The More Things Change: How the First Version of Minnesota’s Desegregation Lawsuit Left Out Families

The other day Minnesota’s Supreme Court entertained oral arguments in Cruz-Guzman vs. State of Minnesota, a lawsuit that, no matter what happens next, could have sweeping implications. If the case is allowed to proceed to trial, under the guise of integrating schools it could eliminate parental choice and strike a potentially fatal blow to schools that are delivering terrific results for impoverished black and brown kids.

If the case is dismissed on the grounds advanced by the state, it could set a precedent that would stop Minnesota courts from upholding the state constitution’s education clause, which guarantees all children adequate schooling.

I watched the arguments online, feeling very déjà vu all over again the whole time. It’s a re-do – complete with many of the same characters and subplots – of the first serious education story I wrote, back in 2000: “Magic Bus: The NAACP’s education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?”

Reader, when I dusted off that story, I was shocked. My own firstborn was a few months old and the big meaty issues at stake were pretty abstract to me. Like most white liberals, I grew up believing that I understood why and how separate is inherently unequal.

But the thing that hit me full-bore upon rereading my piece was the same as then. The story’s protagonist, a single black mother by the name of Evelyn Eubanks, was told at every turn, by white people, that their solutions were superior to what she was actually asking for for her babies. She was angry at being used as the public face of an effort that resulted in a settlement she didn’t want that was brokered in rooms where she wasn’t welcome.

From the story, published May 17, 2000, in City Pages:

“But about a year ago, Eubanks quit going to the meetings. Somehow, none of her concerns had ended up in the documents the attorneys were using to draw up proposals for a settlement. When a deal was finally announced this past March, all she could muster was a frustrated feeling of déjà vu.

“’I left one system that exploited me and went to another,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘I was used. And I say ‘used’ because all of my participation did not result in a better education for my kids or anyone else.’”

Digressions, relevant and not so much:

One: I’d provide you a link to the story but after several changes of ownership all a search of CP’s archives turns up is the groovy cover illo of a psychedelic bus, not the text of the story. If you are so motivated, the citation above will conjure all 6,308 words from the Hennepin County Public Library’s periodicals database in seconds.

Two: While you’re there, assuming you’re hardcore enough to do so, download “Black Like Us – Political machinations, intrigue, and good old-fashioned mudslinging: A look behind the scenes of the Minneapolis NAACP election scandal,” published in City Pages on March 17, 1999.

Panic over the idea that the NAACP might break ranks and pull out of the suit was one of the reasons why white DFLers enrolled en masse as members and threw the vote in favor of a safer, less rebellious unknown. Yep, there’s Phyllis Kahn and the rest of the crew lined up at Sabathani insisting they are ginormous civil libertarians and just want to ensure the NAACP gets it right.

Three: Finally – and least of interest to you — this is the moment where I win an argument with my Sainted Mother who over the years has said to me half a dozen times if she’s said it once, “Why are we moving these bankers boxes full of mildewed newspapers again?” She invariably wins the other 8,478 running arguments, so just this once I get to gloat.

In 1999, following one pained effort after another, Evelyn Eubanks had pulled five of her six kids out of the district to homeschool them. By the time I met her, she had spent 16 years trying to be that involved black single mother conventional conservative wisdom would have us believe doesn’t exist. Her efforts only earned her the label “abrasive” at her kids’ schools.

Nearly 20 years on and with my own experience as a parent with much more privileged children in the system I’d call her appropriately assertive. Her kids started school as A students, full of promise. But increasingly they were singled out as difficult or defiant. The more she advocated, the more she was, too.

Let’s recall that this was 1999. We did not yet have the federal statistics illuminating racially disproportionate discipline in Minneapolis Public Schools and other districts. When a black mother called out classroom bias, the system’s white leaders were under no pressure to do anything other than suggest the problems started at home.

In 1997, when Eubanks heard about a lawsuit filed by Daniel Shulmans and his son and daughter in law, she raised her hand to volunteer, attending meeting after meeting and rallying other parents of color. Groundbreaking in its legal theory, the suit claimed that increasing segregation in Twin Cities schools is by its nature inadequate, and thus violates the state constitution.

But the definition of adequate turned out to be a sticking point. To the suit’s framers, it meant figuring out how to create racially balanced enrollment in schools. Because of white flight and other court decisions, they proposed to remedy this by busing kids throughout the metro area.

From my 2000 piece: “John Shulman says he understands that some of the parents involved in the suit didn’t agree with his legal strategy. But, he insists, history shows that the best way to improve an impoverished urban district is to merge it with its wealthier suburban counterparts.”

But Minneapolis Public Schools had just ended an integration scheme in part because it had kids – and guess which kids bore the burden? – crossing the city to schools far from their homes. Eubanks wanted the suit to make the school down the street – Lincoln – do right by her family.

Again: “True to form, Eubanks complained. And, she says, she was told that if she was unhappy with the process, she could quit. ‘I had been through this before with the school district,’ she recalls. ‘They ask you your opinion, guide you to some narrow options, and then say we supported their decision.’ In early 1999 she left the mediation team.”

Me, I canvassed the named plaintiffs at the time. The one I could find didn’t even know there was a settlement on the table. Sure didn’t sound like any were present at the Minneapolis Club breakfast where the business community was tapped to bankroll the suit.

Today, there’s no shortage of people who’d like to see the current case, Cruz-Guzman vs. State of Minnesota, thrown out, but in reporting a news story last week for The 74, I couldn’t find anyone who favored doing so using the state’s argument that the Minnesota constitution’s education clause is not the court’s jurisdiction.

A lot has changed in the two decades since I wrote that story. The school down the street, Lincoln Community, was shuttered as fully half of black northside families eschewed Minneapolis schools for other districts and parochial and charter schools.

And segregation is indeed much more pronounced. At the time I wrote that story Lake Harriet Community School was 50 percent white. Today it’s 87 percent white. Black Lives Matter signs in white front yards notwithstanding, district enrollment continues to allow similar schools to become enclaves and white families continue to stampede to them.

Also new since that first story: There are a number of schools where children like Eubanks’ are doing far better than their peers, where families’ histories and identities are affirmed. And there is at least a fragile agreement among Minnesotans that integration, by asking us to live and learn together, is still a goal we as a state hold.

Eubanks didn’t want the “The Choice is Yours” settlement. She wanted her children’s gifts – and her aspirations for them — to find recognition at the school down the street. An entire generation has come up since then, many of their kids captive to the same circumstances she fought.

Evelyn Eubanks passed some years ago, way too young. If we are to have a serious conversation about integration and equity in education, let’s make sure that this time her children and their children are at the center of the conversation.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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