Having attended a batch of end-of-year school and dance programs in the last few weeks, I have become acutely aware of just how segregated the world is that my grandchildren inhabit. This is a topic that can make even the most open-minded citizens squirm; no one wants the world to be like this, but somehow we still shy away from talking about it. So let’s talk.
Call it de facto segregation, if you will: With only a few exceptions, my grandchildren live and play in near-isolation from those children who are so-called visible minorities.
Last week I was impressed by a swell performance of the fifth-grade play, “Once Upon a Mattress,” at P.S. 41 in New York’s Greenwich Village. The school is so big that two casts were given a chance to perform and do tech on alternate dates. The production I saw had one black student in the cast, none that I noticed in the tech crew, and the audience included only one black family.
Perhaps this imbalance was startling to me because of my own naiveté: Somehow, I have always held onto the idea that Manhattan is one big melting pot (or, to use a less outdated metaphor, crazy quilt). This misperception, I guess, harks back to the years when I spent a lot more time in the city, during the administration of this Governor Cuomo’s father, if not further. Once upon a time — do you remember the 1970s? — it was commonly accepted that our children were better off playing and learning among people of other religions, races, and creeds. . . . And, even more, that this would be healthy for us as a nation, too. How antiquated the words “melting pot” sound today.
The school and dance performances I went to this spring on the South Fork also had only a mere sprinkling of students of color. The East End school districts actually are quite diverse demographically; the after-school programs my grandchildren attend, it appears, less so.
Springs and Montauk have large numbers of Latino children; Amagansett is largely white, and so, too, are the tiny Wainscott and Sagaponack districts, as well as the Ross Lower School. The overall population of the East Hampton schools is now reported to be 41 percent Latino. Its black student population continues to shrink, while the Bridgehampton School — which not too long ago had a predominantly black student body — is now reportedly divided in approximate thirds among blacks, whites, and Latinos.
The Hayground School in Bridgehampton seems to be unique in that one-third of its 4-to-11-year-old students is said to be of rainbow color — not only black or white or Latino, but also Asian and Native American.
Probably I should have expected the demographics of Manhattan’s School District 2, where P.S. 41 is located, to be overwhelmingly white. Rents in that neighborhood are very high, and, unfortunately, the wealth of our country is still quite divided along racial lines. On the South Fork, as well, the gentrification of once working or middle-class neighborhoods — not to mention the large number of exceedingly rich homeowners — is reflected in what you could call a sort of economic segregation. (And this economic divide is then reflected in the lack of visible diversity.)
I know that local school administrators are doing their darnedest to meet with wisdom the changing demographics of their districts. What concerns me is how easily we, parents and grandparents, simply accept the fact that our children circulate within a bubble of privilege — a bubble that we are often too privileged to even see, much less acknowledge openly.
What does this de facto segregation mean to our American democracy?