Recognizing White Priviledge

Bronx, NY, USA

We were just talking in class today about what Michelle Martin has been talking about all week on NPR’s Tell Me More. To be honest, we’ve been talking about it all summer, with some in our program having to really restrain themselves not to let talk boil over into rage. Is there still racism in America? Is there racial inequality? Is there still (or again) segregation in our schools? Is it inevitable? What can we do about it?

Of course there is. More black and Latino boys are diagnosed with Emotional Disabilities and ADHD than white boys, certainly more than girls. More black and Latino boys drop out. Why? Is it because of the culture of their communities, or the culture of their schools? We used to think it was the culture of the communities. Kids in urban, ethnic, poor neighborhoods grow up with families that don’t care about them, fill that gap with gangs and crime, and end up in prison or dead, right?

We watched “Waiting for Superman” today and we’ve been reading about the KIPP Academies and Uncommon Schools all summer long, and the reality today is that we cannot blame where they come from for the problems our kids have in schools. Schools across the country, many of them urban charters in low income, high crime neighborhoods, are proving that black and Latino boys, given the right instruction, can pass state exams at the same rate as white children. (Now, only about 20% of charter schools are more successful than your average public school, so I don’t want you to think “Waiting for Superman” is right about that … but he is right about a lot of things!)

Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, features prominently in “Waiting for Superman,” and he’s proven that schools and communities have to work together, from birth through college, to achieve wide-spread success. That doesn’t discourage me, though. I’m more convinced than ever that there are things I can do in my classroom that will have far-reaching effects. (I’m thinking about Kawthar and her sister…)

It makes me see my own youth and young adulthood with a lot more humility. Yes, I was most definitely discriminated against in grade school because of my lack of religion and because my parents were from out of state. I thought I was such a persecuted teenager. (What teenager doesn’t?) I had it so easy. I know this; I knew it before I came to New York City. I learned it in the Peace Corps, in Jordan, but all along I said, ‘Being poor in those places is so different from being poor in America!’ And it is. But I didn’t really realize until this summer just how difficult it was to be a poor black or Latino kid in America. And I’ve no doubt I’m only seeing the beginning of what will be a very enlightening–and probably heart-breaking–journey.

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