Chapter 9: The Black and White Yearbook
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
Late August, 1990. My mother drove me to Jackson Elementary School, located right in the middle of downtown Baton Rouge, to enroll me in first grade as a new student. A secretary greeted us at the front desk with a big smile and handed her the paperwork for new student registration. My mother proceeded to fill in the blanks while I anxiously waited by her side. Name: Jia Guo (my legal name wasn't changed to Philip until a decade later). Sex: Male or Female. Male. Race: Black or White. Wait a minute. She politely asked the secretary, "Excuse me, which box should I check for race?" Without even looking up from what she was doing, the woman nonchalantly fired off, "Just check white." My mother began to explain, "But, but he's not white ..." The secretary stopped what she was doing, looked up at my mother—no longer with a smile—and lectured her sternly in a strong Southern black accent, "WELL, HE SURE AIN'T BLACK!"
At that moment, just days after I had arrived in America, I was branded as white simply because I was told to be white by a non-white person. (I wonder what would have happened if the secretary had been a white woman. Would she have told my mother to classify me as black because I sure ain't white? Probably not.) Race in early 1990's Louisiana was truly black and white, and I was stuck in the colorless void between the two extremes. There were no shades of gray, at least not according to the school registration form. I was definitely not black and could not possibly integrate into the black world, so in the subsequent few years, I tried my best to make myself white. For me, becoming American meant becoming white.
The purpose of collecting data about the racial composition of public schools was to determine the level of desegregation (racial integration) that they had achieved. On school forms, there were only two check boxes for race—black and white. Asian kids like me were simply classified as white. Thus, I will adopt the school officials' terminology throughout this chapter and often use the term white to refer to kids who are white, Asian, Hispanic, or belong to any other non-black ethnicity.
As my mother shockingly discovered that day, the categories should have really been labeled black and non-black. The school officials in predominantly-black inner-city schools didn't care what race you were; as long as you weren't black, you helped to lower the percentage of black students in the school, thereby making it look more desegregated. Actually, several years after I moved away from Louisiana, I heard from my friend Raymond that the true categories emerged more explicitly in high school: The counselors in his inner-city high school would sometimes take the following race survey in the classroom: "Please raise your hand if you are black," and the black kids would all raise their hands. Then they requested, "Please raise your hand if you are not black," and the white, Asian, Hispanic, and all other kids would raise their hands. So why all of this fuss about race? Why were school officials in Baton Rouge, Louisiana so eager to make their public schools appear racially diverse?
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled "separate but equal" segregation unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case (1954), public schools have been forbidden to deny any student the right to enroll on the basis of race. Over half a century earlier, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities for different races were legal as long as they were equal in quality, giving legitimate backing to "separate but equal" segregation and legalizing "whites only" and "colored only" public facilities such as water fountains, restrooms, and schools. The Brown ruling overturned the precedent set by Plessy and concluded that separate was inherently un-equal. As an ideological statement, Brown testified to this nation's progress towards colorblind social equality. As a pragmatic consideration, it protected the rights of children like Linda Brown to walk seven blocks to an all-white school in her own neighborhood instead of over a mile to the nearest all-black school on the other side of town.
Since the historic Brown decision of 1954, there has been a push to desegregate public schools, especially throughout the American South where the history of racial segregation was the most prominent. The simplest and clearest metric of success was to achieve a well-balanced mix of races within the school walls. For inner-city schools in downtown Baton Rouge, achieving racial integration meant bringing in more white students. The vast majority of the inner-city population was black, so when they all attended their local neighborhood schools, those schools were naturally comprised mostly of black students.
Even though no explicit segregation was taking place (white students were not barred from attending inner-city schools, and black students were not barred from attending suburban schools), the huge disparity in racial composition between predominantly-black inner-city schools and predominantly-white suburban schools reminded people of the era of school segregation. Thus, school officials often sought to balance out the mix of races within schools so that they could appear to be upholding the ideals of desegregation.
