KAI WRIGHT: Hey everybody, so here’s the deal. We don’t want this season to be a one-way conversation. So we’re going to be asking you some questions all through out--and here’s the first. What didn’t you expect to be anxious about in 2020? What’s keeping you up at night -- in your own life or community-- in your city -- What is it that you will carry with you as you vote. Becaues we wanna know how all of our anxieties shape our politics. So just record a voice memo and email it to me at email@example.com. Include your name, and we may use it in an upcoming episode.
I'm Kai Wright, and this is the United States of anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
KAI: At the end of our previous episode, historian Eric Foner poses a question to me. He points to the 13th Amendment and he says, sure, this remarkable amendment to our constitution - it bans slavery -- it emancipates more than three million black people.
ERIC FONER: But it leaves a vacuum: Then what? That's the question that has to be answered.
KAI: The answer Congress offered, in 1866, was the 14th Amendment. It says everybody in the United States -- regardless of race -- is a citizen and no state can do anything that denies the quote, “privileges or immunities” of national citizenship.
ERIC FONER: You could spend a lot of time parsing that language. Law professors have gotten rich writing articles and going to court and other things trying to figure out, ‘What do these phrases mean?’
KAI: I am also gonna spend a lot of time this season parsing out why and how this amendment is still both so crucial to American life and politics and so contentious. And I figure the best place to start thinking about the 14th Amendment is with its impact on something basic: the effort to give all our kids, regardless of race, an equal start in life. So that’s what we’re exploring in this episode. And the story begins, at least for our purposes, at Willow Creek Academy.
[Sound of kids playing at school]
KAI: This is a small K through 8 elementary school that sits just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. This is Marin County. Picture foggy mountain slopes. A rugged coastline. And instead of a big, rectangular school building, think trees and little bungalows that surround a grassy field. That’s what Willow Creek Academy looks like. It’s a charter school. It’s all about project based learning - kids learning by doing.
[Students sing at morning assembly]
And at morning assembly in the auditorium, the fourth graders are singing about the theme of the month: assertiveness.
KAI joins the students singing: You’ve got to be calm, cool, collected, confident and clear.
MARIANNE MCCUNE: [Laughs]
KAI: What do you think, you like that, Marianne?
MARIANNE: Very nice, Kai. I really like that.
KAI: Thank you very much. Our reporter Marianne McCune has been spending a lot of time in this school district.
MARIANNE: Yeah, I went on a really fun tour of Willow Creek Academy with the Board President, Kurt Weinsheimer.
KURT WEINSHEIMER: You want to look into a classroom?
MARIANNE: And the place has a really idyllic feel. The students have their own chef--
STUDENT: Would the marvelous Chef Guillaume please come to the stage.
MARIANNE: -- who gets on stage every morning to announce the day’s lunch menu.
STUDENTS: Bonjour Chef Guillaume!
MARIANNE: And all the kids say Boujour Chef Guillame.
CHEF GUILLAUME: Today on the menu: seasonal fruit --
MARIANNE: As we’re watching this, Kurt says he loves watching the kids react to the food options.
WEINSHEIMER: It’ll be like, ‘And today we've got cauliflower,’ and everyone’s like, ‘Woohoo!’
MARIANNE: But I have to say, what was most striking about my visit was the diversity in the classrooms. Less than half the kids here are white -- there’s a mix of black, white, latino, Asian - many recent immigrants.
WIENSHEIMER: It is integrated and inclusive and that's their day to day life.
MARIANNE: And, economically too, there’s a real mix of family-income levels here. More than a third of the kids are very low income, which is saying something given where we are--
KAI: Why? Why is that?
MARIANNE: Because Willow Creek is in Sausalito. This is a small town. And we're talking like around 7,000 people. It’s overwhelmingly white, a little hippie, a lot of multimillion dollar homes. And it’s part of a county that is one of California’s richest and whitest.
KAI: So it’s managed to attract kids from outside their little wealthy enclave.
MARIANNE: Exactly. Almost half the school is from another neighborhood, Marin City. And Marin City is a historically black neighborhood. It’s over on the other side of the 101 freeway. It's tiny too -- it’s half the size of Sausalito. But there's a big public housing complex there. There are also more affordable apartments. It’s not majority black anymore, but it’s a real mix of people. And that neighborhood is the reason we’re here. Because over in that neighborhood is the one other school in the district. It’s about a mile away from Willow Creek, it’s not a charter school, it’s the regular public school. And it’s called Bayside Martin Luther King Jr Academy. And these two schools - and the 500 kids who go to them -- are now at the center of a big controversy here in California.
[Sound of Bayside MLK students playing]
MARIANNE: Over the last couple of decades, the school here - Bayside MLK - has been shrinking while Willow Creek Academy - the charter school - has grown. So there are about 120 students at Bayside MLK now. And almost all of them are black and latino.
MOULTRIE: My graduating class was like 10... 10 kids.
MARIANNE: This is Jeremiah Moultrie. He went to Bayside from Kindergarten through the 8th grade. He’s a sophomore in high school now. But he says back when he was at Bayside MLK, it was a real mess.
