Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Nigger by any Other Name

One of the things that I strongly support is parental involvement with their children's schools. Reports confirm that schools where large numbers of parents are actively involved tend to serve students better. Imagine my surprise then, when while reading Elissa Gootman's article in Tuesday’s NYTimes I squrimed at one of the byproducts of a well heeled public school parent community.

Now as a scholar of African-American Studies I am not so naïve to believe that all forms of parental involvement are good and that there have not been instances where racism has been the inducement for parents springing into action. The civil rights movements throughout the 20th century offer countless examples, and not just in the southern hotbeds, but also in northeast corridors as the school desegregation efforts in Boston in the 1970s revealed.

What struck me about Gootman's article is how the black and Latino students/families, the real root cause of the issue, were virtually absent from this debate pitting a wealthy philanthropists and these less wealthy public school parents. In spite of their absences though, these students/families wer somehow omnipresent. With Morrison’s essay collection Playing in the Dark still fresh on my mind because I taught it this past semester, the accord between the writer, representatives of philanthropist Courtney Sale Ross and the NEST students and Parents, and I, the reader, in being able to catch the metonyms of urban blackness and Latino-ness. This pact is so pronounced, and so crucial to the exercise undertaken by all involved that when one of Ms. Ross’s lawyers appears to be on the verge of breaking this pact, it leads to an outburst from one of the NEST parents:

Brooks R. Burdette, a lawyer for the charter school, drew gasps from NEST parents when he said of the charter school parents, "They are some of the more colorful faces in your courtroom."

"What am I? What am I?" an outraged NEST parent, who is Indian-American, said during a break in the proceedings.

This eruption is the only instance where someone’s race/ethnicity is explicitly mentioned and reinforces the point that throughout the rest of the article we are expected to assume that when the reporter refers to a NEST parent or student that person is white. Similarly, metonyms such as “underserved” and “community activists” are the invocations for the black and Latino students and parents. The language itself is not the concern, but as Morrison suggests in Playing in the Dark, particularly in her chapter on Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, the acceptability of this language indicates how readers and writers are complicit in shaping the racial projects of their eras. In To Have and Have Not, Hemingway uses the appellations “nigger” and “Cuban” without any deliberation when referring to his black (I use black instead of African-American because the “Cubans” can also black—and therefore indistinguishable niggers in Hemingway’s treatment”) rather than giving them proper names like he does all the white characters in the novel. Morrison contends that “nigger” and “Cuban” become the proper names for these non-white American characters, thus while it may not give us any conclusive evidence on whether or not Hemingway was a racist, it vividly illustrates the racialized logic that enabled Hemingway and his reader to be on the same page as it were when it comes to this system of naming.

Assuredly if pressed to answer for themselves the NEST students and parents who wrote letters and offered appeals like the ones below, they would deny any allegations of racism:

"They're trying to destroy our school," cried Arianna Gil, 12, a NEST seventh grader, at the Cipriani rally, as she handed out gift bags embossed in silver lettering with the NEST logo and filled with publicity materials. She warned of "complete chaos" if the Ross charter school moves in.

As part of an assignment, students wrote letters to this reporter, warning of dirty hallways, overcrowded classes and a Ross takeover of the NEST cafeteria, with its round tables and purple neon sign.

I am willing to accept any ‘we’re not racist’ arguments if NEST students and parents can also provide enough evidence showing that they and their children have been subjected to a body of literature instructing them that “chaos” and “dirty hallways” are the byproducts of an increased ‘white’ presence in their schools. They will get gold stars if they can offer evidence that does not demonize poor or working class whites, but which illuminates the pitfalls of increased fraternizing with their “middle-class” white counterparts.

The “gifted” students and parents should not be ashamed if they find this task difficult because it is the problem facing American society as a whole, and it’s what allows for the reader, writer and the subjects of the article to understand the importance of eschewing direct mentions of whiteness, even though it permeates the article. This problem also engenders the strategic invocations of blackness and Latino-ness that are only there to amplify and highlight their presence for readers whose racial sight or hearing might be impaired (i.e. those in the “I don’t see color camp”).

