Since our public schools are the crossroads of our community, I have had several years to think about the issues raised in the Rev. Gee’s recent article in The Capital Times. (While I am president of the Madison School Board, the views I express here are entirely my own and not those of the school district or other board members.)
Nothing Rev. Gee wrote surprised me. Here are my take-aways.
First, this is a real problem. The "Race to Equity" report lays out the data and Rev. Gee’s article adds the human dimension. There is no avoiding it.
Second, we have to acknowledge white privilege: We white folk pretty much get to set the rules in Madison and establish the mainstream social norms and terms of debate.
David Foster Wallace told this story in a famous commencement speech: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’"
We are all swimming in the water of white privilege. We white folk get to swim with the current. We also get to wonder why the people of color we see going in the other direction don’t swim faster.
Don’t buy this white privilege thing? Put yourself in the shoes of an African-American mother worrying about her children growing up in Madison. Look at our graduation rates. Look at our unemployment rates. Look at our incarceration rates. Then look at the number of white Madisonians who think that the most pressing social justice issue of 2013 was being able to hold noontime singalongs in the Capitol without a permit.
Third, this is a white person’s problem. People of color know all about the water we’re swimming in.
Fourth, there is surprisingly little genuine interaction among people of different races and cultures in Madison. We white folk don’t exactly seek out opportunities to get to know people of color on their turf. We genuinely wish them well, sometimes write a check to the Urban League or Boys & Girls Club, and tend to think that’s enough to punch our anti-racism card.
This lack of interaction has significant ramifications for our schools. Lacking personal knowledge, we tend to think of students of color and their families in the abstract, as assemblages of demographic factors rather than as individuals. This naturally leads to the assumption that individual students are captives of their demographics. If African-American students as a whole underperform, we implicitly expect that each individual African-American will underperform as well.
Most of our African-American students are low income. This allows us to identify poverty as the problem — it’s not our fault, it’s all those greedy 1 percenters and Republican legislators who won’t help out poor folks. Many of us are comfortable with viewing poverty as an almost insurmountable barrier to high academic performance, an attitude that conveniently lets those of us responsible for our schools off the hook for our shameful achievement gap.
What to do? Maybe start by rolling the “white privilege” concept around in your head. I resisted it at first, but it sure rings true to me now. Next, try to listen and learn. I am certainly still learning, and have learned that my analysis does not apply to everyone. But in my experience it is true enough to present a real challenge to all of us who are proud to call Madison home.
Ed Hughes is president of the Madison School Board.