Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Debate on How to Fight Discrimination: Keep segregation under fire

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 32, September 23-October 5, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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I would like to raise some criticisms of the article, “Desegregation: Another Look,” by John Martin appearing in the June 30 issue of The Call.

Martin’s article, as I see it, is an attempt to draw some general conclusions on the question of school segregation from the experience of the struggle of Milwaukee’s Black community to retain North Division High School as a mainly Black, neighborhood school. City officials had planned to exclude many poorer, Black youth from their own school, transforming it into a “magnet” school for better-off white and Black students from outside the community. This effort was a key part of a city-wide “desegregation” plan, and it was defeated by a broad, mass struggle.


The struggle to save North Division was a just one and its success was a victory. But Martin’s article tends to draw some general lessons which, I believe, are one-sided and mistaken. For example, he states the following:

“Our understanding of desegregation must start with the facts and examine both the policies of the avowed segregationists and the ’integrationist’ liberals. In Milwaukee, the busing plan, as it is, has had a negative effect on the Black community. The experience of the Milwaukee busing plan has prompted some Black community leaders to demand ’community control’ of their schools instead of proceeding with desegregation.”

There are a number of implications in this statement which I would like to draw out and question.

1) “Starting with the facts.” I would agree with basing all our policies on an analysis of concrete conditions. But the problem with Martin’s article is that it starts with some facts and ignores others. There is nothing positive to be said for desegregation in the entire article not only in relation to Milwaukee, but also “in many cities, including Boston.”

A fact he doesn’t mention, for example, is that the struggle against segregation in the schools has a long and progressive history. As with any reform movement under capitalism, it has produced mixed results. But in terms of improving the education of minority children, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in a 1972 booklet on the impact of desegregation cites two reports which note that the evidence “is quite conclusive; i.e., integrated minority pupils recorded higher achievement gains than segregated minority pupils.” and that “Several studies, which compared disadvantaged Negroes in traditional compensatory education programs with Negro students transferred to majority white schools, showed integration to be superior.”

A particular example of this trend was cited at the recent conference on desegregation held in Milwaukee. A report on the conference by John Potter cites a Dallas lawyer who pointed out that, “test scores of Black students following the desegregation of an all-Black sub-district increased even higher than Black schools not affected by desegregation but who received higher funding levels.”

None of this is to say that contrary cases cannot be found, as in the Milwaukee situation mentioned by Martin. Nor does it prove the racist argument that Black children learn better simply by associating with white children. What it does show, however, is the well-known truth that minority segregated schools have not gotten an equal share of educational resources relative to all-white or mainly white schools. And when Black students gain access to these resources, they tend to do better scholastically.


But apart from improving the quality of education, there is another fact and another basic reason for fighting segregation in the schools. I believe this struggle, overall and historically, has helped to set favorable conditions for building the unity of workers and youth of all nationalities in the general fight against white chauvinism and national oppression.

This aspect of the question is all but ignored in Martin’s article. While he calls for an examination of “the class forces ranged on each side,” the various sentiments, trends and positions among white workers in Milwaukee, who are the numerical majority of the population, are passed over without comment.

We know from Martin’s article that the mainly Black coalition “was forced to make a temporary alliance with segregationist forces on the school board in order to preserve North as a facility for the Black community.”

This raises some important questions. Did Marxist-Leninists in the struggle carry out a division of labor, whereby white comrades did special agitation with white workers? If so, how were these “segregationist forces” dealt with in the content of that agitation? In this case of “temporary tactical alliance,” was “liberal integration” presented to white workers as even worse than segregation? If not, how did we distinguish our views from theirs? Martin’s article doesn’t say anything here.

2) “Integration and Segregation.” Are these two policies generally on a par with each other, with both to be opposed by progressive forces? Should we decide on a case-by-case basis? Or what?


Among white workers, I believe we should be clear and consistent in our opposition to segregation, even if it is unpopular at a given time. As for integration, I believe we should support it, especially among whites, but draw a clear distinction between a bourgeois and a working-class approach to the question.

The first approach, for instance, wants to have multinational schools in order to break down and destroy the culture of the minority nationalities and assimilate them into the dominant culture. The second approach wants multinational schools for the same reason that the workers need multinational unions: it provides an arena for different nationalities to come together, to learn from each other, and to develop their unity in struggles against the common enemy.

In this regard, Martin’s article closes with a quote from W.E.B. DuBois which I believe is seriously misused.

Written in 1935 and addressed to Black people, DuBois’ article says that Blacks should oppose some cases of segregation, accept others for the time being and work within them, and deal with still other cases as problematic. Considering the situation of Blacks at the time, when an anti-lynching law couldn’t get through Congress and segregation had the force of the law behind it, DuBois’ remarks are understandable. But now, after the struggle of the 1960s, to retreat to this position is not correct, especially for white activists.

3) Community control instead of desegregation. Why should these two question be put in opposition to each other? The particular features of the Milwaukee plan did present the Black masses with this choice. But, while fighting for community control, why not do so while fighting for an overall plan that would genuinely strike at segregation? Otherwise, it seems to me, the door is left open to segregationist forces to promote their own version of community control, namely, white control of the white community.

A progressive desegregation plan would have to be one that did not liquidate the cultural and educational concerns of the minority nationalities. It would have to provide for bilingual programs, Black history courses, jobs for minority teachers and staff—and make these programs available to all students, white and minority. In addition, for those schools that remained predominantly minority, a progressive plan Would provide for special funding and programming to make up for years of unequal allocation of resources.


Finally, school segregation is usually intertwined with segregated housing patterns. This means that progressive desegregation plans will have to involve busing as part of its arsenal against inequality in the schools. To be fair, however, busing should be shared by both Black and white pupils and combined with an overall plan to improve the schools, especially those that need it the most.

Of course, no plan for either desegregation or community control is going to basically solve the problem of national and class oppression in the schools. While reforms can be won, the root of the problem is in the capitalist system itself and oppression, in one form or another, will persist as long as capitalism does.

The starting point for us, then, has to be one of developing those forms of struggle that can promote the class unity of workers of all nationalities and the alliance of the workers and national movements. I do not see how this goal can be achieved by downplaying the fight against segregation or forming “tactical alliances” with segregationist forces. While Martin’s article explains how the Black community won some gains with this approach in Milwaukee, he does not really speak to this other question, which I believe is the key point in drawing any broader or general lessons.