Our neighborhood school, race and racism; by the numbers

It must be a part of the package of privileges that are attached to being white– the package of privileges that I have– that I am so stunned by certain things.  Or at least part of the package that I would remained stunned by certain things past the age of about 30 which I am well past.  I carry with me some basic expectation of fairness, some sense that if things are wrong someone will notice and step forward to do something about it. On some level this is still my sensibility.

I have written in passing about the lunch tables– the now-segregated lunch tables at my daughter’s school and perhaps I will write more.  If it weren’t a set of young people involved whose parents should give permission, I’d go and take some pictures of these beautiful, lively girls and boys– arranged now so carefully with, for the most part, dark-skinned children together at one set of tables and white children at another set of tables.  They are laughing and tossing things and telling and shouting and generally having a good time–with some food-trading and some eating in the mix of the scene.  But things have happened and the effects of racism and its enforced divisions have sunk in and been absorbed and for the most part the children eat separately divided by race and by class.

I had hoped for better in the world by now– hoped that things wouldn’t look quite so starkly like this for children 10 years old.  But if you came to our school at lunch time with your eyes open you could see for yourself that racism and the resulting divisions according to race–are alive and well at this good school.

Toward the very beginning of this blogging project I wrote a piece called Student Council, third grade.  I cried while I wrote that piece and I cried many times as I talked to people about the incident I had written about– my daughter literally saying to me that she guessed you “have to be a different kind of person” to get elected to student council– and then naming by name– the young people who were the “different kind of person” and all of them white people.

I cried because I was witnessing her sadness, her self-doubt, her internal struggle not to give up on what she wanted which was, on that day, to be able to run for student council and win.  And I knew that this wasn’t only, or even mostly a personal struggle, but something more like a tsunami of hundreds of years of mistreatment and racist laws and institutions and struggles that brought us and her to that day and her singular question about what kind of person can run for and be on the student council.  But she didn’t know that.  To her it just felt personal.

My heart broke that day and many times over after that day.  I don’t know what to do about it.  I have, as all of us do, an obligation to fix that situation and I have not fixed it.  As her mother, I don’t want the conclusions that seemed to be forming in her mind, to take hold of her brilliant and interesting mind in any way.  Preventing that is, in my mind, the battle alongside the battle to end racism forever.

Now time has passed, not a long, long time, but a significant amount of time in the life of a 10-year-old.

Yesterday she came home and told me about still another student council election.  This year she didn’t run for student council and she didn’t seem sad, she was pissed off.  She helped another friend of hers– another girl of color to run.  But still she said that everyone said (she mimicked jeeringly) that the smart kids should be on student council.  And again, when I asked who those kids are– it turns out the smart kids are all white, every single one.  Seven young people ran and three of the seven are girls of color– good friends of my daughter’s.  Three young people won and all of them are white.  My daughter told me of her efforts, some successful, to get others to vote for one her friends.  To my credit, I didn’t lecture her about not giving up.  I decided, to not even point out– at just that moment, that there is something else at play here.

Instead I listened.  And then I went and did a little research.  So here it is.  The demographics of her middle-of-the-city, “desirable and succeeding” urban school.  The student body of the K-8 school is as follows: 662 students.  9% of the student body is black;  57% Latino;  3% Asian;  3% mixed race;  28% white.  So 72% of the students are young people of color and 28% are white young people.

Every year when the Student Council elections happen– with the exception of last year when she had a young, very aware, African-American guy as her teacher–she comes home and tells me about two or three white young people who got elected.  It’s the same young people, it’s different young people, but the demographics and the story are the same, year after year after year.  There is so much to this of course, that many, many books and academic papers fill our shelves and journals– but it comes down to racism and internalized racism and there’s not really a lot more to say on that front.

I mean, really– is this acceptable at our public school?  It cannot be acceptable. I have a lot to figure out, and that is indeed my job– as a white Jewish woman in this world and as the lucky woman who is the mother of my Chicana daughter.  I’d better get moving and for certain I’ll need your help.

5 responses to “Our neighborhood school, race and racism; by the numbers

  1. Thanks Laurs. A great post.

  2. Indeed, this is startling, because somehow I too had thought that things had changed. The numbers are telling, and infuriating and painful. It’s as if this is an invisible illness for which we cannot find a cure, but it is contagious and malignant. How to change these young people’s perceptions about who is worthy, who is smart, it’s as if some people are, by definition, and others aren’t, also by definition. How to make it different?

  3. Can you get this piece to the PTO–or school board? Letter to the editor? Just keep this conversation OUT THERE! Great work. You are the change you want to see in the world Mama!

  4. person of many colors

    as obama and every other politician will tell you, it’s not so much who people vote for but who votes. the turn out. did you assume voting for student council is mandatory? probably not. did you assume a majority of the voters were students of color, reflecting the underlying demographics? probably not. the students of color, if they all voted and voted for persons of color, would outweigh the white-on-white voters. but they typically vote in smaller percentages, thus allowing the influence of the smaller segment of white voters to ‘rule’. why? they’re not invested in the system. they’re ‘apathetic’, ‘alienated’. they don’t think it — student council or voting itself — is THEIR system, their culture. and if they’re daniel najjar they really don’t comfortably identify with any aspect of public school whatsoever — organized athletics, grade competition, interest clubs, heterosexual flirtation, cafeteria cuisine, english literature, science experiments, the year book.

    the shrewd politician spends a great deal of time and money, lots of it, getting the RIGHT voters registered and to the polls. if your daughter and the students of color want to succeed, they would likely have to do the same: wage a campaign to convince the disaffected to vote. convince them that they would somehow benefit from achieving even a single rep on the council or — go for broke — a complete council takeover. but it’s a tough sell. especially if the student council really has no granted powers to make changes for the students. i won’t vote for obama because he’s not visited one person of color in prison and never will.

    • Lots of things to say on all that. Voting isn’t compulsory as far as I know but these 5th graders are not alienated. Not yet. They are still hopeful that these processes belong to them. I know most of them fairly well. They vote in class with a show of hands and I hear that they all vote and many are hopeful about participating. If they are denied participation long enough– and they’ve been facing this for awhile– some of them will be alienated in the way you describe. For me it’s not that these systems, institutions or ways of doing things are at all sacred– many/ most should be changed– but I want them all hopeful about themselves, about their own minds and about being able to make things that work for them– so in my mind their claiming these processes as their own is part of being able to change them (the processes and institutions), but maybe it doesn’t work that way. Anyway thanks for speaking some of your mind and history with all that.

      Love, L

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