I live in Brooklyn but, since this is not only a Brooklyn story, let’s start with New Jersey. Two developments catch my attention. The first is an effort by the state’s Department of Education to “take over” the public schools in Newark, the state’s largest city and home to its largest black population. A long report details evidence of mismanagement and poor performance. Perhaps most revealingly, the report concludes that the failures of the Newark public schools are not due to a lower level of funding than that provided to wealthier school districts. Indeed, the funding level for Newark is the same as that for Princeton, a town that is admired for the quality of its schools (it’s also the home of a local university).
The second is a report from Montclair, a medium-sized suburban town about twenty minutes due west of Manhattan. Montclair, according to a report in The New York Times of August 11, 1994, has been celebrated as an integration success story: its population is recorded as being 48 percent white, 45 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic and Asian. Even its schools are integrated. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the classrooms are not integrated. The contrasts are remarkable. More than 85 percent of the students enrolled in remedial classes are black or Hispanic. But 76 percent of students in an eighth grade gifted program are white. Similar patterns even existed in elementary schools; one class had 17 white students and 1 black child. (All figures from The New York Times, 8/11/94).
The question that I want to tackle is HOW. How can there be race without racism? How can there be race without racist funding? How can there be race without bad intentions? I’m especially interested in talking about the roles of many individuals who were active in politics during the 1960’s but who now work in various professions.
More or less, I remember growing up with the idea of progress – although I have to admit that a lot of that idea was influenced by the advertising campaigns that were launched by Nelson Rockefeller in his efforts to remain governor of New York. I especially remember a TV ad where happy fish were jumping out of the water to tell about how he had cleaned up the river. If fish could be happy and a rich Republican like Rockefeller could want them to be happy, we surely must have been making progress.
I don’t remember a single time when my parents tried to teach me anything of the sort. As I’ve written about previously, they mostly taught me to believe. And they also taught me to help people – without ever thinking that it made me a better person. I spent more than a few days of my childhood following my father around to houses of friends of his mother’s to help out. Helping out meant things like washing windows – with buckets of water and newspapers (I guess it was before WINDEX – although, knowing my father, I’m not sure that he would have used WINDEX even if he could have). Lest I be misunderstood, I think that parents are not nearly as responsible for the ways in which their kids turn out as most everyday conversations suggest. I especially don’t like it when other adults imply that I and/or my wife are to be congratulated for how well behaved our kids are.
No, I made of my parents’ contributions what I would and they should not be held responsible for the outcome. By way of illustration – when I was a senior in high school, I applied to three Catholic colleges and to Brooklyn College, a part of the City University of New York (where I now work). I was accepted at all four. I remember my mother advising me that I couldn’t go to Brooklyn College since, if I went there, I would become a communist. I don’t remember if I ever wanted to go to Brooklyn College, but, in any case, I went to Manhattan College (a Catholic men’s college in the Bronx, and the alma mater of Rudolph Giuliani – the current mayor of New York) and you’ll never guess what happened. I’ve teased my mother about this but it’s hardly the most important thing on her mind. In fact, my politics don’t matter so much to her at all. What does matter is how responsible I seem – in other words, how are the kids?
“How are the kids?” Such a good question. Because how the kids are is maybe how the world will be. I know a lot of people with kids. I work with them; I live in the same neighborhood as some of them, and I obviously send my kids to the same schools as some of them. And, of course, we talk about our kids. I like telling stories about mine – often enough that they wish I would stop.
But sadly, at a number of points in my conversations with other parents, a quiet enters into the encounter. It usually happens when the other parent says something about how hard they thought about some decision they’re making – about moving to the suburbs or about sending a child to private school – and about how hard it was (since, I often imagine, he or she interprets it as a surrender). The parent goes on to explain that, after all, he or she “wants the best” for the child and the alternatives (of staying in the city or sending the child to public school) were more or less awful. I hardly ever respond – that’s why it’s quiet. I don’t really know what to say. I work hard with and for my kids – I bother them much too much. I too want the best for my kids. But what is this “best?”
I’m not ready to so narrowly define “the best” that I can leave out of the picture what’s going on in the world as a whole. I still can’t really believe that either my son or my two daughters have already learned that men rape women. I would have preferred it by far that they never had to learn it. I would love their childhoods to be innocent ones. But I don’t control the world, do I? Since my wife and I are seldom inclined to shield them from the ugliness and pain that’s out there, we and they suffer the consequences of them knowing how bad it is. But, to their constant amazement, I keep on insisting that it could be different.
I really do want them to live in a better word than the one I grew up in. But everywhere I look, I see signs that their world will be worse than mine. That’s different, I know, than their “personal” lives. It’s possible, I guess, that they will be able to carve out a respectable and comfortable life. They might even dedicate their lives to helping people – they might become nurses, teachers, loving parents, helpful neighbors and all that I might want. But the world will be worse. And that’s not what I want to leave them.
