Thursday, February 11, 2010

One More Class in the Ghetto

Dreaming of an (all-)White Classroom

English translation by Wendell Ricketts
[Read the original in Italian here.]

A kindergarten in Luzzara (Province of Reggio Emilia, Italy) ended up in the media spotlight last October when its principal decided he had no choice but to set aside a classroom exclusively for immigrant children. Responding to critics who accused him of racial segregation, the principal pointed out that, faced with a student body in which immigrant children accounted for 75% of the enrollment, he didn’t have many alternatives. At that point, the media’s indignation over this flagrant episode of apartheid began to be tinged with panic: were there really that many immigrants in Luzzara?

Most people missed a significant detail. In this very small town (of less than 10,000 inhabitants), there is another school no more than a few meters distant from the one in question. That school is attended almost exclusively by Italian children. Specifically, it’s the parochial school of the local Catholic parish. Separate but equal, it goes without saying, and likewise financed by the town. Unlike its public counterpart, the parochial school has no obligation to enroll immigrant children, though it has been kind enough to admit a few ... eight, to be precise.

I mention the Luzzara episode because it so perfectly illustrates my theory: for every “classroom ghetto” with a high percentage of immigrant students, there’s another class somewhere (possibly no more than a few meters away) in which all the students are white. Nobody ever says a thing about it; they’re those classes you never see on the TV news (where, instead, pupils are invariably multiethnic) and which never merit a mention in the newspapers.

On the other hand, they’re also the classes that everyone wants their children to be admitted to. There’s almost always a waiting list. And they’re not necessarily Catholic or private schools, either—quite a few public schools have their all-white classrooms, too. Of course, they don’t refer to them that way. In the “Guide to Our Programs and Educational Philosophy” (the brochure given out to clients—excuse me, to parents), schools talk about their “special” or “experimental” classrooms, about a more rigorous approach to foreign-language education, or about their unique advanced-placement courses. The important thing is for there to be a list: it’s the easiest way to insert a selection mechanism into the enrollment process.

The parents who understand how this works and get their children admitted to classes of this kind aren’t necessarily the most affluent. They’re just people who want the best for their children. Most of the time, they don’t even entertain the possibility that there may be something racist in what they’re doing: they don’t have anything against immigrants, they just don’t want their kids to end up in one of those classes where there are eight or nine of them ... one of those infamous “classroom ghettos.”

And here’s where the snake starts swallowing its own tail. A classroom ghetto can exist only because across the street—or across the hall, or maybe in the very next room—there is an all-white class. Without the one, the other has no reason to exist. Italian public schools are not under invasion. Nationally, for every hundred Italian students, there are barely seven immigrants (though it is true that the concentration is higher in the North of the country and in larger cities). Instead, it appears that there are 514 primary schools nationwide (out of 18,539) in which the number of immigrant students exceeds 30%. What’s going to happen in those schools now that Minister of Education Mariastella Gelmini has drawn her 30% line in the sand?

It’s difficult to imagine that excess immigrant children will be loaded onto school buses and carried off to another school (perhaps in a nice, quiet residential area). That’s because such an approach necessarily means that a different school bus will be called upon to make the same trip in the opposite direction, dropping off some sweet white child at a school in a “problematic” neighborhood. Busing of that sort would be a lightning rod for criticism from the Left or the Right, but most important of all: it would cost money.

The sleight-of-hand behind all this has already been revealed by Minister Gelmini, who quickly made it clear that the 30% quota was not intended to include children born in Italy to immigrant families. We’re to understand, one gathers, that second-generation immigrants (a third of the total) are already perfectly integrated. And that’s a stroke of luck because, in other countries such as France or Great Britain, the prerequisites for racial unrest are found precisely in the identity crises of the second generation. For Gelmini, however, the second generation doesn’t need to be counted, so the problem ceases to exist.

There are, in addition, another thousand schools or so in which immigrant students make up between 20% and 30% of the total. Here the Gelmini Quota, rather than avoiding classroom ghettos, would serve to institutionalize them. From now on, principals and schools boards are on notice that they can pile immigrant students into designated classrooms as long as they don’t exceed more than 30% of the total (nine out of a class of thirty). That way, there’s no risk of creating a “ghetto.” Besides, the brochure says it in black and white: it’s not a ghetto as long as a classroom contains no more than one immigrant child in every three. Pay attention, though: We’re talking about immigrant children born abroad. Which leaves the door open to adding additional children from immigrant families as long as those children were born in Italy. As we’ve already seen, second-generation children aren’t counted for purposes of the quota.

Here’s an example. Let’s imagine a small school with five classrooms designed to hold thirty students each; and let’s assume, in a student body of 150, that twenty-seven immigrant children enroll. If the goal were truly integration, the best solution would be to assign them evenly to existing classes—about five students each.

