Barack, me… and institutional racism in schools

March 23, 2008 at 3:46 am Leave a comment

Homage to a Square (yellow)

BARACK OBAMA and me both spoke out to demand a conversation on the issue of race this week.

My own contribution was greeted with embarrassed, near silence.

Barack’s speech, however, was justly hailed as a “landmark” by The Washington Post.

The New York Times reported Obama “a living bridge between whites and blacks still divided by the legacy of slavery and all that came after it,” who delivered a speech that “addressed the politics of race in straightforward terms that seemed intended to keep the discussion grounded in the realities of the moment”.

A CBS News poll reported an approval rating of seven-out-of-ten for the speech.

I, meanwhile, spoke briefly at an evening meeting at a local middle school before fewer than a dozen educators taking a school leadership course.

Howard, a colleague from the Urban League of Portland, reviewed just-released depressing data from the UL’s annual The State of Black America 2008 report, and we showed Grandma Zula’s Legacy, a documentary about the moving and difficult history of African-Americans in Portland.

The UL’s annual barometer of the collective effects of institutional racism and outright racism in the US confirmed:

❏ While the real median household income for all Americans has dropped, the poverty gap between blacks ad whites has widened with nearly three times as many African-Americans than whites living below 125% of the poverty line.

❏ The number of recent African-American high school graduates enrolling for college dropped from 63% to 56%, while the corresponding rate for whites increased from 69% to 73%.

❏ Mortgage application denial rates for blacks, already twice that of whites, increased by more than 3 percentage points.

Now the purpose of this blog is not to be sanctimonious or sniffy. But just to point up how difficult talking about the issue of race remains in America today. Finding the right words for a dialogue across the racial divide can be a struggle, most are desperate not to repeat words and associations and connotations that have caused so much damage in the past. Or, just to avoid those embarrassing gaffes you make when you’re nervous.

My own qualification for talking on the issue is tenuous. I’m white, so at best slot into the category of well-meaning white liberal. Yes… I too am a little suspicious of white liberals pontificating on the issue of race, coming as I do from various more radical -isms than liberalism. I defer to my partner who is African-American, and my children who are both black.

On embarrassment and nervousness… when my dear mother first met my beautiful black girlfriend (now my wife of 22+ years) with jewels in her braids and African silver on her wrists, she proudly announced as they watched the BBC that The Black and White Minstrel Show (this was 1985) was her favorite. My mother had never had a black person in her house before. Such cringe-making tales are the memories of every mixed-heritage relationship. My mother and her daughter-in-law now get on famously.

The UL and I had been asked to say a few words as this year we’ve worked together, along with our school principal and some other teachers, to try to support my school’s Black Student Union and facilitate black parents organizing a support group.

We chose to try to briefly point up the issue of institutional racism, how institutions can unwittingly discriminate through policy, assumptions and uncritical practice.

“Institutionally racist” was how Sir William Macpherson of the UK had branded the London Metropolitan Police in his report addressing a catalog of police incompetence and mismanagement — which many claimed was fueled by racism, corruption, bribery and deliberate sabotage — during the bungled investigation of the 1993 race-hate killing of 18-year-old student Stephen Lawrence by a white-supremacist gang well known to the police.

While the names of Stephen’s killers are in the public domain — Brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson, David Norris and Luke Knight — none has been charged with the murder. The Met continues to deny to this day that corruption or racism affected the investigation, and that action against the known five thugs is not possible.

Macpherson concluded institutional racism was “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”, which “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.

Stokely Carmichael had used almost exactly the same definition.

But Macpherson’s report did change British policing.

As in most other schools, I imagine, there are statistics that show we may not always be getting it right. In my school’s case, the referrals given to African-American students by a mostly white teaching workforce seem to be disproportionately high. This may indicate a problem worthy of some discussion. It does not indicate that individual teachers harbour racist attitudes, or are racists. But it does indicate that the school as a whole needs to examine its collective cultural awareness, assumptions and practices.

The fact that after these figures were announced a senior administrator felt the need to apologize to the staff for raising the issue, shows there most definitely is an issue to be addressed. The focus became one of the administrator’s manner of raising the problem… not the disproportionate number of referrals. Needless to say, neither issue has been raised since. Silence.

That’s institutional racism.

Race is not an easy subject to discuss. It often ends in a diversion rather than a discussion. The tantrum of the offended white, with the how-dare-you-call-me-a-racist type of response. Or, the counter accusation that it is the blacks who are really the racists.

