Race in Class, After Integration

By Lise Funderburg

The Nation
June 5, 2000

Evelyn Gay is a computer programmer for Prudential Insurance; mother and wife; modern-day race woman (co-founder of a small but thriving African-American education fund); and a solid member of the upper middle class, having surpassed her parents (to their great pride) in both education and income. She lives in one of the country’s handful of renowned integrated communities, Montclair, New Jersey, and if there were a slot in the upcoming municipal elections for town booster, she would be a shoo-in.

“There is demand to move here,” she says of Montclair’s reputation for harmonious race relations, “and there are plenty of lily-white suburbs where the houses are cheaper, right in this vicinity, that white families could just move to if they wanted to. But the demand is to move to Montclair. So that means the type of people who move here have a very special mindset.”

Yet good intentions, the town’s residents have discovered, can’t insulate them from broader societal problems. Last September Gay was shocked to read two newspaper accounts of the racial achievement gap in Montclair, where, despite their parents’ financial success and advanced degrees, many black children are still testing lower than whites [for an analysis of the nationwide disparity, see Pedro Noguera andAntwi Akom, page 29]. In Montclair’s public schools, according to one article, only 54 percent of black ninth graders scored above half of the total test-taking population on a recent standardized reading test, compared with 95 percent of white students. Math scores were only slightly closer.

“That really, really just upset us terribly,” Gay says of the black middle-class parents she knows. Generally, Montclair citizens are known for their activism — a quick perusal of the local paper shows countless task forces and coalitions — but an unprecedented number of efforts to address the achievement gap have formed in just the past few years. Gay credits the news stories for galvanizing the fifteen or twenty black parent-organizers of a new effort that will be launched this summer. The Community Tutorial Committee, as it is currently known, will offer as many as ninety children SAT preparation, general tutoring, subject- based field trips and exposure to African-American role models whose professional achievements demonstrate the payoff of doing well in school.

The program’s multifaceted design stems in part from the complex nature of the problem — “If this were easy,” says Montclair Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jean Pryor, “we would have fixed it a long time ago” — and the complex makeup of the town. In the 1990 census, Montclair (pop. 37,487) was 66 percent white and 31 percent black — a mix that has roughly held for more than thirty years. Along with its vibrant arts community and proximity to New York — former Brooklynites regularly run into each other at the town’s two Starbucks — Montclair’s diversity and voluntary magnet-school program make it an increasingly desirable suburb. Though concrete data are scarce, most observers see an entrenched, multigenerational black working and middle class, a growing black upper middle class and, despite skyrocketing real estate values, a concurrent swell of black poor fleeing the decay of nearby Orange, Irvington and Newark. Montclair’s once vibrant Italian-American poor and working-class contingent has all but disappeared, putting, for all intents and purposes, a black face on poverty in the town.

Physical integration was once thought to be the solution to racial inequities, but in Montclair, where that has been more or less achieved, the spotlight shifts to even more insidious — and difficult to repair– consequences of uneven distribution of resources and opportunity. Within the interstices of race, class and community — laid bare precisely by virtue of such extensive physical integration — Montclair’s black middle class seeks solutions to the achievement gap.

Arthur Powell, 46, a mathematics professor at Rutgers University and father of a fourth-grade boy in one of Montclair’s seven elementary schools, regularly meets three friends — all African-American men, all successful in their field-for Sunday morning breakfast at Montclair’s Midtown Diner. Two years ago, over plates of eggs and waffles (and real maple syrup, which they bring in), the conversation made its way to the black middle school students they knew. Many were not receiving honors at graduation and seemed to be shying away from accelerated programs. The reason, Powell and his friends surmised, was that to do so would put them on the outs with their friends.

The four men decided to attack that anti-academic culture. They started the fully grassroots — no funding, all volunteer — Montclair Youth Enrichment Program (MYEP). Each Saturday morning, they spent three and a half hours with twelve black middle-schoolers — nephews, neighbors, friends of neighbors. As a draw, they initially offered SAT-preparation tutoring, but early on they found that despite good grades, the children couldn’t handle the prep materials. “So we backed up,” Powell says. MYEP redirected its curriculum toward math, reading and current events, and included parent conferences and counseling on how to navigate the school system. Over the course of the year, as MYEP revealed more deficits in the students’ education, parental dissatisfaction grew. By spring, Powell notes, there was an unanticipated result: “Parents of half of the kids switched them into private schools.”