MOULTRIE: We had two teachers basically doing everything for the entire middle school. We had a math teacher, and an English teacher that taught all three classes and they also had to be the history and science teacher. And I remember specifically at one point at one point in time, like, the seventh grade would be doing math while the eighth grade would be in the back doing science.
KAI: So they did not have all the things Willow Creek had.
MARIANNE: When he was there they did not have an art teacher. They did not have a music teacher. Jeremiah says the curriculum was completely ad hoc and it was like the teachers were just playing catch-up all the time.
MOULTRIE: Everything was like, ‘You guys don't know this, you guys don't know that. So, like, let's pick it back up and let's try to learn as much of it as possible and try to move on with the curriculum we're supposed to be doing now.’ And then, like, all the kids that left Bayside to go to Willow Creek, they were like rapid fire, learning this, learning that, learning that, and, like, they were on track. I was, like, unaware of the fact that we were really missing out on all the stuff until me and all my nine classmates, we took a field trip to Willow Creek and they were doing this big performance. Like they had like 20 teachers there. And all ten of us were sitting around a table and we were just watching them and they were doing like all these parts and everybody talking. And the girl, she had like a really, like, cool dress. And they had the lights and everything, like the little stage lights, and it was all, like, really cool. Right after the play, everyone was like, Bayside never has anything like that.
KAI: So what happened?
MARIANNE: Well, Jeremiah wasn’t the only person in Marin City who noticed this stark difference between these two schools. There were a lot of people in the community who said, “Hey, we’re failing these kids.” And so late last summer, California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, stepped up to a microphone outside Bayside MLK and made an announcement.
XAVIER BECERRA: I want to thank everyone for being with us here this morning.
MARIANNE: He’s speaking in front of a small, nerve-wracked audience … and he brings up a 65 year old Supreme Court decision.
BECERRA: Brown V Board of Education ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But more importantly, they said separate is not equal.
MARIANNE: The Attorney General’s office had investigated this tiny school district for two years and concluded that it had “intentionally" maintained and exacerbated segregation here. That the District - which encompasses just these two schools - knowingly ran one school that was almost exclusively black and latino and low income -- and deprived them of the teachers and the instruction and the funding they needed to succeed. And the complaint charges -- at the same time -- they were helping Willow Creek, that wonderfully integrated charter school grow and flourish.
BECERRA: The Sausalito Marin City School District schools were separate and they were not equal.
MARIANNE: He told the district to fix it.
BECERRA: These decisions by the Board of Trustees violated both the equal protection guarantee of the California Constitution and the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.
KAI: The equal protection clause. That is the 14th amendment. And here, California’s Attorney General is using it to issue the first desegregation order in California in half a century. Now, this case is complicated, and we're going to do our best to walk you through it. But understand that the ideas and the values embodied in the 14th Amendment -- and the questions they raised, way back in 1866 -- they’re at the heart of this dispute. Remember, the amendment says no state can do anything that gets in the way of the privileges and immunities of citizenship.
ERIC FONER: Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
KAI: These sentences form what’s called the due process and equal protection clauses of the amendment. And these - I mean they are arguably the most consequential and most contested words in our Constitution.
FONER: Every single session of the Supreme court has cases relating to the 14th amendment. Some of the most important decisions of the past 50 or 75 years have been 14th amendment decisions.
KAI: LGBT rights, most recently. But also the idea of one person, one vote; the idea of gender equality. And the idea that separate cannot be equal.
FONER: The 14th amendment makes the Constitution, for the first time, you know, a vehicle that Americans can appeal to if they feel they're being denied equality.
KAI: Which takes us to the school auditorium at Bayside MLK, where Marianne first met the man tasked with figuring out what to do.
ITOCO GARCIA at a public meeting: Good evening, thank you all so much for coming --
MARIANNE: As Superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District, Itoco Garcia is the guy in charge. And that wouldn't be a huge job in this tiny district. If he didn't also have to solve the intractable problem of segregation in the United States.
GARCIA: [Laughs] Is that what I’m being tasked with?
MARIANNE: He figured out fast that people in this community were anxious and angry, and upset in all kinds of ways.
GARCIA at public meeting: So I wanted to start tonight by reassuring folks --
MARIANNE: So the first time he gets up with a mic to explain his new mandate to the public, he gives the audience a tip for how to remain calm, cool and collected themselves.
[Long, deep breath]
MARIANNE: When you start to feel worked up, he tells them, breathe in for a count of eight, out for a count of four.
GARCIA at public meeting: It’s the number one tool we have--
MARIANNE: He demonstrates what he means immediately - when he reminds the crowd of what the Attorney General's judgment actually says:
GARCIA at public meeting: It said, we knowingly and intentionally maintained and exacerbated existing racial segregation and Sausalito and Marin city.
[Long, deep breath]
MARIANNE: Itoco has this ability to endear himself to anyone. Whoever you are - he makes you feel like he gets you. And maybe that's because of who he is. The name Itoco is from an indigenous group in Colombia, where his dad grew up.