How could inner-city schools bring in more white students? By forcing white students from the surrounding suburbs to attend these schools rather than their own neighborhood schools. How was that possible, or even legal? One tactic was to cancel the gifted and talented classes in suburban elementary schools and only offer them within inner-city schools. For example, Grant Elementary, located in my suburban neighborhood, only had the gifted and talented program from kindergarten through second grade. All students at Grant who wanted to continue in the program (which was pretty much everyone) would have to transfer to a predominantly-black inner-city school, Davis Elementary, to attend third, fourth, and fifth grades. Instead of riding the school bus for 15 minutes each way every day, my friends and I now had to ride the bus for an hour. This reverse school busing policy, which brought suburban kids into the inner-city, greatly contrasted with the prevailing busing trends in the rest of the country (in cities such as Boston and Los Angeles) where inner-city kids were bused out to various suburban schools in order to achieve racial diversity.
The vast majority of kids in gifted and talented classes in suburban elementary schools around Baton Rouge were white (I only remember one or two black kids in my classes), so transplanting all of these kids into inner-city schools balanced out the black vs. white ratio quite well. This policy was perfectly legal because school officials could say to my parents and to my friends' parents, "Hey, we're not forcing your kids to attend an inner-city school; it's your choice to keep them in the gifted and talented program. You could just switch them to regular-level classes and continue to attend your neighborhood school." But the reality was that almost all parents whose kids attended gifted classes wanted them to remain in those classes.
The transition from Grant to Davis was surprisingly smooth for my classmates and me. The only inconvenience was that the bus ride took four times as long, but it wasn't too bad because I still rode the same bus with all of my friends. Every morning as my bus approached the school entrance, we could see the neighborhood kids walking to school. It didn't feel like desegregation at all—the white kids from the suburbs rode to school inside of buses, while the black kids from the inner-city walked alongside those buses. Once inside the school walls, my friends and I still saw the same kids in our gifted classes; it was rare for a student from a regular class to move up to a gifted class. We almost never interacted with the kids from the regular classes. Davis looked completely segregated to us—the regular classes were predominantly black and the gifted classes were predominantly white.
What happened to my classmates and me was exactly the reverse of what the Brown ruling had intended. Mr. Brown wanted his daughter to be able to go to a school in her own neighborhood, not to have to walk over a mile out of her way just to receive a "separate but equal" education. Not only did my friends and I have to go out of our ways to receive an equal education (riding the bus for over an hour to downtown Baton Rouge rather than being able to attend school in our own neighborhood), but we ended up enrolled in classes that were completely separated (by race) from the rest of the school.
Busing suburban kids into the inner-city successfully created the illusion that schools like Davis Elementary had achieved the noble goal of racial integration. While writing this chapter, I took out my fifth grade yearbook and made the following measurements: Out of the approximately 500 students who attended Davis at the time, the racial composition was 55% black, 35% white, 9% Asian, and 1% other, which closely approximated the racial composition of the Baton Rouge population: 50% black, 40% white, 3% Asian, and 7% other. When the school officials reported these numbers to their superiors, they made it seem as though Davis had attained a diverse mix of all races within the school walls—a shining beacon of contemporary American desegregation. However, if you excluded the kids from the six gifted classes (two classes in each grade for third, fourth, and fifth grades), the school would have been 73% black, 22% white, 4% Asian, and 1% other, which was almost identical to that of Jackson, the predominantly-black inner-city school where I had attended first grade. Thus, the school busing policy had a dramatic effect on the racial composition of the school when viewed through these superficial statistics.
Unfortunately, the only way you could actually witness desegregation inside my school would be if you shoved all 500 students in the gymnasium and told everyone to run around randomly and then suddenly stop and sit down. As you walked around and counted the obediently-seated kids looking up at you, you would see a fairly even mixture of black and white kids with the occasional Asian or Hispanic kid in the mix.
