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Apply Liberally

Posted 7/7/2010

I think Edward Ericson's review of my book Brown in Baltimore ("A Liberalism Education," Books, June 9, 2010) makes good observations about city school desegregation. One is that since the Supreme Court argued for ending segregation on the ground that separate schools harmed black children educationally, it was important to determine how racially mixed schools could benefit black (and white) children. This question got lost in a focus on schools' numerical makeup. Another is that the city's political history influenced school policy makers. Exploitation of racial fears and blockbusting, for example, inevitably affected parents and school officials.

Still, Baltimore school desegregation presents two puzzles that require complex explanations. The first is that school officials adopted a desegregation policy in which they 1) let parents decide where children would go to school and 2) explicitly disregarded students' race and set no standards for school racial composition. One could reasonably doubt such a policy would end school segregation. The accompanying puzzle is that black community leaders urged the school board to adopt this policy and supported it for two decades.

In trying to understand these puzzles, I came to see school officials' liberalism as one explanation for their actions. In Not in My Neighborhood, Antero Pietila documents how Baltimoreans stimulated, exploited, and reacted to racial fears. The unseemly practices he describes are possible only when people are anxious about race and do not talk honestly about their fears. In examining the history of school desegregation, I was struck by how little anyone talked publicly about the racial anxieties that had supported segregation and resisted ending it. Liberalism played a dual role in promoting race-free desegregation deliberation and policy.

On the one hand, the liberal perspective--portraying society as made up of individuals, not groups (such as races)--made it hard for policy makers to think about race. Instead, they talked about individual rights, freedom from constraint, and limits on government action. They spoke of students as individuals who had the right to choose their schools. The individualistic liberal prism made it hard for people to grasp race conceptually and to develop significant institutional strategies to change race relations. Second, in these ways liberalism served the psychological and political interests of everyone who didn't want to deal with race. This observation does not indict school officials for bad faith but emphasizes that culturally normal American ways of thinking enable people to avoid knowing and talking about racial matters that trouble them.

The story of school desegregation reveals Baltimoreans who 1) worried a great deal about race, but also 2) did their best to avoid talking about what mattered to them about race. It is important to be puzzled about why people act in these ways (rather than to assume there is something "natural" or inevitable about racial anxiety and silence). Fears about physical intimacy are at the center of racial anxieties. Liberalism has offered a way of coping with such fears with the assertion that members of society are simply independent individuals, free of racial identity. The history of school desegregation shows that policies that sought to assuage racial anxieties ended up ignoring black children's educational needs.

Howell Baum
Professor, Urban Studies and Planning Program
University of Maryland, College Park

Corrections: In a January story, City Paper incorrectly reported that the former mortgage broker Joshua S. Goldberg had purchased a second Baltimore home in the name of Elizabeth Goldberg on Glenmore Avenue ("Shells Hocked," Mobtown Beat, Jan. 13, 2010). The Glenmore Avenue Joshua Goldberg is not the same person as the mortgage broker by that name. City Paper regrets the error.

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