Having spent the last 19 years between Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties in Maryland, there has been a noticeable and rapid demographic shift. Prince George’s County is famous for being the location of “Black Flight,” where more affluent African Americans ran away from the corner stores of the District to the cul-de-sacs, golf courses and picket fences of the suburbs. Many residents stated with pride that PG County was middle class with upper middle-class pockets, and unmistakably Black. Local politicians and decision makers were Black. It was in many ways help up as an example of Black self-determination.
However, change has occurred. The wave of immigration, particularly from Latin American nations that has effected much of the country, has been particularly intense in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Much of the rhetoric nationwide has been about one so-called minority group replacing the other. Some African Americans have been on edge. They believe that the Civil Rights gains that they have paid for in blood and tears are in jeopardy. In addition, cultural and linguistic barriers feel like insurmountable obstacles to coalition with new immigrants, even though the vast majority of these new immigrants are people of color.
Perhaps no one has more at stake than the power brokers in a place like Prince George’s County. As the demographic changes occur, the politicians, school board and principals in the future could all be a lighter shade of Brown. While these fears may seem irrational, one must remember that Latin American countries often have rampant racial biases, particularly against Black people. What happens to the future of Black children in PG County, who are already (despite their economic advantages) by many measures lagging behind when control is usurped by people who do not view them as a priority?
Bob Ross, President of the NAACP chapter in Prince George’s County is one such nervous leader. The county has received a $3 million Carnegie Corporation grant to create two international schools for English Language Leaners. Ross has called it a “slap in the face”, citing that it violates Brown v Board of Education by creating a segregated school system. However, Ross and the local NAACP’s true motive for the protest come out when he speaks of fairness and equal resources for every student. He stated in an interview with a conservative pundit on this issue that “we are not going to the back of the bus.” It is literally a fear of being surpassed or replaced that will further put two communities at odds.
Ross does not understand the basics of school funding. Schools are funded per pupil, so the international schools are not taking away from other students. Also, most international schools are housed within other schools. When these international academies operate within other schools, the issue of segregation is null. One of the international schools in PG will be housed within another school, which makes it possible for students to participate in athletics and student groups with students not in the international program. They will also have English language models in the other students in the building, which research indicates helps expedite language learning.
While Ross has a point that the other school —presented as an option and not a requirement— is separate, the service that is being provided must be understood. Many students immigrate at varying ages. In Central America, where the majority of the students in the separate Langley Park campus will be coming from, there are problems with violence and education. If a child comes in at age 17, they will more than likely have to start over in the ninth grade. International schools provide specialized education that can put these children on the path to English mastery, graduation and higher education.
Even with the misunderstandings that the NAACP has based its argument on, CASA de Maryland (the primary advocate for the international schools) and the school system itself are not without fault. They have primarily done a poor job communicating a vision to the community. International schools also provide services to non-Latino students, some of whom are Black. For instance, the international school which is housed in nearby Cardozo High School in the District of Columbia caters to 90% Spanish speakers, but the second leading language is Amharic. Proponents of the international schools have not disputed the media framing of this disagreement as a Black vs. Brown issue.
The NAACP is a historic organization that has fought for the rights that all people of color enjoy. It must embrace the increased plurality in locations like PG County. Ross is now being used by anti-immigrant right wing media personalities to rally against immigrants. The approach of Harold Washington and his Rainbow Coalition was key in the 1980s, and is the blueprint for the future success of communities that have common interests and certainly common opponents. If Ross wants to secure a dream for African American youth, the best way to go about that is to demand more dual-language programs that Black students in Prince George’s County can take part in.
As Gregg Roberts stated, “monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st Century.” Dual language schools for younger immigrant and African American pupils will secure more cross cultural exchanges, and most importantly a linguistic context for that interaction. It will also prepare African American youth to compete in a global marketplace. Instead of reactionary protest against helping an at least equally underserved community, the NAACP should advocate for improvements and resources for the community it serves.
Jason Nichols is an academic and artist with a range of interests, which include Black masculinities, hip-hop music and dance, bullying amongst emerging adults, and Black and Latino identities and relations. He is a full-time Lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland College Park and the current Editor-in-Chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of Hip-Hop Studies. Dr. Nichols is also a rap artist who raps under the moniker Haysoos and is one half of the internationally recognized rap group, Wade Waters.