In fact, Minister Gelmini could have asked schools to divide immigrant students evenly among the number of classrooms they had available; that would have been a reasonable criterion. But she didn’t. She decided it was preferable to invent a “quota” which, in the case of our example, makes it possible to concentrate all the immigrant students into three groups (that is, nine in each classroom), allowing the other two groups to be taught in All-White, Immigrant-Free Classrooms.

Sure, sooner or later some parent is going to complain about this. But which ones? Those parents who don’t understand the way certain things work, who didn’t know about the waiting lists, who had reservations about enrolling their child in a group that was too demanding. And, of course, immigrants themselves will have something to say about it (immigrant parents in Luzzara protested against the new classroom formations as well).

Principals can safely inform these parents (who include our friend, Alvin) that everything’s just fine, that the 30% groups may be a little rambunctious but the system is working, that their children may have fallen slightly behind but will certainly catch up, and that it’s obviously not a ghetto as long as we’re talking about no more than nine kids out of thirty. Minister Gelmini said so. And she’s one of those politicians who, when she sees a problem, she finds a way to fix it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Here Comes Alvin

Alvin and the “Immigrant Student Quota”

English translation by Wendell Ricketts
[Read the original in Italian here.]

I have a theory. If we want to understand the true impact of Minister of Education Mariastella Gelmini’s new quota system (yeah, that quota—the 30% limit on immigrant students in public-school classrooms), we need to try to get inside the head of one of the guys who most favored the idea of quotas: an Average Lega-Nord-Voting Working Stiff[1] (from now, just to keep things simple, we’ll call him Alvin).

Alvin is not a racist—just ask him. In fact, down at the shop one of the trainees is from Moldavia. He’s a good guy and he minds his own business. But ever since Alvin, Jr. started his first year of middle school, Alvin is having a hard time digesting this business of immigrant kids in Italian school classrooms.

At first, everything seemed normal. Sure, Alvin, Jr. occasionally dropped some odd name or other when he came home with one of his “what I did at school today” tales, but Alvin has a lot of Italian friends who’ve chosen to name their kids Brandon or Sharon or whatever. And then, during the very first parent-teacher meeting of the year, the teachers told Alvin and his wife, “The group that Alvin, Jr. is in is proving to be quite a handful.” But they wouldn’t be teachers if they didn’t find something to complain about, right?

The real shock didn’t come until Alvin saw his son’s photos from the first class excursion of the year. What he immediate realized was that his son’s class was a zoo. Three Africans, each one blacker than the next. Some sort of Martian with a cowl over his head (“No, Dad, he’s from India, but he’s a Sikh”). An indeterminate number of Romanians, Poles, and who knows what else. Six or seven out of twenty-seven.

“It’s a multiethnic group. A marvelous opportunity for your son,” the teacher told Alvin. The same teacher who’d said it was a difficult group. As far as Alvinwas concerned, something smelled bad. If multiethnic classes were really such a marvelous opportunity, how come his neighbor, the engineer, didn’t have his daughter in one, too? She’s the same age as Alvin, Jr., but she seems a lot more advanced. His wife told Alvin it was nothing to worry about: girls always do better in school than boys.

One morning, as Alvin was drinking coffee at his local café, though, he couldn’t hold back any longer, and he started in on the school situation with the engineer. Eventually, of course, they wound around to the fateful topic, immigrant students in their kids’ classes....

His liberal-minded neighbor had his answer ready. “They’re better students than the Italians,” he said. “In my daughter’s class, for example, there’s this Hungarian kid who’s a real whiz with computers, you know?”

“There is? Sure, but there’s also the ones ... I mean, some of them are having a hard time even learning Italian, which slows down the rest of the class. Your daughter must have some classmates like that, too.”

“No, not that I know of.”

And that’s how it came to light that Alvin, Jr. had eight immigrant classmates but the engineer’s daughter only had one (the computer genius).

“Of course,” Alvin’s wife said. “The engineer enrolled his kid in the bilingual German class.”

“Why? They don’t allow foreign kids into that class?”

“Theoretically, I don’t suppose there’s any reason why they wouldn’t.”

“So why aren’t there more of them?”

“Because German is a tough language. Besides, there’s a waiting list.”

“A waiting list?”

“Not much gets by you, does it?”

“No, I mean ... they have a waiting list to study German in a middle school? What’s so special about the German class?”

“Maybe it’s that all the pupils are white.”

And voilà, the mystery was revealed. There hadn’t been any invasion of immigrant students. The problem was that they’d all been concentrated in a small number of classes, one of which was Alvin, Jr.’s. In the other classes (Alvin had checked the role sheets posted outside the classrooms when school started in September), kids with foreign names were extremely rare. That was when something in Alvin finally snapped. Or maybe it was when he heard his son’s teacher say for the fifth time that Alvin, Jr.’s group was falling behind in its program. Whatever it was, the first chance he got, Alvin voted for the Lega Nord.