Although the school as a whole seemed desegregated, every single class was almost completely segregated by race. Each class received a page in the yearbook with small black and white pictures of the teacher and students. Each page is either filled with mostly black faces or mostly white faces; there was not a single class with a race ratio that even came close to being reasonably balanced. All of the gifted classes had a white teacher and mostly white students, which was unsurprising since these kids were bused in from the suburbs. Also unsurprising was the fact that there were only four non-black kids in all seven kindergarten, first, and second grade classes combined, since these kids were all from the local predominantly-black neighborhood.
What shocked me the most while looking through my yearbook was the fact that, for third, fourth, and fifth grades, there was always one regular class with a white teacher and two regular classes with black teachers, and that each white regular class consisted almost entirely of white students while each black regular class consisted almost entirely of black students. I don't doubt that all these kids received more-or-less equal quality educations, but it seemed to me like they were purposely separated by race. I don't have enough evidence to speculate on the motives behind this segregation, but any reasonable person who looked at my yearbook could see that the racial makeup of these classes could not have turned out that way by pure chance alone.
I wasn't thrilled by the idea of commuting for over an hour every day to get to school, but I figured that if all of my suburban peers had to go to Davis, wouldn't it be a good educational experience to attend classes with black kids whom we rarely saw in our own neighborhood? I mean, wasn't that the point of racial integration, to have black and white kids sit together side-by-side in the classroom so that they could learn to interact with each other as flesh-and-blood peers and not as manifestations of racial stereotypes?
During my first year in America, I sat in the classroom with mostly black kids in first grade at Jackson, and in the following year, I sat with mostly white kids in second grade at Grant. I learned to deal with kids as individuals, not as "black kids" or "white kids." Wouldn't it be beneficial for other students to have my experiences of attending classes and playing together during recess with kids from different ethnic backgrounds? Davis had the perfect demographics to realize this ideal of racial integration: 55% black, 35% white, 9% Asian, and 1% other. Why not assign kids semi-randomly to classes in order to maintain similarly-diverse percentages within the classroom as well? Why not make more of an effort to provide inner-city black kids with the opportunity to join the gifted classes?
But here's the problem: What middle-class white or Asian parents who lived in the suburbs would prefer to have their children attend a predominantly-black inner-city school rather than a predominantly-white neighborhood or private school? How many of these parents would go out of their way to send their sons and daughters to school in the inner-city just so their children could make friends with black kids? Which one of these parents would voluntarily send their kids off to attend a gifted and talented program in the inner-city just to balance the racial demographics of these schools for the purposes of political correctness?
Schools such as Davis needed the suburban parents' cooperation to willfully send their kids into the ghetto instead of simply abandoning the public school system altogether and placing their kids in private schools. If the parents did not permit their children to attend inner-city schools, then there would be no hope of attaining a balanced racial mix. The school officials needed to provide middle-class suburban parents with a certain peace of mind that their children would be well-protected within the school walls ... protected from the kids who lived in the ghetto. One means of achieving that protection was via physical separation.
What I witnessed during my two years at Davis Elementary definitely felt like segregation. When I went to Jackson where almost everybody in the school was black, it felt natural to be in a class with mostly black kids. When I went to Grant where almost everybody was white, it felt natural to be in a class with mostly white kids. However, in Davis, only 55% of the school was black, yet every single class was either almost all-black or almost all-white.
Unlike most of my gifted class peers, I recalled how it felt to attend a non-segregated inner-city school at Jackson, where there was nothing protecting me from my street-tough peers. My time at Davis did not feel nearly as frightening because the school officials and teachers went to great lengths to keep my classmates and me as separate as possible from the majority of kids in the school.
We never talked to kids who were not in the gifted program, and if we did not look outside beyond the barbed wire fences on the school perimeter, there was almost no way for us to tell that we were in the ghetto. During recess, we always played in our own gifted class section of the field while the regular class kids played in their own separate section. The gifted and regular class kids ate lunch at slightly different times and sat in different parts of the cafeteria, so the only people I ever saw in the cafeteria were suburban kids who lived in my neighborhood. Also, we would only participate in school activities with kids in the gifted and white regular classes. For school performances, the gifted and white regular classes usually presented whitewashed skits and plays with ballet and classical singing while the black regular classes presented black skits with baggy clothes and hip hop music.
