Three Generations of Apartheid Schooling

In part one, author Noliwe Rooks discusses how her family’s experience with apartheid and segregated schooling inspired her to write Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in in Baltimore. What do liberal heroes like former President Barack Obama, Cory Booker and Wendy Kopp of Teach For America have in common with billionaires like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Walton family of Walmart fame. Our guest today argues they are just part of a long line of leaders and wealthy philanthropists who have promoted and embraced the term she’s coined called segrenomics, the business of profiting off high levels of racial and economic segregation especially in relation to public education.

This book explores the past and present of apartheid schooling in America and argues we must penalize those who seek to profit from educating racially and economically segregated communities. Noliwe Rooks is the director of American Studies at Cornell University and was for 10 years the associate director of African-American studies at Princeton University. Author of several books, her most recent is Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation and the End of Public Education. Thank you so much for joining us.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Thank you for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: So, there’s a lot of ground I want to cover today but I wanted to start off with your own story, and how your story is tied into this history of apartheid schooling, as well as the resistance to it.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Yeah, I come from a family where we have three generations of relationship with American education, which means we have three generations of relationship to what you could call apartheid schooling. My grandparents were both educators in Clearwater, Florida. My grandfather was the principal of the only high school, a segregated high school, it’s like a normal school. So in Clearwater at the time from the ’30s and ’40s when he first started teaching there, there was one school and everybody went to the one school. It wouldn’t really be what you would consider high school so much. It was sort of kindergarten to about middle school. My grandmother taught reading, special ed reading classes there.

In addition to his work with education, he also led a 10-year fight around unionizing or having black teachers admitted to the Florida Teacher’s Union which had been white. It was bloody, it was violent. I grew up hearing the stories about the fire-bombing of the home, being shot at, teachers who were participating being threatened, some quit their job, some left the state. He was shot at, his life was threatened, my father, my grandmother. So, it took ten years but finally black teachers were allowed into the teachers’ union. I would hear the adults sit around and talk about this. It really gave me a certain kind of view of education, as something really important enough for somebody to want to kill you over.

It was only in listening to him talk about that or them talk about it in really harsh tones over the years, it was not something that was loudly proclaimed, but you would hear about it. And as a kid it was really like, but what is this? What is it with my relationship to education and the teachers that I had, many of whom were black, why would somebody want to kill them for wanting to do their job? And what is this? But it gave me a sense of a kind of import around education in the South in particular.

My other set of grandparents were not educated. My mother’s family were from Texarkana, they migrated from Texarkana, Texas in the ’50s to San Francisco. They’re part of what’s known as the Great Migration when numbers of African-Americans moved from rural areas to urban areas and from the South to the North in search of different kinds of opportunity.

My grandmother did maid’s work, what you call maid’s work, sometimes that was in hospitals, sometimes for actual families. Her husband was just kind of jack-of-all-trades handyman person. With them, the stories I always heard about was they were kind of dismayed that they got here, the places where–I think my grandmother had a fourth-grade education, her husband had a third-grade education–where they lived, education wasn’t valued in the same way you needed to go work. Everybody needed all hands on deck for survival. So they did farm work in the South. And one of the reasons they moved is they were so thrilled with the idea that my mother would actually get to have a normal education, a white-people education, the education rich people had. She wouldn’t have to work. She wouldn’t have to stop. She could go through, she could go to college.

The reason I know that story is because they were constantly dismayed that in the 1960s, she’s in San Francisco and becomes a part of the uprisings in San Francisco State and the politicization of education, where you had students who were demanding that public education, college education should be for the least of these.

JAISAL NOOR: And you talk about how it went from a fight for equality to racial justice over those generations.

NOLIWE ROOKS: The ways that she and the people of her generation thought about it is not so much how her parents thought about it, which was this can bring equality, this can really change future generations. They saw education as a weapon that could really bring justice to help right societal wrongs in a much more macro way than her parents thought of it.

So that, hearing those stories gave me a whole different kind of sense of what education could mean for black people generationally, that there could be a difference between equality and justice. People talk about that today, scholars talk about it but the first place that I learned it was from people who had third and fourth grade educations, and while they may not have used that language, that’s what their concern was. We should just be happy with equality and then from our mothers folks, they were like what we want is justice.

My parents got divorced when I was five and so I split years between Florida and California, between San Francisco. I always went to all-black schools and so that was interesting as I thought back on it. No matter where I lived, north or south, west or south, I lived in black communities which meant I went to segregated schools. Out in California, segregated was Latinos and black people. Most of the folks were working class, lower-middle class, who I went to school with.

In Florida though, I had the experience in the fifth grade of actually integrating a school, like being amongst the first group of black students to get on a bus and drive out to the county, and in the 800-person school there was I think about 15 of us who had to get up way early in the morning. This is what I remember. It was always dark-

JAISAL NOOR: How long was that ride?

NOLIWE ROOKS: About 45 minutes, it was about 45-minute ride out into the county. A brand new school. For all of the ways that you hear about black kids integrating schools there was no trauma, nobody had to call out the National Guard. What I would say is I did learn how to square dance, was a certain kind of trauma. I learned all 52 two propositions, like those are the things I remember from that year. And that I had no friends. I didn’t get invited to … I was accepted, I was tolerated, I wasn’t terrorized, but I wasn’t invited to birthday parties, cookouts, sleepover, trips off with people, the things that often in elementary school that kind of define your school time, being in cliques. Having secrets, passing notes, none of that happened. No one terrorized me, but no one accepted me either.

And so, that’s a different kind of story and narrative that a lot of kids of color actually do know about schools, integrated schools and being, we used to call kind of only-lonelys, if you’re one of a handful in a predominantly white school the kind of isolation that can come with that.

So, between justice, integration and equality, I think my upbringing and the stories that I heard about education and that I experienced, though I didn’t know it at the time, really gave me a lens and gave me the grounding to take on this project in this book.