28 Jun

Watch out, I’m getting political.

Okay, I’m trying to begin to articulate some of the issues I’ve seen in past years with race and privilege, and much of my summer research is revolving around this stuff, so I figure I might as well share it. These arguments are in their infancy, but by trying to express them, I hope to get closer to making sense.

“You know, talking about race makes people uncomfortable.” — Kathleen Brose, parent who sued Seattle Public Schools over the district’s race-based balancing of school diversity.

Outside of the U.S. it’s easy to see the lack of political engagement of US citizens. Here, it’s a cultural trend to be apathetic toward social issues and toward the leadership of the country. Yes, we have talk radio and blogs and news, but in how many families is injustice a topic of conversation at the dinner table? I know that when my relatives all get together, we don’t talk about Darfur or Iraq. We tend to focus on more personal stories – what happened to us at the grocery store, how we got locked out of our car, those sorts of things. Not that such topics are a problem. But it might be a problem that political discussions are compartmentalized in this country, seen as only appropriate in certain limited contexts, and not a central part of our social lives.

If anything, new media – like podcasts and blogs and youtube – show what we actually thirst for discussions of political/social issues. Though the discussion are not often very civil on the web, people are indeed interested in more than just dramatic prairie dogs. A recent viral video proves that the internet community’s interests are about: it’s a clever little mockumentary called “Teenage Affluenza Is Spreading Fast.” Interestingly enough, it addresses the topic of disengagement. In fact, it ends with the lines, “Do something else. Do something real. Do something.” It’s a call to action for us wealthier, citizens to do something to help out the poorer people of the world. It doesn’t say how, and that’s another discussion. But it’s effective at least in making its point: we should keep our affluence in perspective.

I saw the video for the first time today, just after hearing news about the Supreme court decision to reject using race as a factor in school placement. On an NPR radio segment, they interviewed a Seattle parent who was among those who got this case rolling in the first place. It was an interesting juxtaposition – the ironic affluenza video vs. the disgruntled white woman. Here’s an audio clip of the interview with the parent.

I don’t disagree entirely with this mother. The Seattle system of school placement is certainly not flawless, but what’s implied (not stated outright) in her explanation of her daughter’s legitimate complaints about the school placement is that the family ultimately ended up opting for a private school. (** Turns out I’m wrong about this. The daughter stayed in a public school. **) And they sued.

Clearly they have money and power, a combination which often results in getting your way.

As a high school teacher, I see this sort of thing all the time. Wealthy – often white – parents occasionally like to “fight for their rights.” I’ve endured insulting meetings in which I had to justify why a student earned a B+ rather than an A in my class. I’ve had people in my neighborhood come to my door asking me to sign a petition to prevent the school district from re-drawing the district boundaries so that the children on the west side of such and such a street would be moved to an Inferior School. And I’ve seen how year after year, the district’s budget crisis puts the strings program on the chopping block and how at the last minute, it’s always saved by the parents’ campaigning at school board meetings. Meanwhile, special ed programs get cut and sports fees increase.

The less power-savvy parents don’t know how to talk to the principal or the school board to get their way. They don’t go in to school and talk to their kid’s counselor to change his schedule. They often don’t have the time to go into school (because they’re working jobs with less flexible schedules). And many of them know that worse things can happen to you than not being allowed to attend your first choice high school.

The affluent(za) parents are often financially very secure. Many of the more active parents in the district don’t have full time jobs – or any real jobs as far as I can tell. So they have the time to complain. And they have lots of energy when it comes to fighting for their child’s privileges (not rights, actually).

I live in a liberal college town – one with plenty of Volvos and Subarus and backyard vegetable gardens. Occasionally, on one of those Volvos, you’ll see a bumper sticker that says, “Think globally, act locally.” I fully support that sentiment, but too often, the self-righteous parents who get their way at school board meetings fail to follow the admonition. They think locally. Which is why our city remains very segregated and why our state has been rated as one of the worst places in the country to live for African-Americans.

It’s the sense of entitlement and the fighting for privilege amongst the already-privileged class that ultimately institutionalizes racism in places as high up as the US Supreme Court.

2 thoughts on “Watch out, I’m getting political.

  1. Tim – Just read this blog on 8/8/07.

    You don’t have the correct facts. My children have always been in the public schools. We never left. By the way, my daughter did not get her first, second or third choice of high schools. She was assigned to her fourth choice school. It didn’t have an orchestra, so she actually went to her 5th choice high school.
    The school wasn’t a good academic fit for her and we had her tranferred to another high school the next year. It isn’t a crime to advocate for your child, regardless of your income.

  2. I stand corrected on the public/private school thing. Like I said at the beginning of this post, my thoughts on this are still in their infancy, so I’m not sure what the best solution is. You’re right, Kathleen. It’s not a crime to advocate for your child.

    On the other hand, it still remains true that those who do advocate are mostly the parents with more money. I wouldn’t really suggest that you not fight for your child. I just lament the outcome. The Seattle schools need to do something about their district lines, but for this all to end with a supreme court decision that bars race from being a criterion for districting is unfortunate. I just think some more creative solution could have arisen from this debacle.

    Full integration of society will necessitate a clumsy, imperfect period of time, during which those who had the benefits and privileges will have to sacrifice some things.

    Given, it’s asking a lot to have a child need to attend five schools as her form of sacrifice. That, I agree, is excessive. But this whole thing raises some other questions about schooling. Shouldn’t every school have an orchestra? Why does equal opportunity remain a myth in education? Why does Portland, OR — a city which prides itself on its diversity — have a high school where something like 85% of the students are black? And don’t we have to consider race in our schools if we’re going to change the status quo?

    In my district, not in Seattle’s, I see so many wealthy, white parents whose idea of advocacy involves not just telling me how to teach and grade my students, but also telling department chairs whether their curriculum is acceptable and telling administrators how the schools should be run.

    Race is the liberal “elephant in the room.” People don’t talk about it. And in more liberal towns like Seattle and Portland and Madison, the issue has suffered from its not being talked about. The colorblind approach that liberals have taken for decades is not working.

    I don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps we could come up with “community advocacy,” in which parents who know how to advocate (fairly) and who have some time and resources to do so can “adopt” a student on free and reduced lunch (kinda like a Big Brother/Sister thing). It’s not a problem that parents advocate for their children, but it tends to perpetuate economic disparities.

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