A while back, MinnPost reprinted my post, “Forget about fixing black kids. What if we fixed white liberals instead?” The piece got more than 100 comments. There was the usual thread of “You Ed Reformers Are Scott Walker Incarnate Bent On Destroying Public Education As We Know It.” But the very first comment read, “So what do we do today to make things better? What fix should we pursue this morning?”
Great question. Here are three suggestions:
a) Brush up on history. Specifically, go read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic Monthly and no, don’t blow it off based on the title. It’s a powerful piece of reporting and history that connects a lot of dots — as does Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which I also recommend.
b) Sit with it. Just sit with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece for a couple of days or a week or a month. Let that history roll around in your head and sink in.
I know. I know — this does not sound like an action plan. In fact, I feel a little fidgety just writing it down. White liberal activists like moi like to charge into action with a list of demands because, hey, we want to make the world a better place. Also, because we like to be in charge as well as star in our own racial justice dramas (which is how we end up with movies like “The Help” or “Mississippi Burning” — but I digress).
The problem with going this route is that we run the risk of replacing White Privilege 1.0 with White Privilege 2.0, which is why I suggest we also …
c) Support and listen. Support parents of color in their quest to improve their children’s education and schools. Which means listening to their stories and their ideas and trying to remove the political and institutional obstacles in their way.
Of course, there’s no monolithic opinion from any group of people on any topic. But in my experience, parents of color consistently say the following:
1) They want great public schools in their own neighborhood where their kids are safe, thriving and achieving academically. Period. Most parents don’t really care if these schools are the traditional district types or public charters. And they don’t necessarily care whether these schools are integrated or not. If they must, they’ll drive across town. But they’d prefer having a great school in their own neighborhood.
None of this should be surprising. White middle-class parents want the same thing and if they don’t have it, they move to a neighborhood or suburb where they can get it.
2) They want more teachers, administrators and staff who look like their kids and welcome their families. (White parents already have this.)
3) They want schools to stop over-suspending their children as well as over-identifying them for special education. (Most white parents don’t have to deal with this.)
There’s more, of course. And obviously my limited local experience can’t begin to take in the breadth of opinion within communities of color. But if you ask me to come up with some concrete ideas, parents of color repeatedly say they want these things and there’s a real sense of urgency about it.
Now contrast this with the concerns typically coming from aging liberals, labor allies and legislators from my beloved Democratic team, who tend to be overwhelmingly white. Within my tribe, there is a great deal of talk decrying “corporate” reform, “high-stakes” testing, “privatization” (i.e. the growth of public charter schools) and the various pathologies of poverty. We also talk a about wrap-around social services (which I think is a great idea) and wax nostalgic for schools where “the teacher’s voice is honored” and “childhood happens.” There’s a sense of urgency in protecting the current system; far less so for changing it.
Notice the difference between these two lists.
Now granted, we all live in our own little bubbles. I started out as a fervent defender of both the union and traditional district schools. I changed in part because I started listening to actual parents of color as opposed to assuming things about them. But who knows? I may now simply be in new reformy bubble and only listening to stories that reinforce my current beliefs.
But that being said, I have yet to hear a parent of color say they left a traditional district school because they didn’t like standardized testing or they wanted more social services. Instead, parents talk about leaving schools because the low achievement levels worried them and because the teachers, administrators, policies or building culture seemed indifferent or hostile to their children’s needs. Instead of decrying public charter schools, these parents often flee to them. If we want them to come back to traditional district schools, we need to create schools tailored to their needs as opposed to our own.
So in answer to “what do we do today to make things better? What fix should we pursue this morning?” I’d say, when in doubt, actually listen to the stories of parents of color — and follow their lead.
Lynnell Mickelsen is a long-time progressive activist who lives in Minneapolis and blogs about education at putkidsfirstmn.org.
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