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Welcome to our little Minne-ssissippi
A couple of nights ago I had a quick conversation about our public schools with a kind and tender-hearted man. He knew I had served on the Minneapolis Board of Education and asked what I thought the issues were now. When I mentioned that just a week ago high school graduations rates were released, and for African Americans and Latinos it was better in Mississippi than Minnesota, he froze. His face became a display of sincere bewilderment.
"How can that be?" he asked with a pained tone.
It's a great question.
Minnesota is a pride bound state even if we pretend we're not braggy about it. False humility only barely covers our recounting of the many things for which "we're number one." In education we lead most states in the high production of white students scoring well on the ACT. We score high amongst states for livability, number of college graduates, percentage of women in the workforce, per capita theater seats, bike trails, and parks.
But you already know that. As Minnesotans we have an overweening sense of self that makes comparisons between us and the supposed lower rank of the mossy Mississippi delta absurd.
So then, how can it be that the African American graduation rate is 49% in Minnesota and 68% in Mississippi? And, why is the gap even wider for Latino students at 51% in Minnesota, and 75% in Mississippi?
You would expect education leaders to rush for soap boxes and to speak boldly about how unacceptable these outcomes are. But, with a few exceptions, it's been pretty quiet.
In a Facebook exchange with a 20 year veteran Minneapolis Public Schools teacher, I called this a national embarrassment for Minnesota. Her response says everything you need to know about why our nation-leading racialized gap in educational outcomes persists:
"I don't think it's a national embarrassment, I think we serve lots of students with so many issues outside school that they don't come to school prepared, Maslow's hierarchy etc., anyone in the classroom day to day, year after year knows the trauma so many students bring to school that are hampering learning, both for the individual student and often times their peers."
What this response should illustrate is the extent to which cultural insulation and liberal maternalism have created a teflon shield against responsibility, ownership, or urgency on behalf of perishing students of color.
How can you solve a problem if you never can admit that you have one?
She goes on to say...
"I am actually not too bothered about the "achievement gap" on one level for this reason: MN serves many people in need, as well as many immigrants whose first language is not English, many seeking financial benefits due to poverty, and obviously with the level of trauma, learning suffers. And guess what, these conditions make for poor test results, graduation rates, etc.. We may have a poor graduation rates, but I bet if stats counted graduation rates beyond the 4 year point, we'd look better."
When a veteran educator is "not too bothered" about the news that she lives in a state where historically oppressed people are doing more poorly than the rest of the nation it is an issue. When none of her colleagues in the forum challenge her at all, it is a scandal.
There is something very alluring about the ingratiating liberal empathy for "people in need" who are just too poor, hungry, and traumatized to learn. It at once allows bleeding hearts to express emotions that sound quite humane while also protecting inhumanities in parallel to those on record in Mississippi's woeful history.
Do our great Minnesota educators that excuse gaps in achievement by lamenting poverty know that Mississippi is exceedingly poor? During slavery it was in the top five wealthiest states, however, it has ranked amongst the poorest since post-reconstruction.
At some point Mississippi - like post war Germany - was indicted for their inequalities. Even as they cartooned themselves as superior human beings, and blamed away the systemic injustices experienced by their victims, the world called them out for their atrocious human rights abuses.
Now, black and brown students in the cotton belt are graduating at higher rates than in Humphrey's land of milk and smarmy.
The right of children to an education is internationally recognized by the United Nations. Of course there are many places where this right is not recognized, but Minnesota should not be one of them.
So, back to the kind gentleman with the earnest question about "how can this be?" He represents the Minnesota we all think we embody. His response was urgent, demanding, and almost incredulous. There was no doubt that black and brown performance below Mississippi's is an embarrassment that must change. In his voice there was the assumption that we are better than this, and his warm sympathy affirmed Minnesota's trademark goodness.
However, we also face a predictable and defensive response from hardened and salted stalwarts of the current system that cover their hostility in the soft and billowy fleece of white gentility. Our dear educator from Facebook instructs us to believe that even raising the question about inequitable outcomes is an offense against the unimpeachable white female vocation of teaching.
"This all shames the students and the teachers and staff who work with them, and anyone really concerned should get to a school an commit to volunteer some time each week, month, anything, because when they quit blaming the teachers, staff and teacher training programs, they will come back to the real culprit, and that is greed and poverty."
In past times, Mississippians blamed the lowly status of African Americans on blacks themselves. Even as they lorded over systems rigged in favor to privilege white society, they redirected the conversation to the supposed deficiencies of their victims. Any attempt to speak of the humanity of blacks instantly made you anti-white, and you were quickly ushered to out-group status.
Today, in Minnesota, where everyone is above average, we have similar vanities at play.
Superior dominant culture. Check.
Supposed inferior people experiencing unjust outcomes. Check.
Blaming the victim. Check.
Welcome to Minnessippi. Just be gone by sundown.