in response to ‘the atlantic’: five ways to be part of the solution to little rock’s segregation problem

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Thursday, April 28th, 2016

little rock segregation central high school

in response to ‘the atlantic’: five ways to be part of the solution to little rock’s segregation problem

[quick note: it’s been just shy of a year since i’ve posted anything to this cobweb-covered blog other than music stuff. this will likely be my last non-music post…but more on that hopefully soon-ish. this issue is bigger than a tweet or 140 characters, so i took some time to collect and share some thoughts on this particularly important topic.]

yesterday, the atlantic published a piece profiling the persistent segregation in little rock schools 60 years after central high’s integration. few journalistic pieces have been able to capture the reality of our city’s problem as succinctly and as adeptly as alana semuels has done. the aspect i was so impressed by was her insight beyond the halls of the schools themselves. she very accurately drew a straight line from the segregation of our schools (where only 18% of LRSD students are white…just let that sink in…) to the self-segregation of our neighborhoods (where I-630 serves as a hard line between whites and people of color).

i’m not gonna recap all the findings and conclusions from the atlantic piece, so i encourage you to give it a thorough reading prior to continuing with my post.

as i read through the piece, with each passing sentence and paragraph, i felt my blood pressure climbing. there was absolutely nothing new in that piece and nothing that i haven’t rattled off conversationally myself, but seeing it delivered that well in a national publication made the shame and anger of it much more palpable and real. the secret’s out, little rock friends.

but the part that makes it the most frustrating is that it’s no secret here in little rock. we all know it.

and we don’t care.

we don’t talk about it. we don’t acknowledge it. we excuse it. we justify it. we assume it’s someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem. we act like it’s normal. we dare not bring it up in polite conversation. we’ve added it to the non-discussable list with religion and politics.

but now, my friends, the atlantic has outed us. our city’s secret shame is national news. so how about we lead the conversation instead of hiding from it.

truth be told, i’d much prefer to just write an angry, scathing post. that’s honestly how i’ve felt about this for a very long time. rather than that, though, i hope to be a part of the solution. (important note: i don’t want to dismiss the fact that sincere, righteous anger is a healthy and necessary part of what eventually leads to substantive social change.)

the solutions aren’t easy and i want to be clear that i’m not even remotely close to having this figured out, but there’s 5 ways i think we can begin to reshift and redefine our shared values as a city that begins to fix our sin of segregation.

1. admit our own racism

let’s just start off with an uncomfortable whammy, shall we?

i’ll start: i’m racist. i wish i wasn’t, but i am.

if i see a group of black males dressed a certain way coming my way, i’m likely to cross to the other side of the street. recently someone described their experience at a prison ministry and i asked if there were any white guys (turns out 12 of 15 attendees were white). i’ve often caught myself talking about poor people and using it almost interchangeably with black people. the list could go on and on. and frankly, if someone were a fly in the wall in my life, they’d probably catch things that i’m not self aware of.

and here’s the thing: you’re also racist.

much like myself, i doubt you burn crosses in yards or lynch black people or refuse to share water fountains with a black person.

but that’s not really how racism works.

years ago, the thing that radically changed the way i view race/racism differently was a piece by a black, female theologian who suggested that racism is no longer a check-yes-or-no question, but a “how racist are you?” question. (i really hate to say that i can’t remember the writer’s name or the name of the piece…despite years of googling…) she suggested a racism continuum on which every single person finds themselves. certainly, some folks have progressed a long way on that continuum, but we never escape it. no one becomes that enlightened or above those deeply-ingrained prejudices, despite our best intentions.

so let’s de-stigmatize the conversation of racism and begin to come to terms that our school choices, our neighborhood choices and many of the ways we’ve positioned our lives are rooted in racism. yes, “safe neighborhoods” and “better schools” are racist code words. let’s admit that. if we continue to wall up and deny that, we can’t be part of the solution.