Too many times in the past year, I have heard men who are my contemporaries laughingly recall the times when they were crazy. They are referring, not surprisingly, to the 1960’s (a period of time that lasted from about 1954 to about 1972) and they are talking about their various political involvements in anti-war protests, in support of the black movements of the times, and so forth. I’m also usually silent during these conversations since those 1960’s seem to me to be the time when at least some of us were never saner. We believed, with or without Nelson Rockefeller, that the world we would live in would be a better place. We dreamed dreams of new types of relationships, new types of homes, new types of cities, new ways of life. And we did so, most of all, because we had been prepared to challenge the most enduring reality of things as they are – RACE. But now these many years later, we are not nearly so prepared to challenge race and we most assuredly have abandoned all our dreams.
Worse still, we have become complicit in the reproduction of race as a way of organizing the society. And, in many ways, we do so because we want the best for our children. Several years ago, a battle of sorts erupted in the local school district where my kids have gone to school concerning the operation of a special Gifted Program at the elementary school level. Norm Fruchter, a friend of mine, a school board member and a long-time education activist, was part of a minority of board members supporting a proposal that the district modify its program selection procedures. They did so on the basis of a report prepared by the Superintendent which had indicated that the composition of the Gifted Program was racially imbalanced.
The most striking indicator was that, in a district where only 22% of the kids were white, 81% of the students in the Gifted Program were. This resulted from the combined impact of many more white parents applying for the required pre-kindergarten screening (consisting of an IQ test) and of a higher qualifying rate among white kids. As a concession to those who were concerned about equity, the selection procedure did allow for preferential enrollment of non-white kids who scored above the required threshold 97th percentile on the IQ test. Interestingly, a recent squabble on the same district school board developed when a new member challenged even this modest preference.
To address the inequity, the Superintendent had made several modest proposals – that screening for the Gifted Program occur during rather than before kindergarten and that there be multiple criteria for acceptance rather than a single test score. In any case, the proposal was brought to the school board for consideration. At an open meeting, a couple of hundred overwhelmingly white parents, mostly parents of children in the Gifted Program, testified that they would have none of this. Eventually, the school board voted to reject the Superintendent’s recommendations. It’s not clear whether the members did so because they agreed with the opposing viewpoint or merely because they appreciated the political clout of the parents present. Their public explanations of their position consisted, largely, of protestations that they wished to respond to the wishes of parents. Fruchter has written of how the evening affected him:
Though I’d expected strong opposition, by the evening’s conclusion I was disheartened. I knew many of the parents opposing the change as neighbors, friends and supporters of district-wide educational improvement. I’d counted on their backing during my years on the board, particularly for changes in those schools serving, inadequately, the needs of the district’s majority of Hispanic and Black students. Yet even so small a proposed change in our Gifted Program seemed to force such parents to choose between their perceptions of what their children needed and their commitment to district-wide equity. (unpublished essay)
In the same essay, Norm went on to speculate about the reasons for the parents’ attitudes. He suggested that, from his own perspective of someone whose children were somewhat older and who had attended the district’s schools fifteen years earlier, many of the parents appeared to be much more worried about the economic prospects of their kids and that, as a result, they felt they couldn’t afford to take any chances with mediocre schooling. The irony is that the quality of the schooling offered in the Gifted Program varies from acceptable to awful. In almost no case is the program a center of innovation or imaginative educational practice. Instead, it is a place where kids who, for the most part, do very well on school-like tasks get to go to school with other kids who also do very well on school-like tasks. What this suggests is that what the parents were looking for was not so much good education but rather a good guarantee that their children would eventually find themselves in a good middle school program and a good high school.
Keep in mind that the issue before the school board that evening was not the elimination of the Gifted Program, but rather only a change in the selection procedure. Of course, there were probably some, although apparently quite few, Gifted Program parents who were prepared to endorse the changes in the selection procedure. Unfortunately, they would likely be the parents who, if their child was not selected under the new procedures, would (if they could) opt to send their child to a private school instead.
In any case, I attended a school board meeting held soon after the meeting described above. I asked a long-time board member about the extent of his commitment to giving parents the options they wanted for their kids. I asked if he would be in favor of establishing a whites-only program if parents requested it. He, of course, dismissed the question and said no.
That exchange was immediately followed by a tense, and impassioned, presentation by another board member (this time, a supporter of the proposed changes). She argued that the statistics demonstrated a clear pattern of segregated education in the Gifted Program. She also argued that the pattern reflected a clear failure of the district’s outreach efforts to non-white parents and a profoundly flawed testing procedure – unless one was prepared to accept the idea that non-white children were less intelligent than their white counterparts. She made no converts. Those who wished to maintain the status quo insisted, for the most part, that they harbored no such racist assumptions. The regrettable outcome, they insisted, was not the result of anyone acting in a way to preserve racial advantages. It just happened that way.