GARCIA: My dad's pretty short and pretty brown skin and and pretty curly haired and my mom is a pretty stereotypical California blonde. Long... long hair, blue eyes.
MARIANNE: Their marriage didn't last. And he and his mom ended up moving to a family home here in Marin. And he spent most of his time in a pretty white world.
GARCIA: It wasn't really until my freshman year of high school that I think I really pushed to identify as a person of color.
MARIANNE: He was in a public high school with a mix of kids. But he was still hanging out with the same white crowd he grew up with. He was dating upper class girls. He was popular. Then one day, he was hanging with his buddies and he says this curly-haired, brown skinned, Salvadoran kid walked by.
GARCIA: And my friends were like, ‘wetback, fruit picker.’ And I was like, ‘Hey, you know you talking about me, right?’ And they're like, ‘No, no, you’re different. We're not talking about you.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah you are.’
MARIANNE: They didn't stay friends. But they taught him something: that he could push against the dominant culture and succeed within it at the same time.
GARCIA at public meeting: This is just what’s in the judgment. This is the floor not the ceiling.
MARIANNE: Back at the mic as he lists for the public the steps the school district is now required to take in order to get law enforcement off its back--
GARCIA at public meeting: So what does it have to do?
MARIANNE: -- he takes many deep breaths.
[Long, deep breath]
MARIANNE: To satisfy the desegregation order, Itoco has to create a school - or schools - with a mix of kids from across this community. In addition to the students currently at Bayside MLK, he has to attract kids from every kind of neighborhood, including the whiter and more affluent ones.
GARCIA at public meeting: It might not sound like 20 or 40 or 60 kids is a lot, but right now that's not what's happening.
MARIANNE: Itoco has to come up with those kids within 5 years. But he has to come up with a detailed plan for how he’s gonna do that within 6 months. To inform that plan, he's required to get hours and hours of input from parents, families, teachers, local leaders, experts. And if he fails to hit specific benchmarks along the way--
GARCIA at public meeting: The attorney general may take further action against the Sausalito Marin City School District.
[Long, deep breath]
MARIANNE: Now that charter school over in Sausalito - Willow Creek - they do have families from all four corners of the district. But they also have almost all the Sausalito kids. Almost every single white student going to public school in this district goes to Willow Creek. So the challenge is: how do you get those kids - at least some of them - in school with the kids who go to Bayside MLK?
MARIANNE: Maybe the task before Itoco - and before all the people of Sausalito and Marin City - wouldn't be so hard if they were starting from scratch. Maybe if the baggage of history didn't weigh so heavily on this district, this would just be a problem of math and geography and buses moving children from one neighborhood to another. Instead, it seems the history that happened here is painfully present in almost every conversation. In every decision as to how to move forward.
[Car door slams and Marianne and Jeremiah walk through housing complex]
MARIANNE: One place to start that history is with Marin City's public housing complex. Today, it's a combination of high rises and one story homes that climb up the base of one of this pensinsula's hills. This is the first public housing complex where I've actually run into a coyote skulking through a parking lot.
MOULTRIE: I saw one last night. It was really weird. Yeah. It was like it was just prancing along and I was like, ‘Okay.’
MARIANNE: That’s Jeremiah again, the 15 year old who went to Bayside MLK when things were so bad. He lives up one of the criss-crossing paths with his grandparents, and an aunt and uncle.
[Talking at Jeremiah’s grandparents’ door]
MARIANNE: He says for a long time, people have been calling Marin City's public housing complex ‘the jungle.’
MOULTRIE: Yeah, people call Marin City, the jungle, the jung. My interpretation has always been, there's so much wilderness around Marin City. I figured like before they started building these buildings, it just looked like a jungle.
MARIANNE: The orange and tan buildings of the Jungle are from the 1960s. But before these, there was another set of buildings here.
[Music from wartime newsreel]
MARIANNE: During World War II, tens of thousands of people came to Marin to build oil tankers and the giant cargo vessels known as Liberty ships.
NEWSREEL: America, traditionally a maritime nation, mobilizes its mechanical and its industrial genius to build the largest fleet of cargo ships ever to sail the seven seas.
MARIANNE: There were black people from the South, whites from across the country, some Chinese immigrants.
NEWSREEL: Now, they're completing them in 46 days.
MARIANNE: The federal government threw up temporary housing. Jack Kerouac actually wrote about it in On The Road -- he called it a wild and joyous place and "the only community in America where whites and negroes lived together voluntarily."
NEWSREEL: No sooner is one launched then they swing a new keel into place for another. Not a minute is wasted.
MARIANNE: And a lot of people still here -- their parents and grandparents lived in those buildings.
[Hellos to Bettie Hodges]
MARIANNE: Like Bettie Hodges. She runs educational programs and a free summer camp called Freedom School. Jeremiah went there for a bunch of summers.
HODGES: The black people that settled in Marin City came from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, to get a better life.
MARIANNE: Bettie is in her early 70s and sometimes has this squint. Like - instead of looking at you - she's looking at the decades of history she's witnessed here.
HODGES: In those days, there were still white families in Marin City.
