When my family moved to Warner Robins in 1983, it was my junior year in high school. I remember at the time a number of people we met when we arrived in the city gushed to my parents about how good the public schools were in Houston County. Sometimes they would add “be glad you aren’t up in Macon, the schools are awful up there.”
In time I would learn about the history of the public school system in Macon and how integration never really took hold there. When schools started integrating, I was told, the white parents who had the means to do so pulled their kids out of the system and sent them to private schools, causing the education system in Bibb County to largely remain segregated.
Based on the recent stories in this publication about forums being held around Macon regarding race and the public school system, the segregation in public schools in Bibb County has not improved since I was in high school. In fact the statistics cited in those stories suggests it has grown even more pronounced in recent years.
This issue seems to expose the raw nerve of racism as much as any other. When white people talk amongst themselves about how bad the public school system is in Macon, undertones of racism are not hard to detect. Sometimes the racism isn’t even covert — they will come right out and assert that black children simply don’t possess the intelligence and self-discipline that white children have.
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Such assertions are demonstrably false. Genetically speaking, the differences between any two individuals of any race are far greater than the similarities that people of the same race share. That means that at our most basic level we are all unique individuals, and any apparent traits common to a particular race are likely more cultural rather than biological.
The practical results of integration, when it does occur, also suggest that it is environment rather than genetics that holds children in segregated schools back. Black children who attend integrated schools consistently perform better academically than those who do not. A change in environment produces a change in results.
There is a broad consensus among education experts that it is poverty, not genetics, that depresses school performance disproportionately among children of color. If a child starts out life with poor nutrition, lack of positive attention, and all the stresses that go along with living in substandard housing in an unsafe neighborhood, his chances of success in school and in life take a major hit.
School integration programs and publicly-funded private school “vouchers” might help a percentage of children growing up in poor households get a better education, but we will never be able to relocate all the children in poor school districts to better schools. And throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away, either. Some of the worst-performing school districts in the country spend well above-average per pupil, yet they continue to underperform.
Unfortunately by the time a child beset by poverty and neglect shows up for his first year of school a lot of damage has already been done, and there is a limit to what teachers and administrators can do at that point. The problem has to be addressed at its root. There is no fixing schools without fixing the communities that surround them.
People in places like Macon need to stop segregating themselves in a fundamental sense and start thinking of themselves as one community. Those who are born on the “wrong side of the tracks” need to have safe streets, good job opportunities and affordable housing if we want their children to have a chance to succeed in whatever schools they end up in.
Somehow some of the dollars filling up people’s pockets in north Macon need to make their way south and be invested in better law enforcement, more employment opportunities, and, yes, better-equipped school facilities for the children who live on the “other side of town.”
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.