Lynnell Mickelsen is a long-time progressive activist who lives in Minneapolis and blogs about education at putkidsfirstmn.org.
By Lynnell Mickelsen | Originally published in MinnPost on 02/23/15
Here’s a modest education proposal for my fellow white people, especially my fellow lefties in Minneapolis: What if we stopped talking about how to fix African-American and Latino kids and worked on fixing white progressives instead?
I know. It sounds crazy. But stay with me, beige people.
We’ve spent years — nay, decades — bemoaning our achievement gap in which white kids in Minneapolis are mostly doing fine while less than 30 percent of black and Latino kids are working at grade level; less than 48 percent graduate on time, etc.
Children of color now make up 67 percent of our enrollment in Minneapolis. (Vocab reminder to the Greatest Generation: This why we can’t call them “minorities” any more.) So you’d think the mass failure of the majority of the city’s school children would be a moral emergency. As in something that demanded bold action.
After all, if white kids were failing at these rates, we’d have already redesigned the schools to work better for them. We’d have changed the teachers, administrators, length of the school day or year or curriculum and anything else. Because if white kids were failing en masse, we’d demand a big fix of the education system.
But when nonwhite kids are failing, we tend to instead discuss how to fix brown children and their allegedly … ahem … chaotic families, which is white code for screwed-up. This is an attractive discussion for us because:
a) We get to feel compassionate and superior at the same time, which is always a rush;
b) Poverty and chaotic families can indeed hurt academic achievement. (Note to Republicans: You’d have more credibility on education reform if you stopped trying to shred every social safety net.)
c) It plays into one of the oldest and most unexamined American beliefs — namely that When Bad Things Happens To People of Color, It’s Mostly Their Own Fault, (IMTOF) which runs from our early origins up to the present. Hence the idea that Africans were mentally inferior and thus fit for slavery. That Michael Brown shouldn’t have been walking in the middle of the street. And that brown kids fail because their chaotic, screwed-up parents don’t value education enough.
A rush into resignation
Unfortunately, when white people blame the achievement gap almost entirely on poverty and dysfunctional families, they don’t tend to rush into bold action. Instead, they rush into resignation. Which is understandable. Most of us don’t believe poverty will end in our lifetime. And we don’t know how to fix our own dysfunctional families, much less anyone else’s.
So with all of these assumptions, it’s easy to quietly conclude (consciously or not) that the academic failure of black and Latino kids is tragically … normal. Brown kids flunk out. They’ve been doing it forever. It seems to naturally happen, sort of like the law of gravity. And until the coming of Scandanavian-style socialism (which I’m all for), we can’t do much about it.
This is a classic white liberal approach to the achievement gap, which conveniently lets our public institutions, our political leaders and our own culpability as voters off the hook.
Let’s ponder this politically for a minute. In Minneapolis, we have a publicly funded school district with a $543 million annual operating budget that delivers starkly different outcomes based on race. As a lifelong DFLer, I’d expect my political tribe to be all over this issue. After all, we’re the ones who proudly march for voting rights and gay marriage and go to all those Martin Luther King Day breakfasts. Yet our DFL leaders continually defend, protect and enable a status quo whose results resemble those of the Jim Crow era.
Why do they do this?
Sure, the teachers unions play a big role. They are the biggest contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. They can act very much like the National Rifle Association when it comes to blocking even the most common-sense reforms. But I think the real problem goes far deeper than this.
Through the lens of history
“America was built on the preferential treatment of white people — 395 years of it,” wrote Atlantic Monthy editor TaNehesi Coates, in his recent award-winning article on reparations. “Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.”
Let that first sentence sink in. Coates is not talking about individual, conscious racism. He’s talking about 400 years of discrimination baked so deeply into our collective DNA and public institutions we don’t even see it, which is precisely how white privilege works. If Coates is right — and I think any serious reading of history backs him up — this preferential treatment also applies our public schools and their unions.
In Minnesota, our schools were basically created by white middle-class people, for white middle-class people and employ mostly white middle-class people. (Ninety-six percent of our state’s teachers are white, even as children of color now make up 28 percent of the enrollment. In Minneapolis, about 85 percent of our classroom teachers are white, even though 67 percent of their students are not.)
In addition, current school rules, policies and contracts are decided by … Lord, this is getting repetitious … mostly middle-class white people. Poor parents of color do not sit in our legislature, school boards or union negotiating committees. In Minneapolis, liberal white DFLers occupy almost all those seats
Unsurprisingly, white middle-class children and their families tend to thrive in a system designed around their needs. In Minneapolis, white middle-class kids tend to have the highest-paid teachers and the best access to advanced courses, performing arts and extracurricular activities. They are also far less likely than kids of color to be suspended, expelled or identified as emotionally disturbed or mentally disabled.
I am not arguing that public schools in Minneapolis were deliberately, consciously set up for the preferential treatment of middle-class white people. But pragmatically speaking, that’s how the system works on a daily basis.
Harder to justify
This was easier to ignore or justify back in the day when the vast majority of students were white and doing OK. But it’s harder to morally justify when the majority of students are now low-income kids of color and systematically failing. I mean, the whole system starts getting this antebellum vibe.
Anyhow, add it all up and it’s a little weird that we progressives spend so much time talking about fixing brown people as opposed to the public institutions we’ve created for them and still control.
In Minneapolis, we actually, honestly could change our schools to work better for our kids of color. But this would involve asking mostly white middle-class administrators, teachers and employees to change their work lives — i.e. their schedules, assignments, job locations and even pay — around the needs, comfort and convenience of low-income people of color and their children.
And OMG, This. Just. Isn’t. Done. It’s also precisely where most of our DFL legislators, labor allies and a whole lot of white progressives suddenly jump off the social-justice and racial-equity bus. I mean, we’re willing to sing “We Shall Overcome,” denounce racism and march against poverty. But to go against the preferential treatment of white people especially when that means people like us or our friends or allies!?
Beige people, we’ve got some fixing to do.