MARIANNE: But after the war, while white shipbuilders were able to move and buy houses across Marin County, racist laws and redlining prevented blacks from moving anywhere. And the federal housing was flimsy.
HODGES: And it was slated to be torn down and folks organized cause they didn't want to go back to the South. They wanted to make this their home.
MARIANNE: They had to fight - first to stay and then to get a new complex built. It’s the same one that’s still here now.
HODGES: So it was out of that activism that there was also activism around the schools and segregation.
MARIANNE: This was just after Brown v Board of Ed, mid 1950s. And in about 4th grade, Bettie and some of her black classmates joined a school of majority white kids from the local military bases. And she says that was her first time realizing that there were worlds - plural - not just one.
HODGES: I could talk about collard greens but then somebody was talking about an artichoke. And I was like, ‘An artichoke! What is that? You know, what does it taste like, what does it?’ I mean, I guess it's my first understanding of the cultural translation that actually takes place. I learned early on to navigate the white world.
MARIANNE in interview: Did going to an integrated school change your perception of yourself or your feelings about yourself?
HODGES: I feel like I could compete with anybody.
MARIANNE: Bettie and her black peers paved the way for a wider spread desegregation effort in the sixties -- for a short time, one school here was even led by a black militant principal who hosted Black Panther breakfasts. Bettie went on to college, graduate degrees, a job in Congress. But when she came back. She found that Marin City had changed dramatically. The public elementary schools that had prepared her so well -- they were failing kids now.
HODGES: They couldn't write. They didn't have vocabulary. Whole periods, you know, in history, they didn't know. And I was like, what's going on?
MARIANNE: Superintendent Itoco Garcia also remembers what it was like here.
GARCIA: 1992 the year that I graduated high school remains the highest murder rate in the Bay area and this community was impacted tremendously. By the sale of crack cocaine, by the consumption of crack cocaine, and by mass incarceration. And so there were a lot of kids that were exposed to a tremendous amount of adverse childhood experiences. And so, you know, I lived through that here.
MARIANNE: There’s a report from 1997 that says police were called to the Marin City middle school 50 times in one year. There were 166 suspensions.
GARCIA: To me, as a veteran educator, that's not indicative of a deficit in the children or the families. That is indicative to me of a deficit in the people who were running the school at the time.
MARIANNE: The Black Panthers were long gone - the leadership was white again. But most of the white students were gone. The military bases had all closed, so those families were gone. And the word among many white residents of Sausalito was if you have kids, you either move or send them to private. A former Sausalito mayor -- Bill Ziegler -- says in the real estate world, it was as if the schools didn’t even exist.
ZIEGLER: The brokers would tell new families coming in there was no school in Sausalito. It was that bad. They wouldn't even tell them about the school.
MARIANNE in interview: You heard people say that.
ZIEGLER: I heard them.
MARIANNE: Bill Ziegler has a good friend - also in real estate - who was as frustrated as he was with the schools.
BRUCE HUFF: Well, I’m Bruce Huff.
MARIANNE: In the 90s, Bruce Huff and his wife were helping to raise a relative and they did try sending him to the public school.
HUFF: He was assaulted three times and in the hospital once. The teachers had no control. The administration had no control.
MARIANNE: It was one of the wealthiest school districts in the State of California but it was still failing. Year after year, it was criticized for spending too much on overhead. People on all sides were calling for new leadership. But Bruce? He didn’t think it was possible to fix things.
HUFF: I became convinced personally the only way to solve the problem was not to try and do it from within the school, the existing schools, but to create a charter school.
MARIANNE: So Bruce got together some high powered friends, including that mayor.
HUFF: The original intent was that Sausalito needed a school.
ZIEGLER: Bruce was familiar with the charter movement and, and educated us and we talked about that.
MARIANNE: The problem was that charter schools were almost as controversial then as they are now. Remember technically they're still public schools - but they're *run* independently. They have to follow some rules - but mostly they make their own decisions about what to teach, how to discipline kids. The School Board has to vote to authorize a charter school. But then that's it - they can't control it. So the first hurdle was to get those votes.
HUFF: The School Board had virtually said they would never approve a charter school.
MARIANNE: Bruce readily admits he and his allies had to work the system to get the school started. First step: get themselves on the School Board.
HUFF: We actually stepped out in the parking lot, flipped the coin, and decided who was going to go for the School Board and who would lead the charter school. And I lost and went to the School Board. So that’s how that worked.
MARIANNE: Next, a strategic vote. When a group of black families in Marin City proposed their own charter school, Bruce says he and his allies on the Board voted to approve it.
MARIANNE in interview: So wait but that was a different charter school than the one you wanted to create, but you voted for it as well, because--
HUFF: --of course. I voted for it because Willow Creek, we were fully aware, would become some kind of racial issue. And so if we approved a Marin City charter school, the other two Board members would have a hard time voting against Willow Creek. So it was far more of a political move than it was an educational move.
MARIANNE: The very next year, that other school closed. And all Bruce's planning bore fruit. In 2001, he and the other school board members voted to approve the creation of Willow Creek Academy.
