Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Black Teachers, White Students

Recently I visited an Advanced Placement English Literature class in a predominantly black high school in south Atlanta. The students were reading Ellie Wiesel’s Night. The facilitator of the discussion asked the students how they responded emotionally to the story as Wiesel told it. The teacher of the class piped in that they would have to be able to write their responses in order to pass the class. One of the students said that the gravity of it did not really hit him until earlier in the week when a group of Jewish students along with a Holocaust survivor visited their school and discussed the book and his experience of the Holocaust. It was clear from the student’s description that he had been emotionally moved by the combination of Wiesel’s and the survivor’s testimony. He concluded by saying that now he really appreciates Jewish history.

I asked if the visit was an exchange. Did the black students have older members of Atlanta’s black community share with the Jewish students their experiences of growing up in the segregated south? Were there any plans for the Jewish students to read James Mellon’s The Bullwhip Days, for example, and then host a group of black students and community elders to learn about black experiences? “No,” he said. Then another brother sitting next to me whispered, “they ain’ really interested in us.” This comment, whispered directly into my ear so that no one else could hear, hurt me deeply and indicated a grave imbalance in our education. Not only did it demonstrate a fractured sense of self, it highlighted the need for white students to have black teachers.

This need is not based on black teachers being necessary to teach black history and highlight the nuanced emotional struggle that our existence has been – although that would be nice. This need is based on the experience itself. White kids need the fundamental experience of being taught by black teachers. It is a component of their lives that is largely missing. They need the experience of sitting at the foot of a black person who serves as the conduit between themselves and some specific and valuable body of knowledge. The human experience of having someone guide your mind from a point of ignorance to understanding is tremendous. It evokes an extraordinary amount of humility, respect and admiration. For that very reason, the best teachers are iconic figures in the lives of so many people. Not only do these teachers command the utmost respect, they facilitate their students’ respect for themselves. That self-respect is based on their confidence in their ability to learn, to move from confusion to clarity. That is the missing experience for white kids. They do not experience what it is like to have a black person serving as a foundational component of their self-respect. The completeness of their identity and their confidence in their ability to learn and know has nothing to do with black people. Period. They have not been lead to some greater human understanding or cultural appreciation while holding a black hand and relying on a black mind.

The Jewish students’ visit highlighted this discrepancy. The black students came away from the experience feeling enlightened. They were left with a greater appreciation for Jewish history and more importantly, a deeper understanding of their own emotional capacity to contextualize human suffering and embrace it even if it is not their own. The Jewish students became a stone in the foundation of the black students’ growing awareness of their ability to learn and their self-respect. In contrast to that, the Jewish students left feeling good about themselves with a heightened sense of generosity that they had been able to share their history with others and help them understand their painful and inspirational past. The black students did not contribute to their sense of self-awareness or help them broaden their appreciation for the experiences of others. The Jewish kids were not forced by the story of the black students to engage in the humility required to contextualize Jewish history by considering someone else’s. The Jewish students missed the opportunity to learn from them and for the black students to become an element of their self-awareness.

The brother whispered, “they ain’ really interested in us.” I do not quite agree with that. I do think, that we are not really involved in them. We are not involved in the development of the emotional and intellectual mix that is their substance as human beings. In that respect white students are shortchanged. They generally lack the experience and value of having black people be components of their identity. Unfortunately, there is no test for them to pass that requires that experience.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Letter to a College President

Dr. Wayne Clough
Georgia Institute of Technology

Dear President Clough,

I am writing to impress upon you the issue of social imagery. By social imagery I mean the images of people and their functions that we encounter as members of the Tech community. To this end it is significant that you know I am a black man. Despite the extraordinary efforts put forth by the Institute, the experience of existing on our campus can be painful for a black person. The association of black faces with their positions and functions is an assault on the ambitious, maverick minds the school is striving to develop.

I happened to see you the other day, President Clough, walking across campus like a knight-errant on a quest for honor and truth. You appeared regal in bearing, upright and forthright, with an admirable combination of confidence and humility. Your image was striking; that was my feeling. My thought, undoubtedly influenced by my feeling, was that you are the white man in charge. In contrast to your most powerful image is that of the black members of the Tech society.

