A series of racially separate public-school assemblies in Concord, Calif., late last month angered some parents, sent "weird" messages to kids-and may have violated state law.
On Feb. 23, administrators at Mt. Diablo High School held separate assemblies, or academic "pep rallies," for white, black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander kids in an effort to motivate them toward higher achievement on state tests.
The Asian assembly featured flags of students' ancestral countries. The black assembly featured jazz music and the slogan "black power" projected overhead. At the white assembly, "they started off by saying jokingly, 'What up, white people?'" freshman Megan Wiley, 14, told MediaNews. "They got into 'you should be proud of your race.' It was just weird."
Some describe racially and ethnically diverse Mt. Diablo High as a rough campus with low overall academic achievement. Leaders at each assembly showed students how Mt. Diablo High in 2005-06 climbed 42 points on the state achievement-testing scale-and also showed each a racial comparison in which whites and Asian-Americans did far better than African-American and Hispanic students.
District spokesperson Sue Berg said principal Bev Hansen's rationale for separating students by race is based on state and federal requirements for reporting student achievement according to "subgroups," which include race and ethnicity. "If we're going to report out these subgroups, we need to address what's going on in those subgroups," Berg said.
Mt. Diablo held racially separate assemblies last year "without incident," she added: "And guess what? Test scores went up because students felt that they as individuals were being addressed and pride was instilled." But last year students didn't talk to journalists. This year, Contra Costa Times reporter Shirley Dang found out about the assemblies and began asking questions.
"To hear the principal saying 'white people go to the white assembly,' it was like, what the heck?" freshman Wiley told Dang.
James Smothers, 14, an African-American freshman, summed up his impression this way: "Black people are the only students who are happy to be stupid."
Pacific Legal Foundation principal attorney Sharon Browne said the assemblies likely violated Proposition 209, the California measure that in 1996 outlawed the use of race as a determinant in public education. Prop 209 has powerfully affected university admissions policies, but courts have also applied the law to K-12 education. In August 2006, for example, a trial court ruled that the Capistrano Unified School District violated Prop 209 when it drew geographical attendance boundaries in order to establish a specific racial mix at certain schools.
"I just can't believe that any school district today would sanction segregation," Browne said of Mt. Diablo's race-based assemblies. "Students may need help in specific subject areas, such as math or reading, but telling them that they're not achieving on the basis of race is appalling. What kind of message is that sending to students?" One other question: Where do mixed-race kids go?
Ward Connerly chaired the Prop 209 campaign and is now president of the American Civil Rights Institute. He called Hansen's subgroup reasoning "a specious justification for racial separatism" and criticized the "jump from a law that requires tracking students by race to an event that lumps them by race when you tell them the news. If you make that the rationale you can justify any number of things based on race."
Mt. Diablo is not the first school to try boosting academic performance using racially separate meetings. Last year in San Ramon, Calif., California High School administrators held assemblies for black and Hispanic students, but not for other groups, unleashing a flood of complaints to the mayor's office. The school discontinued the practice.
Connerly, who is African-American, says racial tracking in education "reinforces stereotypes, especially among black kids, who all of their lives have been saddled with the notion that they are academically inferior." Freshman Jason Lockett, 14, told reporters that Mt. Diablo's African-American assembly reinforced that stereotype for him: "It was to compare us and say how much dumber we were than everybody else."