HUFF: The Willow Creek Academy was founded in my office.
MARIANNE: At that time, the beautiful sloping campus where -- today -- Willow Creek kids hear from Chef Guillaume every morning back then that was just the regular public elementary school, Bayside. The mostly black students who went there took a school bus from Marin City to Sausalito everyday. Now the School Board allowed Willow Creek to use that campus, too. Bruce says his own son was the first of a few dozen kids to enroll. But most of the students who signed up were black children who came from Marin City, their families seeking out an alternative to Bayside.
MARIANNE in interview: You said the intent had been to make a school for Sausalito.
HUFF: The intent of the school was not to exclude anyone. The intent of the school was to have children who were prepared and able to attend school. Uh, I don't know how else to put it because the situation was that most of the kids in the traditional school weren't prepared to be there.
MARIANNE: And so, he says, they came up with an idea: a contract for parents to sign.
HUFF: What was involved in the contract was the basics of parenting that you need to read to your kids. Your kids need to get enough sleep. They need to get healthy breakfasts and they have to eat well and so on and so forth.
MARIANNE: They were also supposed to clock volunteer hours at the school.
HUFF: And if you don't sign your contract, then you're not admitted. It's pretty simple.
MARIANNE: The contract wasn't binding - charters have to accept anyone they have room for - so technically the school was just encouraging parents to commit to those behaviors.
HUFF: And the peer pressure to adhere to the parent contract was a big deal.
[Students playing at Bayside]
MARIANNE: People at the regular public school were watching all this from the other side of the small campus. Julius Holtzclaw is like the unofficial historian of Bayside.
HOLTZCLAW: I don't really forget too much.
MARIANNE: He's the assistant to the principal now but like other black families, his has a long history in the school. He went here, he was the bus driver in the 90s, and the secretary when they started sharing the campus with Willow Creek. And he admits, if you went to a PTA meeting or an evening event at Bayside, you did not see a ton of parents.
HOLTZCLAW: Circumstances in their lives determine how much they can put forth into trying to do that. I've never run into a parent in my time working here that has never wanted the absolute best.
MARIANNE: As Julius watched - from his side of the campus - Willow Creek growing on the other side, he says he started seeing all kinds of parents.
HOLTZCLAW: Parents working in the office, doing yard supervision, helping with lunch, attending an evening meeting or performance. Yes. The atmosphere looked more inviting and exciting.
MARIANNE: For a few years while the two schools shared a campus, Bayside - the regular school - was improving. Test scores jumped and the school was named a California Distinguished School. But Bayside continued to shrink. And Willow Creek continued to grow. Especially the number of white and latino students there.
HOLTZCLAW: It started to become people probably go to the schools where it looked like them?
MARIANNE: By 2012, there were just three white students at Bayside Elementary. At Willow Creek, there were 96. A third of the student body. Meanwhile the number of black students at Willow Creek never grew much at all. Some black families loved the school. Others say they didn’t feel welcome or didn’t like how their kids were disciplined. The achievement gap between black and white students at Willow Creek did not improve.
MARIANNE: Each school had a different uniform. Each occupied a different part of campus. And people from both sides say they felt this animosity emanating from the other. At the School Board meetings, there were constant arguments about how money and space were being divided between the two schools. And throughout that time, the school board was made up mostly of parents and supporters of Willow Creek. Julius says he became a regular at the Board meetings.
HOLTZCLAW: Holding on to the side of the podium and shaking. And you know, when I speak, it's usually out of passion because I love the kids so much and the school and I want people to understand the right way. But then, people from another race or culture might not understand. And so then it gets interpreted as the angry black man.
MARIANNE: Each school got money based on how many kids enrolled. But the District also had a big pot of money to spend as it wished - a surplus, because the area is so wealthy. Now, the board wasn’t legally obligated to give any of that money to the charter. But Willow Creek argued it was now educating three quarters of the district’s kids on a lean budget. And year after year, the Board gave Willow Creek money from that surplus, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.
MARIANNE: Then something happened that, in retrospect, was more divisive than ever. Around 2012, the School Board proposed moving Bayside completely off its campus, and handing the whole space over to Willow Creek Academy. The dilemma was this: Bayside now had fewer than 80 students. Willow Creek had almost 300. They were both squeezed onto that Sausalito campus. Meanwhile over in Marin City, there was a brand new school building with tons of extra space. It was built for the district's middle schoolers, but there were very few of them. So what made sense to everyone was to move some students from Sausalito over to Marin City. But which ones? Lots of people came and warned the Board that moving Bayside elementary kids over to Marin City would further segregate them. The former mayor even said as much in the meetings.
ZIEGLER: I thought this is another step toward segregation. And yet we had a problem.
MARIANNE: The problem was Willow Creek did not want to move its middle schoolers over to Marin City. They wanted to keep all their students in the same school. But During the arguments, Board member Bill Ziegler also said things like 'You must be smoking something if you think Sausalito parents will send their kids to Marin City.'
MARIANNE in interview: Do you remember that?
MARIANNE: In his view, Sausalito families would just move or send their kids to private again.
