Middlebury to the Bronx: Reflections on Integenerational Insurance against Integration

Along with a few other Middlebury College students, I spent my January winter term working in a public school in the Bronx. Our Education Studies Program coordinated this valuable learning experience outside of Middlebury’s “bubble.” However, I found this “bubble” not easily escapable. At each turn I found the racist pumps that keep it inflated and witnessed rapid “repairs” to any momentary puncture of its surface, those longing for the fresh air of a counter-frame silenced by the same dominant ideologies that plague the halls of my campus. The following is the first part (of three, two more to come) of a reflection on my experience.

Bronx, #1 train stop at 231st Street
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Susan NYC )

Each morning my alarm goes off at 6 am. I hurriedly prepare for the commute from my comfortable host family’s apartment in Greenwich Village to the poorest Congressional district in the country. With the passing of each stop in the subway the demographics of the passengers drastically changes. Soon I am the only white person left in the train. As I get off the subway in the South Bronx I emerge to a different world.

I am not alone in having a long commute. For our New York City Urban Education Internship we were graciously provided housing with current Middlebury parents, staying in the beds their children vacated while in Vermont. Although nearly all of us were placed in public schools in the Bronx, not one of us was placed in housing there.

While the Bronx is comprised of a diverse and impoverished population, Middlebury is an elite private institution with a tremendous wealth bias in its admission practice despite its boasting of a “need blind” policy. This bias is precisely why none of us were staying in the Bronx and why one host family even had a private elevator that opened up directly to their living room. Another had not only a housekeeper at their assistance all day, but also an entire additional apartment in the elaborate residence that presently sits empty, waiting to be occupied by their son when he graduates.

Housing segregation in America maps along with class inequality and is a long-term consequence of slavery, a form of systemic racism that is, as explained by Joe Feagin in Racist America: “maintained by social inheritance mechanisms that transmit wealth and privilege over the generations.” As whites have accrued economic benefits and built up housing equity, often red-lined and deed-restricted into being the only group able to do so throughout most of our history, they accrue intergenerational wealth easily converted into educational capital.

~ Jay Saper is a student of sociology at Middlebury College


  1. PeterBlaiwas

    Where to begin. I was first drawn to this post because I recognized the accompanying photo as the Broadway local elevated train exit at W. 231 Street in the North Bronx. Many years ago, this was my stop coming home from school, and I now stop here when I visit my 86-year-old mother who still lives in the Bronx neighborhood where I grew up. That neighborhood is one of the most successfully integrated, vibrantly diverse neighborhoods in New York City. I am pretty sure that all of the residents of my old neighborhood would take exception to the Bronx being described as “comprised of a diverse and impoverished population”, particularly those who have struggled valiantly and successfully to emerge from poverty. Your statistics may be accurate, but to me they seem a bit doctrinaire.

    Additionally, I have to ask myself why the writer, being so dissatisfied by the housing that Middlebury supplied, took no initiative to find more appropriate—albeit less comfortable—lodging for himself.

  2. cordoba blue

    @ Jay:
    I have to admit, Jay, I myself wondered why you didn’t take lodgings in the Bronx yourself. Why did you choose to stay at your “comfortable host family’s apartment” instead of living in the Bronx? This certainly would have validated your obvious anger at this example of segregation. Does Middlebury insist you stay in Greenwich Village? I seriously doubt that the school would try to stop you if you insisted on living in the “different world” you speak of.
    I also take issue with your naive and simplistic approach of blaming teachers for some of these ills. Teachers in public schools must work with a very diverse set of students each and every day. You can’t make a different curriculum for 28 different students.You have kids from different countries that can’t speak English; you have kids from homes with absentee parents who do not monitor their child’s school work; you have kids from foster homes; kids who have learning disabilities; kids who have physical disabilities, kids in wheel chairs; kids who were passed on from the previous grade who should have been held back..but for various reasons [perhaps by the parents’ insistence] are sent to YOU, the next grade up, to teach them not one grade’s worth of work, but two full grades..because they’re so far behind.
    If you intend to teach Jay, please be more cognizant and less judgmental of the strain teachers endure. And I suggest if you want to teach in that “different world” you are referencing, you might just try living there yourself. You sit in an ivory tower, by your own admission, and make simple, rudimentary ivory tower observations. Now if you taught in the Bronx or lived there..I’d be impressed.

