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.