On the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, how appropriate that Crenshaw High School, which opened the year after King's death as a direct response to the matter of racial inequality in Los Angeles, is once again in the news.
The news is not good, at least not on the surface (though, of course, the news about public school equality hasn't been good for a very long time). For the last eight years or so a community-based effort to shore up student performance at ailing Crenshaw has been underway, an effort that involved pretty much every stakeholder you can think of: teachers, students, parents, administrators, concerned individuals, and community organizations ranging from small and informal to a big and established, like the Urban League. For all the many moving parts and internal friction, the effort became its own kind of independent organization, complete with its own philosophy and cultural learning model that attracted media eyes and foundation money. Education reform efforts have come and gone in this town over the last twenty years or so, but the Crenshaw High effort was unique for its neighborhood roots and for its staying power, both of which derived from an even more singular determination to finally bring to Crenshaw and its historically black environs the kind of educational success its advocates envisioned when the school opened its doors 45 years ago.
The problem in 2013 has been that statistical improvements haven't come fast enough for LAUSD. After months of Superintendent John Deasy voicing his discontent, the school board lowered the boom this week by voting to convert Crenshaw's campus into three magnet schools, which would more or less replace the reform effort. All sorts of ironies abound, starting with the fact that magnets are federal programs meant to promote integration by attracting white and Asian students who would otherwise avoid a school that's largely black and/or Latino. Crenshaw has had a gifted magnet, among the most desireable of magnet programs, but it wasn't integrated. This isn't surprising. By the late '60s it was clear that very little was going to really abate the white flight that had begun in the early '50s. Crenshaw and a host of other inner-city schools were on their own. The district also made the magnet-conversion move across town at Westchester High, another largely black and academically troubled campus. Unlike Crenshaw, Westchester is located in a very white neighborhood that more or less abandoned the campus to black students who sought to integrate -- or more accurately, to escape their own increasingly inadequate local schools -- in the '70s and '80s (I was one of those students in 1972). In terms of public schools, King's dream of racial accord has turned out to be more of a racial dance in which whites have stayed several steps ahead of blacks who never seem to catch up, geographically and otherwise.
But the thing that has hurt Crenshaw the most -- or cut the deepest -- was the flight of the people who actually stayed. The vaunted black middle class that populate the whole Crenshaw area, including Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills, simply doesn't send its kids to the local public schools. That's partly a class thing, but, alas, also a racial thing -- blacks with aspirations are perhaps more wary than anybody of seeing those aspirations stifled by an environment they see as a ghetto. Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of upwardly mobile Americans than the specter of a black ghetto, and upwardly black mobile black Americans are no exception. One more irony is that many of those upwardly mobile sincerely support progress at Crenshaw and other schools that have struggled for decades for equality. How much more comfortable it's become to support racial progress as an idea, not as an action, and certainly not as a personal sacrifice. It was true in the '60s and it's truer now.
Anyway, I have a feeling that King, who would have celebrated his 84th birthday this week, would have been a member of the Crenshaw High coalition. The coalition is not dead yet, not by a long shot. But where and how it will live is the next chapter in a very long story.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.