the people in charge want to do it (Martinez). This is especially true since the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system appears to have made up some lost ground to Wake in some areas in recent years even as it was re-segregating its schools.

This is like an oncologist saying the following:

After making some progress under chemotherapy X, my cancer patient has suffered some setbacks in recent weeks. I therefore draw the conclusion that a) all chemotherapy is worthless and should be discontinued and/or b) that it doesn't really matter whether I administer chemo or not. This is especially true in light of the fact that a cancer patient in another town actually made some short term health gains at the same time that he gave up all treatment and started smoking again.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that many re-segregation critics have long acknowledged that the Wake schools are far from perfect. Student discipline policies in Wake County have pretty clearly been biased against poor and minority kids. Explosive growth and a reduced adherence to diversity goals in recent years have also taken their toll. There are other noteworthy problems. Still, things are still a heck of a lot better than they were several decades ago when perhaps a quarter of poor and minority children were graduating in the Jim Crow era.

And just because the current system is flawed and has suffered some recent setbacks is no reason to throw out a key policy that was widely acknowledged to be an important part of decades of progress. One might just as well draw the conclusion that the schools ought to do away with free and reduced price lunches for poor kids. After all, they've been in place the last few years too. Heck, even Martinez admits that re-segregation won't do any good!

The solution, of course, is not to casually discard years of hard won progress because of a rough patch, but to stop, take a moment, and honestly assess where we are and what ought to come next. This is especially true given the fact that the new Board's own survey showed that almost 19 out of 20 families liked their current school assignment. Such an assessment is precisely what the board majority opponents have asked for – i.e., real analysis, real dialogue, and real collaboration.

Are there improvements to the Wake school assignment system that could be made? Undoubtedly. Indeed, such improvement might well include a renewed commitment to socioeconomic diversity – something that had waned during the last decade as explosive growth overtook the county.

Do the Wake schools have things to learn from Charlotte-Mecklenburg (and other places as well)? Certainly. But to pretend that that some short-term fluctuations in the comparative performances of the two systems provides license for a wholesale abandonment of socioeconomic integration in Wake (and, indeed that such a course is being pursued for the benefit of poor and minority kids) is, at best, self-delusion and, at worst, cynical dishonesty.

Going forward

Finally, a few words about Martinez's attack on the anti-re-segregation leadership for "playing the race card": This would be laughable if it weren't so sadly uninformed. If anyone is playing the "race card" right now in Wake County, it is not the remarkably diverse and humble group of protesters that is challenging the board majority; it is those who made "neighborhood schools" their rallying cry.

As author, scholar and NAACP historian Tim Tyson has explained on multiple occasions of late, the term is a slogan cooked up by segregationists in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Especially in light of the undeniable fact that it is literally and physically impossible to transform Wake into a genuine "neighborhood schools" system (a truth of which all five of the school board majority and defenders like Rick Martinez are well-aware), one can't help but question the motives of those who would rely upon such a slogan. That some claim to have pure hearts does not absolve them from responsibility for the kinds of messages it sends or the kinds of instincts and emotions it has been proven to arouse over the last half-century or so.

In other words, no matter how genuine the self-deception of some re-segregation defenders, their messages and policies remain repugnant and it is not "playing the race card" to say so.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.