Black or White They’re Just Kids: They Need Us & We Need Them; a refrain!

The original version of this article was written two-and-half years ago but events in the intervening months suggest to me that it needs repeated; with a few updates. It will be followed by a related article on bullying and peer pressure.

It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.

My wife and I have now have four grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, and golden brown skin. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest two grandkids are the biological offspring of my youngest daughter and her husband. The eldest (and our third) is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. Our fourth, now 18 months of age, has skin not quite as pale as his big sister’s but hair every bit as red.

Each of them have magnificent smiles that light up our lives even more than the lights of the holiday season and laughter that warms us during the coldest of times. Their smiles have reminded me that throughout my whole life, whenever I have been blessed to see a child smile, I am blind to any of the other features, that for reasons that are difficult to fathom, cause some human beings to pass derisive judgment. For me the smile of any child is a source of incalculable joy that is as common to the shared universal human experience as anything else in life.

These children represent our family’s beautiful rainbow and like all grandparents we love them so much that it hurts.

When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. In the four-and-a-half years since the birth of this sweet child, our nation has been rocked by racial violence and hatred. We have known that the American people have been divided, politically, for decades but could we ever have imagined that the President of the United States, through his words and actions, could model such rhetoric and enmity?

It is bad enough that so many citizens could interpret our President’s words and actions as a license for the public expression of embittered hatred but are we truly so divided, ideologically, that good men and women would choose to tolerate such enmity out of hope that this President can “make America great, again.”

Is there any reason to believe that a man who builds walls, figuratively and literally; who condemns one of the world’s great religions for the radical violence of a few (as if Christians have never done a despicable deed); who provokes confrontations; calls people names; who brands the free press as liars; who challenges the legitimacy of our election process; ignores and ridicules the advice of his diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement advisors; who rejects the research of the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists; and, who blames others when things go wrong can be the kind of leader who will unite a culturally diverse nation? Can a bully provide the kind of inspirational, positive leadership we need, so desperately?

Through the escalation of the violence and hatred over the last four-and-a-half years we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little guy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.

I have spent my entire lifetime striving to understand why our world is so full of hatred over issues as insignificant as the color of one’s skin. I still struggle to understand why differences in eye or hair color are perceived as different shades of beauty while differences in skin color produce such extremes of bitter passion.

I was blessed to be born to parents who taught that we are all children of Creation and that we were blessed to live in a country in which we are all considered to be equal under the Constitution.

I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism. Somehow, I never noticed that when I was playing with my black friends that my white friends were off doing something else and vice versa.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. Innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for young children to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All but one of these kids were black. While I was responsible for the boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who came to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised. While my job was to keep them safe, I must confess that these youngsters taught me far more than I ever could have taught them.

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 and worked with their families. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children. Later, when I decided to focus on my life-long dream of writing books, I worked part-time as a substitute teachers for my local public school district and glimpsed, first hand, the challenges that both students and teachers face.

What I learned about children during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids.

They all laugh when they play or act silly; cry and bleed red when they get hurt; get mad when they lose; celebrate when they win; get embarrassed when they are made fun of; yawn when they get sleepy; respond to warmth and affection with warmth and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents or society or when bullied.

These boys and girls all have the ability to learn; they are all curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation. They all deserve the best we have to offer and the very fact that so many children fail provides irrefutable evidence that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

I truly believe that, in spite of the heroic effort of our teachers, it is here, in our elementary schools that we will find the roots of the problems that beleaguer us as a nation and society. Whether we are teachers, administrators, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education, educators must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible.

The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. That children are failing is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between black and white children and other minority classmates is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce. Like any other production- or service-delivery process it can be reinvented to produce the outcomes we want and need.

This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is that they are the people in the best position to identify the failure of this flawed educational process but they hold back as if they are afraid to act. It is critical that we understand that this lack of action is not because they are bad people or incompetent professionals rather it is because they have learned to perceive themselves as powerless.

Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice.

The over-riding truth as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century is that we need each and every one of these boys and girls just as desperately as they need us. Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, black or white or any of the colors of the rainbow. What we see happening, today, is a preview of the rest of this 21st Century unless we choose to act.

It is only when we have gained an understanding of the forces that impede the education of our children and accept responsibility for our outcomes that we begin to acquire the power to implement meaningful changes in policy and practice. This is what positive leadership is all about.

I invite the reader to check out my Education Model and White Paper to see one way we can reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we need.

Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, A Journaled Review by Mel Hawkins, 2nd Installment

Ravitch’s Chapter 1 “Our Schools are at Risk”

Ravitch begins this monumental work by staking out the battlefield and categorically rejecting the assertions of “leading members of our political class and our media elite” that public education is broken.

They say that our children are not learning enough and that the “crisis is so profound that half measures and tweaks will not work. Schools must be closed and large numbers of teachers fired. Anyone who doubts this is unaware of the dimensions of the crisis or has a vested interest in defending the status quo.”

They are wrong, Ravitch says!

They say that teachers, principals, and teachers’ unions must “shoulder the blame” for low test scores. They must be held accountable on the basis of objective evaluations.” These reforms, Ravitch continues, insist that “Students must be given choices other than traditional public schools, such as charter schools, vouchers, and online schools.”
They consider themselves, Ravitch continues, to be “championing the cause of minorities . . . the civil rights movement of our day.”

