Sunday, July 19, 2009

School's Out (Of Whack)

I've mentioned from time to time the re-opened school de-segregation case in the parish where I've lived for the past two years. I'm still neck-deep in this effort and considering that the original court order in the case was issued in 1979, I'm not anticipating a major shift any time soon. Apparently, the gears of the Courts (even the Federal Courts) in Louisiana grind slooooowly indeed.

I certainly don't want to run the risk of putting my two cents so far out there as to compromise the best interests of the case, which is why I don't discuss it more often. And besides, there's a continually updated website that gets half a million hits a month, so it's not necessary for me to chime in. But there's an issue that's been unfolding of late that I think has more general applicability and that's what this post is about.

What you need to know about the case to understand what I'm going to write is that the defense (the parish school board and its appointed administrators) have drafted a plan that will supposedly de-segregate the schools enough to satisfy the Court's order. It should be obvious to even the unpracticed eye that anybody who unapologetically maintains a system demonstrated to damage the psyches of children (of whatever skin tone) for more than thirty years after they were ordered by a Court to change their ways is NOT going down without a fight. And fight they have.

First of all, they've drafted a plan so full of bells and whistles even an expert might miss the many ways the "new" is really old. For one thing, The Plan is heavily imbued with "magnet schools" that we are encouraged to believe will pull little White children from all over the parish to avail themselves of these special opportunities. Skip the fact that magnet schools have not been demonstrated to de-segregate schools successfully anywhere else. Skip the fact that they built into The Plan conditional acceptance criteria such as that those who qualify for free or reduced lunches (many, if not most, of the children of color) will be last on the list for inclusion in the magnet schools or precluded from entrance at all. And skip that, in any case, magnet schools still lock in a dual system that marks some children as worthy of "better" and some as worthy of "less," a designation that has always been made graphically clear to African-Americans of every age for five hundred years to the present in every area of our society.

And then, of course, my personal favorite aspect of this unmistakeable boondoggle is the simple fact that they have caaaarefully left "certain" schools either untouched or even Whiter than they were before (as if that would be explainable in any type of reasonable terms). One of these schools, already 94% White would actually become 97% White under The Plan...! And apparently, we're expected not to notice that this is the case when -- ostensibly -- the whole point of this debacle is to de-segregate. the. schools. Their excuse: that by law a "de-segregation plan" doesn't actually have to de-segregate ALL the schools or in this case, the schools where the little kiddies' Whiteness is already being most protected intact.

The Court, as might be expected, has asked both sides to consider what a "settlement" of the case would look like, which sounded to me like, "How little would you be willing to accept and still call it enough?" I, needless to say, wrote "Justice?" on my legal pad and the lawyer scribbled back, "That's why there are Appellate Courts." But why, after thirty years -- and fully fifty-five years after Brown v. the Board of Education -- should we be discussing "settlement" at all? In a just society, the men and women who've unapologetically maintained a racist system of relegating Black children to inferior schools to make sure they eventually "prove" their own inferiority belong in jail! I'm just saying is all.

Anyway, none of this, odious as it may be, is the real topic of this post. It is rather that the plaintiffs (who are lobbying to see implemented a fairer system of education) have somehow gotten off on a jag of pressing the Court to make comprehensive, state-of-the-art vocational schools part of The Plan. Now, on the surface, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Why not have vocational schools for all those students who, for whatever reason, "choose" not to go to college? (And the stats, of course, document that few of the youth in our parish opt to do the latter.) What bothers me about this, however, is that I see only too clearly how this can be used by the jerks who put this racist system in place back in the covered wagon days to keep Black youth (and even poor White youth) from taking the only track guaranteed to offer them a decent life in the future.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not invested in the idea that everybody wants to go to college. For example, I didn't. Or at least I didn't have a vision for myself that included college once it was made clear to me that I wouldn't get "one red cent" for college because "women are for sex and cooking." (I kid you not. In those words.) It took me twenty years to get over than one. And even then, I didn't enroll because I wanted to. I enrolled because it became apparent to me that I wouldn't be able to get a job good enough to support two children without a college degree of some kind. And that was in 1986.

The fact is that the United States has a number of values on which it operates as a society. One is White Supremacy, of course. And one, as I just explained, involves the Patriarchy. But another is a practice sociologists call "credentialism," which means requiring formal educational "credentials" for better jobs. And believe you me, they're not talking about high school diplomas or vocational school certificates any more.