ZIEGLER: No, no! You don't force people who are used to controlling their own lives, have the resources to do it. It's gonna fail, guaranteed to fail. They will simply not go across the freeway, bus their kids into a community that has a reputation for a high rate of crime, high rate of violence--
MARIANNE: In these conversations - then and still now - Bill Ziegler is that guy who says things others might think but won't say out loud. He’s 83 years old.
ZIEGLER: There are two cultures and you don't merge those cultures just by throwing kids together. We were getting feedback from parents: We're not moving. We're not moving because it's going to be a black school. It's going to be a school with kids who are two to three years behind us. We don't want our kids to go there.
MARIANNE: When Bill Ziegler talks, he sometimes puts words in other parents’ mouths.
ZIEGLER: And the idea that my beautiful little daughter is going to go to Marin City and be in that culture eight, nine hours a day is repulsive.
KAI: It’s hard to know how many parents actually felt this way - and it’s hard to listen to it. Because this logic he’s articulating -- that you can’t push white people to integrate -- it’s so familiar to me as somebody who has been the black person integrated into many, many white spaces. And confronted all the white fragility that comes with that process. But in talking to historian Eric Foner, I also realized just how pivotal this logic has been in the history of segregation in the United States.
FONER: The legal system before the Civil War was not based on equality in the slightest. The rights of women were very different than the rights of men. The rights of blacks were very different from the rights of whites. Uh, the rights of employers were very different from the rights of employees.
KAI: But now they’ve got the 13th and 14th Amendments laying out these principles of freedom and equality for all people. And they’ve got to figure out what that means, in practice and in law. Just defining the terms became a national preoccupation. Not just for lawmakers, but in op-ed pages and political clubs, I mean, it was like impeachment today. They were in totally uncharted political territory.
FONER: The end of slavery shatters all these old ideas, in a way, and now people are trying to pick up the pieces and figure out, ‘What are the consequences of the end of slavery for the rights and interactions of the American people with each other?’
KAI: And in that debate, a particularly sticky category of rights emerges.
FONER: Social rights. Which sort of was a vague term which included kind of individual interactions between people. Do black people have a right to forced closeness to a white person?
By 1875, Congress figures it out. They say, forget this vague idea of social rights. Instead they pass a landmark Civil Rights Act that essentially embraces the idea black activists had been pushing for a decade -- which is that you can divide life into public and private rights. And everybody gets access to anything that happens in public.
FONER: Public facilities of any kind, businesses, transportation companies. They're public rights. And then there were private rights, which the government has nothing to do with.
KAI: Which sounds great -- except there were two forms of integration that just felt politically impossible, places whites would never accept it: churches, and schools. So these two areas were carved out of the bill. And now, after nearly 150 years of trying to clarify what civil rights means, these remain two of the most segregated realms of American life. Which brings us back to that question before the Sausalito Marin City School Board. How to divide up the students.
MARIANNE: In the end, after all the contentious debates, the Board voted to move Bayside Elementary over to Marin City. They argued it made the most financial sense to let Willow Creek take the whole campus in Sausalito and put the district elementary and middle school together in Marin City. The school district also made big promises: a brand new curriculum, a school Marin City could be proud of. Some Marin City residents thought it was a good thing.
MOULTRIE: Like, we get a new campus. So I guess I tried to be optimistic about it.
MARIANNE: Jeremiah Moultrie was in 4th grade when Bayside moved over to Marin City.
MOULTRIE: I tried to make the best of it.
MARIANNE: What followed was a downward spiral that people who were there still find painful to remember. All the promises that the school would be wonderful were broken. There were budget cuts. New principals and superintendents came in each year with different plans. At one point, the board hired a charter school consultant as superintendent - his nickname was the Charter King. It was under his leadership that so many teachers at Bayside MLK were cut. And that’s the school that Jeremiah Moultrie attended - the one he told us was such a mess.
MOULTRIE: We didn't have art and music. We didn't have a PE teacher either.
MARIANNE in interview: Did you, did you want to transfer to Willow Creek or anywhere else?
MOULTRIE: Um, I couldn't.
MARIANNE: No one in his family was aware it was even an option. His dad was in the military back then, his mom was working at Starbucks and raising him and a younger sibling. He says none of them really realized there was a lottery he could enter and get into Willow Creek.
MOULTRIE: Yeah, I, if I could, I would have. But, Bayside, I've been going there all my life. Like, all I knew was Bayside. In reality, it was true like Willow Creek was better than us, like, in every way possible. Their curriculum was better, their activities were better. They had like, like more than enough teachers.
MARIANNE in interview: And what did you think about why that was true?
MOULTRIE: Um, wait, what?
MARIANNE in interview: Why, why did you think they were getting everything? And you guys weren’t?
MOULTRIE: As a seventh grader? Because we were people of color. It's probably not right, like, at all. But that's how we felt at the time.
KAI: Up next, Superintendent Itoco Garcia’s effort to make these two schools into one.
KAI: Most people in Marin City and Sausalito agree with the basic charges that California's Attorney General leveled against their school district: Bayside MLK was a segregated school. It was separate. It was unequal. And it was failing students.
