Race and Education. Some Thoughts, Post #pointergate

18 Nov

This is the first of two, maybe more, posts about education and the polarized debate surrounding it in Minneapolis. This post provides mostly background thoughts. Subsequent posts will deal more specifically with the recent Minneapolis School Board election.

A while back, right before the election, I said I would write up a fuller synopsis of the depressing Minneapolis School Board race and the broader issue of the polarization of the debate around education in Minneapolis. Then #pointergate happened. It wasn’t just that I was personally pretty preoccupied with that story and its impact on an organizational ally, Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), that kept me from writing this post. I saw in the first few days of that big story how united Minneapolis—and in fact Minnesota and the country—became around an issue having so deeply to do with racial divisions in society, and it was inspiring. And, as several friends mentioned on Facebook, it was nice to see Minneapolis coming together after the bitter divisions that the school board race surfaced (some might say caused, but I chose that word purposefully).

And so writing about difficult issues at a time of unity feels a little like knowingly taking on the role of Debbie Downer. Pointergate has made me think more deeply about the issue of education and the racial divisions of both our education system and the divisions caused by the proposed solutions to fix those problems. These posts are my sometimes sprawling thoughts on the issue of education in Minneapolis, why I think it has become so divisive, and how getting over our societal inability to deal openly with the issue of race is key to us moving forward collectively.

Naming race. This is my point of departure for connecting the two topics of pointergate and Minneapolis schools. What was so gratifying to many who fight for racial justice was the way in which a broad swath of the public immediately saw the story for what it was, the worst kind of race baiting. By blurring Navell Gordon’s face and merely identifying him as a convicted felon, erasing all context of what he and the Mayor were actually doing that day (getting out the vote in low income neighborhoods), KSTP made Gordon into the anonymous Scary Black Man, and people got that. In a state where it often feels exhaustingly difficult to discuss race, this remains amazing to me and it gives me hope. So often we are caught in the US in “OJ moments,” where the media story is about how differently different groups see the same situation. The universal condemnation of pointergate has been truly edifying on that point.

If you followed KSTP reporter Jay Kolls’ twitter meltdown on the first night of the broadcast saw that his defense was simple: I didn’t mention race! You guys are the ones bringing race up! It’s a particularly facile suggestion, that unless one actually mentions race then surely something isn’t about that. Kolls’ impulse, however, is a caricature of a real problem, an impulse to not mention race, to allow it to be subtext and not dealt and talked about openly. This seems especially true in Minnesota, where the mere mention of race seems, well, impolite.

Race and Education, Minneapolis and Everywhere

Very recent coverage of an issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools highlights, to my mind, the challenges and necessity of engaging deeply with race when it comes to education. On this week’s edition of the Wrong About Everything podcast, conservative Mike Franklin and I tussled over the recently announced suspensions policy of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The policy, which was immediately misrepresented and ridiculed as schools now need “permission” to suspend black and Latino students, actually states that the district will review, after the fact, the suspensions of students of color as a way of responding to an issue that is not unique to Minneapolis: the insanely disproportionate rates at which students of color, especially young black men, are suspended in public schools vis a vis their white counterparts. There are horror stories of children as young as pre-k receiving suspensions as discipline, even as studies show what seems so obvious: keeping kids from school does not help them learn. The less bombastic criticisms of the policy suggest there is a constitutional issue with only reviewing the suspensions of kids of color, made by Franklin on WAE and attorney Tom Corbett in the Star Tribune, suggest the policy won’t pass constitutional muster once the first white or Asian kid who gets suspended sues the district alleging her/his suspension is discriminatory because it wasn’t reviewed.

On the podcast Franklin suggests reviewing all suspensions, something I don’t disagree with but that I also think doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. His and others’ reaction seems to fundamentally rest on a discomfort with using race in the analysis at all. I’m left wondering, how are we to deal with issues of inequity and discrimination, if we do not look at race? And to Franklin’s credit, he does acknowledge that there actually does seem to be a problem with the suspensions of kids of color in MPS. I’m just not clear he or any other conservative would be satisfied with any proposed solution because it would necessarily require at some point looking at the race of students. (If you want to hear an in-depth, at times heart-wrenching account of the issue and its ramifications, listen to this episode of This American Life. It’s stunning.)

While I don’t pretend to have the perfect solution for this particular issue, the point I want to underscore is a simple one: discipline is just one of the many issues we cannot deal with if we try to do so without talking about race. We must deal openly with the fact that white kids and kids of color have fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in Minneapolis Public Schools and in Minnesota generally. That is the problem before us.

Why Do I Care?

People have asked me why education is an issue I have an opinion about. Some folks in the teachers’ union in Minneapolis have asked in a rather pointed way – this is our issue, why do you care? It’s a fair question I’m happy to answer because by some of the measures we traditionally define the issue, I don’t fit the bill of someone who should care about our schools. First, I have no kids (that’s best for everyone involved). Second, I’m the president of a union of janitors and security officers in the private sector. With the exception of security officers who work in Saint Paul Public Schools, SEIU Local 26 does not represent educators or support workers in schools.

So why do I care? The first reason is personal. Education opened doors for me that were not available to my parents, which is why they insisted that all of their children study and study hard. My siblings and I are the first generation of college graduates in our family, and my parents are very proud of that fact. And how did I, a kid from a family of very modest means, get a fancy Ivy League college education? First, a lot of debt that I will probably still be paying into retirement. But debt and scholarships is how I paid for it once I got in, and I got into a school like Yale because I was lucky enough to be educated in US public school system that succeeds where others do not, a school system where kids of color excel and where achievement and opportunity gaps are not the mammoth problem they are for here in Minnesota. My father was an enlisted soldier in the US Army, and so my entire schooling happened in Department of Defense Schools, first in Germany and then on a military base in Puerto Rico. Like so many who enter the volunteer army, my parents did so escaping poverty in the early 1960s. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam in combat. We were always very aware that the sacrifices our parents made they made so that we would have opportunities they did not.

The second reason I care is indeed professional. SEIU Local 26 is a union of janitors, security officers and window cleaners. The largest group, the janitorial division, is made up of members who come from all over the world. We have a fairly young membership. If you come to one of our member meetings, you will see small children running around; there is a lot of joy in the room. And when, over the years, I have asked members why they decided to make the difficult decision to come to a country whose language and culture is different from theirs, I most often hear my parents’ voices in theirs: I came to make a better life for my kids. For the members of Local 26, the “achievement gap” is not an abstract concept. Those are our kids.

In the next post, I will go more deeply into the polarized debate around education in Minneapolis and how an analysis of race, where we all challenge ourselves, is essential to solving the issues before us.

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