February 1, 2020

Even though legal segregation in schools was abolished almost 70 years ago, many students say that New York City schools still look very similar to how they did in the 1950s. Most schools in the city do not have very diverse student bodies. Additionally, New Yorkers say that there is great disparity between upper-class schools and schools that cater to students of color and/or students in lower socioeconomic classes. 

“We all know that New York City schools are some of the most segregated schools in the country,” says Michelle Robinson, a former employee of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a nonprofit enrichment program that helps students of color get into competitive universities, “[This is] because of the way we place students in schools by neighborhoods.”

A poll taken by the Examiner revealed that thirteen out of fifteen New York middle and high school students, when asked if they had experienced, witnessed, or been the subject of racism in their schools, said yes. Most students agreed that the Department of Education itself has not shown any overt racism toward children. In fact, the New York Post reports that the DOE started an initiative to increase diversity in 2018. However, instances of racism across the borough seem to be more specific to individuals; that is, the system itself is not racist, but those who are a part of it often are.

Teachers at Saint Ann’s School and Brooklyn College Academy have been ridiculed for allowing white students the liberty to read the n-word out loud in literature such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. Most teachers who allow this practice say that they want to give integrity to the book or work of writing in the classroom. On the other hand, the use of such words in an educational setting can make students of all ethnicities feel uncomfortable.

“The Teachers should be trained on how to talk about that kind of stuff,” Nala Ried, an African American student at Saint Ann’s says, “especially if they’re going to be reading books with that word in their classes.”

In response to this hot topic, Robinson strongly believes that there are definitely simple and obvious ways around this problem, “As a white person, I think it is inappropriate to ever say the n-word. I get that we’re reading historical documents in class and sometimes we do publish the full language just so the students can get the full impact of how harsh and negative things sounded, but that does not mean that we have to read everything aloud. That word is laden with too much meaning and hate and violence behind it to say in a classroom setting.”

Other students like Laila Fieldman at Millennium Brooklyn High School say that they have experienced or witnessed “microaggression[s] in the form of jokes” from both teachers and students. Students say specific teachers at I.S. 62, Ditmas Junior High School, make inappropriate comments about students who are fasting [for religious reasons]. In several cases across Brooklyn, students were accused of jokingly calling African American students the n-word. 

“The students in my class would constantly call me an Oreo. They would say I wasn’t supposed to be black and they would just bring me down.” said Kaci Walfall, who goes to Professional Performing Arts School in midtown Manhattan. “The principal came in my class with me and we educated the class that it’s not funny or okay to say derogatory terms,” Walfall said.  

Perhaps more diversity would decrease the likelihood of these issues coming up in local schools. That is most likely one of the DOE’s reasons for starting its school integration initiative. The Department of Education could not comment on the progress of the integration initiative but says they do not support discrimination of any kind based on race, ethnicity, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.