Separate But Equal

The recent announcement that the New York school system intends to open the Harvey Milk School–a separate high school for gay teens–raised some troubling issues.

The recent announcement that the New York school system intends to open the Harvey Milk School—a separate high school for gay teens—raised some troubling issues.

On the one hand, the decision recognizes that many gay teens suffer physical and emotional harassment from their peers at the very time they are coming to terms with their sexuality. Those young people need help coming to terms with their identities, and they need a safe and supportive environment in which to do that. On the other hand, a separate school evokes uncomfortable recollections of the “separate but equal” system that preceded Brown v. Board of Education, and raises some of the same concerns that attend current proposals to establish separate classrooms for black male students.

It is hard to fault the intent of those who want to address the specific problems faced by young black males or gay teens. But I can’t help feeling that such efforts, no matter how well-meaning, are ultimately counterproductive. Worse, they represent the easy way out of a much wider set of problems. It is so much simpler to take certain students out of the public school classroom—to segregate them in order to address their specific problems of culture or sexuality—than it is to teach them in a diverse classroom. It is certainly easier to protect young gays in an all-gay environment. The problem is that such specialized remedies do not solve the underlying need: creation of schools that teach respect for difference.

The United States is still a great experiment in many ways. Can people who come from dramatically different backgrounds, people who see reality through vastly differing cultural and religious lenses, live and work together? The American insistence on equality (often honored in the breach, but honored nonetheless) has characterized and defined this experiment. It has also arguably kept us from becoming yet another Bosnia, Northern Ireland or Middle East. There are troubling signs that we may be losing our commitment to a fundamental premise of our liberal democracy: the belief that our various identities, however important those identities may be to us as individuals, are private in the sense that they are irrelevant to our status as citizens.

The story of all societies is a story of the conflict between individual rights and communal standards, and that line gets redrawn constantly. In America right now we have the so-called “identity politics” of the left at war with the ideology of a “Christian Nation” on the right. Proponents of identity politics insist that our differences define us, and want legal recognition of our group identities. The Christian Right wants to establish their particular religious vision as the norm, and wants the legal system to punish deviations from that norm. Neither view reflects our most fundamental American values.

It is sometimes necessary to acknowledge group differences, to recognize that some people have faced systemic and legal barriers to full participation in our society. People of good will can differ over the nature or duration of programs intended to remove the inequalities caused by those barriers. Proponents of separate classrooms for young black men, or separate high schools for gay youth can make a persuasive case that these are appropriate accommodations to a reality that is not yet equal. The danger is that—rather than being seen as a limited response to the persistence of bigotry—such efforts will be seen as evidence of differences too great to bridge.

In Brown v. Board of Education, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that separate is inherently unequal. I think they were right.