Sunday, November 22, 2009

Readin', Writin', 'Rithmetic and Racism

As some of My Faithful Readers know, one of the things I think a lot about and have focused on fairly continually since I arrived in Louisiana is what's happening in this parish’s public schools where children of color are concerned. I realize – and mention often – that White Supremacy is the default position in this country from coast to coast, but I live here and currently, the only open public school de-segregation case in the country is alive and well right here in River City.

It’s not the case alone, however, that keeps me so focused. Rather, it’s what I see happening to our children when they get to me at the college level that holds my gaze and makes me willing to get more and more and more involved in the process of trying to raise consciousness about this here. Or anywhere else it’s applicable, for that matter.

I say “our” children despite the way I look because, for starters, I have a bi-racial daughter who just turned twenty-nine a couple of days ago and that’s been a real adventure from time to time (no matter where we were living). But she’s made the journey from being on welfare as a child to having an apartment in Manhattan and I almost never worry any more that the socially-constructed political notion of “race” could yet rear its ugly head in her life, even though her significant other is a European-American man and some folks still have a real problem with that.

I say “our” children, however, because I see them daily, standing in the doorway of my office at the university. African-American parents and leaders in this community count on people like me to catch them as they’re crashing through the gates of Hell, so many of them so ill-prepared educationally, psychologically and emotionally for the task before them.

They grin and shrug because they don’t know what to do. The schools many of them attended are calculated to produce exactly that result. They make sure children of color cannot compete with children educated in other, better schools. Equipment, activities, enrichment programs, even the physical structures are invariably given short shrift as compared to those schools that are visibly committed to providing a different experience. One hardly has to be an expert to recognize it. A quick drive-by screams the collusion. And watching the young people entering or leaving the buildings at the start or the end of the day will demonstrate in no uncertain terms to which group the differences have been applied.

Some of the teachers and administrators at the less well funded institutions are highly trained and skilled. They are often talented, adept and committed to their task. But it’s hard to hang in there when the setting is depressed and depressing, when the basics are not provided, when the children are likely to be struggling with issues of poverty and a process of socialization that teaches them to see themselves as incapable, inappropriate and unworthy of success. And, whether we like to admit it or not, many of the teachers and administrators over these kids are absolutely convinced that they really are incapable and they communicate it both subtly and overtly all day long and for as long as it takes to make the child buckle.

By the time the students get to me, they cry.

My colleagues ask, “How many of those kids are you failing? You’ve got them in your office crying all day long.” But I’m not failing them. I’m telling them the truth. They’ve been robbed. They’ve been the butt of a bad, mean-spirited joke. It’s a set-up, an okey-doke. They’ve been infected with the virus of internalized oppression and it’s so wide-spread and effective and ignored, nobody’s told them.

The result? Only one African-American student in six, by current numbers, will graduate from the university where I teach.

“My baby’s in college,” a local parent will boast proudly.

“My grandbaby’s a college man,” I hear reported at community meetings.

But the bulk of the students of color on our campus are freshmen. They appear every fall, dressed to the nines by and large, hanging with each other, eating Popeye’s chicken at lunch and swilling frappacinos just like the others. But the gay abandon is a little desperate, a little studied; the laughter is a little forced. Because they’re scared they’re not going to make it. They’re scared to tell their folks or anybody else what they secretly fear. They’re even afraid to face their fears themselves. Because they’ve been taught to believe they’re inferior and their greatest fear is that this is the truth. That college is not “for them,” that they do not deserve and should not expect to make it. And I’m confident that this is not unusual among most majority White college campuses in the U.S.

I look out into the classroom and I see them taking notes. Or not. Sometimes I see them staring into space or at the desk, hundreds of years of sorrow in their eyes. Sometimes I see them nod off with the strain of staying awake after working to all hours at night to pay for tomorrow’s gas for their forty-minute commute. Sometimes I see them texting each other, maintaining the relationships that keep the fears at bay, that create the illusion that all is well because there’s a plan in place for the evening that will help them forget for a few hours the glaring grin on the face of a society in which they are only marginalized characters at best.

A young Black man taking one of my classes his first semester on the campus finally allowed the tears to stream down his cheeks mid-conversation in my office. I had just finished explaining to him that he could do it or he wouldn’t be there. I said, “It isn’t a personal problem. You’ve been taught to believe you can’t do it, so you'll stumble, so you won’t try, so all the goodies will go to folks who look like me. And then they can blame you for what you don’t achieve.”

I explained the in’s and out’s of campus life. How to take notes, how to study for a test, how important it is to communicate to teachers (though many may be racist to one extent or another), how to juggle time and set priorities, and above all, how to find and identify allies among the student and faculty populations. And then he started to weep.

When I asked him why, he replied, “I never believed there was hope.”

This particular young man is half-way through his junior year now. The last time I saw him, striding across campus, head high, I said by way of greeting, “Hey! How ya doin’?”

“Excellently!” he shot back, grinning, as he charged off to his next class.

But I can’t catch them all.

The result of this process to socialize children to see themselves as inferior manifests itself tidily in the U.S. Census figures. African-Americans in this parish average half the income of people that look like me.

So, somewhere in this parish tonight, a young woman will put her children to bed hungry because she was under-prepared to provide for them. Somewhere in this parish tonight, a young man will risk his life to sell drugs on a corner because he thinks there’s no other path for him, even if the one he’s on is guaranteed to send him to Angola – maybe for life without parole. Somewhere in this parish tonight, a woman will put on make-up and go to a club because being baptized in lights and music is the only way she knows to forget the bleak existence that constitutes her life (and besides she needs help with her light bill). Somewhere in this parish tonight, a child will sit on his bed trying to figure out how to get the supplies he needs to produce the project due at school on Monday, but which his family can’t afford to buy.

