Boundary Politics In Jefferson County, Alabama

Everyone should read Nikole Hannah-Jones’s article in the recent New York Times Magazine education section. Hannah-Jones describes the efforts of mostly white residents of Gardendale in suburban Birmingham (Ala.) to create a new school district carved out of the larger Jefferson County district. Local voters have approved the creation of the district, and a federal judge has affirmed that forming the new district does not violate a decades-old desegregation order affecting the Jefferson County schools, though appeals are pending.

Although most of the advocates of the new district claim to desire more local control over their schools, the practical consequence of a new district will be to drastically reduce racial integration in the area’s schools. As part of Jefferson County, Gardendale schools serve, largely through busing from outlying parts of the county, a majority black and Latino student population. The population of Gardendale proper, however, is about 80 percent white, and the new district would deny access to many current students:

The town of Gardendale is 88 percent white, but its schools are now 25 percent black, in part because students bused in from North Smithfield, a working-class black community a few miles away, are zoned to schools located in Gardendale. Gardendale’s secession would not eliminate black students from their schools, but by ensuring only students who lived in Gardendale could attend in the new district, it would significantly decrease their numbers.

This is not uncommon, as Hannah-Jones writes:

Laws in 30 states explicitly allow communities to form their own public-school systems, and since 2000, at least 71 communities across the country, most of them white and wealthy, have sought to break away from their public-school districts to form smaller, more exclusive ones.

It’s a very compelling read about the ways that the rhetorical power of local control and the institutional influence of political boundaries can thwart efforts to achieve racial justice. In particular, Hannah-Jones shows that school district secession emerged in the particular context of court-ordered desegregation. Alabama’s law enabling any municipality of more than 5,000 population to form an independent school district was a response to rulings requiring substantive integration across countywide school systems:

In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school-secession law, and in 1959 Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district. But the feared mandated desegregation did not occur, and so the other white towns stayed put until Clemon and the Legal Defense Fund secured the rezoning of the county’s schools by court order in 1969. Pleasant Grove, a white, working-class town immediately moved to set up its own school district. The mostly-white towns of Homewood, Midfield and Vestavia Hills followed suit. Their strategy was simple: There could be no forced integration if there were no black children in the school system to integrate with.

Later school secession advocates adopted color-blind rhetoric of local control as earlier appeals to preserving white schools became politically toxic:

This race-neutral language championed the pursuit of individual rights and, importantly, freedom of association, which provided cover for their efforts to preserve the whiteness of their schools. Local control “was, in a sense, the individualized equivalent of arguing that the Civil War had been fought over states’ rights and not slavery,” Joseph Bagley, a professor at Georgia State University, wrote in a dissertation about the Jefferson County school district. After all, school systems lost local control in the first place because they refused to integrate schools, forcing the courts to usurp their authority and dictate school attendance zones, assignment policy and teacher placement from the federal bench. This form of opposition “became all the more powerful,” Bagley wrote, “by denying its roots.”

Unfortunately much of Hannah-Jones’s report shows the rising effectiveness of this rhetorical position. While secessions that undermined a county district’s desegregation efforts were supposed to be illegal, courts allowed them with increasing frequency since the 1980s. And, while any individual secession of a mostly-white district could arguably have preserved desegregation elsewhere, the cumulative effect was to reduce the percentage of white students in Jefferson County schools toward a threshold where integration would be impossible. And, while lawyers working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to oppose the secession were able to draw on posts from pro-secession Facebook pages demonstrating racial motives sufficiently to convince Judge Madeline Haikala that the secession was motivated by racism, the judge nonetheless granted Gardendale the opportunity to make a good-faith effort to operate a desegregated school district under federal oversight. The contrast between the scathing indictment of racists in Gardendale and the decision to give those same people a school district to operate is wrenching, and I can’t imagine being one of the black Gardendale students or parents that Hannah-Jones interviews, who fought for educational equity only to be told that they must accept defeat to salve the feelings–quelling both anger and sadness–of local whites:

In her original ruling, and then in an unusual second, clarifying one that she issued two weeks later, Haikala made it clear she was attempting a Solomonic solution. If she ruled against Gardendale, Haikala worried that Gardendale residents would place the blame on the black students bused in because of the desegregation order, and those students could face marginalization and mistreatment. She also said that not every Gardendale resident who supported the secession did so for racist reasons and that a flat-out denial would be unfair to them.