Or, the the blacks are playing-the-race-card jibe.

Then there’s the chip on the black shoulder. Why don’t they take the opportunities open to them… this is a land of opportunity. Wy can’t they be more like us. Stop whining.

Even in success, there’s often little credit… often just snide pointers to affirmative action (ignoring the traditional affirmative action programs of the white middle-class which have repeatedly ensured privileged places for otherwise failures… right up to sitting in the Oval Office).

In discussions about race it’s usually the blacks that get the blame. Blacks may have been racism’s victims — racism as an ideology was invented in a bid to maintain the continuing support of poor whites, in particular, for a system of divide and rule at a time when many poor whites were realizing it undermined their interests as well as crushed those of the blacks — but it’s still the Blacks’ fault.

Meanwhile the insensitivities that compound the issue continue.

After the student newspaper at the majority-white Oregon State University in Corvallis carried a picture of a white student with a minstrel-like blacked up face, the paper’s editor rounded on her critics for not having a sense of humor. Students turned up for a football game wearing Afro-style wigs as well as blacked-up faces. The Corvallis campus was later the scene of a noose hanging that was allowed to stay up for days. Other nooses appeared at Central Michigan University, Columbia University, and the University of Maryland at College Park.

This was when the national headlines were dominated by the Jena six outrage of black students being accused of attempted murder and being jailed after fighting broke out after three nooses were hung from the “white tree” in their school.

In Mississippi and the south killings of civil rights workers of the ’60s are still unprosecuted and unresolved.

The lynchings have never been acknowledged as murder and the terrorism of one community against another. These cowardly mob murders have never been even contemplated as worthy of some of justice by the majority community… even though their perpetrators often posed for gloating group photographs that are still easily found in the records of numerous newspapers. And people wonder why blacks can still be angry? Many families still mourn the victims.

Little mention of the legalized discrimination in house loans, red-lining, bigotted judges, planned neglect of black neighborhoods, racism in the jobs market…

Collectively America, has been, and still appears to be, reluctant to discuss the issue. It’s the elephant in the room. And the elephant is smashing up the whole house. The whites fear the guilt and resent the potential accusations. The blacks hold in the anger and then get fed-up with what feels like a waste of time.

Perhaps there needs to be some form of Truth Commission, as there has been in both South Africa and Northern Ireland: a sort of putting all the cards on the table. A massive clearing of the air.

My partner worked for years in the UK on tackling racism and racism awareness training, particularly organized by the trade union movement. Post-Macpherson, such training is now often mandatory in the UK, in police forces for instance, and is increasingly accepted as part of the tool-kit for any self-respecting HR department.

Her recollection is clear: Little could be achieved until participants had had many hours of getting know each other, gently edging themselves forward into a safe space. Such courses rarely ran for less than three days, and more often a week. Even then the weight of personal history and the tension for many was too much. Finding the words that could express and overcome decades of fears, misunderstandings, misconceptions, accusation and counter-accusation was often too much.

Brits and Americans have been bequeathed a similar legacy of history. The wealth of the UK and the privilege of its white majority population were built on slavery in the Caribbean, the stripping of the resources of India and thieving the output of cheap labour across an empire.

The exploitation of people of color fueled an industrial revolution and provided the capital that underpinned the British economy and the life-styles of its middle and ruling classes until well after the second world war. The British flag is still reviled across much of the world with good reason.

So, it was good to be invited to speak at the local middle school this week for an hour. Me and my friend Howard stumbled in our delivery, forgot to say what we meant to say and badly expressed what we did say.

Our audience, sitting as far away as possible, engrossed and fumbling continuously with a textbook in one case, and in embarrassed, eyes-down silence in others, sat and listened… or just endured. It was the start of a difficult dialogue for us all.

So, how much more impressive was it for a mixed-heritage black American to stand up for an hour on his own without notes or prompter, in the glare of lights and TV cameras, with pundits waiting to pounce, and try to find the words to create the safe space for black and white to start to have the conversation. He did it well, brilliantly.

The least we can do is read Barack Obama’s speech. And quietly sleep on it.

Post-script: Taking the lead from me, Howard and Barack and this blog, The Oregonian also addressed the issue in an article entitled Race remains a touchy subject even in progressive Portland and carried a fact-box on entitled Why we avoid the issue


Entry filed under: Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , , , .

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