I attended a very white high school in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Looking at my high school yearbook, out of my graduating class of 550, I count less than ten faces "of color." And when I say "of color" here, I'm including the Asian students and the kids from the A.B.C. program: the handful of kids brought in from inner-city school districts to get "A Better Chance."
About the only minority my school district had managed to integrate was the Jewish population. I can't really even estimate for you what portion of the student body was Jewish because they didn't look different and they didn't self-segregate. All I know is that many of my friends were Jewish and many were not, and either case was perfectly ordinary. You may think that integrating the Jewish population is no big deal, but considering the fact that a big chunk of my town had been explicitly chartered as "no blacks and no Jews," I feel like integrating the Jews at least showed some good improvement.
In history class, we learned about segregation. We learned about "separate but equal." We learned about the civil rights movement and "separate is inherently unequal" and about forced integration through busing. Just imagine this charming scene of all of these lily-white young faces learning such things from a history book instead of from real life experience. We also got to learn about things like "de facto segregation" and "white flight."
And thus my white liberal high school teachers encouraged me to think about racism.
I've talked about how difficult it is to avoid racism -- the gut level sentiment that those guys aren't just ordinary people like us -- and I concluded long ago that one of the most effective and painless techniques is to have people of different races and ethnicities interacting with each other in their daily lives, and especially to play together as children, as in Martin Luther King's dream.
But I figured that realistically I'd be one day be faced with a choice between sending my kids to an integrated school or a good school, and not have an option that includes both. As a high school student I fretted over this question, and I basically concluded that I would probably end up sending my future kids to a school system as white as the ones I attended because it wouldn't be fair to my kids to shortchange them on their education for the sake of my idealism.
Fast forward to today. I chose my neighborhood here in Bordeaux, France based on its proximity to downtown and to the tramway line, not the school district. And when my kids reached school age, I was pleasantly surprised with what they got.
It would be a whole additional article to describe how impressed I am with the quality of the education my kids are getting -- the curriculum, the materials, the outings, the programs, and how closely their development is followed. And I didn't have to make the unfortunate choice that I thought I'd have to make. The school is about a third white non-Muslim, about a third Muslim or of Muslim origin, and about a third "other" including black, asian, various hybrids, and many whose ethnic origins are difficult to identify precisely. From the names and from the fact that we're near a large synagogue, I assume some of the kids are Jewish as well. I wouldn't consider moving out to the suburbs to take my kids out of this school.
In France, the education is run 100% at the national level. Every kid of the same age in all of France has the same basic curriculum. The teachers are hired and assigned at the national level. In the U.S. -- as you know -- education is 100% local.
As a consequence, in the U.S. an individual school district or school can experiment with an innovative new program or teaching style that could prove to be very effective and catch on in other places. Impossible in France. As a consequence, in the U.S. if one community wants its kids learning an additional subject that the next town over doesn't want to bother with, they can add it to the public school curriculum. Again not possible in France. As another consequence, the disparity between the rich kid's education and the poor kid's education is dramatically greater in the U.S. than in France.
The disparity creates a vicious circle in the U.S. where bad schools get worse -- as parents who have an interest in their kids' education and who have the means to get their kids out of a poor school will do it.
I'm not claiming that French schools are perfect in the diversity-peace-and-love department. Far from it. Yet I feel like some very positive options exists in some cities here, and I haven't seen anything quite like it elsewhere. Watching the interactions among the kids, teachers, and parents at our school, I get the impression that nobody's even aware of the racial/ethnic differences. I can't tell if it's P.C. politeness or if it really is that after a certain amount of time living in the city you stop worrying about it. And the school does an impressive job of teaching the kids about France -- instilling them with the idea that they're all French -- while at the same time recognizing the diversity by teaching stories and songs from Africa and other countries and having programs where parents whose native language is not French (like me!) come in and read stories or sing songs in their native language.
Recently my little family took a trip by train, and as usual the kids spent most of the train ride drawing and coloring. Nico was getting ready to color Batman's chin, so he asked me for the "beige" (the French term for caucasian flesh-tone). I looked down at the handful of colored pencils I'd brought and found I'd forgotten that one. Before I had even a moment to think what to do, Nico said "That's okay, I'll just use brown," and grabbed the brown pencil out of my hand and colored Batman's face with it. He then proceeded to draw a bunch of other people and colored their smiling faces brown as well.
I feel like I shouldn't have been surprised: it's just a color, after all -- it doesn't mean anything.
Well, it shouldn't mean anything. That's my European dream.