I’m Dreaming of An (All-)White Classroom – Leonardo Tondelli

This is the second of two articles by Leonardo Tondelli on the subject of the “immigrant quotas” established recently in Italian public schools by the Minister of Education, Mariastella Gelmini. Part One, “Alvin and the Immigrant Student Quota” is available here.


I’m Dreaming of An (All-)White Classroom
by Leonardo Tondelli
English translation by Wendell Ricketts
[Read the original in Italian here.]

A kindergarten in Luzzara (Province of Reggio Emilia) 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.

January 25, 2010

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