The week rarely goes by that I don’t hear at least one African-American student say, “Well, it’s always been this way and it’s always going to be this way.” I counter that it’s only been this way for about five hundred years and nothing is ever going to be any particular way forever. Social change is constant and inevitable. It may make things worse, instead of better. It may move us in directions we don’t want to go. But change will come. And if we want to see a future we can be happy about, we need to plant the seeds that will produce it.

Those with the power to define and make the rules in this parish have made it clear that this is no accident and they intend to continue these practices. On a grander scale, the tack we take in the U.S. that denies the existence of this problem has the same exact effect as if we cold-bloodedly intended for it to continue. So what are we going to do about it?

We have the ability to demand that life in this parish and in the United States changes whether those with the power to define want it to or not. These are precarious times economically and many of us are doing our own struggling. I drive a car I’m embarrassed to get into. But I’d be even more embarrassed to face our children on my campus not having done everything I can to keep them from falling off the cliff from which they have been pushed.


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Excellent post, Changeseeker. Went through it myself in undergrad and came dangerously close to quitting. Counselors back then didn't give me the time of day. I like that you take an advocate role in this area in offering help to your students.

Changeseeker said...

Sometimes, African-Americans who made it through the gauntlet will say to me, "It's just a matter of applying yourself." They're the ones I really don't know how to answer because, in the simplest sense, that's true, BUT...sigh.

The NAACP chapter on campus is prioritizing the African-American graduation rate next semester -- both in their own efforts and in challenging the administration to be more pro-active in retention efforts. There's also another group of Black men on campus who try to mentor Black male freshmen. And I'm beginning to think "civil suit" on behalf of the parish's children. Shhhhhhh.

Anonymous said...

I love and appreciate this post. I started to read with my armour poised and ready against a predictable onslaught, and ended with a feeling of recognition, that someone in that position really sees us.

I am a middle-aged woman now, but remember too clearly my struggle from an inner-city community college to an elite, liberal arts college in the 80s. I was an English major, one of the most conservative departments in academe.

I had to face a lot of the unspoken sneers and beliefs that I shouldn't be there, very often from my own professors. One of them even held me at a certain grade for the duration of the semester, regardless of my improvement, which my current professor friends tells me is a method they employ when they stop reading your papers.

Did I survive? I don't know - I finished. I was the first and only person in my family to attend college, and I graduated from a top 15 and top 5 school. But, yet, I am haunted by a sense of failure and inadequacy.

What does this all mean? Your post has convinced me that my real success will be to go back and use my education for where it is useful - preparing and ushering the new batch into safety.

Thank you for seeing us.

Changeseeker said...

You cannot begin to imagine, Anonymous, how much your words mean to me. I know my vision is very clear, but one of the reasons that this is so is that I am constantly schooled and reinforced by African-Americans who have honored me over time by sharing their stories, instructing me and sometimes correcting me to hone my understanding. I look for the signals like yours to keep me motivated and on the path. That I have motivated you, in return, to touch the lives of others humbles me beyond description. Thank you. I hope you will feel free to come back by any time. And please consider creating an identity so I'll know it's you.

WLW said...

It is sad when re-reading your blog message, and as a European-American I am truly at a loss for an answer or solution to the tremendous gap which still exists as a result of racism.
To me the situation is worsening, however, because now the powers-that-be are going beyond pushing racism and are progressing with the same approach for the poor whites as well. We have now developed a real two-tiered national differentiation between the "have's" and the "have-not's" REGARDLESS of race or ethnicity. It is almost as though the elite of American society has decided to fess up and quit pushing the race button and are now focusing with getting as much out of the system as they can posssibly do for themselves and simplifying the tags by simply describing it in terms of us versus them.
The rich and powerful are now so above and beyond the living standards and education opportunities of the average American. The latter are relegated to their poor existence with their children still being lured towards the unobtainable American dream by signing up to fight in this country's never-ending wars wrapped around patriotism. It is truly a sad commentary -- and I believe setting the country up for total failure soon -- for all of us -- the Blacks, Whites, Yellows and Browns. WLW

Changeseeker said...

I'm sorry to be so long in responding to your important comment, WLW. I'll be writing a full blog post on this idea after Christmas, but in the meantime, let me just say that, while you are, of course, correct that those with the power to define and a strangle-hold on the resources in this society have taken off the gloves in some new ways, to suggest that they have stopped pushing racism is not to grasp the real situation.

Yes, poor and even "middle class" White people are suffering more these days, but there has always been a wide gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in this country -- all the way back to the 1700's. It's just wider now.

Still, African-Americans are suffering even worse than the poor Whites. People of color have always gotten the most of the worst and the least of the best in the U.S., but now they're increasingly falling off the bottom of the ladder entirely AND they're being blamed for our problems (as in "immigrants are taking our jobs" and "Blacks could do better if they'd just TRY harder so why do they keep sucking off the government at our expense?").

I'm not minimizing the suffering of the poor in general. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed right in the middle of planning a huge Poor Peoples' Campaign that was going to include everybody, after all, and that was decades ago. But it doesn't change the fact that people of color, and especially African-Americans, are still catching their own particular brand of hell.