Certain parts of my elementary school experience reminded me of the "separate but equal" segregation that I saw on television documentaries about pre-1960's American society. Throughout the school days, I always saw groups of black kids with black teachers and groups of white kids with white teachers, but never groups that were actually racially integrated. I also remember waiting in the cafeteria lines with my white gifted class friends and seeing classes full of black kids march out after their lunch hour was over. By the time we sat down with our food, we rarely saw any black kids at all, and the ones we did see were all sitting in the opposite corner of the cafeteria. Of course, there were no "whites only" or "colored only" signs, but the repeated instances of separating kids by race—in the playgrounds, classrooms, and cafeteria—imprinted the message in our young minds that it was somehow expected for white and black kids to be separate in school, and by implication, in society as a whole.
The cover of my fifth grade yearbook is emblematic of race relations in the South at the time. The theme that year was (ironically) racial diversity, so the counselors spent lots of time asking everybody in the school about their ancestors' countries of origin. The yearbook design committee, consisting of both students and teachers, decorated the front and back covers with full-color flags of countries that the students supposedly reported as their ancestral homelands. The ten flags on the front cover were the United States, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Colombia, Greece, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Nigeria. The seven flags on the back cover were Switzerland, Israel, Australia, Ireland, Iceland, Japan, and Mexico.
Interestingly, most flags (13 out of 17) come from countries with predominantly-white populations, even though only 35% of the students in the school were white. Families of white kids were able to keep better track of their heritage since they had not been oppressed throughout the past few centuries, and also most white kids were of mixed European descent, so they could usually claim three or four countries of origin.
What stood out the most to me was that the only flag from an Asian country was the Japanese flag. 9% of the student body was Asian (~45 students), and almost all of those kids were Chinese, yet there was no Chinese flag on the cover. Judging by the names and faces of the kids in the yearbook, I don't think there was a single Japanese student who attended Davis that year. I was not on the cover design committee, but I suspect that the most reasonable explanation for this error was simply negligence rather than malice. Asians weren't a significant part of the racial discourse—it was all black and white—so people weren't as sensitive to the differences between Asian countries. (I sometimes heard my friends making blanket statements like, "Chinese? Japanese? It's all the same to me.") Even though dozens of students must have reported to the counselors that their ancestors came from China, the yearbook committee probably did a sloppy job and just equated Chinese with Asian and then decided to pick the Japanese flag for the cover since it was the most familiar and "U.S. friendly" Asian country.
During my four years in Louisiana, ever since the secretary at Jackson told my mother to "just check white" on my new student registration form, I thought that I was in the same category as white people. I grew up around and made friends with the white kids in my suburban neighborhood, I envied the traditional white Southern household, and on some nights I even wanted to wake up the next morning as a white boy. Starting in third grade, I was branded as white and shipped into Davis to help alter the racial mix from 73% black and 27% non-black to a well-balanced 55% black and 45% non-black. Even though I went to school in the predominantly-black ghetto, I rode the school bus with white kids from my neighborhood, sat with white kids in the classrooms, ate together with white kids in the cafeteria, and played football and soccer with white kids on the field, so I naturally felt like I belonged on the white kids' side of my internally-segregated elementary school.
But when I received my fifth grade yearbook a few months before I left Louisiana, I saw on the cover that I had never been in the same category as the white kids. As a minority, I had never received the consideration that my white friends took for granted; the white kids claimed 13 out of the 17 flags, and all the non-white kids—the majority within the school but the minority in society as a whole—were left with the remaining four. Even though the requirements for school desegregation focused on the ratio of black versus non-black kids, the yearbook cover reflected the true measure of race at the time, the two real check boxes that society provided: white and non-white. Just check non-white. Because I sure ain't white.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo