In his two months on the job, Chancellor Richard Carranza has left little room to doubt how he thinks and feels about school diversity — or the lack of it.
He tweeted a blunt criticism of middle-class parents who protested an integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools. He questioned a fundamental way that many New York City schools admit students: by screening for academic achievement, which critics say exacerbates segregation. And he has unflinchingly described the school system as “segregated” and pushed for “integration,” two words that his predecessor never uttered publicly.
And then there is this fiery speech that he’s been delivering at meetings across the city.
After tracing the history of school segregation, Carranza dives into national politics — praising the presidency of Barack Obama while lamenting the racial divisiveness that mars the current political climate. He talks about being Mexican-American, and what he hears when dissenters tell him — “Go back to Houston,” where Carranza briefly served as the head of schools.
He gave a version of this speech at a recent town hall in Brooklyn’s District 15. The speech reprinted here was delivered at a different town hall: A meeting in Harlem of the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group, which is tasked with forming recommendations to spur school integration.
This speech has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Let me give you the broader context of why this is important, beyond just the New York City Department of Education or our schools. I want you to think of three numbers: 64, 10, and 17.
Why is that important? Sixty-four years ago the question of diversifying schools, integrating schools, was definitively settled by the United States Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education. They said that separate is never equal, and especially as it pertains to educational outcomes, it is not equal. The question I have for all of us tonight is: 64 years later what do we — the collective we — have to show for that? I will tell you that in communities across America, the answer is, not much. In some cases we’ve become more segregated. In some cases the intractableness of integrating schools and opportunities, and the gentrification that has happened with that, and the Balkanization that has happened around the racial divide, has become even more intractable. The fact that we’re gathered here today shows me that this community is willing to have tough conversations.
Then what does 10 have to do with 64? I don’t know if you remember where you were 10 years ago, but I will never forget where I was 10 years ago on a November night. Ten years ago, this country elected the first black man president of the United States. We thought that would never happen, in at least our lifetime, with our history and what’s happened. That we would elect a black man president of the United States was in many cases, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said to us, we have reached the mountaintop, and we have now seen over that mountain top. We were jubilant. I was jubilant.
And we lulled ourselves into a false sense of complacency because we had entered a post-racial society. We elected a black president. Regardless of your politics, he did a good job for two terms. He didn’t embarrass us. He didn’t rip babies from mothers’ arms. He didn’t make fun of disabled people. When his words needed to lift us up, he lifted us up. When his words needed to motivate us, he motivated us. We elected a black man and we thought we had seen the mountaintop. We’re there.
So 64 and 10 gets you 17. Because that false sense of complacency has given us the last 17 months of a very different perspective on what it is to be an American, and a very different perspective on who has access. What has that 17 months taught us? That if we are not vigilant, that if we do not continue to live, and speak, and act upon the very foundation of what America is, then we will continue to drive that divide wider. The only way to move that conversation, is to have that conversation.
When I have my urban chancellor suit on people say, ‘Oh, Mr. Chancellor, let me tell you this, or let me tell you that.’ Well, when I don’t have the urban chancellor suit on, I’m in jeans and tennis shoes, or I have my Yankees baseball cap and a T-shirt, I guarantee you that I get followed in certain department stores. It’s happened everywhere I ever lived. When people don’t agree with what I have to say, and they say to me, ‘Go back to Houston,’ don’t make any mistake about the coded language. It’s really, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ I’m keeping it real: Were I a white man saying the same things, would they say go back to Europe? Someone who, my generation, generations of my family, never ever crossed the border? The border crossed us.
It’s important that we are in a room and we get past the micro-aggressive conversations that we have. It’s important to call it when we see it. It’s important that we put the real issue on the table, and the issue on the table is this: In one of the most diverse cities — not in America, in the world — in the largest school district in America —a school district that is a public school system — do we really provide opportunities for everyone?
When we talk about issues of how we screen students, we talk about who gets to go to what schools, and what’s the mechanism by which we decide that, so people can go to certain schools and not go to certain other schools. If we think about who’s being privileged — and I’m not talking about race, I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about opportunity — who’s being privileged with opportunity and who’s not? We, who own the schools, we who are the taxpayers, we who are New Yorkers, have to have this conversation.