Monday, September 1, 2008

Separate. Equal? No way, build that bridge!

There is a really difficult situation boiling in Nashville.  The school board there is about to re-segregate, to a large degree, the urban, poor schools.  I’d like to share with you some of what shapes my perspective that this remains a radical injustice in US society.

I was visiting with a man (RS) out in the burbs recently that, as it turns out, grew up near where we live.  He lived in Roseland (south of here around 95th street) in the mid 1960’s.  His family was one of the last white, mostly Dutch, families to move away as the neighborhood became black. 

He shared with me about his very difficult high school experience in which he was one of 23 white students in a school of about 3000.   He shared with me how these years engendered bitterness and bigotry.   As the year passed he found a way out of that set of attitudes. The Lord worked in his life to show him a perspective on urban youth that attend racially and economically isolated schools – he understands what they face in a very real way.

My son Jared, for the past 2 years, has had that experience, being one of 3 white kids in a school of about 850.  Jared’s experience, however, was very different.  Jared’s experience was extremely positive.  He loved the school, his teachers and classmates seem to love him as well. 

Recently we decided to take Jared out of the school to finish his HS career at home. The reason has to do with our family process and desire to see him graduate a year early and to spend a year traveling abroad (or some other adventure) next year.  

At any rate, the principle, a terrific guy, really tried to convince us to leave him in the school.  When we inquired as to why (we thought it might be an anti-homeschooling perspective) he spoke about the value Jared’s classmates got from interacting with him.  He was perhaps the only white kid they would know up close before walking into college where they would, in most instances, face a majority white classroom and school.   He spoke about the value in simply interacting with his worldview, his value system, his way of thinking.  All good we thought.

Then I spoke with RS and as he was telling me his story he talked about how when he went away to college in Iowa, and walked into his first class (450 white freshman) he just about panicked!  “How am I going to compete? I don’t know the rules for a place like this!”  Self doubt overwhelmed him.  And he was white! 

I put the two stories together and realized that the principle was really putting his finger on something of value in my son’s presence in the school.  The real point, however, was not so much about my son (although I’ll brag all day about him!) but that desegregating schools (both racially and economically) has real empowerment and justice implications.

So when I read the article about what is happening in Nashville, I saw again how the old system of separating out society both by race and by class is devastating.  Of course we also see this in our community.  Our neighborhood schools are much like those in Nashville, except they are already (still) segregated and (with few exceptions) failing our students. 

RS also spoke to me about how he walked from his block, which was still primarily white, crossing over a bridge in the black neighborhood.  Each day the trouble of that school was mitigated to some degree in his life as he crossed that bridge back into a more balanced community.  A resourced community.

But, as RS pointed out so aptly, most of these kids don’t have a bridge.