No Easy Answers

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You go to a community gathering; you believe that the speaker, a white male, will listen and take you, a white woman, and your friends in: black and white men, black and white women. And he does, for a moment, but he seems to be crouching there, waiting to spring with his response. To give him credit, he lets us talk and even nods his head and affirms us. Yet he dominates the room. I wanted a circle, I wanted him to end the cyclic way his words came back and back and back to integration as the only solution to educational reform. He is a tall man and stands above the rest of us and he paces and he points and he is trying so hard to hear us. But damn! He already has the answer, if only we would agree.

At one point in my life I believed integrating our schools was going to be a solution. I believed that if we just got these kids together they would get along and they would flourish. I also believed that once they walked in the door they would stay together, mixing in classes and in the hallways and lunchrooms and on the playing field. It did not take long to understand that so much more was needed. It did not take long to see that schools would define, within their walls, who was gifted and who was average, who was smart and who was less intelligent, who was trouble and who was on a trajectory to succeed, even go on to college. The white kids had a much higher chance to be on that college trajectory. It did not take me long to grasp the complex way economics plays into this, the segregation of neighborhoods, the power some white parts of the city had over the entire district.

It struck me that the integration was going one way: black kids were being bused out. Very few white kids were bused in to the north side of neighborhoods.

For awhile, with Summa Tech at North High as well as the Arts Magnet we had some true exchange among white and black parts of the city. Yet even then, we had programs like AP English and History, that were filled with white students in a school that was at least 60% African American. We had segregation within the walls of our other high schools as well. At South the Academic Magnet and often the Open program were primarily white, while at Roosevelt the number of black kids were enrolled in Special Ed at higher levels than their percentage in the population. Each one of our” integrated” high schools had a way of making sure certain groups of kids remained separated from each other.

We can go on about why this continues to be the case. I believe it has to do with a Eurocentric curriculum that makes no effort to truly present many perspectives through literature or history, combined with a rigid testing regimen that makes it hard for students to pass. I believe our failure in education is driven by the Eurocentric point of view that pervades the colleges man of our students want to go to, thus assuring that such a limited curriculum will continue to dominate our high schools. I believe there is a school to prison pipeline, starting with referrals of black students for services to Special Education for Emotionally Disturbed because they may talk out more, or move around the room more. I do believe that there are some children who need a calmer setting, a smaller classroom, but the subjective nature of these referrals leads me to the conclusion that our schools are over referring young black boys at early ages into our segregated programs. At the same time we do not provide the conditions and curriculum that could allow them to engage in “gifted” classes whether they are AP, IB or pull out sessions. I believe

teachers need work to understand their own bias, their own role in this, and how white privilege plays a subtle and insidious bias in their teaching and in how they view their students. I know teachers who reflect on this; they succeed, especially after some years of experience and hard work, after going the late night meetings and early morning parent interviews. I believe that poverty plays a huge part in how our children do in school. Health care, good jobs, excellent housing, integrated neighborhoods, technological equity, community supports, are all required for our students to have a chance at what the most well off students assume is their right.

None of this will be fixed by merely transporting bodies in the front and back doors of our school buildings. Without radical change to the white supremacist structure of this country, from the colleges to the high schools to the grade schools, students of color will not feel welcome and nurtured. They will not be expected to do great things. To insist from an elevated position at the front of a room, that you know what it takes, and that involves primarily sending black children out of their home turf to suburban schools or urban schools in more wealthy neighborhoods across the city, is unfair to your audience and to the importance of the entrenched way our schools are embedded into a racist city.

Forgive me if I don’t jump on that integration bandwagon. I would rather work with teachers, and principals, supporting those men and women who are already trying to change their schools from the inside out, than opt for a single issue solution. I would rather listen to the community members, the parents and activists, sitting in the room than the single man at the front who is sure he knows what is best for us all, black and white. Maybe when we integrate neighborhoods some real

difference will come about. Yet Even then, we would need to keep an eye on what floor, what classroom , the brown and black children sit in, learn in, are assigned to. Vigilance would still be required.

There are those who will say I am not hard enough on teachers. I have worked my whole life to change the way our schools think and teach and change in order to provide equity in our classrooms. I have advocated that we remove poor teachers more quickly, that we provide time to train teachers with in-depth work in multi cultural, professional development, in order to recognize white supremacy in every aspect of this profession. I have taken heat from unions, from other teachers, from friends and from undergraduates in my college classes for this work. I will not, however, lay the blame on teachers for what has been perpetrated on our cities and our schools. I will not demand that teachers who are now facing forty students a day in our high schools, thus teaching at least two hundred kids a day, try to do anything but devise challenging curriculum, expect great things, respond to their work and develop what relationships they can with their students. I will not buy into solutions that are themselves one issue, anti union answers to the complex, messy education we have here.

If we can start with the idea that there is no one answer, if we can “not know” as we listen to others and thus take in their words and thoughts, and if we can lose our defenses in order to do this, we can get into the deep waters of our heritage and our history. We don’t need any more white men telling us what it takes without the

One thought on “No Easy Answers

  1. There seems to be a lot of anger in this piece, some of which was evident
    during the discussion we had as a group at the meeting referred to in this piece. During the meeting,
    I was not saying desegregation alone is the answer; nor did I suggest that
    desegregation means busing children in one direction (or even that
    desegregation is about busing). These views attributed to me by the
    writer of this piece are not correct, and I was clear about my views during the meeting.

    With regard to segregation, I said at the meeting that in
    America, there will not be meaningful social progress or true educational
    justice if we continue to segregate our schools. On that point, I will
    not back down and I will not apologize for my strong advocacy. I am well
    aware that many other “advocates” and “experts,” including apparently the
    writer of this piece, would prefer to claim that their negatively construed
    concept of school desegregation will never “work.” With regard to that
    perspective, I have three responses: 1) they are inappropriately limiting and
    misconstruing desegregation in a way that I do not agree with; 2) when school
    desegregation was implemented across the country in the 1970s, it was by no
    means “perfect” (to say the least!), yet it still resulted in meaningful
    improvement in social justice and educational outcomes for the vast majority of
    children who experienced it; and 3) I am inclined to question why those
    “advocates” and “experts” so fear allowing true desegregation to be part of a
    holistic, anti-racist, inclusive solution to public education. As I
    mentioned during the meeting, if kids generally do not believe they should be
    assigned to schools based on skin color and family income, why do many adult
    “experts” and “advocates” seem to hold that view?

    This entire subject of educational/social injustice is one that
    brings up strong feelings for many people, as it should. I have learned
    over many years of public advocacy around issues of social justice, including
    advocacy for desegregated public education, that I will be targeted by smears
    from people who have a variety of agendas. Some feel threatened by what I
    say; others feel threatened by the way I say it; yet others do not like that I
    am the one saying what I say. If I offend a person by being insensitive
    to that person, I am always willing to apologize. On the other hand, if
    my views about the importance of desegregated public education offend others, I
    do not apologize for those views (or for being a person willing to speak out
    about those views). My response is largely determined by the willingness
    of the other person to engage in a respectful dialogue with me.
    For those interested in a provocative exploration of issues related to school reform and educational justice, I suggest you read my novel, “Minnissippi.”

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