Sunday, June 26, 2016

School Funding: Is it "Fair"?

Last week the governor of New Jersey proposed a new formula for school funding to make it "fair." (I  have to admit that as much as I enjoy watching his rants on youtube, I've never been a big fan of this particular politician, mostly because of his unsuccessful attempt to give away Rutgers/Camden. But that's another story.) Anyway, under the proposed new plan all school districts would receive the exact same amount of funding per student. Behind this change is the idea of lowering real estate taxes, which are incredibly high in that state. You can read more about the school funding proposal here:

On the surface this may seem like a good idea. Fair means equal, right? That might make sense if all else in the lives of school children were equal, but of course, it is not.  Because of our past and current policies and practices that limit opportunities for some and privilege others, the lives of children across our country are certainly not equal. Yes, I know -- personal choice of parents and family members matters, too, but that doesn't change the fact that poverty has devastating effects on children. Let me say that again. Poverty has devastating effects on children.

Here's another example of how something that seems "fair" is a bad idea. We recently read in our local newspaper that our local taxes will be going up -- again. Why? The school district is building a new early learning center and elementary school. It's tempting to think - Wow, why should we be forced to pay for it? Our kids are older now and they won't reap the benefits of the new school. Why should we have to pay more taxes? It's not fair. Following that line of thinking, why should people who have no children, or people who send their children to private school have to support the public school system with their taxes?

I guess we have to ask ourselves, are we a nation that believes in free, public education, or do we want to go back to the days when only the affluent were educated? The answer is obvious - an educated population creates a healthier, more productive society and benefits us all.

Back to the new funding proposal. The proponent of the plan was quick to explain that children receiving special education services would not be affected. Their current level of funding would remain secure. So, there seems to be an understanding that children with special needs require extra support. Ironically, there's a saying in the world of special education -- "Fair means giving each person what he or she needs." In other words, "fair" does not mean "equal." Equality is not the same as equity. Check out the picture below for a visual of how this works:

Now, is it possible that money dedicated to poor districts is not being spent wisely? Yes. Perhaps we need to look more closely at initiatives like the Harlem Children's Zone for some answers. Poor children need support within the school and within the community at large. Is it also true that middle class people need tax relief? Yes. But across the board cutting of funds dedicated to poor school districts is not the answer. And doing so in the name of "fairness" is, well, just wrong.

Monday, June 13, 2016

In this corner: Hate v. Hate

I had to turn off the news this morning. I just couldn't watch for another second. My heart goes out to the victims of the Orlando shooting and their families. I'm also angry - for better or worse, that's how I tend to respond. It's been heart-wrenching to hear the report of what happened during the early morning hours of June 12 - people crawling out to safety while others hid, texting their loved ones goodbye, victims helping other victims as best they could, sobbing parents still waiting for word of their children, not knowing if they are dead or alive. It is horrible to watch and for my own mental health I had to turn it off for a while. At the same time, I had to lay aside what I'd planned to post about today, because how can I write a blog about racism and not deal with this event?

Yes, I know, the shooter didn't seem to have race in mind as he chose his victims. I know that he targeted members of the LGBT community. I know that race, sexual orientation, and gender identity are not the same issues, and although (of course) I believe that ALL people deserve to be treated with respect, I'm not trying to tie the shooter's hateful actions to racism. That's not where I see racism in this sad, complicated, infuriating mess. Instead, I'm talking about the responses I've heard from political figures and from every day people. Tragically, that's where racism has reared its ugly head.

We're all asking the same question - how do we prevent this from happening again? For some, fear and anger (and remember I'm angry too - I get that) lead to one conclusion, one group to blame - Muslims. The shooter was Muslim and declared his allegiance to a militant Islamist group. What could be more obvious? We need to ban Muslims from entering the country (never mind that the shooter was born in New York). We need to keep a closer watch on Muslim neighborhoods. And any idea of taking in refugees from Syria or anywhere near it - well, unthinkable. These people are clearly our enemies and we need to protect ourselves against them. And so, for some (many of them Christian believers like I am) the response to hate is more hate.

Meanwhile, back in Holland, not far from the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France, something quite different is taking place. The church I attended while there, a church that is part of a conservative Pentecostal denomination, is welcoming refugees with open arms. They have totally shifted the focus of their ministry toward helping the large group of recently arrived that are in need. Rather than pulling back in fear and anger, people of faith are doing whatever they can, sometimes opening up their homes and taking in people to live. As a result, there are so many new converts in the church that they had to begin an English speaking service (English being the language the Dutch citizens and the refugees have in common).

We can learn something here, I believe. I know that not everyone in the Netherlands or in other European countries agrees on their country's refugee policies. I'm sure that these countries have their own particular set of problems and I'm not trying to say that they are better than we are. But I saw with my own eyes how, rather than respond with bigoted statements based on stereotypical ideas, people of faith are responding in love. Our country needs to be smart. Our leaders need to fight terrorism on physical and psychological fronts. But we can't do that by promoting racist ideas against the entirety of a religious group. We can't fight hate with hate.