When you enter the registrar's office there is an array of black women performing the necessary but mundane tasks of registration. A white woman sits in a glass office behind them literally and figuratively overseeing their functions. If you go into the bursar's office, all of the cashiers are black; however, when you look behind the veil of computers and files you find a white person sitting in the office. Upon entering the payroll office, the circumstance is repeated. In almost all of the eating facilities on campus there are hairnetted black people standing by to take your order. In glaring contrast to you Dr. Clough, are the Tech groundskeepers, an army of black and Hispanic men on their hands and knees tending to our grounds. You can often see strikingly tall African men doubled over with their heads and shoulders swallowed by trash bins as they pick out ends of garbage. You might see them as well covered in dust as they blow and vacuum the leaves in the fall. These are the social images of Georgia Tech.

Being a student of Public Policy, I would be remiss if I did not provide a contextual statistic. Professor Larry Keating of City and Regional Planning, here at Tech, helps with the context. In his book, Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion, he provides some of the measurable differences between white and black Atlanta. Two points are particularly stunning and absolutely relevant to our image problem. In 1990, the median family income for white families in the metro Atlanta area was $88,000, for black families it was $17,000 (p. 39). Also in 1990, the median value of owner-occupied housing for white people in Atlanta was $284,000, in contrast to just $44,000 for black people (p. 62). Those disparities have increased since then. The socio-economic conditions of Atlanta necessarily impact the distribution of functions on our campus. They do not, however, mitigate the pain or the power of the imagery.

My intention is not to speak disparagingly about the people who serve in the various functions here. Work is work; bills are bills and honest labor is the bedrock of honest living. What I hope to shed light on is the yawning discrepancy of images we are faced with here. While Tech is an enormous economic benefit to Atlanta generally and its citizens particularly, there does exist this difficult unintended effect, the reinforcement of racial hierarchy through the images present at Georgia Tech.

President Clough I encourage you, in this era of American introspection and healing, to look closely at the human functioning on our campus. In so doing you will find the images of which I speak. The genteel smiles and gentle nods only thinly cloak the brutal reality of our existence here. It is a dangerous and debilitating impression to be left on all of the members of our community regardless of race or rank. As President of the Institute, please consider the impact of these images on our community and let us work to bring the fullness of human functioning to all its members.


Monday, April 9, 2007

White Teachers, Black Students

There are several reasons attributed to the poor academic performance of black students in American high schools. One of those that is difficult to measure is the ability of white teachers to connect with black students. This connection is often cited as a problem in schools where the majority of the teachers are middle aged white women and the students are predominantly black. Those who say that more black male teachers are needed in order to serve as role models and to connect with young black males rely on this connection argument. I do not dispute the validity of that argument; however, the other side requires some attention. What are some of the conditions that prevent well intentioned white female teachers from connecting with black students, black male students in particular? This examination is important because the teacher/student demographic balance is unlikely to change in the short term and despite what the movies would have us believe, white women face considerable challenges connecting with black students and are often unsuccessful.

It is important to focus on the sub-set of white teachers who are competent and sincere in their belief in the ability of black students. They face two fundamental challenges. One is that the segregation in most urban centers is so complete that there is a decreasing set of common assumptions about education shared between white teachers and black students. The second is that well intentioned teachers are afraid of directly addressing some of the problems they see for fear of being labeled racist. These conditions place many well meaning white teachers in the center of a personal crisis of professional commitment and moral and ethical responsibility. It is precisely their sincerity, their belief in students’ ability to learn and their love of learning that make their burden such a difficult one to bear.