The latter point is historically incoherent; perfect unanimity among whites in support of segregation has never been a requirement for courts to block policies that enforce segregation. And the former point concedes racist harassment and makes its potential victims suffer to serve the interests of their harassers. I can’t think of a better example of white privilege operating in the law.

Yet, the ruling is in some respects a half-loaf. Haikala later wrote to explain her reasoning, noting that allowing Gardendale to form a school district under the terms of her ruling might preserve oversight of the district; if, as seems likely given the disinterest of the Justice Department in enforcing desegregation orders, Jefferson County might be removed from oversight in the near future, allowing Gardendale to form an even more segregated district. This is the most sobering aspect of the ruling: that, given the current legal climate around school desegregation, it may be the best anyone could have done.

As Emmanuel Felton reports in The Nation, Jefferson County is not unusual in the fragmented geography of its school districts, but is unusual in that the federal Department of Justice has oversight of the county’s compliance with school desegregation. The Department had largely stood by during the George W. Bush administration, despite the influence of some, uh, colorful characters in the movement:

Scott Beason, a longtime state representative and senator, brought the idea out of Gardendale living rooms when he began talking about the split in the halls of the Capitol in Montgomery. Beason, a Gardendale resident, is one of Alabama’s most controversial figures. He was a driving force behind the state’s infamous 2011 immigration crackdown, which required police to inquire about the legal status of anyone they had a “reasonable suspicion” was in the country unlawfully. Beason has said that Republican lawmakers need to “empty the clip” on “illegal immigrants” or risk losing the state. In 2011, in a voting-rights case, a federal court found that Beason had displayed outright racial bias, citing, among other examples, the time he called black people “aborigines.” His “statements demonstrate a deep-seated racial animus,” the judge in the case wrote.

As Felton notes, even during the Obama administration, oversight of school districts under federal supervision was lax; districts with enough racial balance in aggregate to operate integrated schools nonetheless frequently operated segregated facilities. It would be difficult to blame advocates for breakaway school districts for concluding that the federal government had no stomach for the fight. More gallingly, the racial stakes are widely understood. Despite finding that the Gardendale secession effort was motivated by racial bias and the desire to control racial demographics in the school district, Judge Madeline Haikala effectively granted a preemptive veto to racists:

Haikala said she ultimately sided with Gardendale because she understood the merits of local control and because she feared that black kids in Gardendale would be targeted if she ruled against the white residents.

The stakes of this movement are high. Schools are becoming more segregated with each passing year, and the cumulative effect of fragmentation in local school districts is to strip resources away from districts and schools with the greatest need. Gardendale, for example, stands to inherit a state-of-the-art high school from the Jefferson County district, a school which Gardendale advocates lobbied for after learning from a feasibility study that the lack of a high school facility was the principal obstacle to forming a viable local school district. This is a war, and one side has been implementing a strategy for victory. As U.W. Clemon, the African-American attorney who secured Jefferson County’s original desegregation order and leads the fight to block the Gardendale district notes,

“If Gardendale is successful… every other majority-white community that wishes to withdraw from a metro system under [court] order can do so.”

3 comments on “Boundary Politics In Jefferson County, Alabama

  1. […] wrote a relatively long piece last week about the effort to carve out a new, majority-white Gardendale school district out of the Jefferson […]

  2. […] Here is an interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the MacArthur-winning journalist whose reporting on school resegregation I’ve discussed here. […]

  3. […] retreat of federal courts from imposing or enforcing desegregation orders (as Nikole Hannah-Jones has argued) has given school districts license to segregate. They also demonstrate socioeconomic […]

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