2. admit we’re part of the problem

let’s talk amongst ourselves, white folks. and let’s keep it super real.

if we live in a predominantly (or all) white neighborhood (likely north of I-630), we’re part of the problem.

if we place our child(ren) in a predominantly/disproportionately white school (a.k.a. doesn’t come close to reflecting the racial demographics of our city), we’re part of the problem.

if our families aren’t in “normalized” and regular relationships and community with people whose skin is a different tone than ours, we’re part of the problem.

yes, these are incredibly uncomfortable things to say and uncomfortable things to admit. but we have to do this. we have to take personal responsibility for the segregation of our schools and our city.

years ago, our family realized we were part of the problem with where we lived. so, we moved from the quapaw quarter to the dunbar neighborhood, one of the few historically black neighborhoods in little rock (and currently about 98% black). we were literally warned by a cop and an EMT that we shouldn’t move there because it was an unsafe neighborhood. now, over 6 years later, we love our home and our neighborhood and we’ve enjoyed getting to know our neighbors and learning about the rich history of this area. the truth is that as the only white people, we’re still, 6 years later, in the process of earning peoples’ trust and cautiously building bridges, but it’s been an experience that has helped us to see our city and the world radically different.

i’d love to say that you should sell your home and immediately move to our neighborhood, but that’s not a realistic immediate step for most people. so, starting by admitting we’re part of the problem is a way to begin to have an honest evaluation of how we can become a part of the solution.

3. stop thinking our life choices can be separated from our espoused life values

we all know the age-old cliche, do as i say, not as i do. there’s a similar ethic, though, that’s far more pervasive and unquestioned throughout our society. the idea that our most fundamental life choices are wholly separate from the values we instill in our children is a particularly curious phenomenon.

so what do i mean?

we live in parts of town where black people don’t live.
we spend our most formative years being educated in environments where there are virtually no black people.
we put our kids in social activities/organizations in which black people don’t participate.
we attend places of worship where only people who look like us are present.

but we tell our kids that everyone is equal.
we tell our kids that there’s never a reason to treat anyone differently.
many of us align ourselves with political stances that place equality and care for the poor on a pedestal.

these realities are at conflict with each other. they can’t coexist. one set of values trumps the other. we can’t have it both ways.

the way we position our lives is an incredibly powerful implicit lesson that we teach our children every single day. our rhetoric of equality is white noise in comparison.

we should all pause to consider if these things are in harmony or in direct conflict. if it’s the latter, bringing those things into alignment is a natural next step that has pretty significant consequences on how we live our lives.

4. broaden your definition of education

so often, when i have these conversations with people, their primary reasoning for how they’ve positioned their lives is school test scores. the problems with that starting point are twofold:

  1. it assumes test scores are inherently connected to the school itself (teachers, administration, etc.), rather than racial, family and socioeconomic issues beyond the school.
  2. it assumes test scores are a complete or even primary reflection of whether or not students are being educated and prepared for life as an adult.

on literally a daily basis, we see the effects of outside forces on kids’ lives that make the educational process incredibly challenging and nearly impossible to be successful.

a year or so ago we befriended a poor, single mom who’s mentally ill. her 1st grade child stays up half the night and she more often than not gets him to school literally hours late. at school, he sleeps most of the day and consequently, he’s behind in learning, despite having a teacher who we know to be one of the best and most accomplished teachers in the school.

a teacher friend of ours keeps food in her desk (against school rules) and secretly gives it to kids in the morning who she knows only have food to eat during school hours.

that same teacher somewhat regularly secretly buys clothes for kids because they only have a single outfit that they wear every single day to school (most often unwashed).

a few years ago, in our daughter’s kindergarten class, i knew of at least 3 students (and that’s just who i knew of) whose fathers were either currently in prison or just recently released.

thought experiment: how do you think those kids do on standardized testing? how do you think they do with peer interactions? how do you think they do with the basic things that help determine a students’ academic success?

the bigger issue, though, is that our definition of what education is is so narrow. let me put it very clearly and succinctly: you cannot be properly educated and prepared for life beyond school (you know, which is the goal) in a culturally and racially homogeneous school environment. you just can’t.

holistic education requires diversity. diversity of race. diversity of culture. diversity of point-of-view. diversity of problem-solving.

