The other day while rereading my own archives I stumbled on a "Politic" interview with Gary Orfield from 2003 and I was shocked by the number of illconsidered statements made by this highly respected civil rights worker while answering the questions put to him by the Yale students.
Gary Orfield is no longer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he was at the time of the interview. He is now at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA where he continues to head The Civil Rights Project that he founded with Christopher Edley in 1996.
All I could think of while reading his responses to the interviewers was that if his thinking, as represented by his statements in this interview, represents the level of thought of the Civil Rights Project in general it’s no wonder that the productions of the Project have had so little influence on the on-going struggle for civil rights in our country.
I’ll show you what I mean. In response to the first question, "what can be the role of education in mitigating racial inequalities," Orfield had this to say: "The American educational system is all we have. We do not have any [other] kind of social support system in the U.S."
Wow I thought to myself, what would the hundreds of thousands of people working in private non profits throughout the country supporting minority families in our inner cities, as well as in our impoverished rural communities, not to mention the similar numbers of people working in hundreds of federal anti-poverty programs surviving from the sixties, say to this?
No social support system in the U.S.? Perhaps he made this dramatic, highly exaggerated statement to draw attention to the fact there is never enough "social support," whether in society or in one’s own family. But why put down the hundreds of thousands of people doing good work in order to make his point?
Further on in his answer to the same question he makes this no less responsible statement that "access to post-secondary education is absolutely critical for any pretense of diminishing inequality." In my opinion he is not only misdirecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of our young people but also giving the wrong message to those within our educational establishment who are already wrongly convinced (probably for reasons of their own job security) that college education should be made available to all. In my opinion it’s not so much it shouldn’t, it can’t.
It is one thing to make the opportunity for higher education available to all. For in fact we still believe in equality of opportunity, and there is still much to be done in this civil rights area in way of multiplying the opportunities available to young people.
But it is another thing entirely to brainwash that "all" into believing that their lives are failures without a college education. For only by lowering achievement benchmarks to ridiculously low levels, as we’ve done in our high schools, could college education be made "available to all." And why would anyone want to do that?
A college education worthy of the name will always be available only to some. Conservatives will admit this. Liberals will try to make you believe it isn’t so, because they, and I, would like to believe it isn’t so. It is.
We know at first hand that too many of those who are pushed onto college will drop out, and that too many of these (although not a Bill Gates and a Steve Jobs) will start life under the stigma of a failed college experience. If they hadn’t been pushed onto college they might have done something else, of much more benefit to themselves and to their country.
Still while answering the same question Orfield tells us that education, while formally equal, "is profoundly unequal in racial and economic terms, and it [therefore] reinforces the racial problems we face today."
And he goes on to say that [the] "situation has relatively little to do with the amount of money to spend and everything to do with the social structure in communities and schools."
But then while answering the next question, seemingly oblivious of what he has just said, he says this: [While advocating preschool] "we are not providing any kind of universal access or quality preschool. Smaller class sizes with good teachers at the elementary level especially in high poverty schools really does make a difference that seems to be lasting."
O.K., but quality preschool, smaller class sizes, and better trained teachers cost money, big money. So is this the underlying message of the Civil Rights project? Not too different from that of Jonathan Kozol. Things are bad and they won’t get better unless we spend a lot more on our schools, according to Orfield the only "social support" system we have. These sorts of answers didn’t encourage me to go rereading the remainder of the interview.
But I did anyway, and Orfield does go on to say some pretty true and important things especially about the richness and depth of experiences that multiracial environments can provide all of us.
Here, for example, in answer to the question, What are the encouraging signs? he says this:
"One of the encouraging signs is that the United States is undergoing
a demographic transformation that is just gigantic and irreversible. We
can see this in the state of California. The encouraging signs are that
young people’s attitudes are continually positive about these issues.
We have been studying interracial classrooms around the country where
they still exist, where re-segregation has not taken place, and we are
finding very positive and comparable attitudes among blacks, whites,
Latinos, and Asians about interracial experiences. They want them, they
value them, and they believe they are transformative.
"We are studying
law schools like Harvard and Michigan, and medical schools and other
graduate institutions. A lot of people want a multiracial experience
and, when they experience it, they find it is very positive for them.
We are finding an emergence of multiracial neighborhoods and schools in
rural areas, which may have a very different dynamic than biracial
"Regarding Asian teenagers, they are growing up in the most
integrated setting of any population probably in the history of the
country, which is extremely encouraging. What role are they going to
play in the future and in penetrating the tri-racial dynamic in this
country of blacks, whites and Latinos? They are going to be a very
powerful 10 percent of the population in this century. Are they going
to be a bridge of some sort between races or will their racial status
evolve into that of whites?…"