Separate and Apart – Again and Again

What happened in Dallas will happen again. These acts are symptomatic of the degree of separation between us. Although interactions between police and African-Americans bring the matter into the sharpest focus, these acts represent only the surface of the deep, dark place where racism resides in the collective consciousness of the American people. It is just one of the divisive issues that creates sufficient anger, resentment, and mistrust that so many Americans want more authoritarian leadership and are willing to support Donald Trump for President. It is an American tragedy.

We have also witnessed, in Dallas, an expression of grief that is shared by well-meaning Americans of every race, color and creed. We saw protesters from each side of an issue reaching out to embrace and comfort one another. This is a sign of hope. For healing to occur we, first, must grieve but we cannot legislate an end to the racism that exists in the hearts of man and neither can we wish it away. If we want a future in which all are truly equal, we must address the conditions, other than the color of our skin, that separate us as a people and that lead to police and African-American confrontations.

More often than at any time in our history, white Americans see well-educated African-Americans move into their neighborhoods and rub elbows with them on the job. Coming in contact with these black neighbors and co-workers begins to produce subtle shifts in the attitudes and perceptions of white Americans. We also see more inter-racial friendships and dating. It is hard to be prejudiced against a people who look like someone you have loved.

For many white Americans, however, their core values do not change. Instead, they carve out space in their mental view for the exceptions that these neighbors and co-workers represent. Yes, “he’s black but he’s a good worker or a good neighbor.” When these same white Americans see stories about drive-by shootings, black men arrested and sent to prison, or even when they pass judgment on the contents of a welfare mother’s grocery cart, all of their deeply-rooted stereotypes are re-confirmed.

We must challenge our fundamental assumptions about our society and about the way we educate our children. Poor people do not choose to live in economically depressed neighborhoods in America; they live there because it is the only place they can afford to live. They lack the knowledge and skills needed to qualify for good jobs and that give them choices of where and how to live. Poor Americans, whatever the color of their skin, lack such choices because the educational process at work in American public schools is neither structured, tasked, nor equipped to teach disadvantage kids.

We are not powerless to alter this reality. Solving the problems of poverty and academic failure are possible but only if we are able to imagine a different reality. They are simple human engineering problems that will yield to the fertile imagination of the human mind.

People will remain poor for as long as we continue to defend a system of public education that consistently fails the poor and the disadvantaged, with African-American children affected the most. In spite of all the talk about education reform in the U.S., we do nothing to help disadvantaged kids but try to entice families away from our most challenged public schools with charter schools and vouchers or we tinker with a flawed educational process with one meaningless, education reform after another. We fail to see that incrementalism has the same destructive power as erosion and that it is subverting the very purpose of public education.

If we cannot address the problems in our public schools, the social crises these problems create will continue to prompt people to reach out for a more authoritarian leadership and Donald Trump for President might be the least of our fears. The problems in our society are functions of the choices we make and if we want better outcomes we must be prepared to make better choices. Those choices must begin with how our public schools respond to the challenge of disadvantaged kids.

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