Another unexpected outcome was the discovery of an apparent work-ethic differential between low-income and middle-class minority kids, which further complicates the long list of factors academics use to explain the gap. “We noticed that middle-class students did not work as hard as students who were from poor backgrounds,” Powell says. He links the lax attitude to being first-generation middle class. “They have an image of themselves that says, ‘My parents have it all, I’m fairly well taken care of, and this will go on into the future.'” What the kids don’t realize, Powell believes, is that newcomers to the middle class lack the cushion of generations of accumulated wealth. “The kids aren’t aware that if both parents were to lose their jobs, they’re probably just six months away from not being middle class.”

Being middle class and black today isn’t the same as it was a generation ago, says Evelyn Gay. Gay’s parents were middle class, but neither went beyond high school. Still, they always expected her to go to college, she says, even if they didn’t have the experience to guide her through the process. In a planning meeting for the community tutorial program, Gay mentioned to the other parents that while she was growing up in Newark, schools were open year-round — not true in Montclair. “So I would go to summer school,” says Gay, now 47, “and take courses before I got them in regular school. When I said that, others raised their hands and said that was one of the ways they prepared themselves for coursework their parents couldn’t help them with.”

Gay also believes changing cultural influences have reshaped the social challenges today’s black children face. “We were energized by the civil rights movement,” she remembers. “And we saw ourselves in a totally different way from the way kids see themselves now. They’re more influenced by this hip-hop nonsense.” (Gay likes the beat well enough, but not what she views as the music’s glorification of gangster and drug culture.)

Gay’s neighbor, Sandy Byers Harvin, 44, is the mother of twin ninth-grade boys who attend Montclair High School. Harvin, an editor at the New York Times, volunteers with Gay on both the education fund and the new tutorial program. “I’ve had pretty positive experiences,” Harvin says of the town’s schools. “But I think that in Montclair, as anywhere, we have to be eternally vigilant. We deal with our children’s education just as any parent would, but at the same time, we have to anticipate and recognize when they have problems that arise because of perceptions that people have of them.” This won’t please Montclair’s we-are-the-world idealists. “People in this town who are not raising black children may not want to hear that,” she says, “but it is a truism.”

Vigilance, according to Harvin, includes digging around for the useful tips that are passed along on soccer field sidelines and at dry cleaner counters, such as knowing that parents have a say in whether their children take high-honors math courses. “It’s like an oral tradition,” she says. As another black parent notes, even if it’s not intentional on either side, many middle-class blacks in Montclair aren’t privy to the inside information and “guerrilla tactics” that whites of the same class share.

After much deliberation and hesitation, Arthur Powell and his wife, a political scientist at Hunter College, decided that next year they’ll send their son to a predominantly black private school in Newark. This move conflicts with Powell’s belief that black middle-class children and parents should stay connected with public education. “The kind of influence we can exert is important,” he says, “and I think it’s important to have a multi-classed school.” He also thinks that all children benefit from being part of an integrated town — which is why he’ll retain a seat on the new tutorial program’s board and restart MYEP in the fall — but the positives didn’t outweigh a long list of concerns, including safety, overcrowding and low expectations.

Low teacher expectation had been an issue all along — his son, an early reader, was in kindergarten half the year before the teacher realized he could read. “And she was a good teacher,” Powell says. But now his son has begun to confront low peer expectations. “I don’t see the principal of his school or any of the other principals as capable of tackling the problem,” he says. “And we simply don’t want him to grow up thinking that African-American kids aren’t achievers.”

It’s not that the district isn’t trying. Assistant Superintendent Pryor speaks of achievement gap issues with palpable concern. “If acting white is smart,” she says, referring to one of the gap’s identified causes, “then what, in the name of God, is acting black?”

