Code Switching and Race: Impact of busing for school integration

In the dreary rays of dawn, Interlock’s camera-laden drone hovers above buses full of METCO students. They travel the same highways from Boston to affluent suburbs as over thirty thousand students have done since the METCO program began more than fifty years ago.

Code-Switching follows five African – American students, spanning two generations, who signed up for voluntary busing to attend better-resourced suburban schools. METCO, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, has been a wonderful experiment that has helped more inner city youth attend college while diversifying suburban schools.

For some students however, shuttling between Boston’s ethnic neighborhoods and predominantly white suburban schools has not been seamless, especially for the girls.  Typically, girls do not experience the same athlete-hero status as many of their male peers. They may face the burdens of both ostracization back home and feelings of isolation in their adopted schools. This has led to anxiety and depression and in extreme cases even attempted suicide.

Social media can compound their troubles, again, especially for girls. Platforms like After School and Swilfie are double-edged swords in students’ social lives. Facilitating positive communication and connection, these anonymous apps also enable classmates to gossip about their own social status or that of other students on a continuous basis.

Pressures to “act white” or even “act more black” are common for participants, who struggle to bridge the gap between home life and school culture. In the process, they quickly learn to act and speak differently depending on the venue.

For some of our characters, this ‘code-switching’ brought social and professional mobility.  But for others, the sometimes duplicitous nature of code-switching may be harder to handle.

“Ronald Settles” – A miscreant and the main character of Code-Switching, Ronald is not a METCO success story by traditional measures.  An early METCO participant, he later served nearly six years in prison for assault and battery after the fact, in the context of a murder. Nonetheless Ronald’s dedication to his three daughters and a steady career growing his family’s beauty-supply business ring of success.

“Ricky Settles” – A defier of stereotypes, Ricky is described as articulate and bright.  To his classmates he represented the inner city, though his main concerns beyond academia were anime and Manga. He joined the basketball team but quit due  to his social anxiety. While his Lexington schoolmates  expected he could rap, he couldn’t carry a tune.

“Fatima Sidibe” – Now a METCO senior at Swampscott High, Fatima is a first-generation American whose father hails from Sierra Leone. Driven and ambitious, she works at the aquarium, is pursuing a career in STEM, has joined the Anti-Defamation League and wants to someday work with  the Swampscott Police Department to combat racism. Her path to these accomplishments was filled with struggles, depression and self-harm.

“Kandice Sumner” – Though Kandice had her own share of angst and alienation, she went on to be Weston High’s senior class president. Serving as a black educator/role model that she did not have until attending Spelman College, she teaches in the Boston Public Schools. She’s pursuing a PhD in urban educational policy. Her intended thesis is an autoethnography focusing on long term consequences of racial experiences in developmental years.

“Robert Parris” – Banker by day, fashion photographer by night, Robert says METCO taught him how to operate in both black and white cultures. As an early era METCO student, he considered himself a player and boasted that he could “sell anything to anyone.”  No doubt, Jamal has pizzazz, but we wonder what lies underneath and if a lifetime of code-switching has left an imprint.

The METCO program seeks to alleviate educational inequities, and as a derivative function, to address social, economic and racial injustices in its partner schools.  At its half-century mark, it’s a worthy exercise to reflect on the progress that METCO has made. The recollections and opinions contributed by the diverse characters in Code-Switching add their voices to this healthy discourse.

The making of Code-Switching has been quite an adventure. We are honored to team up with businessman Howard Wolk and Michael Mascoll of LEV Media.  Katani Sumner was a heavy-hitter with her adjunct producing.  Red Sky Studios graciously provided a dynamic, well-equipped set and the documentary talents of Erik Angra and lensman Johann Grimm pulled together the filming with panache.