I witnessed an incident in the hallway of an Atlanta high school that exemplifies these challenges. The school of about 2,200 students is 48% black and 38% white, but has only 4 black teachers in core academic courses. In the hallway a young black male student was furious about something. He was about 6 feet, 3 inches tall and dressed in his urban uniform. He had on a long white t-shirt that hung down to just above his knees. On top of that he had on a long black t-shirt that hung to about the middle of his thighs. The top of his jeans were also hanging around mid-thigh and the remainder was gathered in a bunch at his ankles around his untied high-top Nike Air Force One sneakers. He was also wearing a big black jacket with his arms in the sleeves but off his shoulders. He had the beginnings of locks, a gold grill on his top teeth and no books. The teacher was a petite white woman, about 5 feet, 2 inches tall and looked like a typical suburban Atlanta white woman. She had on a matching purple sweater/top ensemble and pants that fit perfectly over shoes that looked like they came from Nine West. She had on a pearl necklace, her eyebrows were arched, she was blond, she had on that white skin foundation that southern white women wear and she had an enormous diamond ring on her finger.

I could not hear what the teacher said to the student to try to calm him down but his response was loud and clear. Full of anger he yelled out, “I’m tired of this mothafuckin’ school!” She said something else softly to which he responded, “Fuck that!” and yanked his arm from hers and stormed off. She did not appear to be the object of his anger because in her face you could see compassion laced with fear.

Situations such as these, when emotions are so charged, highlight the degree of separation between the white teacher and the black student. Soothing the raw emotions of a teenager is never easy or guaranteed, but it requires relying on a shared set of assumptions. It may be the assumption that the parents of the student would be in the school at a moment’s notice if the teacher calls to report trouble. It may be that education is paramount in the student’s life as a means to college and beyond. It may also be the assumption that the student trusts the teacher and the school to have his best interests in mind. In the typical white middle class suburban milieu all of these assumptions hold. In the minds of many black students, they do not. This by itself is nothing new. The problem is that the degree of segregation between Air-Force Ones and matching sweater sets is so complete that the teacher has little insight into what the alternative assumption set might be. Similarly, the student cannot relate to the reality behind the assumptions of the teacher. The difficulty and challenge for the teacher is clear. She possesses the desire to help and teach the student but is constrained by a lack of understanding that is imposed by complete social isolation.

Some will argue that there are several successful teachers that are effective across dramatic social and class differences with their students. That is a fact. The persistent pattern of underachievement among black students suggests that those teachers are the exception. The several others, who are well intentioned but ineffective, are bearing the painful burden of seeing students they care deeply about failing and their life paths leading into the fog.

This discordant set of assumptions is exacerbated by the fear of being labeled a racist. This particular problem is clear in a school as diverse as this one. The academic and social patterns that are associated with the various groups of students are easy to identify. You need only walk down the halls of the school to see them. It is easy to recognize the differences in clothing styles, speech patterns, body language, family engagement, deference to authority and academic performance. The problem arises when it is time to put public words to these obvious characteristics and the patterns they imply. In doing so, teachers feel the threat of being called a racist. Several of the teachers I spoke with expressed these concerns directly. By simply describing the patterns of behavior, academic performance and the correlation with race, they felt they were subjecting themselves to the accusations of racism from students and their families. Their reluctance to even describe the patterns of behavior certainly limits their ability to act to correct those behaviors that warrant correction.

Their fear is not unwarranted. One of the teachers, a young white woman who is involved in school discipline, described an intervention meeting with a black student and his mother. During the meeting the teacher was explaining what the boy did, the consequences of his behavior and what she thought the mother might do to prevent it happening again. Given the intentions of the teacher and her demonstrated belief in all students’ ability to learn, I am convinced that the spirit of this meeting would have been most respectful and concerned. The boy’s mother responded by saying, “You white bitch! Don’t you tell me how to raise my child.” The implications of racism and condescension could not be more clear from that response. The teacher said to me that, that sort of response was not unusual. She was also trying not to let it stop her from engaging with many of the black male students who make up the lion’s share of the disciplinary problems in the school. Despite her determination, it would be understandable for her to simply stop engaging with black students who are misbehaving for fear of being accused in this way. She is human after all. If the teacher was to choose the path of disengagement to protect herself, she would be turning her back on black students burdened with the knowledge that she is failing to connect with her students - there is no greater failure for a teacher.

