Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is Race Like a Cookie?

I admit it, I like food. Holidays, to me, are excuses to cook and eat. Some of my closest and most wonderful friendships revolve around food, and I can't help feeling (unfair though it may be) that people who don't relish food the way we do are suspect. As that great philosopher, Jack Black, said in School of Rock (years before eating was "discovered" in Eat, Pray, Love) "I like to eat.  Is that such a crime?"  

Along with appreciating actual food, I also enjoy the use of food as a metaphor for all kinds of stuff.  Life is like a box of chocolates, for instance.  In The R Word (my young adult novel, and yes, I am going to find a way to mention it in all of my posts from now on) I use food as a metaphor all over the place, and for decades people have been using food as a metaphor for race relations in the U.S.  It used to be said, for example, that American society was a melting pot, where all races would eventually melt together.  After a while that idea went out of fashion because it implied total assimilation.  Race is more like a salad, it was then decided, where all the vegetables lay around next to each other, the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes coexisting in a kind of raw food bliss.  That didn't exactly work either, though, because it implied a "separate but equal" mentality.  Oh, thought someone else (I don't know who), race is like a stew, where the ingredients blend together and give each other flavor,  but still remain true to their essence.  I've always liked that one.

Yesterday I had occasion to watch a friend eat one of those delicious black and white cookies pictured above.  I used to love those cookies back in New York -- I have a memory of buying them in the subway, but I'm not sure now if that really happened or if I'm making it up.  Anyway, wouldn't you know that this morning I came across an article about the problem with the "black/white binary" in critical race theory.  The author argues that seeing race as a black/white thing leaves out all the other people that have experienced racism, such as Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.  I have to admit that I'm guilty of thinking about race as a binary; you might even notice this in The R Word (you know, my young adult novel).  I'm not sure why, but I do tend to think about racism mostly in terms of black and white, even though I understand that people from many groups have and still do experience racism, and even though I've read some great books that explore racism from different perspectives (among them Kira Kira, The Absolute Diary of a Part Time Indian, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and, most recently, The Woman Warrior).  I'm not sure why I give in to black/white binary ideas about race so readily, but I think it might have to do with where and when I'm from. My very unscholarly observation is that when I was growing up in Queens there was sort of an assumed, mostly unspoken racial hierarchy.  Whites were on top, of course, and African Americans were on the bottom.  Hispanics and Asians flittered around somewhere in between, and I never thought about Native Americans at all. Like I said, this is not a scholarly assertion with supporting evidence, except for the fact that over the years my old neighborhood and the surrounding area have allowed access to Asians and Hispanics, but not to African Americans.  Not that there isn't racism against these groups (whites from that area talk about the "Asian Invasion," for example), but the fact remains that Asians and Latinos were allowed to buy property in the area, while African Americans were not.  Also, lots of whites still live there, which tells me that white flight has not been as big an issue there as it has been in other parts of New York (areas that were once white but are now almost completely African American).  So while I'm not denying that many groups have and still do experience discrimination, I do believe that black/white binary thinking about race exists for a reason. There's something to it, or at least there was when I was growing up in the northeast. I need to think more about this.

In the meantime, anybody want a cookie?

Monday, June 13, 2011

A New Twist on School Inequity

Educational inequity is nothing new.  In 1896 the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson  declared "separate but equal" schools were legal. Of course, schools were never equal, and finally, in 1954, through Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ruled that school segregation was illegal.  Hence, bussing came into being; in order to create racially integrated schools kids had to be bussed from different neighborhoods, since those neighborhoods were (and in many cases still are) segregated.  And we all lived happily every after, right?  Not exactly.  Through a series of more recent court decisions, bussing and the integration it ensured was no longer deemed mandatory, and, the saying goes, geography now does the work that the Jim Crow laws once did.  Racially segregated neighborhoods once again result in racially segregated public schools. Back to separate.  But are they equal?  

No.  Because of the way we fund (or in some cases, fail to fund) public education, poorer areas (mostly urban but some rural, too) have less money to spend on education, so their schools have fewer resources.  A pivotal scene in my young adult novel, The R Word, explores this inequity when the characters in the novel visit each others' schools.  Rachel, the white protagonist, is shocked and shamed to discover that her new friends' mostly African American, urban school is not so nice compared to her suburban school.  You see, she's always taken her school for granted -- it's just a "regular" public school, she's always thought.  I wrote that scene several years ago, and the sad fact is that school funding is more of an issue now than ever.  The slashing of state budgets around the country is hitting public schools everywhere, and especially hard hit are the already under-resourced urban schools. Well that's sad, you might be thinking, but what can you do?  We all have to tighten our belts in this rough economy.

As my mother used to say, one thing leads to another.  All this tightening of belts is leading to more and more privatization of public schools.  That means that private corporations running charter schools are taking over low-achieving urban public schools.  Governor Christie of NJ is proposing this, and, like educational inequity, it's nothing new.  It was done in Philly and other place years ago, with mixed results.  But did you know that in some places, like New York, privately run charter schools exist in the same building as the publicly run school?  And since the private corporations use private funds for these public charter schools (charter schools are free, public schools -- parents do not pay tuition), there's more money and more resources to be had. 

