Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Social Studies

I feel hopeful about the world when a heavy topic gets a huge crowd.

Tonight was VCU Libraries 13th annual Black History Month lecture and despite the positively frigid weather, I walked over to the Singleton Center from Broad Street to hear it. Greeting attendees was the only woman I know who can use her voice to imitate a musical saw, a rare skill set not in evidence tonight.

When she's not dazzling the world with her musicality, she's working at the VCU library, which tonight meant working the lecture crowd. Since we already have plans to meet up next week, we took a moment to discuss where that might happen before I joined the throngs headed into the auditorium.

Politically incorrect or not, let me just say how satisfying it is to attend an event as well-integrated as this one was. Besides the two times I saw Prince, I can't recall too many events in Richmond that could pull such a racially balanced audience.

Taking a seat near a black man who looked to be near my age, I didn't hesitate to ask him what had brought him out to the lecture tonight. "I just wanted to learn more about civil rights," he said, echoing part of my reasoning.

I overheard a female student behind me tell her companion that she'd come because when she'd tried out for VCU's music program, they had given her a list of areas in which she needed improvement, none of which she'd been taught at her high school. She blamed it on the poor resources offered at her mainly black school.

Everyone seemed to have a definitive reason for being there.

ACLU Racial Justice Program director Dennis Parker was speaking on "Still Separate, Still Unequal," sadly as relevant today as ever, even all these years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Parker saw the importance of the Brown case as having codified two things: that no child could reach his or her potential without an education and that separate but equal had been a lie perpetrated by the highest court in the land.

In talking about how separate but unequal schools continue to this day, Parker brought up an interesting point made to him by a principal in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Whites who go to a predominantly white, well-resourced school also face a disadvantage. They don't get the opportunity to learn  from others with different views and life experience, a handicap going forward in life whether they realize it or not.

He talked a lot about the school to prison pipeline and how 68% of the men in federal prison don't have a high school diploma, throwing out percentages about how even one school suspension greatly increases the likelihood of a kid ending up in jail.

The problem, as he shared with statistics and studies, is that black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school for infractions that get ignored when white students are the offenders. It has to do, he said, with bias.

And, of course, we're all biased to one degree or another. He admitted to a bias against blacks despite being one.  His suggestion was to take the Harvard Implicit Assessment test, a way of measuring unconscious biases in all kinds of areas - race, gender, weight - as a way to trying to be more mindful when dealing with other people.

"I used to say that we don't talk about race," he said, "but now I say we do talk about it but badly. You can't  fix what you don't talk about." Isn't that the truth, whether you're discussing race relations, office dynamics or a relationship with someone.

He pointed out that the racial discussion in 2015 isn't like it was in 1954 with the Brown decision but that we've got just as many issues now to deal with.

Once he opened up the floor to questions, people weren't shy about asking his thoughts on everything from kindergartners being suspended to a woman who described herself as a "womanist" (yet again, that reluctance to associate with the feminist term) why black girls weren't more of a focus in his discussion.

One man wanted to know, "Are there countries less racist than the U.S. and could you name them?" Parker looked taken aback, saying, "Hmm, there must be," and tried to make a case for Finland.

I almost put in my two cents' worth when a woman led off her question by saying that back in the '70s during enforced busing, it was only black kids who'd been bussed, not white. As someone who was taken from my predominantly white, college-prep high school in the middle of my junior year and bussed to a black school in a crime-ridden, poor neighborhood, I knew she was mistaken in her thesis, but I held my tongue.

As Parker had pointed out, one of the benefits of sending kids to radically different schools is to expose them to different kinds of people and experiences, widening their circle of understanding and better preparing them for the very diverse world we live in. Even then, I'd understood that I was part of something bigger than me.

Because the audience had so much to say,questions kept coming until finally it was announced there'd be just one more.

A young, black man stood up and told us that he is a teacher and a big part of his job is role modeling for young, black children and how challenging that can be given where they come from. He'd been inspired tonight but sought direction. "How do facilitate these changes we've been talking about at my school when I go back to my class tomorrow morning? How can we fix this?"

The room broke into applause. The two women in front of me, also teachers, nodded and stood up in support as Parker answered. It was a moving end to the discussion.

Walking out into the lobby, I ran into a friend who teaches and we stopped to share our take on the lecture. Despite having taught in a war zone in the middle east, he admitted to feeling challenged by teaching here. Tonight's lecture had left him feeling "inspired and at the same time paralyzed about doing the wrong thing."

We were then joined by another friend who teaches art in the school system and she jumped right in. "How can we implement these changes and start making a real difference?" she asked. All three of us admitted that we were going home to take the Harvard test and find out what our unconscious biases were in hopes of addressing them.

Like me, they'd been impressed with the size and diversity of the crowd who'd come out on a bitterly cold night for lecture about the state of inequality in our school system.

"How'd you guys find out about tonight?" she asked and before I could respond, she waved her hand at me. "Karen, you know about everything." Our friend had heard from a counselor at school. She'd seen a poster. The man next to me wanted to learn more. The teacher wanted inspiration to take back to his kids.

A roomful of people who know that we can't fix it if we don't talk about it. All of us.

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