When my father graduated with his Bachelor's Degree in the 1950's, it really meant something because people could still get a good job with a high school diploma. Hell, I myself filled great, highly responsible positions in my twenties and early thirties as only a high school grad. But during the 1980's, when we went from being a manufacturing economy to being a service-oriented economy, things changed. Not only did you need a college degree to get a "decent" job, but those jobs didn't pay enough to cover the bills even if you did have a degree. It didn't have anything to do with what you learned in school. It had to do with that little piece of paper. And today, the process is not moving toward vocational schools. It's moving toward Master's degrees.

I tell my students -- many of whom are struggling as the first college students ever in their families, many of whom are holding down full-time jobs while going to college, a ridiculous number of whom already got shellshocked in Iraq two or three times so they could go to college -- that they're not wrong. They don't have to want to do this. They need to do it. And when I tell my African-American students that Black men are four times more likely to be unemployed than White men at every educational level, I tell them that this just makes their college degree that much more crucial. In fact, in this parish, while European-American per capita income annually is over $20,000, African-American per capita income annually is under $10,000.

Not very pretty, is it?

And yes, it's possible for people to make a living wage with some trades. But that doesn't mean that a certificate from a vocational school is automatically going to put you in those jobs, assuming those jobs remain in place. At ten per cent unemployment -- and rising -- why do we think that there are any magic answers? The bulk of the tracks in vocational training do not provide a living wage in a country where a full-time, minimum wage job will bring in a whopping $237 a week after taxes. And that's assuming that the jobs don't fall to technological advancements or go to people with college degrees who are going to become "over-qualified," but increasingly desperate as the economy gets worse.

But if a well-organized and fully entrenched team of White racists recognize anything, it's how to play both ends against the middle and get what you wanted in the first place. So they're gonna jump on this vocational school bandwagon like, well, White on rice. And when the dust settles, thousands upon thousands of young people -- most particularly African-American -- will be "tracked" into vocational programs with promises that they'll be easier and faster and get them good money and that college probably isn't "for" them, anyway. (I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard a young man or woman of color say this to me since I arrived in Louisiana. White kids don't say it. Now, why is that?)

Am I trying to push college on a bunch of underprepared children with no self-esteem and horrific work ethics and no vision for themselves or their futures? Well, what do you think? I have to teach these kids. I watch some of them crash and burn (educationally, psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes even physically). I watch some hanging by their fingertips somehow course after course. And I spend literally more time in my office trying to keep individual students from falling through the gates of hell than I do in the classroom. So what is my point?

That -- and I really want to break into capital letters here -- a LOT more children would opt for and be successful in college if they were prepared in schools that gave them a solid basic education. They don't need bells and whistles. They don't need gimmicks. They need teachers who give a shit about them, who believe in them, who are NOT themselves racist (especially without knowing it). They need admininstrators who are educators themselves, highly trained in the challenges that have developed because of their lack in the past and committed to spending money on quality education for all children rather than on inflated salaries for administrators, and who hold teachers responsible, not for front-loading to a standardized exam, but for turning children into learners. Believe me, this is NOT the stretch we're told it is by the racist Powers-That-Be.

Maybe we do need a community college level vocational school or two in this parish to pick up the slack for the thousands of Black and poor White young people who've already been hung out to dry by this school system. But the answer to our greater dilemma -- on-going institutionalized oppression in the name of racism -- will not be addressed and eradicated in this way. And giving the parish school board a get-out-of-jail-free card is NOT my idea of a law suit well won.

77% of the White people over 25 in this parish have a high school diploma (which is something like the national average), while only 55% of the Black residents over 25 are high school graduates. Poor White kids aside, because this is, after all, a racial de-segregation case, suggesting that Black kids "need" vocational schools because they don't "want" to go to college is just one more verse in the same old racist school song.
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NOTE: Last night, after writing this post, I was talking with Albert "Shaka" Woodfox (one of the Angola 3) on the telephone and before I even got into what my post was about, he volunteered: "The two primary tactics defendants use in trying to avoid school de-segregation are, first of all, vocational schools and then, magnet schools." Why am I not surprised?

1 comment:

Changeseeker said...

Last night, at about 1:00 a.m., a commentator left a "comment" that was totally off topic and extremely long. It was an invitation to re-post a piece on the Obama administration originally posted on another blog. That's NOT the way that's done. So I deleted it. No disrespect intended, but such invitations are generally proffered by way of email and, in any case, I don't typically re-post much and virtually never anything not on race.