In TIME This Week:
The Next Big Divide?
Blacks and Hispanics square off over bilingual education -- and for control of public schools
By Romesh Ratnesar/East Palo Alto
(TIME, December 1) -- Here is the kind of scene that probably won't be discussed before the President's advisory board on race relations: in California's working-class town of East Palo Alto, a group of Hispanic parents went before the black-controlled school board last April to demand better bilingual education for their children. Before the meeting ended, police had to be called in to break up a fight between two participants: one a Latina and the other an African-American woman who had told her to "go back to Mexico."
Until now, the racial issue in public education has been sorting out the competing claims of white vs. African-American students: Who should be bused where? Or, how many dead white males should crowd the curriculum? But the newest racial flash point in schools in many parts of the U.S. pits Hispanic parents against African-American ones. The disputes like East Palo Alto's arise in part from frustration over how to spend the dwindling pot of cash in low-income districts. But they also reflect a jostling for power, as blacks who labored hard to earn a place in central offices, on school boards and in classrooms confront a Latino population eager to grab a share of these positions.
In East Palo Alto blacks made up 85% of the student population a decade ago; today almost 70% of the 5,000 students are Latino. But while the composition of the schools has changed, the composition of the people who run them has not. A black woman, Charlie Mae Knight, has served as superintendent for the past 11 years; the five-person school board has just one Hispanic member; and only one of the district's school principals is Latino. Says David Giles, a lawyer who represents East Palo Alto's Latino parents in their battles with the district: "African Americans struggled for years to gain control of institutions here. To now see this community of immigrants come here and ask for some of the resources is threatening to them."
And in many cities it has already led to bitter face-offs. In Dallas the school district's first Hispanic superintendent, Yvonne Gonzalez, resigned in September amid corruption charges brought by black employees; in response, Hispanic leaders demanded that the black associate superintendent who led the assault on Gonzalez step down too. In an episode in Washington early this year, Hispanic parents accused an African-American principal of taping the mouths of two Latino students who had allegedly cursed their teacher, and parading one of them through the school. The city's superintendent immediately pledged to hire more bilingual teachers and a full-time multicultural administrator. Hispanic-black tension also underlined last December's "ebonics" controversy in Oakland, Calif. The black-majority school board's announcement that African-American students spoke their own second language was made in part to garner a share of the federal bilingual funds that Oakland's blacks perceive as solely helping Latino students.
Invariably, the issue that drives Hispanic parents into local school politics is bilingual education. In East Palo Alto Latino parents filed a complaint with the state earlier this year demanding that the school district provide English-deficient kids with general instruction in Spanish along with daily English lessons. Says parent Sergio Sanchez: "[The administration] always says yes, yes; they promise to do things, but they never change. We need a new face in there." Many of the city's blacks, for their part, don't see the value--and resent the cost--of bilingual education. "If they want to learn Spanish, they should go to Mexico," says Lorraine Holmes, who has grandchildren in the system. Claims parent Evan Moss: "The school district is spending an awful lot of money on bilingual education when it could be used to educate all children."
Bilingualism isn't the only point of conflict. Hispanics in East Palo Alto are using their increasing clout to protest what they say is the schools' overall mediocre performance and the inefficiency of its bureaucracy, as well as alleged instances of cronyism and graft. Parents like Sanchez accuse Knight of stirring up racial resentments among blacks to deflect criticism about her administration. Knight dismisses her critics, saying, "Whenever whites are in charge of Latinos, they don't get the same kind of push that a black superintendent does. People... tend to distrust those who look more like them."
That distrust, which runs in two directions, seems to touch everything in the district. Not long ago, Latino residents decided to rename one of the elementary schools after the late activist Cesar Chavez, as a mark of cultural pride. But on the day of the dedication, supporters of the name change showed up at the school to find a group of blacks there too--protesting. They thought the Latinos wanted to honor Julio Cesar Chavez, the boxer, and they disapproved. Recalls Matias Varela, a Hispanic resident who heads the county's arts council: "It was a total misunderstanding between the two groups." Or perhaps it was the clearest sign that such conflicts might be eased if the two groups were to spend some time swapping stories about each other's political struggles.
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