  3. Jay Saper Author

    Thanks Peter for telling of the great place where your mother lives. You are right that throughout the Bronx there certainly are wonderfully diverse people who bring great vibrancy to their neighborhoods. Please keep telling stories because you are right that numbers do not always give the clearest picture. By suggesting the Bronx is an impoverished area I was not making a claim against its individuals. As you can see from my second post, I deeply admire the hard work of many in the Bronx and take objection with what leads to their work being undervalued. I think it is important to ask why the median income in the district near the Bronx is over three times as much as that of the Bronx if those residents are not doing more than three times the amount of work. Interestingly they happen to have over three times the percentage of whites as well.

    I was extremely grateful for being provided housing in the city and am by no means dissatisfied with my incredibly kind host family. Changing my living arrangements would not change the larger issue that I am calling into question. By illuminating the fact that none of us were staying in the Bronx I am not complaining about wanting a shorter commute, but rather questioning what it means about who is admitted to Middlebury, how this country measures academic success, and why wealth accrued in blatantly discriminatory manners continues to afford educational opportunity to a very small few and not all.

    Cordoba, please do know that I very much think it is important to spend time in the community where you teach. Despite not living there I made every effort possible to spend as much time as I could in the Bronx. I often would come home late because of various after school engagements and other activities with students I chose to partake in. Additionally, I have initiated discussion back on campus regarding housing for future years.

    I appreciate your observation that teachers endure a lot and recognize the incredible efforts that so many put in each day. Absolutely teaching is a difficult act. It does not get any easier in the crowded classrooms that you describe. Not all classrooms in this country are so crowded, which better allows teachers to appropriately differentiate their instruction and have multiple entry points for all of their students. Unfortunately, this is a luxury afforded by school funding, which is tied in this country to property taxes. We need to continue to challenge how we fund our nation’s schools and provide the support our teachers need so that they do not sadly end up blaming the students.

  4. cordoba blue

    @ Jay
    I appreciate your response, and glad that you made every effort to spend time with your students, even after school. You sound like you sincerely care about the children. But Jay, the point is, most teachers do.
    I suggested a classroom size of 28. When I was a teacher that was not considered a “crowded” classroom. It’s about average for public schools anywhere.
    I guess I am confused about your choice of words. Teachers don’t intend to “blame” students when they require them to do homework or complete assignments. This is not about being “mean”. It’s about setting a standard that must be met each day. If teachers do not set standards, schools would be on a chaotic track. I know you appreciate this, having spend considerable time with students, as you explained.
    Children being children need to know they are required to work, if they hope to break the poverty cycle. Of all the professions available, I believe teachers are the ones who Most Desire to Level the Playing Field, not keep it unbalanced.
    I do agree that schools in the white suburbs have better facilities, in general. In the city where I live, however, in North Carolina, many millions of dollars have been poured into inner city schools to allow children access to the same educational advantages. And it’s helped enormously. But maybe North Carolina is different from New York.
    The only point I was trying to make is that America likes to point fingers at teachers for a whole spectrum of social ills. The fact is that teachers are in the trenches fighting to give the African American kids, the immigrant kids, the learning disabled kids, the kids who are on drugs..a chance to break free of their handicaps and become middle class citizens capable of leading a productive and hopefully happy life. Teachers should not be used as scapegoats for sociological injustices.
    Many teachers are taking the place of parents in America..with after school care, before school care, teaching the children values etc. This is a well known present day phenomenon. Teachers are not equipped, or should be expected to act as surrogate parents..but many take on this role out of concern for the children. As in..staying after school, offering free tutoring services etc.
    In summation, teachers don’t intentionally try to assign “blame” to students who don’t finish assignments etc. It’s not meant to be an injustice. It’s part of keeping a standard that children need to comply with to succeed. I hope you understand what I’m saying.

