Tackling the legacy of racism: miles to go before we rest

[Ed note: the following essay was posted on AnnArbor.com by MIPFS Executive Director Steve Norton in response to the online furor over efforts at Dicken Elementary to create support groups specifically for students of color. The original post, with comments, can be found here.]

Some thoughts regarding the uproar over the “African American Lunch Bunch” at Dicken Elementary in Ann Arbor:

Since I normally write about school policy and funding issues, I was reluctant to jump into this fray. So many people were making so many unfounded and poorly informed accusations, so quickly, that it was impossible to keep up. What really ought to be an open and honest conversation within the Dicken community was being caricatured and hyped by those eager to launch accusations of “reverse discrimination.” Commentators who counseled restraint and understanding were being drowned out by those eager to condemn the schools.

But I feel I cannot remain silent on this issue. There is an undertone to many of the comments on these stories that really disturbed me. It wasn’t so much open racism; that might have been easier to confront. Rather, it was an effort to deny any problem exists.

Readers unfamiliar with US history could be forgiven for reading these comments and concluding that the Rev. Martin Luther King had passed away in his sleep at a ripe old age, confident that the legacy of racism had been swept away for good. The subtext is that issues of race belong to the history books.

But it is not true. Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968 – when many of us with children in AAPS were in school ourselves. He was murdered because he had the temerity to speak out against the poison of racism and discrimination in this country and insist that the United States deliver on the promises inherent in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Moreover, he was murdered because he was dangerous to the status quo, winning the hearts and minds of people of many colors by basing his campaign for civil rights on the principles of non-violence and reconciliation. While much of the country mourned, some, even many, celebrated.

We are still coping with the legacies of racism and the search for justice. Even in the most extreme cases, justice has been a long time coming. The murderer of civil rights activist Medgar Evers managed to avoid justice from 1963 until 1994. Three civil rights workers trying to register blacks to vote in the South РChaney, Goodman, and Schwerner Рwere beaten and murdered in 1964. The man who planned and directed the murders (carried out by a group of Klansmen, some of whom were also law enforcement officers) was not convicted in court until 2005. These delays, lasting decades, didn’t happen because no one knew who perpetrated the crimes; it was because the authorities were unwilling or unable to seek justice for the victims because of the color of their skin. Fast forward to the present: less than two months ago, people ostensibly protesting the health care reform bill spat upon and hurled racist epithets at several Black members of congress as they walked to the Capitol.

So, does anyone still think we are “beyond” race?

Now take a look at the academic achievement of students from different economic and ethnic backgrounds. Even by the limited measure of standardized tests, we see that there is a complex relationship between poverty, race and school achievement. Clearly, economic background has a tremendous effect. But even when you look at children with similar family incomes, students of color lag behind. Part of the reason is that we do not start with a clean slate at birth. What we achieve is a combination of our own efforts and the foundation of culture and family history with which we start. My own family includes recent immigrants to this country, and poverty was a large part of their experience. My grandfather came to this country penniless and became an example of the American Dream in action. But no one told my grandfather that he could not do this, or go there, because of the color of his skin. He was not subject to the daily indignities of segregation or the soul-sapping weight of everyday racism. He pushed his kids to do well, and insisted they attend college – but he could also be secure in his belief that they had every chance to succeed if only they worked hard in school and afterward. Not everyone could believe in that future. For many Americans, especially African Americans, the doors to the future were more often locked than open.

Dr. King envisioned a future where each person was “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But he knew, as we should know, that making segregation and discrimination illegal is not enough. We are still early in the struggle to undo the legacy of more than three centuries of outright slavery or legal inferiority.

Perhaps the program at Dicken could have been structured differently. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it might have been more constructive for the African American aerospace engineer to visit the school and speak to all students, and then also meet with students of color to share his experiences. We need to encourage honesty, openness and learning for all students on these difficult issues.

But to condemn the school’s efforts to confront the legacy of racism, to say we have no obligation to tear down the barriers built by history, to say “just treat everyone the same and call it good,” is to be willfully blind to our nation’s history and the obligations it places upon us. There is still much work to be done. It must be done skillfully and fairly, but the work remains nevertheless. Otherwise, Dr. King’s sacrifice, and those of so many others, will have been in vain.