Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Runnin' Away, to Get Away

The public school system where I grew up has changed considerably. Now it is home to a substantial minority population of African-Americans and Latinos. When I was there, the demographics were somewhere around 90% white, maybe even a little more. Two years after my high school graduation, one young black man stabbed another to death in the hallway by the lockers. Both of the participants had been moved from the inner city to suburbia, seeking superior academics and fleeing the depressing lack of opportunity. The grudge they held against each other was somewhat well-known, but no one would have expected jock power plays to turn deadly.

It is possible to educate those who have grown up in the projects, but it is difficult to make up for lost time. It takes a particular kind of committed student willing to do it, especially when they are three and even four years behind grade level. Parental compliance and assistance with their child’s homework is essential to keep kids in school and out of trouble. The concept of year round school has often been suggested to prevent children from failing to retain what they’ve learned during the school year. Summer break on year-round school lasts no more than 4-6 weeks and has proven to be extremely effective for its intended purpose.

If only this situation could be easily solved by the easiest possible course of action. Public schools are finding it increasingly difficult to know how to enforce rules and discipline among problem students, many of whom are young black men from the inner city. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Work that spans and confronts racial identity, not to mention cultural expectations always is. Schools have become de facto parents for eight hours a day, five days a week. In the inner city, the priority is discipline, not education.

Responding to this, some whites have decided to leave and to go their own way. The motives of some are transparently tribal, a discomfort around people who are not like them. Others worry, rightly or wrongly, about a decrease in property values that would be created if the area grew rougher. Regardless of motive, this is difficult work, and many white people simply don't want to do it.

These are the reasons why white families have resegregated their children into private schools that are mostly white. My father’s high school alma mater is now nearly 100 % black. In the South and in nearly every single one of the United States, we are still responding to the unrest of 1968. We have never put behind us the urge to build a fortress and lock out the people who can’t afford the prohibitive cost.

Runnin' away
To get away
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
You're wearing out your shoes
Look at you foolin' you
Making blues of night and day
Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee!
You're stretching out your dues
Look at you fooling you
The shorter cut is quicker but
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Time is here to stay
Look at you fooling you
         The deeper in debt
The harder you bet
Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee!
Need more room to play
Look at you fooling you
Another day
You're farther away
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
A longer trip back home

Sly and the Family Stone, 1971

And we wonder why Ferguson, Missouri, turned out the way it did. Part of the issue is money and funding. "Money is always there," said Gertrude Stein, "but the pockets change." What kept my school system affluent and myself well-educated was the tax revenue from a very large nearby shopping center. Inner city schools don’t have these resources available to them. But money alone is not enough. We have to be personally invested in the lives of children, especially those who are not just our own.

Failing schools are only partially a result of a lack of capital. In the Great Society, we learned that throwing money at a problem is no guarantee of its success. If we truly lived in a socialistic government, we’d fund education for everyone, along with universal health care. Though public school is supposed to be free, nearly every parent who takes their child to registration learns that there are always hidden costs. This might be an opportunity to know those unlike us, but we don’t want to know our neighbors, especially if their skin color differs from ours, and particularly if they were raised in a different social class.

I went to a college football game when I was five. It was the first time I had been around African-Americans in large numbers. The stadium was adjacent to a neighborhood that had been vacated by white flight. We parked in the front and back yards of local residents who appreciated the extra cash, and no doubt wished the opportunity came more regularly. I must admit I was terrified, having been told to be afraid of black people. I don’t know who told me to be fearful, but even at that young age, I was tempted to flee.

My father noticed my discomfort. He lowered himself down to my level and said a phrase I’ve never forgotten. Don’t worry. They’re just as scared of you as you are of them.

I’ll let someone else judge the veracity of the statement. Years later, in the wrong context, those very same fears might lead to a confrontation between myself and someone who is just as scared of me as I am him. We do not know each other, but that is no excuse. We can’t keep running away, to get away. It starts now, before another televised trial that does nothing more than ratchet up the debate and volume to epic proportions again, as if we’re somehow privy to watching a slow-motion reenactment of a lynching.

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