Monday, December 12, 2016

Our Schools and Prejudice: The Need to Connect

Three articles in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times this week resonated strongly with me in this time of greater and greater division in my country. First was a report by Ben Austin on Violence and Division on the South Side of Chicago, which reported on efforts to get some dialogue going between the mostly minority inhabitants of the South Side of Chicago and the mostly white area of Mount Greenwood, just adjacent to it. The area has been the sight of protests, sometimes violent, in the wake of a killing of a Black man by a white police officer. A small group from both sides of the issue are working to get a conversation on race and prejudice and "Black Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter" going. Progress has been difficult, but at least the discussions have started.

Next came a piece by Heather C. McGhee titled, "I'm Prejudiced", He Said. Then We Kept Talking. This was the remarkable account of the author, the president of Demos, a public policy organization, and a man named Garry who called into a show on C-SPAN to make the startling confession of the title. The caller asked for help with his prejudice. This led to several meetings with McGhee in which both of them learned a great deal about each other and about the character of prejudice itself. As McGhee puts it, "Gary asked, 'What can I do to change?'" and his ability to acknowledge the persistence of prejudice allowed her to answer.

Finally there was, The Roots of Implicit Bias", by Daniel A. Yudkin and Jay Van Bavel. Yudkin and Bavel assert that implicit bias is real, but it is not rooted in prejudice, so much as in the human tendency to divide the world into groups. In other words, what may appear as prejudice may actually be "a manifestation of a broader tendency to see the world as "us vs. them." The good news is that according to the author's research, implicit bias van be overcome by "rational deliberation."

These three articles, I think, point to both the great tragedy and the great potential of American society and, by extension, the great tragedy and great potential of the public school. In American society we are learning everyday of the toll we have paid through systematic efforts to divide us and see others as "them", those about whom we know little and with whom we share little. When I say this is deliberate, I mean that the segregation our society faces has been the deliberate result of economic and political forces that have conspired to keep the races separate. In our schools, it is no accident that once vibrant urban schools have fallen into disrepair. This is the result of white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s and then the deliberate under-funding of inner-city schools once those with political and economic clout had relocated outside the city. The movement toward charter schools in the cities has further segregated the public school community.

But as I look at these three articles, I can see how the public school can play a role in helping us improve this long-standing stain on the America of all of our imaginations. These articles suggest that what we need more than anything else to combat prejudice is to connect, to talk, and to deliberate.

I grew up in the 1950s in a segregated community. African Americans where prohibited, through tacit agreements between the builders and real estate agents, from buying homes in Levittown, PA. African American families were forced to live on the outskirts of town, in developments largely reserved for them. The first Black family to move into Levittown was greeted with angry protests and burning crosses. But Levittown's schools were integrated and I had the great good fortune to go to school with people of all races and colors. This allowed me to connect. To make friends across racial lines, to play ball and study and goof off and go to parties with all different kinds of people. The experience was absolutely formative. All of my classmates at Woodrow Wilson High School came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, and while there was not always unified agreement on all issues, the basic humanity and belief in the equality of all human beings was unshakable for that group.

With the highly segregated schools today, not only divided along racial lines, but also economic lines, these connections become harder to make. We need to come up with deliberate strategies that allow students from all different groups to connect. As long as neighborhoods are segregated along economic lines, this cannot happen, unless we begin to think of neighborhoods more broadly. Yes, I am talking about busing across school district lines to achieve a better racial balance. And yes, I am aware of the narrative that busing was tried in the 70s and failed. The truth is that busing did not fail. In the period when busing was prominent in the late 70s through the late 80s, the achievement gap in schools actually narrowed. It was only after reactionary forces declared busing a failure that the achievement gap and school segregation began to grow again. Busing did not fail, people failed and they failed because of a failure to connect with each other and to continue the dialogue on how to make it work. True integration of schools would help narrow the achievement gap and help children make the connections they need to learn to live with those other Americans they will be living with in the future.

In the meantime, if we cannot make these direct connections right away, we can certainly get some dialogue going between and among kids of all different races, religions and ethnicities through some basic technology. Lately, my wife and I have been thrilled to have Facetime available so that we can get periodic visits from our new grandson, Henry, who lives 1,000 miles away. Facetime allows for our regular Henry fix. Technology should allow children to connect across school district borders. When I was in 4th grade, my teacher arranged for us to have pen pals from Germany. It was a powerful learning experience that led me to study German culture and language in high school. If pen pals during the snail mail era can make powerful connections, whole classrooms, suburban and inner city, should easily be able to design and work together on all kinds of projects that open them up to dialogue and understanding. This seems to me to be a way to truly use technology to advance learning in a large way. If we are up against artificial borders that limit dialogue, why not use technology to break down those borders. This seems like a smart way for Bill Gates to spend his education dollars.

Third comes rational deliberation. If any place is well suited to rational deliberation it should be the school (I know, many things going on in schools these days hardly seem rational or deliberative, but still...). If it is true that human beings have implicit bias, it is also true that school children have an innate sense of fairness. They want to be treated fairly. They want their classmates to be treated fairly. The get indignant when they sense someone is not being treated fairly. We can build on this through what we read, what we write, and what we talk about in class. Here is a great bibliography of books, divided by age groups, for addressing issues of race and prejudice. We need to read these books aloud to children and we need to assign them to be read. We need to be talking about these books with children and we need to provide the children opportunities to talk to each other about what they have read. We need to allow children to reflect on what they are reading in informal and formal writing activities. Deliberation is the essence of education. A child who deliberates on these issues, may grow into an adult who can deal with these issues in a deliberative manner.

Recent current events have exposed rifts in our society that many of us have had the luxury to ignore for the last many years. We can no longer ignore them. Fortunately, school is a good place to deal with them and school children are the ideal audience.