Montclair seems to be aiming at every possible solution, small, large and in-between. Pryor and Superintendent Michael Osnato belong to three task forces — including the national Minority Student Achievement Network, which is working with the College Board to devise strategies for closing the gap. Osnato has firsthand knowledge of managing diversity from having been one of a few Irish Catholic kids in Jewish-majority schools in the Bronx. In his second year with the district, he has developed a reputation for reaching out to parents and contingents often left out. Furthermore, Osnato supports Montclair’s longstanding practice of publishing test scores, which some districts refuse to do.

“I’m a firm believer that data produce change,” Osnato says. “What are we hiding?”

Pryor, who dealt with years of backlash when the test results were first released, understands other districts’ reluctance. “When you put out data that show your white kids in the 90th percentile and your black kids in the 60th,” she says, “be prepared for a flogging. But you can’t fix what you can’t face. Over the years, Pryor notes, the response has changed. “We’ve moved away from the finger-pointing and the blaming to where not just the school system but this community owns the problem.”
“We can’t address all of the root causes,” concedes James Gaither, a Colgate-Palmolive manager and parent who has volunteered to chair the tutorial program. “But if we can get some of the kids turned around, then we’re a success.”

Overall, Pryor, who’s worked in Montclair schools for ten years, seems hopeful. “We’re on the right track,” she says. “It’s just that the train isn’t moving fast enough.” Pryor also subscribes to the prevailing opinion that no panacea exists. “An after-school tutorial program is great,” she says. “But by itself, is that gonna do it? No.”

Montclair’s demographic jumble presents unique challenges, but appropriate ones, says Pryor, “if we’re going to be a microcosm of what the future’s going to be for our kids. I take personal and professional pride in our ability to prepare young people for what the world is becoming. Kids who come through Montclair High School see kids who are bright, who are different, who look different, who speak different languages. Everybody who goes there doesn’t see himself in the mirror every day.”

Osnato’s strategy includes promoting groups outside the district walls — he initially called together the parents who went on to formulate the tutorial program. He says he’s trying to create ombudsmen, but he’s also acknowledging that some steps, such as the inculcation of high expectations, the district alone cannot take.

“I don’t want to make it sound like we’ve got this all sewn up,” Osnato says. “We don’t. But we’re working to create a coalition.” Osnato is also mindful that coalitions can’t be exclusive in a community as diverse as Montclair, one where the high property taxes largely support the schools, conferring a widespread sense of ownership over each dollar spent. “You can’t project- nor should you, in an integrated community like this-that your only interest is the African-American student,” he says. “You have to build a system that represents your entire clientele. So the dilemma here is advocating for the needs on the minority achievement gap while attracting and retaining the middle-class Caucasians. Also, you gotta be careful that you do not lose the upper-class African-American population. What you’ve really got to do is project that you want to elevate the standards for all. I think people understand that. I hope they do.”

James Gaither, who has three children in the public system, sees the participation of children from all racial and ethnic backgrounds as essential to the tutorial program’s success, even though it was initially conceived as a response to low black scores. “I think we will lose a lot of support if we say we are targeting a specific ethnic group,” he says.

Educator, activist, father and Montclair native son Kabir Baber does his own share of bringing children together, but he also credits Superintendent Osnato for uniting parties interested in tackling the gap. Baber, 47, will help with the new program’s parent outreach, but also runs a highly regarded mentoring and tutoring program called Project Success (initially targeted at black children but now open to all). He says that while the inequities of education are formidable, this town has the best chances of remedying them. “If you can’t do it in Montclair,” Baber says, “you won’t be able to do it anywhere.” Even though the population is diverse, they’re “hungry and eager to make sure all children learn,” he explains. Indeed, middle-class black parents aren’t the only ones involved in the effort to improve the schools — it’s just that the recent data have provided a new, focused call to arms. “So that’s why I don’t have a problem sitting at the table with Dr. Osnato or anybody else,” Baber says, “they all want to level the playing field.”

The playing field has proven itself to be a minefield, but still one that many Montclair parents enthusiastically traverse. “We know it’s not that our kids aren’t smart,” says Evelyn Gay. “We have kids come out of our schools who go to the best schools in the nation, and they may not be the children of parents with economic means or educational backgrounds. So there’s got to be a way to address this.