Reflections on Race @ High School Graduation

Discussion in 'Et Cetera, Et Cetera' started by Principessa, Jun 16, 2007.

  1. Principessa

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    At graduation, reflections on race
    By Jim Sollisch, Wed May 30, 4:00 AM ET



    My wife's daughter Kaley just graduated from Cleveland Heights High School, a fine school in one of America's best inner-ring suburbs. She's our third child to graduate from Heights High. During the first two graduations, I found myself engaged in an odd activity, best described as counting.

    The sentimentalists among you will assume I was counting my blessings. And we, as a family, have many to count. The parents of overachievers will assume I was counting the honors my children have won and calculating their place in the academic hierarchy. Nope. I was counting the numbers of whites, blacks, and Jews receiving diplomas.
    This is a habit I've had since my first kid entered kindergarten 15 years ago. I counted my way through second grade recorder recitals, field trips, choir concerts, school plays, baseball games, and awards assemblies.
    Conditioned to count colorsIt's a conditioned response to sending your white, Jewish children to large public schools that are predominantly black. Conditioned by neighbors who are planning to move to a community with "better" schools. By empty nesters who wonder what happened to the schools they sent their children to. By the local media who mention the racial makeup of the schools every chance they get.

    Even by the dumbest of standards – state standardized tests – Cleveland Heights High School is solid. By more reasonable standards – such as quality of teachers, number of Advanced Placement classes, and extracurricular activities – they are excellent.

    But when a school system is predominantly black (the high school is 80/20 with a tiny fraction of Jews) in a community where whites are still the majority, racial makeup is the elephant in the room of almost every conversation about the schools. For white parents and for black parents.
    And so we all count, wondering where the tipping point is amid an influx of low-income black families. Many middle- and upper-middle-class families, both black and white, flee the schools early on. Others keep their kids in the elementary and middle schools, where there's more racial balance, then bail out at ninth grade.

    Many of my white friends who have kept their children in the schools are self-described liberals who desperately want to be colorblind but find themselves counting, like a tic, against their will.

    What we've learned is that it's easy to talk about ideals such as a colorblind society when you're in the majority. But minorities know that being blind to color isn't an option. And because of our decision to keep our kids in the schools, we are minorities. And so we keep counting.
    I'd like to list here the many rewards our kids have received from experiencing minority status, but I'm not sure they're very tangible.
    Getting to know black cultureThey certainly got to know black American culture. Unlike their counterparts in mostly white suburbs, our kids know that black culture is far from monolithic. Blacks are as diverse as whites. (And by extension, I hope our children have learned that the same is true of every minority group). They come in all the same shades of rich and poor, artsy and athletic, religious and nonreligious, nerdy and cool, gay and straight, with collars that are white and blue.

    This idea, that blacks aren't a homogenous group, seems so obvious. But for most whites who've led segregated lives, it's something they understand only intellectually, which is to say they don't understand it very well at all.

    I know. It's taken me years to learn. And I learned it slowly, from interacting with black parents at school committees, play dates, and sports events. By working together on school levy campaigns and local not-for-profit boards. By complaining together about a baseball coach; by working side by side at fundraisers. I learned slowly, but I'm glad I got to learn.

    Our daughter Kaley's graduation represented something of a graduation for me, too. Instead of counting the students' skin colors as I used to, I began to count the students I knew.

    I counted graduates who were bound for Ohio universities versus the number of kids going out of state. I counted honor students and jocks, artists and slackers – all of them just kids who grew up with our daughter, who went to our community high school with her. And it was the most beautiful graduation I've been to yet.


    • Jim Sollisch is creative director for an advertising agency.
     
  2. NCbear

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    This reminds me of how much my hometown high school changed, after I graduated, once we got about 800 students from upper-middle-class to wealthy north Raleigh.

    I remember when the distinction was "city" versus "country," and how everyone was poor or middle-class, with only a handful of people living in really nice houses near golf courses with parents working as investment bankers or some such. The pretentious people -- the guy who drove his dad's late 1970s Jag around on the days it wasn't in the shop -- were laughed at.

    Also, it didn't matter what your skin color or socioeconomic status was -- you still had a chance to be a notable, whether academically or athletically, and you still got your picture in the hometown paper.

    All of that changed the year after I graduated. About 800 new students (most of them white, some of them Asian, but all from north Raleigh) were bused to my hometown high school. All of a sudden, there were
    • no black faces in the drama club
    • no black faces in the Student Council
    • no black faces as Homecoming King or Queen or in the court
    • no black faces in the pictures of people receiving scholarships and going on to four-year colleges and universities
    • no black faces in the profiles of Who's Who Among American High School Students
    But there were, for the first time,
    • funds for a new auditorium
    • funds for several new classroom buildings
    • funds for new activity buses
    • funds for a new athletic facility
    • funds for new science laboratories and the equipment to fill them
    • funds to provide Advanced Placement courses
    It was an object lesson in the intertwined politics of class, race, and education in the South.

    Now, I live in the most segregated city of its size in North Carolina (Winston-Salem) and work at an HBCU (the acronym stands for Historically Black College or University). There's a lot of interest here in establishing and maintaining access to a quality K-12 education, regardless of socioeconomic status or skin color.

    I hope our solution will have more of a positive effect for schoolchildren from a group of people who've been underserved for centuries by their own country.

    NCbear (who hopes he has not hijacked this thread, but who saw one point of common interest in the article NJQT quoted)
     
  3. SpeedoGuy

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    Both captivating posts. Thanks.
     
  4. HotBulge

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    Well, it's a classic case of "people will only take care of their own". In the US, "one's own" has often been narrowly defined, and it's not the intentional racism that's currently a problem. It's the benign neglect. Hurricane Katrina served as a good reminder of the lesson of "benign neglect" with "the others" who are living down the street/across the neighborhood/on the other side of town as us.
     
  5. Principessa

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    *bump*
     
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