When his guys in parliament proposed instituting so-called “transition classes” (a separate, remedial-Italian track where foreign students would remain until they demonstrated sufficient language skills to join the normal educational program), he got into a heated argument at his usual table at the café. “It’s the return of Racial Laws!” the engineer thundered. “The truth of the matter is that you’re all terrified of foreigners, even though a lot of the time they’re sharper than our own kids.”

A few months later, the Lega Nord started talking about quotas, and the engineer predicted that forced deportations couldn’t be far behind. But guys like the engineer always have something to say about everything. Because they’re Communists. Alvin, though, the more he thinks about it, the more it seems reasonable. Finally (he thinks), immigrant kids won’t be piled up in one or two “classroom concentration camps” but distributed fairly throughout the school. And Alvina, Alvin, Jr.’s sister, who’s starting middle school in September, won’t end up in another ghetto of illiterates. Way to go, Gelmini!

Next Fall, though, when Alvin reads the role sheets outside the newly formed classrooms, he’s going to have a heart attack. Out of twenty-nine students in Alvina’s class, sixteen have foreign surnames. And at that point, he’s going to go ask the Principal: “What’s going on here? Are we being invaded? What happened to the quotas? It must be true what people are saying, that this school is nothing but a den of Reds where you ignore the regulations of the Minister of Education anytime you want!”

And what’s the Principal going to tell him? “First of all” (he’ll say), “please let me reassure you. A multiethnic classroom like your daughter’s is a marvelous opportunity.”

“Blah blah blah. I’ve already heard this song. What I want to know is how come you’re refusing to abide by the immigrant-student quotas.”

“But we do abide by the quotas. There are nine immigrant students in your daughter’s class.”

“That’s still more than there were three years ago! What about the quota?”

“The quota is 30%. The problem is that, as a result of budget cuts, classroom size has grown larger. There are thirty students in your daughter’s class, and 30% of thirty is nine. We’re within the quota.”

“Hold on a sec ... right here, I’m reading at least sixteen last names that aren’t Italian. Not nine. Sixteen.”

“Naturally, because the class also includes students with immigrant families but who were born in Italy. Minister of Education Gelmini has made it clear that those students aren’t to be counted in the quota.”

“Ah, you don’t count them.”


“Okay, but why do they all have to end up in the same class as my kids? I mean, it’s not like I’m some racist, but I don’t understand what’s going on here. How come you don’t put a few here, a few there.... For example, why don’t you put some here in Classroom A?”

“Classroom A is studying German....”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. There’s a waiting list. What about Classroom B?”

“B is working on musical experimentation.”

“So? Are all the immigrant kids tone deaf?”

“No, but there’s a waiting list for that group as well.”

“What about Classroom C?”

“That’s a high-demand group. They don’t come back after lunch for the afternoon session. It’s for children who are involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. You know, swimming, horseback riding....”

“There’s a wait for that one, too?”

“Let’s just say that immigrant students aren’t involved in as many extracurricular activities. I hope our little chat has cleared things up.”

It sure has. Things in Alvin’s mind are clearer now than ever. It’s not Minister Gelmini’s fault. She did what she could. The real problem is that these Communists are devils. Pass a law, find the flaw. They make sure their kids study German or learn the flute, take horseback lessons ... anything to keep them away from the colored kids. And Alvin’s children are the ones who are paying for it. Damn those Communists. Their day is going to come though. The minute our guys manage to get into power....

[1] Once a slightly marginalized, radical far-right party dedicated mainly to the secession of a large swatch of Northern Italy from the rest of the country, the Lega Nord (the Northern League) has come to play an extremely powerful and influential role in Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling Popolo della Libertà (the People of Freedom) coalition, including the control of four cabinet-level ministries (Interior, Legislative Simplification, Agriculture, and Reforms and Federalism) and five under-secretariats (Infrastructure, Interior, Economy and Finances, Health, and Legislative Simplification). The Lega Nord is directly responsible for Italy’s increasingly draconian approach to immigration, the closing of mosques and, at various local levels, the creation of public buses for Italian citizens only, proposals to create armed neighborhood posses designed to “increase public security,” and door-to-door roundups of illegal immigrants. For more on the Lega Nord, see Dreaming of a White ChristmasWhat If It’s True We Get the Politicians We Deserve?None Dare Call It Racism, and One Ronde Doesn’t Mean It’s Spring, or visit Wiki’s Lega Nord page (in English)—most of it is obviously a translation of an Italian page sympathetic to the Lega, but go to the bottom to see information about “Violent Rhetoric” and “Accusations of Xenophobia.” For more on Minister Gelmini and her educational reforms, see The Monster Reduction and Simplification Act (Wendell Ricketts).