She notes that these advocates appeal “to values Americans have traditionally cherished—choice, freedom, optimism, and a latent distrust of government.”

Ravitch declares, emphatically, “There is only one problem with this narrative. It is wrong.”

“Public education is not broken.” Ravitch explains. “It is not failing or declining.” She adds that the solutions of what she terms as “the corporate reformers” are wrong. She explains that “our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.”

She says that “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised. They have failed even by their own most highly valued measure, which is test scores. At the same time, the reformers solutions have had a destructive impact on education as a whole.”

Ravitch continues her attack with such statements as, “strike at the heart of our nation’s most valued institutions.” “Liberals, progressives, well-meaning people have lent their support to a project that is antithetical to liberalism and progressivism. By supporting market-based ‘reforms’ they have allied themselves with those who seek to destroy public education.” She sites, “implacable hostility toward the public sector” advocating “the transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised, and unaccountable schools have opened the public coffers to profiteering, fraud, and small entreprenuers.”

Let me say, emphatically, that the “reformers” she is attacking are absolutely right at the outset of what they say, when they identify as the scope of the problem and they are terribly wrong on the other. Public education is broken and it does threaten our very future as a society. It might work well for an elite component of the population of American children but it works counter to the best interests of a significant portion of our children, and is a disaster for the rest.

Let me add with equal emphasis that they are absolutely wrong in what they are asking us to do to fix it.
On the other hand, although Ravitch comes tantalizingly close, she misinterprets the reasons for the problems with public education, which just happen to be the same problems facing our society as a whole. As a result, what she would have us do is to continue to make the same mistakes we have made for the last half century or more.
Ravitch insists, as do so many others, that the problems with education in America are rooted in poverty and racial segregation and in this she is wrong.

Poverty is not a cause it is a symptom very much like the failures of public education are a symptom of underlying cultural forces sweeping across our society. Similarly, racial segregation is as symptom of those same forces. Segregation is no longer decreed by law rather it results from choices that are made by American men and women, no doubt by default, in the face of the cultural forces to which we refer.

At the risk of over-simplifying, I can say that those cultural forces transcend both race and affluence. The first of these destructive forces is a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness that is smothering a burgeoning population of Americans who are white, black, and every color in between. These men and women are poor to be sure but poverty is just a condition of their existence. It is the hopelessness and powerlessness that led them into poverty and that keeps them there. Sadly, they teach their children to feel hopeless and powerless and as a result, their children are unable to alter the condition of poverty in which they have been reared. Poverty is a condition, hopelessness and powerlessness are states of mind.

The second of the forces is that many American men and women, or more specifically, mothers and fathers, many of whom do not live in poverty have succumbed to a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness with respect to their ability to maintain control and influence over their children. The children of these people have fallen under the influence of their peers and of the powerful forces of a diverse menu of media that exert far more influence over the minds and attitudes of these young people than do their parents.

These kids can be found in any public school in the U.S. Just ask teachers to point them out for you. They are bright youngsters whose parents have thrown up their hands in figurative despair because they can’t make them behave, cannot get them to take school seriously, cannot get them to bed at a decent hour, cannot control whom they choose for friends, cannot control the amount of time they spend playing video games, surfing the net, or talking, texting, tweeting, facebooking, and sometimes even emailing their friends. When these kids get to school, the teachers, working without the support of the parents, struggle to get them to behave, pay attention, or take their school work seriously. Even though some of these kids earn passing grades, they perform so far below their potential that opportunity cost of what they should be learning has drastic consequences for the balance of their lives.

We have been striving to solve the problem of poverty for generations. President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty to no avail. We have created welfare laws intended to provide the basics for families but instead created an entitlement mentality.

Concerned professional in all of the social sciences have spent enormous energy just as federal and state government have spent trillions of dollars trying to “extend the advantages” to the poor that are enjoyed by the affluent. This is exactly what welfare has been trying to do for generations, now, with disastrous results.

We all know an adage that has become so cliché they we ignore its wisdom. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

It is absolutely imperative that we shift the emphasis of everything we do and every dollar we spend way from “extending advantages” and focus those resources, instead, on attacking the hopelessness and powerlessness that are the true root causes of poverty, racial segregation, the failure of our systems of public education, and of the violence that has converted many urban neighborhoods to war zones.

If Ravitch were to step back and re-examine her assumptions what a powerful force she could be given the platform at her command.

As we continue through Reign of Error, we will strive to point out what a difference this alternate perspective would make and what opportunities it would create.

The other noteworthy and troubling phenomenon that his occurring is that both sides of the great educational debate are engaged in a dangerous exchange of slogans and catch phrases that blind us to the truth. In following Ravitch’s blog which has so much traffic that I have had to create a separate location on my computer to store the emails announcing the latest posts and comments; what I am seeing is that the words “reform” and “reformer” are becoming what I like to refer to as “trigger bytes” to which Americans react with prejudice with Pavlovian consistency. It is similar to such words as “socialism,” “communism,” and “socialized medicine.” When people hear these trigger bytes used in the attack of an idea, their minds shut down with stunning abruptness, and they no longer listen to what those with a different point of view have to say.

We are faced with some of the most important choices in the history of our nation and we need to keep our wits about us if we hope to weather the challenges of the Twenty-first Century and beyond.