Did Ruby Bridges walk so Kamala Harris could run after her?
Recently New Orleans celebrated the 60th anniversary of desegregation in its public schools. The occasion was marked throughout the city, nowhere more poignantly than at Akili Academy, the school that occupies the William Frantz Building. Half a century ago, Ruby Bridges entered her first integrated classroom despite resentment so bitter white students withdrew from the school rather than learn in her presence.
Students at Akili Academy staged a “Ruby walk” in honor of Bridges, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne, the four female students who braved their first day of school amidst heated protest. Bearing handwritten posters stating, “because of Ruby we can learn anywhere!” “Black girl magic,” and “Ruby was so brave,” the Akili students showcased pride and accomplishment, the success of 60 years of integration.
Among the smiles and cheers, another image was also visible, which has taken on increased significance in the last weeks. That image, created by Bria Goeller for Gordon Jones’s t-shirt company Good Trubble, shows a 56-year-old Kamala Harris striding in the shadow of a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges. The depiction of Bridges is taken from the Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With,” while Harris’s photo could be from any number of images in which Harris charges ahead of her peers in pantsuit and stilettos, eyes on the horizon.
“That little girl was me,” the salient critique of now president-elect Joe Biden launched by Harris during the Democratic debate in August, could be a caption for the image. An early participant in district-wide busing in Berkeley, California, where she attended public school in the 1970s, Harris rebuked Biden for his anti-busing stance in the 1960s. And she chided him for supporting some of his most stalwartly anti-integration colleagues in the Senate, notably James O. Eastman and Hermann Talmadge.
Now that Harris will join Biden in the White House as Vice President in January, her critique of him has receded. Instead, the success of state-mandated integration as a direct line to political success has emerged in its place. The Good Trubble image tells us that little Ruby could have been little Kamala. As one of the Akili signs proclaimed, “Ruby walked so Kamala could run after her.” What’s not to celebrate?
In New Orleans more broadly, however, Ruby and Kamala’s mash-up also reveals a more troubling reflection.
According to the Louisiana Department of Education’s 2020 enrollments, about 49,000 students enrolled in New Orleans public schools. Of those students, 91 percent are students of color. Following Katrina, New Orleans overhauled public education in the city. Charter schools took over almost the entire Orleans school district. Of the district’s 86 schools, eight are selective in their enrollment, meaning students must meet set criteria, including test scores, to be accepted. The remaining schools are open-enrollment.
While you might expect the selective schools to be racially mixed, following the federal mandates of equal opportunity and access, 65 percent of the district’s astonishingly small number of white students attend one of the selective schools, in comparison with 7 percent of Black students. According to the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, white and middle-class students benefitted more from the post-Katrina school changes than Black and low-income students.
At my children’s selective school, the ratio of white students to Black students is nearly 2:1, while a few blocks down the street at an open-enrollment school, the ratio is 1:300. Our school board has been unresponsive to grassroots efforts to support BIPOC students, including a petition signed by thousands to change the school’s name, which honors the aggressively anti-integrationist and former Confederate Robert Mills Lusher.
The sobering fact is that despite Ruby’s triumph, systemic segregation in New Orleans public schools persists. Good intentions, gifted educators, and copious research have transformed public education and youth success in the city. Yet, at Akili Academy, in the space integrated by Ruby Bridges, the student body is 98 percent Black and 2 percent Hispanic; The student population has grown at the same rate that the number of teachers has been reduced (12 percent), and Akili places in the bottom 50 percent of Louisiana schools in test scores. None of these facts reflect the success augured by Ruby Bridges’s brave march into the Upper Ninth Ward school in November 1960. While we have learned that integration does not mean a perfect balance in racial numbers, it does mean equal access to resources.
New Orleans public schools are reeling from the pandemic pressures, heightened social precarity, widespread housing and food insecurity, hurricane disruptions, and the mandate to teach and reach all students despite limited resources and longstanding inequities. Inadequate funding, zero-tolerance policies, and police in schools create environments where Black students have less chance of success than their white peers. A decades-old school-to-prison pipeline remains. More than 14,000 New Orleans youth between 14 and 24 are neither working nor in school, and the suspension rate is 14 percent. How do these facts square with the image of Kamala Harris, who, as California’s attorney general, promoted elementary schoolchildren’s truancy cases?
Ruby Bridges’s experience of racist vitriol was appalling and her trailblazing journey deserves to be celebrated. But it will take a lot more than cheering to change the enduring trends of segregation in New Orleans and throughout the country. If public education’s serious challenges are not addressed, Kamala will keep running, but Ruby will be left behind.
Kate A. Baldwin is a professor of English and communication at Tulane University. Her most recent book is “The Racial Imaginary of the Cold War Kitchen.” Follow her on Twitter @katebldwn
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