Some of My Best Friends Are Black
Hanover, New Hampshire is a quintessential New England town. Ivy-covered brick buildings ring a huge green that is criss-crossed with paved paths. A white steeple pokes up in the distance. But it’s not a real town. The buildings around the green are one small part of the Dartmouth College campus. Shops and restaurants blend into the edge of campus; you can’t really tell where the campus ends and the retail area begins. But not even the shops are real. “Fancy” is what my common-sense grandmother would have called them. Certainly not in my price bracket.
I walked for a long time last night, through campus and out the other side. My dad is in the medical center nearby, seriously ill. After a day in the hospital, I need to walk to shake off the exhaustion of doing nothing but watching and waiting. Last night, I walked through campus and out the other side, into a quiet residential area. Huge houses, big old trees. Wealth. Lots and lots of it. You see more economic diversity in the medical center hallways– people with missing and bad teeth, for example. But I haven’t seen one person of color. Even in town, the only people of color I have seen have been students. This place gives new meaning to the word homogeneous. And it feels far, far away from West 120th St. in NYC, where I go to school, and some struggling city schools where I’ve been lucky to work with teachers.
I walked past the golf course– affiliated with Dartmouth– and the stone cottage with the sign “Dartmouth Outing Club” that was situated perfectly on a large neighborhood pond. The road curved around the pond. Five people walking a big golden dog approached from the other direction. No one smiled or even made eye contact.
I found myself wondering if they were aware that schools exist in our country where there are no books, where teachers supply the paper used in their classes, where upwards of 90% of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Where high school classes hold as many students as can be fit into the room.
I found myself wondering if it would even be possible to get them to care. Then, if they should be expected to care. After all, they don’t live near the schools or neighborhoods I describe. But that implies that the people living there are responsible, for their poverty, their neighborhoods, their schools. I can hear you thinking, “Oh, no, another bleeding heart.” Maybe. But I also see that these neighborhoods and their schools are comprised almost entirely of people of color. I imagine that people in this perfect little New England town might well believe that if “they” are living “like that” they must have chosen it, and are therefore responsible for pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
In March 2011, reporter Bob Herbet wrote Separate and Unequal, an Op-Ed in the New York Times that looks at the issue of school improvement for children of color. Studies by The Century Foundation that find that high poverty children who attend economically advantaged schools perform much better than students who remain in a district’s least advantaged schools. The Foundation released a report in 2010, Housing Policy is School Policy, that looks specifically at how this issue played out in Montgomery County, Maryland.
In a Washington Post article about the study, Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said, “Today, 95 percent of education reform is about trying to make high-poverty schools work. This research suggests there is a much more effective way to help close the achievement gap. And that is to give low-income students a chance to attend middle-class schools.”
There’s only one problem. Writes Herbert,
…there is no getting away from the fact that if you try to bring about economic integration, you’re also talking about racial and ethnic integration, and that provokes bitter resistance.
In an area like this pristine little town, not unlike my grandmother’s Vermont home, resistance is likely to be well-hidden behind the facade of the cultured, well-educated individual who couldn’t possibly be anything but accepting of all and 100% committed to equality. Which is when it’s most important to learn about race and society, history, and science. Because odds are, we aren’t.
“Apartheid: The Tyranny of Racism Made Law” © United Nations via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Baker from Green” © Jay Collier via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0