The solution to this problem faced by well meaning white teachers is not easy. It parallels the solution that they often suggest for their black students – a bitter pill to swallow for sure. Students that come from difficult family, social and economic circumstances are told to dig deep within themselves. They are told to be courageous. They are told that despite having little or no external encouragement or positive examples, they must persist because so much is at stake. Similarly, these white teachers must dig deep. They must be courageous. They must not be constrained by libelous claims of racism and more importantly not submit to the invitations to be prejudiced. It is on the other side of these demons that the seeds of connection lie.


Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Kicking Children Off the Raft

Microsoft Corporation opened the School for the Future in West Philadelphia earlier this year. It is part of their concerns for the United States’ development of a technologically savvy workforce. The School of the Future is special because it brings Microsoft’s ingenuity to the public education sphere. It is special because it brings hope, opportunity and backing to those students lucky enough to be admitted. It is common in that it is yet another school on a long list of schools that profess to infuse technology and global citizenry on a beleaguered set of black kids. It is common also, in that it is afflicted with the standard dilemmas that accompany every life raft thrown into a throng of drowning people. Who do you save and who do you let drown?

One of the concerns that members of the community in West Philly had was whether their kids would have access to the school or not – a typical concern when highly publicized, big money, marquee schools are injected into poor, predominantly black and Hispanic communities. Will the white kids and the rich black and brown kids end up taking all the spots? Will the school simply crème the crop and claim success? The school’s admission policy is set so that students from a broad swath of West Philadelphia are eligible to attend. The school administrators declared that it was important for them to be fair and offer as many children an opportunity to attend the school because of the tremendous opportunity that it represents. The conditions of West Philly are such that, that does not dramatically change the demographics of the students in the school. It does, however, undermine the immediate community’s vested interest in the school. Their policy raises the question of distributive justice. Why cannot good schools in troubled neighborhoods be as exclusive as good schools in good neighborhoods? Why is fairness so important when considering school opportunities in neighborhoods that deal with the most unfairness?

Several high achieving neighborhood schools in white communities are very clear about the geographic exclusivity of their admissions policies. If you do not live within specific boundaries, you simply cannot attend or your chances are relegated to an often unused lottery. One of the consequences of this practice is that the communities are directly vested in the schools. They are schools for the children of those neighborhoods and the parents and children have a vested interest in their success. The policies do not declare that for reasons of justice and fairness the school must make slots available to students from broad swaths of a city. The clamping down on bussing programs confirms this philosophy. The success of those schools and the intimate relationship with the neighborhoods is important enough that it trumps the call for distributive justice. It is the concentration of concern and resources that strengthen not only the schools, but the communities in which they reside.

One might argue that white students who are excluded from such schools do not face the damning probabilities of under-education, ignorance and poverty that so many black students face. They do not, so the stakes associated with admission are lower. White kids in metropolitan settings will generally be fine regardless of where they go to school. Blacks kids, however, are often faced with the options – admission to the marquee school or drowning in ignorance and bad education. Here is the savior’s dilemma. Is it morally acceptable to forsake some to save a few? Can the merit and benefit of drawing strict neighborhood boundaries around these schools trump the sense of fairness associated with more inclusive admissions policies?


Limited boundaries concentrate efforts and resources such that they can be more efficiently leveraged to improve education. They could even go further and put a cap on the incomes of families whose children are eligible. If you do not live within radius r and you have an income greater than i, you are ineligible. Poor black and Hispanic students are the most isolated set of students in the country. No one wants to go to school with them, no one wants to live near them, no one wants their children to be influenced by them, they are vilified at every turn and their isolation is complete. Every societal unfairness and capital market failure has been heaped upon them. As such, their school solutions should be equally concentrated, focused and exclusive.

Limiting the boundaries of access increases community involvement. The importance of involvement and sense of ownership by a local community cannot be overstated. That parameter, next to the school’s staff, may be the most critical determinant of success. If the vast majority of students attending one of these savior schools come from the local community; the local community will take note, care and be engaged. It is that simple. There are innumerable implicit and explicit advantages to that reality. Indeed, it makes the life raft more effective. Those on the raft can lock arms with those in the immediate vicinity and thereby stabilize the raft. The consequences of this brand of morality are brutal in the near term, but the potential for long term success is far greater.