As soon as it premiered last month, HBO’s new series, Girls, was roundly criticized for the lack of racial diversity in the cast. Filmed in Brooklyn, the show chronicles the lives of four white female friends who have recently graduated from college. TV critics immediately questioned how it was possible for the stars to only have white friends and chastised Hollywood for perpetuating the fiction of such extreme levels of racial separation in personal and romantic relationships.
In response, the show’s creator, writer and star, Lena Durham, went on NPR to address the controversy and promised that if the series were renewed for a second season, the racial makeup would change. True to her word, Durham recently tweeted while filming the show’s second season to share pictures of the newest cast member, black actor Donald Glover from the show Community. While this turn of events is clearly progress, why are we so willing to call for ending racial segregation on television and not in our nation’s classrooms?
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Television is actually more racially integrated than many of our urban school districts. According to a report commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild, non-whites were cast in 20–25% of all roles on television between 2002 and 2008, with African Americans garnering between 13–15% of that number. Now consider that in New York City, more than half of the schools are at least 90% black or Latino and that those numbers remain similar in many of the largest cities in the United States. In Chicago, white students only comprise about 10% of the overall student population, in Philadelphia they are only 15%, and in Los Angeles, the second largest school system in the United States, white students are only 9% of the student population.
What this means is that in some areas of our nation’s largest cities, between 85–90% of the student population is racially segregated, with whites attending schools predominately and overwhelmingly with other white students. These are segregation levels we have not seen since the 1950s. Back then, it took a landmark legal case, Brown v. Board of Education, which celebrated its 58th anniversary on May 17, to rectify this imbalance. Today, it is not clear what it will take to bring about change. But surely this type of racial inequity is just as worthy of an organized protest as is the racial composition of a television show.
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Then why aren’t we seeing any protest? It’s not because we don’t know about the positive social effects of integrated schools. As a recent opinion piece in the New York Times pointed out, between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank in racially integrated schools, and yet this strategy has no “ vocal pro-integration constituency” pushing for it. Research studies make it clear that African Americans and Hispanics learn more in integrated schools, get better grades in college, graduate in larger numbers and secure better jobs.
In addition to us knowing about the benefits of racial integration in education, the majority of us actually believes in it. Up to 75% of whites support school integration efforts and say they would be comfortable sending their children to schools that were up to 50% black. The numbers, however, decrease when whites are asked about how to achieve racial integration. This may be key to explaining why we don’t see more of a focus on school desegregation — we simply are not comfortable with what it might take to actually make it happen, whether it’s working to also integrate our neighborhoods, reapportion our tax dollars to support magnet schools, or even creatively reorganize our public-school systems. The answers are big, messy and hard. Desegregating a television show is much easier, but the result does not benefit our nation nearly as much.
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