  5. cordoba blue

    @ Jay,
    I know you mean well, but please click on this link. It explains that half the residents of Detroit, Michigan are functionally illiterate.
    “When it comes to reading a newspaper, filling out a job application or reading instructions on a medicine bottle, nearly half of the residents just can’t do it. Of the 200,000 adults who were found to be functionally illiterate, the study found that about half of them had a high school diploma or GED.”
    High school diploma? What does this translate into Jay? I guess nobody “blamed the victim” when homework wasn’t handed in. I guess nobody “insisted” that assignments be completed or that children paid attention in class. They just passed them right on through because they KNEW they were up late the night before at McDonald’s and therefore COULD NOT finish the vital homework needed to pass the English exam?
    This is what happens when standards are not set. Now these kids are TWICE HANDICAPPED. Once by poverty and TWICE by teachers who don’t dare hold the children back because parents might complain, or because the teachers will be considered sociological culprits for holding poor African American kids to the same standards as middle class whites. End result? Now these kids can’t survive in the real world.
    So who ends up being the victim when teachers don’t create and maintain standards of behavior in the classroom and regarding homework completion? THE STUDENTS.

    • Seattle in Texas

      cordoba blue,

      First off, not to flatter you, I just have to say that I’ve had two Cordoba’s in my own lifetime-no joke (neither of which were blue). One had a 360 4-barrel posi-traction rear end that totally blew away Monte Carlos of the same years…oh how I miss my beloved gas guzzling boats–smooth sailing up and down I-5…. My other had a 400, 4 barrel(though the 360 was way better)…anyway….

      I think what you are referring to rather, is the utter failure of this white supremacist society to meet the minimum standards (food, housing, shelter, income, education, recreation, etc.) for all human beings necessary to “function” in the same manner and at the “level” and “standards” of which all people are held to, regardless of race, gender, creed, etc. In other words, regardless of circumstances, all people must be able to adequately “function” at standards set by, and defined by, higher white SES people, that satisfy middle class white (supremacist) standards and definitions more generally, of what it means to “succeed” or be “successful” in America. And what you mention above demonstrates the utter failure of our school systems in this nation, which is of course the result of larger structural matters that are inherently racist and classist, and sexist in general.

      I crack up when people of the higher SES make reference to the “real world”…really? I’d love a definition. Seriously. I’m curious about your ability to function and succeed in those worlds that you thereby define as “non-real”(?)by default of the “real world” you suggest since of course the folks you are referring to can’t survive in the “real world”…hmmmm. White up white up! White up or you don’t belong, you don’t deserve to be in, or a part of, the “real world.” My guess is that your ability to survive in the non-real worlds that you speak to, wouldn’t be too long. My own personal definition of “intelligence” has nothing to do with income, color, etc., but the ability to survive (which requires a lot of stamina, creativity, and intelligence in challenging, alternative, and or unfamiliar social and physical environments)…by my definition, you would not be very intelligent at all in the non-real worlds you speak to. But you are not alone here, trust me 🙂 Though, I do admit there are other types of intelligence, some of which can only be tapped into through training and resources–things that not all people have equal access to. But there are those that require nothing, and are often overlooked and denied by white supremacy, because of the characteristics these types of intelligence are mislabeled, overlooked, devalued, etc., by white supremacy and its keepers (particularly when the students are of color and/or of Lower SES/poverty). Most geniuses come from poverty. How many have been overlook, shut out, blocked out, etc.? Terrible waste for this society. We need different thoughts, opinions, experiences, and so forth to emerge and be equally valued, if we are to grow as a larger society. But to get back to the earlier point, likewise, I am not considered very intelligent by your standards, and those of many others, in your world(s). Fair? Fair.

      But let me go back to the white middle class standards all others outside white middle class society are supposed to measure up to, regardless of their circumstances. Our education system needs radical changes that are better able to set non-white standards and non-middle class standards that will better serve all students and their backgrounds. It’s already been well acknowledged by scholars of education that the daily schedule and general social architecture of the public school system is in place for the preference and comfort of the adult middle class population (and of course teachers, etc., who want to work set schedules which are not best or even ideal for children and adolescents). Plus, I personally think people who come from higher SES have absolutely no business in going in and trying to educate students of the lower SES–stay within your own SES…(maybe a handful are okay, but most, as you demonstrate with you vile comments above, don’t need to be there). There is nothing magical about your grandiose authoritarian attitude and racist and classist beliefs (and beliefs is just what they are) that are compatible and/or inspirational with lives that face challenging circumstances in comparison to the privileged middle+ class on a daily basis–those very lives of which you claim to have so much experience with…. If you’re seeing high failure rates among the underprivileged student populations, take a look around and try to re-examine again.

