Yesterday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley held a press conference during which she called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from its position in front of the South Carolina State House. This announcement came on the heels of a new national debate about the Confederate flag following the murders of nine African-Americans at an historically important black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged murderer, Dylann Roof, was very clearly racially motivated, and, in the days since the shooting, has not only been found to have ties to white supremacy groups, but has also been associated with a website of his own, on which he posted a racist manifesto as well as many photos of himself posing with the Confederate flag.
And so, in the aftermath of this mass shooting, beyond the usual debates centered around whether or not we should have better gun control laws and what makes a mass killing an act of terrorism instead of “just” murder, a different conversation started: Why is the flag of the Confederacy still flying on government land? At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote a powerful essay, “Take Down the Confederate Flag Now,” in which he made clear that the topic of the Confederate flag is actually not one around which there is “room for debate,” but which is actually a clear cut issue, because the flag represents one thing to its admirers: heritage and culture, yes, but it’s a heritage of oppression and a culture of domination and death.
It is unclear at this point whether or not the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina State House will be coming down; the state’s legislature will need to vote on it and two-thirds of each legislative chamber will need to agree to its removal. However, the conversation about the ongoing presence of the Confederate flag (and not just in South Carolina, its presence is still felt in the official flags of five other Southern states) has prompted a much more expansive look at the way in which our country’s racist legacy is alive and well and actively institutionalized in things like the names of streets or of government buildings—including countless schools—named for heroes of the Confederacy (including “heroes” of the KKK).
From the vantage point of Brooklyn, it’s easy to feel a certain sense of superiority over the Southern states, as if their backward, racist ways are far removed from our own, more quickly enlightened history. But, of course, slavery had only been banned in New York in 1827; in the Colonial era, New York City had more slaves than any city other than Charleston, South Carolina. Brooklyn, which was mostly farmland at its inception, had a particularly large slave population; and our borough is still home to a street named after a Confederate hero: General Robert E. Lee.
Yesterday, Business Insider reported that a street on the US Army base Fort Hamilton is named General Lee Avenue, and runs for about half a mile through our borough. Prior to his time commanding the secessionist forces, “Lee served as the base’s engineer” from 1841-1846, and is thus honored with a street bearing his name. While the base is in the city, it is actually federal property, so local politicians don’t have the power to change the street’s name, only to protest it and ask for its removal. Business Insider contacted both Mayor de Blasio, and the local representative for Fort Hamilton, Republican Dan Donovan, but neither replied with a comment.
Of course, surreal as it is that a street on one of our nation’s army bases would be named after an insurgent general, this type of troubling anomaly pales in comparison to the reality that, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, institutionalized segregation is alive and well in New York City in the form of our local public schools. A 2014 report by Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles demonstrated that this city’s public school system—with one million students, the largest in the world— is also extremely segregated, with many schools (73% of charter schools in 2010) falling under the category of “apartheid” institutions because they have less than 1% white enrollment. Furthermore, 19 of the city’s 32 districts have less than 10% white students, including, the New York Times points out “every district in the Bronx and two-thirds of the districts in Brooklyn.”
Many parents who tout the benefits of raising children in here pay lip-service to the city’s cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity—and, to be honest, the “many people” who praise local diversity are usually white, and to them diversity is practically a real estate selling-point along the lines of a roof deck and proximity to a coffee shop with good cold brew—but when it comes time to actually practice the diversity gospel that they preach, it doesn’t usually work out that way. In much the same way that certain Brooklyn neighborhoods are now identified as “breeding tracts,” there are only some parts of Brooklyn which are identified as being good enough to deign to use the local public schools. There’s a reason that real estate prices within certain school zones have sky-rocketed in recent years, and it’s because people who have the means to do so will pay any price in order to get their children into one of the city’s “good schools.”
And what makes a good school, anyway? If you look at the statistics in New York City, what tends to make a “good school”—in terms of high-achieving students; a comprehensive, well-rounded education; and parental reputation—is a majority of white, wealthy students. Not long ago, a neighbor of mine explained to me that the reason her family chose to send their children to one public elementary school over another was that the one they decided against had “a little too much diversity, if you know what I mean.” I did: The school they wound up attending comprised 75% white students, the other was at just 35%.
The rampant inequality that plagues New York City right now is generally talked about in the context of wealth and/or race, and this is, of course, probably the best and truest way of understanding its foundation. But when we talk about inequality mostly in terms of things like housing costs or income disparities or the dissimilar types of treatment that different races and ethnicities face from everyone from the police to real estate brokers, we are speaking about adult issues, and it becomes easy to forget how insidious inequality really is here, and how early its effects are felt, and how long they will last.
We have a real problem here when the youngest members of our city are separated from one another—almost from birth—and set off on different paths that are almost solely based on things like wealth, class, and race. New York on the whole might be diverse, but its youngest dwellers are placed into distinct categories, and given labels that only become more deeply embedded as they move through the school system, and out into the world.
In the days and months ahead, there will probably be many more national and local conversations about the iconography of oppression, and whether or not there should be a wholesale removal of despicable symbols like the Confederate flag and the renaming of schools and streets that bestow honor upon dishonorable people. And that is as it should be. These conversations should be had, and they should result in the dismantling of this type of historical remembrance. But those conversations are only the beginning, because while they are going on, institutionalized racism remains an insidious presence in our society, and in our city—a place where from a very young age, children learn that what matters when it comes to attending a “good school” or a “bad school” is the color of their skin, and the money their parents have in the bank.
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