But it is no accident that it happened that way. We don’t have to go into a long explanation of the ways in which IQ tests work to understand that they routinely favor some and discriminate against others. We don’t have to go into long explanations of why some folks distrust official mechanisms and are less inclined to apply for special programs. The application process and the test just provide a veneer of neutral objectivity to social practices which systematically structure and reproduce inequality. And both the process and the test are themselves obscured just enough so that it is difficult to understand the ways in which they actually work. As a result, the unfortunate outcomes appear not to have reasons and certainly not reasons that could lead to assigning responsibility to parents, teachers or school board members.
The key to understanding this remarkable lack of responsibility is that most current popular social analysis on the left reduces responsibility to intentionality. So long as no one intends something to be so, he or she has no responsibility for it turning out that way. This type of analysis severs any relationship between our activities in what might be called, in an old-fashioned kind of way, civil society and in the affairs of the state – as voters, advocates or professional workers. Thus, gentrification in a neighborhood like Park Slope, a Brooklyn neighborhood included in the school district discussed above, and its sure-fire accompaniment of homelessness for some have nothing to do with the movement into the neighborhood of numerous members of the ex-movement of the 1960’s. We can live where we want and be advocates for the homeless and critics of governmental inaction. In the case of the schools, we can send our children to elite programs within the public schools or to private schools and be teachers of non-white students in schools and colleges and lamenters of the poor quality of education.
When we do not act forthrightly in the sphere of civil society, that wavering will have consequences that some of us will then be trying to undo in the state sphere – except that our own social class interests will be left untampered with. Class interests, for those with children, have a lot to do with insuring that children do at least as well as parents – in other words, that the more or less existing pattern of class relations is reproduced. But the reproduction of classes in the United States, for all but the highest reaches of the elite, is inextricably bound up with the reproduction of race. Those who doubt this should read the story on Montclair or visit the Gifted Program in my district. Or they should look at the schools their children attend.
I think that Norm Fruchter touched on something quite important when he tried to get at some of the social insecurity experienced by the cohort of adults who have had children since the mid-1970’s. But, he neglected to mention that the insecurity coincided with a fairly consistent retreat of the left across a broad field of personal and political issues. People who no longer have any hope of changing the world instead try to do the best they can for their children and to help make the world a little bit better for those who suffer from its everyday workings.
The work that they do, given the pervasive character of race discrimination, is often intended to be for the benefit of non-white folks. But, in spite of many thousands of hours of work, all that such work seems capable of producing is the need for more such work. But what it produces at the same time is an ever more powerful conviction that the problem is somehow located in the characteristics of those who are being helped. In spite of dropout prevention programs, black kids still leave school. In spite of teenage pregnancy prevention programs, young black women keep having babies. In spite of job training programs, black people still don’t get jobs. And on and on. Each new solution, ever more cleverly engineered by those who have studied the matter, reproduces the problem. Ironically enough, much of this work results in the accumulation of evidence that the predicament of black folks is really their fault. After all, look at how much help they keep getting and look how far behind they stay. Contrast that with the all but universal conviction that Jim Crow was responsible for the misery of black people in the South rather than any shortcomings on the part of those individuals.
How does it work? Or, better still, how can we get it not to work? For starters, I’d like to suggest that individual responsibility is more complex than the recording of personal intention. If we know that an accumulation of decisions results in certain characteristic patterns – like, for example, racially divided school classrooms or programs, it would not seem to much to ask that we re-examine our own possible contribution to the perpetuation of the pattern. But many times, we do not. Our reasoning, which easily becomes pretty defensive, will often result in a determined insistence that we are not prepared to sacrifice our children’s well-being or future for some other not very tangible goal.
I remember years ago being told by a friend that having children was the most radicalizing event in her life. In comparison, having children is among the most conservatizing events in my own. I don’t think there’s any inevitable rule at work here. A lot depends on circumstances and possibilities. If you feel your children’s future is bleak. perhaps you will be emboldened to take some chances on their behalf. If you believe that profound social change is on the agenda, you might be willing to take some chances even if your children’s prospects look reasonably good given the current state of affairs. If you believe that the predicament of others is horrible enough, you might be moved to take some chances. (Right now, the only folks ready to do this in this country are the anti-abortion protesters). But, if things are not quite that bad and if you’re skeptical about fundamental social change and your children’s prospects are uncertain but amenable to improvement if they attend the right schools and so forth, you’re far less likely to take chances.
Which, I guess, brings us back to some pretty basic issues. There was, as many hopefully still remember, a way in which those 1960’s had of putting things on the table. Some might recall the slogan, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” That simple slogan embodied the wisdom that society was not only something that was done to us but was also the product of what we did to and with each other.
Race is very much one of the things that we do to and with each other. So long as we do not challenge what we do to and with each other, we will be stuck with it. Challenges to race need not always be of grand significance, but they will probably always involve some measure of risk. If we are prepared to take no risks, we should be prepared to accept the consequences. Those consequences will hardly be “the best” for our children unless we can imagine that a world with more suffering can be endured better than a world with less.
Our children will one day know what we did. They will one day see the world as it is. They might ask us all some tough questions.