MARIANNE: But what people here vehemently disagree on is who or what is to blame. If you talk to Kurt Weinsheimer - today's President of the Board of Willow Creek Academy - he says the failure at Bayside MLK wasn't because of the charter school.
WEINSHEIMER: Public charter schools were supposed to challenge a system and when the system wasn't working to try and experiment with new things. That's what Willow Creek did and it succeeded in doing that. And I think that at the same time, you had mismanagement at the District Board level.
MARIANNE: Willow Creek parents and supporters or not, he says, they failed.
WEINSHEIMER: They did a terrible job and that, honestly, that has nothing to do with Willow Creek.
MARIANNE: Board members at the time say, at every turn, they were trying to solve difficult problems at both schools.
BETTIE HODGES: I can't, I just can't embrace that narrative.
MARIANNE: Bettie Hodges and others in Marin City place the blame squarely on the leadership of Willow Creek.
HODGES: They were sinister. It wasn't like we just kind of grew our school. I mean, we just watered it and gave it, you know, vitamin B or something. No, you guys literally stole. And you know you did.
MARIANNE: Bettie is the woman we met earlier who runs education programs for Marin City kids.
HODGES: You have to take some accountability for the disruption and the dismantling of a school. Now there may be parents who, you know, in the last few years, their kids have come and they love Willow and I get that. And it's, who wouldn't love it? It's a beautiful school but you moved a whole other population out. Kids' lives were impacted, literally, because of you creating something idyllic for your kids. And you cannot tell me that race was not a part of it.
MARIANNE: When I ask Itoco Garcia - the superintendent faced with fixing all this -- who’s to blame?
MARIANNE in interview: Who's the bad guy in the story?
MARIANNE: He says the bad guy is a more insidious foe than any one person can be.
GARCIA: I think that the bad guy is the system of power and oppression that exists in our country. The bad guy is the system of de facto economic and racial segregation that you can see across the land in public school districts.
MARIANNE: So that’s the enemy he’s wrestling with - widespread, longstanding, systemic racism - and the State has given him 6 months to come up with a plan to fix it. That plan has to work for the mostly black and brown families already in his school, but also appeal to the white families who’ve refused to come to Bayside MLK for decades.
GARCIA: What's happening today, you know, is part of a long pattern. And I'm here to interrupt that pattern.
MARIANNE: Even before the desegregation order dropped, there was already a movement to make it happen -- to put the two schools together. So Itoco's strategy has been: let's continue on that path. One school for everyone? That will definitely keep the Attorney General away.
GARCIA at public meeting: I want to thank everybody for experiencing some discomfort, leaning into that discomfort, recognizing it as a place to grow.
MARIANNE: On any given week, you can find Itoco standing up at a mic in a school auditorium, speaking to an emotional audience. And his message is always: when it gets uncomfortable, don’t walk away.
GARCIA at public meeting: This is what it takes.
MARIANNE: He and his School Board members are often at meetings until 9 or 10 -- sometimes one in the morning.
MARIANNE in interview: Do you have a sleeping bag in your office?
GARCIA: No, but I need one last night.
PUBLIC MEETING: Please join us with the pledge of allegiance. The flag is in the back.
MARIANNE: At an especially tense board meeting in November, the debate comes back around to money. And how to split it between the two schools. But the tables have turned. Now Willow Creek is the one facing cuts.
GARCIA: I think I'll turn it over to public comment.
NEW BOARD PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MARIANNE: Now - this school board is not the same as it was. It is not dominated by Willow Creek families. And it’s now following strict spending guidelines set forth by the Attorney General. So all of a sudden - Willow Creek is not getting the money it used to. And it’s also losing students. Which means even steeper budget cuts.
PARENT 1: I just, I'm broken by it. And I would hate to see our children suffer. And you guys aren't even looking at me so thank you.
BOARD PRESIDENT: But we can hear you.
MARIANNE: One after the next, Willow Creek parents come up to the mic to tell the Board and Superintendent how upset they are about the prospect of cutting their art, music and Spanish programs. At one point, a Taiwanese-American mother of two girls asks.
PARENT 2: Why is Willow Creek Academy being penalized and why is equity kind of being thrown out the window?
MARIANNE: To those who were at Bayside when it was stripped of resources -- some of the complaints sound tone deaf:
PARENT 2: I ask everyone to picture this. There is a burning house, one burning house.
MARIANNE: She's referring to Bayside MLK - whose cafeteria she's standing in.
PARENT 2: There is a second house, which is not burning.
MARIANNE: That's Willow Creek.
PARENT 2: Why would anyone light the second house on fire?
MARIANNE: Some people shift uncomfortably. Bayside MLK’s principal gets mad:
PRINCIPAL DAVID FINNANE: I'd like to ask that you please not characterize this school as on fire.
MARIANNE: She apologizes. The meeting goes well past 11 o’clock, the layers of distrust seemingly growing. Willow Creek parents keep using the word equity when they ask for dollars for the diverse set of students at their school. In fact, Willow Creek is also suing the district to get their funding back - using that same equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Remember they have three quarters of the district’s kids, many are low-income kids of color. But a black Marin City resident fires back: diversity is not the same as equity.