So now we have the odd situation of unequal schools housed in the same building.  As NAACP president Ben Jealous describes, "Classrooms with peeling paint and insufficient resources sit on one side, while new computers, smartboards and up-to-date textbooks line the other. One group of students is taught in hallways and cramped basements, while others under the same roof make use of fully functional classrooms."*  What does this have to do with racial inequity?  Are these schools racially segregated?  Not necessarily.  Most charter schools in urban areas accept kids through a lottery system.  However, we do need to ask ourselves a few questions.  Why were the urban schools failing in the first place?  Do we value public education, and, if so, why do we fund our schools unequally?  Why do we depend on private, profit-making corporations to education some, but not others, of our children? Why do urban kids need to "get lucky" through a lottery system in order to receive a decent education?  The answers to those questions have everything to do with race and social class.  Because one thing leads to another.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

It's Not About Race!

In her book, Colormute, Mica Pollock talks about dilemmas we face regarding the way we think about race.  For example, she says, "Race Doesn't Matter, but It Does."  In the high school that she researched, Pollock found that race was either talked about too casually, among students, or not at all in public, by teachers. Both were problematic because too easy talk about race took attention away from the serious analysis needed to determine race's roll in students' education. On the other hand, Pollock claims that teachers and staff were colormute, not colorblind, because they did see race (it was impossible not to) but chose not to talk about it with the students (they did talk about it with each other). This approach was damaging because, Pollock says, "The adult habit of deleting race labels from most discussions of 'discipline' actually left the question of race's relevance just festering within all student-adult conflicts" (46).  In other words, the issue of race was there, everybody knew it was there, but the adults didn't want to admit that it was there, probably due to the fear of being called The R Word (racist).

I've just finished reading Richard Wright's modern classic, Native Son.  Devastating!  The main character, Bigger Thomas, seems to have no redeeming qualities.  Throughout the story he's followed, haunted, by images of whiteness -- snow falling, a white cat, a blind woman dressed in white.  The story takes place during the Jim Crow era, when oppression of blacks by whites was stark, in-your-face, brutal.  Bigger is oppressed to the point where he doesn't feel human.  Squalid but expensive living conditions in apartments owned by rich whites, lack of work, poor education, social segregation, and the shame and anger of  continual "othering" by the white population take their toll on Bigger and convince him deep within that he is less than human.  He feels like a monster, so he begins to act like a monster, and like a trapped monster, at that.  (Caveat for those who read YA fiction -- I recommend Walter Dean Myers' MONSTER as a companion to Native Son.)  Anyway, Bigger, feeling no connection to the human race, kills two women to save himself from falling into the hands of whites. His capture and subsequent trial are fascinating, as the prosecuting attorney vacillates between the "it's all about race" and "it's not about race" arguments.  "Your Honor," he says, "I regret that the defense has raised the viperous issue of race and class hate in this trial." Read:  this is a murder trial.  This person killed and must be punished.  It's not about race, it's about human decency and responsibility! Next paragraph: "Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!" (408, 409).  Hmm, kinda sounds like for this guy it is about race after all.

Now, back to present day.  A good friend of mine mentioned that she was reading Sharon M. Draper's YA novel, Tears of a Tiger for a grad class.  It's the story of the aftermath of the accidental drinking and driving death of a high school basketball star.  So, it's about death, guilt, identity, relationships, etc.  All of the main characters are African American, attending an urban school, while some of the teachers and counselors are white.  When my friend analyzed the role of race in the novel she was warned by her prof to be careful not to come across as racist in her paper.  Did my friend write, "These characters are all losers because they are black!"  Of course not -- that would be racist!  She simply pointed out some obvious elements of the story that dealt with race -- the white teachers' low expectations toward the black students, the African American dad's desire to be accepted by whites in his business dealings, the belief of the white counselors that "Black kids are tougher that white kids.  They'll get through this," etc.  These were obvious points in the text, clearly there to stimulate readers' thinking and conversations about racism.  But this grad school prof (a conservative, Christian, white, woman, btw) insisted that this novel was not about race and should not be construed that way.  "Be careful," she warned my friend.  "You don't want to come across as racist in your paper."  In this prof's eyes, I guess, Tears of a Tiger is a story about kids who "happened to be black." (It always cracks me up when white people say stuff like this.  They'll say, "I went to dinner with my friend who happens to be black."  I picture that person falling out of bed in the morning, looking in the mirror, and saying, "Wow-- I happen to be black!").

So, being colormute, whether because of fear or something else, is nothing new.  Confusion about the role of race in human relations is nothing new (as Wright illustrated in 1940).  Failure to recognize the role of race in a book that clearly explores the subject is nothing new, either, but is sad for the missed opportunity it represents. Talking about race does not make one racist and not talking about race does not make racial tensions or inequities go away.