      And “sociological culprits”? *scratch head* It seems to me a sociological culprit would be one who would challenge the system (capitalist…which is necessarily racist) and advocate for empowering alternatives that are better able to meet diverse needs other than the destructive white supremacist system that tracks some people to college and many others to either get jobs or, many others to drop out because they fail to meet the white standards and fit in even marginally into the white supremacist racial frame, of course, due to laziness, lack of drive, deviancy, etc. Oh, and of course nevermind the natural stages of development human beings go through during their natural life courses from infancy through early adult years (both physical and psychological)…public schools and their structures in general are not equipped to handle this (keep in mind the average attention span for an adult is about 20 minutes…). There’s too many issues to address here, but obvious ones that you as an educator, if you really are, seem to miss–which is surprising. I work with educators and they are relentlessly critical of the public education system. I can’t say that I personally know one that advocates the system the way it is. But then again, homophily probably.

      But let me end here–just thankfully, we do not have to deal with each other in the public school system.

  6. cordoba blue

    @ Seattle
    Thanks for telling me I’m a middle class white supremacist. You believe in a Utopia don’t you? Tell me where it exists and I’ll go there.
    You frequently post comments that frown on (to say the least) the fact that any white person dares to evaluate the educational system at all. If a white person does that, he/she is being elitist. And our entire country is asked to be held up to a White Middle Class standard, right?
    What EXACT changes in our system would you suggest? You criticize a great deal, but actually offer no specific alternatives. First of all, according to you, the American school system (the whole kit and kaboodle) is not appreciative of other cultures? Is this correct? Plus, we aren’t giving students enough credit for Skills They’ve Already mastered? Correct? And the system was set up to streamline children into a white middle class system? Right so far?
    OK..let’s take the ball and run with it. Which subjects would you add or delete from the present day curriculum? Should we eliminate math..or is that taking advantage of lower income children? How about computer class. Or is that elitist?
    How about social studies..now I also have issues with history because I agree it does not teach enough about the horror and stresses that minorities have endured in American history (African Americans and Native Americans for starters). However, it actually is extremely difficult to write history based on EVERYONE’s point of view. This is a long standing world problem (ever listen to a history lesson 50 years ago in the Soviet Union..Stalin was a living, breathing saint..all those peasants he had murdered..well..it just didn’t happen..)So I’ll definitely give you that one.
    How about language arts? Are you one of the people who believe that the Black Vernacular should be viewed as a Second Language? The problem with that is that all over the world..people see standard British or standard American English as a standard. If that’s racism,it’s a real problem. You probably see this as racism. The point is, how are we supposed to communicate, Seattle, if we don’t agree on a uniform form of communication?
    I had a friend once who thought “money” or “currency” was despicable. She said, “What’s wrong with bartering? Then we would not have extremely wealthy people who subjugate the poor?” Well, nobody wants the poor to be subjugated (at least I don’t), but her solution was totally unrealistic. Say a family needs a house, and the family only has a goat to trade. No currency, no medium of exchange agreed upon, no guy willing to build the house cause the builder in town already has 20 goats. Point is, you remind me of her. All fantasy, very little practicality.
    What about science? That’s a tough one because the laws of physics pretty much apply in a poor person’s home the same way they apply in a wealty person’s home. I mean, water will boil at a certain temperature in BOTH HOMES Seattle. So that’s a hard one to criticize. What about the structure of the atom? Should there be one class for teaching atoms to middle class white kids (the “white” atom) and another class for teaching atoms to black kids (the “black” atom)? Atoms don’t change Seattle. An atom is an atom. Newton’s 3 laws of motion apply to a poor person’s bicycle as well as a rich man’s bicycle. My point is science is empirical. To ask any kid to understand the basic tenets of science is not trying to manipulate the kid. Or do you think I’m wrong?
    Ok.Let’s tailer the curriculum to all cultures. And all students. It’s a Big Job..but according to Seattle, it’s extremely do-able. One class for children who are physically handicapped (by the way that’s illegal..it’s called mainstreaming..and many black parents lobbied Against keeping handicapped kids from regular classrooms), one class for children who are new to America (we have ESL classes but they’re only one hour per day and that’s racist so let’s do the whole nine yards), one class for Russian immigrants, one class for Asian immigrants, one class for Brazilian immigrants, one class for El Salvador immigrants, one class for African immigrants..you get the idea.
    Now on to children with one parent. We must address this also. One class for kids who are being raised by their grandmothers, one class for kids who are being raised by their aunts, one class for kids being raised by their fathers (because the kids being raised by fathers won’t be able to relate CULTURALLY to kids being raised by aunts..so they are entitled to two different classrooms), one class for kids being raised by older siblings. Oh, and lest we forget separate classes for kids of Separated parents as opposed to Divorced parents..two entirely different circumstances..kids need to have separate facilities here definitely.
    Next, one class for children who have ADHD. This is attention deficit. Next, one class for kids who don’t “like” to read the materials assigned by the teacher. They get to read anything they want..and it counts as a grade. Nobody will monitor if they’ve actually read the material..we’ll just take the 3rd grader’s word for it. If we don’t, that’s being dictatorial and cruel.
    Next, how about the kids who do drugs? They need their own class also. They should be free to hallucinate at the taxpayer’s expense because if not given this “right” it’s actually discriminatory. Asking a kid high on whatever to pay attention is cruel and unusual.
    The fact is Seattle, if you spoke to black teachers who teach in North Carolina, where I live, I really don’t think they’d give your ideas much credence. They don’t see the curriculum as “white”. They see it as a chance for giving students a comfortable life. I’ve worked with many black teachers, and no..they don’t begrudge teaching the subjects already in the curriculum. They’re also tired. Because teaching is so demanding just as it is. The world you describe is one forwarded by a child who lives in a little fantasy. If we were all just elves or lived in Middle Earth, right?
    It’s one thing to make some changes to the system, but obviously you’ve never been a teacher. It’s absolutely childish to sit back and imagine a “classroom” where kids come in..at whatever time of day they want (this would definitely be a problem for the school bus system..but hey..kids can sprout wings and fly to school right Peter Pan) and “study” whatever they want (I’m guessing they’ll opt to watch situation comedies on tv all day), and then receive a high school diploma for..merely existing.
    Don’t ever consider being a teacher Seattle. The parents would be incensed (that’s black and white) at your Munchkin Land approach.