RESIDENT: You guys brag about diversity, you have flyers out with black faces on it. You have videos with the black child talking about how much he loves it. God bless that child and his family. All this promoting diversity, we're diverse, we love our diversity. But black children aren't being taught at your school based on data.
MARIANNE: Recent test scores show the achievement gap between black and white students at Willow Creek is wider than the state average.
RESIDENT: So what does diversity mean if kids are failing?
MARIANNE: In discussions like these - you can imagine Superintendent Itoco, sitting in front of his microphone, facing this crowd and thinking: are we backing up or are we moving forward? But what he’s really thinking is: this is the only way forward.
GARCIA: If we can't talk to each other about these things, how are we ever going to create something different? You know, that is, that is the mechanism that, that white supremacy uses the most in our country to sustain itself.
MARIANNE in interview: What?
GARCIA: We don't talk about it.
GARCIA at public meeting: Good evening everyone. Thank you so much for coming. Gracias por venir.
MARIANNE: The last big Town Hall before the winter break is for groups of residents who’d been meeting together for months to imagine a perfect school. They’re presenting their recommendations.
GARCIA at public meeting: Whos next? Curriculum for the children!! Let’s give curriculum for the children a big round of applause.
MARIANNE: A black teacher from Bayside MLK, a white teacher from Willow Creek and their team get up to present their vision together.
GROUP: So we are the curriculum for the children.
MARIANNE: After months of contentious meetings, this one was actually fun.
GROUP: This pillar supports diversity as a beginning to address equity and inclusion.
MARIANNE: For the fundraising team, the woman presenting is the same parent who stood up weeks earlier and called Bayside MLK a burning house,
PARENT 2: We are going to focus on joint fundraising opportunities.
MARIANNE: Tonight she enthusiastically talks about fundraising for both schools together --
PARENT 2: We want to create a new video for unification.
MARIANNE: Some of the toughest questions about this new imaginary school are still unanswered. Like who will run it? And where will the school be? Sausalito? Or Marin City?
PARENT 2: Please come and talk to us. We want you to join her efforts. Thank you.
MARIANNE: The woman presenting on fundraising, she tells me later, wherever it is, she is committed to sending her kids there.
Plenty of people think none of this is ever gonna work. Some have rejected the process completely. But Itoco always says - look at all the people staying in the conversation.
GARCIA: Over 60 people. That is a fabulous percentage in the realm of community engagement.
MARIANNE: All he has to do is get the white parents in the room to enroll in the school they’re creating, and he’s a big step closer to satisfying the desegregation order.
KAI: And to me, that's the irony of this whole situation: It’s still all about the white people. Just as it was way back in the 19th century, during Reconstruction. The 14th Amendment said everybody gets equal opportunity. But all these generations later, equality for the black and brown kids at Bayside still depends on whether white parents agree to participate. Which made me think more about Jeremiah Moultrie. As this district wrings its hands over desegregation, Marianne told me that Jeremiah has done something I found, once again very familiar. He’s figured out how to go get the resources of the white world for himself.
MARIANNE: Jeremiah is in High School now. He goes to Marin Catholic - a parochial high school with a great reputation. He’s one of a dozen black kids in the entire school. So it’s a big change from his years at Bayside MLK.
MOULTRIE: Before, I don't think for like 10 years I've ever had a conversation with a white person my age.
MARIANNE: His new school was rough at first. Academically.
MOULTRIE: I did horrible.
MARIANNE: And the culture shock.
MOULTRIE: All right, here's a good analogy, say like, you're a bag of chips, right? And you're in the store and you're always with the chips. It's like somebody comes and picks you up and like they just set you down in the cookie section. It's like, I've always seen the cookies down the aisle but I’ve never been with the cookies in their little section in the grocery store.
MARIANNE: So now, in order to get what he wants and needs now - he has to code switch.
MOULTRIE: So I try to put on a different face, like, for everything I'm doing. So, yeah.
MARIANNE in interview: So in this interview, which part of you are you being?
MOULTRIE: The mature me? The me that's like trying to get ready for a job interview? Or something like that. Yeah. I'm trying to be as articulate as possible. During this interview you see the Jeremiah, the scholar. Jeremiah, you know, the intelligent person.
KAI: We’re gonna keep coming back to Marin City throughout this season, hanging out with these families as their school system tries to solve the problem Reconstruction left behind. But next week, we look at the election itself.
KAI: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios.
This episode was reported and produced by Marianne McCune.
It was edited by Christopher Werth and Karen Frillman, who is also our Executive Producer. Cayce Means is our technical director. Our team also includes Emily Botien, Jenny Casas, Jessica Miller, and Veralyn Williams. With help from Kim Nowacki and Michelle Harris. Our theme music is written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Brand.
And hey, listen, stay in touch. You can hit me up on twitter, @kai_wright. And, if you really wanna show the love, please, please, please leave us a review in your podcast app. It really helps others find us. Thanks for listening.