Slavery and The Holocaust

It's been almost two weeks since I arrived home from Europe, tired but satisfied. My soul was fed during that trip by both the beautiful sites and the time I spent with friends. My friends and I took a road trip from Zaandam (outside of Amsterdam) through Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, and into Italy. Although we didn't plan to stop in Germany, we wound up spending a night in the small city of Darmstadt on our way back to Zaandam because it's located at about the half-way mark and because my friend has a special interest in the city. She is a tour guide at the Corrie ten Boom House in Haarlem, The Netherlands. The ten Boom family hid Jews in a secret closet during the Holocaust and saved many lives before they were found out. You can check out the Corrie ten Boom House and learn more of their story here:

During my research for Race Among Friends, I witnessed how high schools students in the U.S. studied the Holocaust with great empathy and respect. They were highly attentive while visiting The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and still talked about Elie Wiesel's Night a year after they'd read it. High school teachers know how hard it is to get students to even read the assigned work, let alone discuss it during the following school year, so clearly these students were deeply impacted by this curriculum. I was fascinated to learn, however, that the very white students who couldn't seem to get enough of the Holocaust were not so interested in learning about American racism toward African Americans. Instead, they were frustrated and angry and created distinct discourses to proclaim that racism is over and that they were tired of talking about it.  

I asked one of the kids in my study, Anthony, and African-American honors student, about this phenomenon among his classmates. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

On Being Neutral

Some of you may be aware that I just returned from a European holiday. We visited six countries in 15 days - quite a trip! My friends and I explored several museums, but we had what I thought was our most interesting interaction with the docent at a small, out of the way place in Basel, Switzerland called The Jewish Museum. The museum is so small that we almost missed it, and I had a hard time finding its online presence as I sat to write this blog.

The Jewish Museum is not a Holocaust museum. Instead, it chronicles the lives of Jewish people who live in the area and shows their successes and their diversity. There were a few artifacts from that terrible time, of course, and as we viewed them our conversation turned to Switzerland's stance regarding Jews during WWII.  We explained to the docent (who spoke English and spent lots of time with us) that as American school children we'd all learned that Switzerland remained "neutral" during that war.

Our docent (who was German and commuted to Basel for work) gave us a wry smile and said (my paraphrase), "Yes, I guess you can say they were neutral. When the Jews fleeing other countries came to the Swiss border they were turned away, although the Swiss authorities certainly knew what would happen to them. If you call that neutral, they were neutral." She went on to note that Hitler had much money hidden in Swiss banks - "I guess that's being neutral, too," she added.

The purpose of this post is not to pass judgement or to make you hate Switzerland. So before you swear off Swiss cheese (which is actually produced in the U.S.), understand that my goal is to examine this concept of "neutrality" and to apply it to American race relations today (you knew I would get to that). Some of us, especially if we are white, may feel that we take a neutral stance on issues of racial justice. We have nothing against people of color in general. We may feel badly about racism as a general principle but be confused as to if and how it really exists and what we can or should do about it. 

Critical race scholar and psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum* proposed the following idea that I think applies well to the concept of neutrality. She said there are only three possible positions toward racism.  We are either:

1. Actively racist. I could mention some names here, but I'll stick to one we'll all agree on - the fictional Archie Bunker (although my students have no idea who he is). This is the person who makes racist comments, tells racists jokes, and fits people into neat little stereotypes based on racial background. Make no mistake, active racism is alive and well but is so politically incorrect that you'd be hard pressed to hear it expressed in mixed circles.

2. Passively racist.  This is the "neutral" category. I'm against racism (kind of, although I might argue that it no longer exists or that whites are the victims of racism, too), but I don't do or say anything to speak out against it. Maybe I'm confused (there are two sides to every story), maybe I'm uncomfortable, maybe I just want all this unpleasantness to go away. But, like the Swiss who turned Jews away at their borders, we can't do nothing to help and claim neutrality. Our paralyzed position is a form of passive racism. My Christian readers might relate this to the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:30 - "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters."

3. Actively anti-racist. Here's the one I want to be. People who are anti-racist think deeply about racial justice and do the best they can to show their opposition within their particular sphere of influence (again, from Tatum). This looks different for different folks - voting, writing, teaching, talking, not laughing at racist jokes, asking honest questions and trying to understand a perspective other than our own. 

When it comes to family arguments, neutrality may serve you well. Keeping your car in neutral may save your transmission stress. And when it comes to buying carpets, neutral is always best. But when we talk about injustice, past or present, neutrality is not the way.

*"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" And Other Conversations About Race, Basic Books 2003.