knowing algebra is critical, but only gets you so far. knowing the scientific process can’t be diminished, but it doesn’t set you up for success. have a firm grasp on world and american history helps us to have a foundational understanding of the world around us, but its application is limited with just book knowledge.

getting the test questions correct doesn’t prepare us to work alongside people who are very different than us. graduating from a prestigious private school doesn’t teach us to have a generative empathy with the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. being able to rattle off the pythagorean theorem doesn’t equip us to work together with people whose class or social standing makes them see the world in radically different ways than us.

being educated in an environment that not only has racial and socioeconomic diversity but celebrates it produces adults who are empathetic. it produces adults who understand compromise. who have learned different social problem-solving techniques. who make room for the voices of people of color and the voices of poor people. who recognize institutional racism and seek out ways to be a part of the solution. who foster generative friendships across a broader spectrum of race and socioeconomic circumstances.

the odds of becoming those things when your most formative years are spent walled off from anyone who is different than you are next to nothing.

5. see beyond your child(ren)

for the people in my life with whom i’ve had this conversation before (many time over), they probably want to tune out about now. 😉 (because they know this is a soapbox that i’m quick to mount.) there are few things that shape my values as a citizen and a parent as much as the value of avoiding making family and life decisions based solely on my own child(ren).

with very few exceptions, when i have conversations about school choice with people, towards the end of the conversation, i’m told the following: “i hear ya and i mostly agree, but ultimately, i have to do what’s best for my child.”

as citizens of this country (this state, this county, this city…), we’re a part of a great social contract. that social contract requires us to sacrifice for the greater good. we pay taxes. we follow laws. we support a variety of social services. we vote in a democratic way. we do these things because we understand that left to our own vices, the short-term gain of getting our way would be satisfying, but it would be disastrous for a strong, functioning society.

public schools are one of of the most core, vital aspects of our social contract. we understand that educating our society is absolutely critical to our nation’s success and very foundation. literally all parts of society are better when people are educated. we have more people in the workforce. we have less crime. we have less drug use and addiction. we have more tax revenue. we have more satisfied and fulfilled people. we have more acceptance of others and openness to new ways of thinking. we know this is what education does.

so when we pull out of that part of the social contract, it makes it weak. when all but 18% of white families pull their kids out of public schools, its foundation begins to crumble.

it abandons every other kid who doesn’t truly have an alternative. most people can’t afford a private school. most peoples’ lives aren’t positioned in a way that makes most charters a viable option. their option is the free option that’s down the street from them or near their job.

abandoning public schools sends a very strong message: my child is more important than yours. good luck on your own. as long as my kid is taken care of, i don’t really care about your kid. i need to make sure my kid is set up for success, even if yours isn’t.

except that’s such an incredibly short-sighted viewpoint. as cliche as it is, we’re only as strong as our weakest link. guess what? your kid’s future is also the abandoned kids’ future. they share it. it’s inescapable. so your kid is good at math and science? great. but he’s gonna bear the burden of the abandoned and left-behind kid who’s in prison or who can’t get a job or is an addict or who has to turn to crime or who’s on welfare.

that’s the future you’re preparing your child for with great academics? i’m not interested in that future.

i want my kid to grow up alongside people who are different and people who have long odds at success in life. they can all rise together. they can all be better in the long run because they did it together. that’s what it’s gonna take.

abandonment is a lose-lose for every single person. your child included.

ok, i’m shutting up.

this manifesto has rambled on long enough… 😉

i hope these 5 things are a starting point for at least some level of honest, personal reflection for each and every one of us. it’s not the solution…but a step toward the solution. the truth is that the actual solutions require much more actionable, uncomfortable steps, but we can’t get there until we’re more honest with ourselves about our role in creating the problem.

little rock is a great city that i truly love, but we have a deeply shameful problem. our most fundamental sin is that we’ve segregated both our schools and our neighborhoods…and we act like it’s ok. it’s not. it’s wrong. it’s sinful. but we have the power to change it if we decide to. let’s work together, friends, to make it better.