  7. el-magiko

    first there are beautiful women that come in all shades. from the whitest to the darkest.
    in the city (i live in NY) it is very difficult to meet a 21-39 y/o American black woman who has no kids, single, share same interests, frequent the same places.
    sharing the same interests, i think its very important.
    we all have busy lives. if you are not where i am at, where am i going to find you? if youre attractive i may want to sleep w/ you, but your personality will convince me to date you.
    the black women i happen to socialize w/ are European (uk, france), Brazilian, Carribean (dominican,haiti&jamaica), and African(ethiopia). these dozen women are confident & self aware, well versed, they belong to an international crowd & friends. some of them are beautiful some of them are cool. some of them have boyfriends, most of the boyfriends are not black.

    i think the issue may lie in attitude. american black women have a bad perception. some of it comes from the media, some from socioeconomic conditions. my black girlfriends, if introduced, majority of any race of men would date them b/c they are cool (and attractive). they will not even think about it, but do it. they dont lack attention from white men or other men.

    and they dont spend time analyzing white, black, brown, yellow.

  8. cordoba blue

    You are speaking about black women from countries other than America. And I agree with your observations. However, the majority of black women in America live in dire poverty, are poorly educated, and must care for their children without fathers present. These circumstances, originating 400 years ago because of white supremacist attitudes and domination, create circumstances that hardly leave time for black women to exude charm and sophistication. They’re too busy working one job at Burger King and the other at Walmart’s just to survive.They’re over-weight because they don’t have access to healthy foods.
    They can’t afford Ralph Lauren evening wear or Stella McCartney’s “casual fall line-up”. They can’t afford to frequent restaurants or clubs where black women with high paying professional jobs find professional white men.
    Plus, because of the lack of educational opportunities, they can’t make small talk about the Ozone Layer or their last trip to the Louvre. Everything is about opportunity and economic status and being oppressed by the white race. And in America there’s very little opportunity for a black woman to compete with an international black beauty.

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