Many Private Christian Schools Have a Racist Secret: Segregation
Nothing dismantles claims of “post-racial” colorblindness quite like white Christian schoolchildren casually debating how to say the n-word. A student from the First Academy in Orlando, Florida, was criticized recently on social media for an Instagram post asking whether it was more “respectful” to use the n-word with an “er” or an “a” at the end.
While the question was originally posted in June, it got renewed attention earlier this month when a New York Daily News columnist posted it on Twitter. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement quickly spread it, decrying the post as another example of the racism bubbling up across America. The furor prompted the private Christian school to release a statement on “race relations.”
Sadly, the Instagram post is not that surprising, given the typical racial makeup of many Christian schools and their history of segregation.
While Catholic schools have existed throughout U.S. history, private Christian schools emerged en masse in the aftermath of the civil-rights movement. The Supreme Court declared public-school segregation unconstitutional in its unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Many school systems, particularly across the South, resisted compliance while some families saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to act.
Fearful at the thought of their children mingling with black students, many white Christian families founded private “segregation academies” to skirt the law. Many were “Christian” institutions, and fundamentalist evangelicals founded several of the most prominent ones. Non-Catholic Christian schools doubled their enrollments between 1961 and ’71.
Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, for example, started Lynchburg Christian Academy in 1967, when his town’s public schools integrated. Because Brown did not apply to private schools, institutions like Falwell’s could practice segregation while still receiving federal tax benefits. But all of this changed with the series of Supreme Court decisions in the late ’60s and early ’70s that forced public schools to integrate and declared racially discriminatory private schools ineligible for tax-exempt status.
Despite pressure from the government, these private Christian schools refused to go quietly into the night. Some refused to cooperate with IRS inquiries, hiding their internal operations behind the banner of “religious freedom.” Others, such as Bob Jones University, proudly declared their racist policies. But most knew they needed to change their rhetoric in order to survive.
“During this period, private Christian schools had to construct a bigger rationale for their existence than wanting an all-white classroom,” says Seth Dowland, a religion professor and author of Family Values and the Rise of the Religious Right. “Leaders outside the South helped construct the rationale as combating secular humanism and their inculcating secularism and liberalism, even though the racial component was a huge part of the story as well.”
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