If I were to offer a proposal for resolving this stand-off, it would not include any serious disciplinary action against the parents/students at NEST. The last thing that I want to encourage the NYC Mayor's office is to do is conjure up some draconian law for curbing parental involvement. I would however encourage the Chancellor's office to change the guidelines at NEST to increase its overall number of students. The logic being here if the campus could accomodate the incoming Ross Academy students, then it should be able to accomodate the same number of students from the local community--especially black, Chinese and Latino students--as well as students from low income and working class families. The committed NEST parents should be able to work in concert with the parents of these incoming students, especially if they know going in that failing schools are not only the result of inactive parents, but more often the government's willingness to let certain communities fall by the wayside.

I would then encourage Ms. Ross to redirect her efforts to one of the numerous under-funded schools in the city and working with the parents, teachers and the chancellor’s office to (1) help revive that school (2) bring her global academy to life without disrupting that school’s current mission to serve its students. One possible benefit from partnerships between schools and private benefactors is that it can relieve students and families from feeling as if they have to relocate writ large in order for positive changes to occur in their lives. Philanthropists and government leaders can not continue giving students and families in low-income and under-resourced communities the impression that only a select group of young ones are worth salvaging. Instead the goal should be to work with young people within their own communities and to give clear signs that already existing institutions are worth reviving.

These suggestions may appear elementary, but since the disease impairing the educational system/process is so fundamentally ingrained in this nation's conscience that it took every last bit of restraint on my part to not offer this curt response to the article: it's about time that the NEST students and their families (and might I add the nation as a whole) read the writing on the wall and learn to color outside the line.

4 comments:

The Nightshift Chronicler said...

A few people have emailed me directly regarding this post--and one comment which I have been given permission to share reads as follows:

Dear [Nightshift Chronicler],


I think your comments offering a critique of Elissa Gootman’s article are right on point, and they highlight in fact a systematic misrepresentation of people of color in The New York Times that routinely pits blacks vs. Latin@s in a way that obscures the existence of black Latinos and creates a false dichotomization, which fails to acknowledge overlapping public policy agendas. Furthermore, the article eradicates the agency of parents and students of color in NEST debate. I enjoyed your discussion of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. It is worth noting (in addition to your brilliant observations) that Morrison talks about an “Africanist presence” in American literature, a presence showing how blackness is present in the writings of authors such as Melville even without there being an actual black character in the texts. In the NEST debate, there is a blackness and browness presence even without students and parents of color being in the debate with wealthy white philanthropists. Perhaps what Toni Morrison says in her later novel, Love, is true: the post-Civil Rights era still is seeking to build a loving community amidst increasingly scarce educational resources and lovelessness from the privileged.



Respect,

N. Roberts
June 8, 2006

dp said...

NightShift, thank you for this critique that is so clearly needed for this issue.

I often find myself screaming outloud when I read the NYTimes because of their ability to couch their supremacist language. The NYTimes however isn't the biggest villain in this story. We have a system of supremacy in place that would relegate Brown peoples to permenant servitude status due to lack of education and inormation.

I feel that white becomes complicit in this system because if all things were equal, children of white may not be as 'gifted' as they are labeled.

MF said...

This was never intended to
be a gifted and talented school; it was supposed to be a neighborhood school
with all these wonderful facilities, courses in math and the sciences, etc.
but they did no local outreach, all materials were in English only, they
recruited in the East Village, Grammercy Park, etc. and they made it very
difficult for local families to access. Then when a community organixing group pushed
the school to accept some local kids, they were segregated into a class
alone together and felt AWFUL!!!! When Bloomberg and Klein wanted to
increase the options that parents (i.e. middle class parents) could find in
the system, they ushered people toward NEST.

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