What shaped your views on inequality? What shaped mine?

Did your school shape your views on inequality? Probably so, according to Carla Shedd.

A recent NPR report by Meg Anderson concludes that

students at racially diverse schools, particularly black and Hispanic students, are more tuned in to injustice than students going to school mostly with kids that look like them.

Shedd’s work is based on an in-depth ten-year study of four Chicago schools, not a broad and shallow national survey, so it’s not clear how well it generalizes. The report isn’t so much statistics as it is a collection of individual narratives in the style of Studs Terkel. I’m going to read the book as soon as I rise to the top of the queue at the library, but for now I’ll just look at the NPR report as informed by my own personal experiences as a teacher and as a long-ago student.

Let’s consider students at Weston. I wonder how “tuned in to injustice” they are. Clearly we can’t really generalize, even within a single school. My impression is that there are noticeable differences among the students — even within one racial group, and certainly across groups. It would be interesting to gather some data here. How many of the black students perceive injustices? How many of the white students? Probably the vast majority of the former, but who knows, and surely not so many of the latter. But I would guess that a lot more white students are sensitive to injustice now than when I arrived 20 years ago. (We’re currently 70.3% white, a lot lower than most people would guess, I’m sure. I don’t have statistics from 20 years ago, but my impression was that it was overwhelmingly white.) Would Asian students fall somewhere in between? I don’t know…but I would like to see some data.

This made me think about my own experiences. My earliest memory on this subject goes back to when I was in first grade in Arlington, Virginia — not exactly the deep south by any means, but still Virginia. I recall walking home with a friend (no one would let first graders do that now, in the age of helicopter parenting!), and we happened to walk past a house where a woman we didn’t know was entering through the front door. “Look at that colored lady,” observed my friend.

What did that mean? I was flummoxed! All I could think was that he was referring to her brightly colored shoes. It never occurred to me that it was a remark about race, since I was unaware of skin color and racial identification. And it wasn’t until years later that I realized why my friend made the observation at all: he must have thought she was “the help” and therefore shouldn’t be entering through the front door. Ah, those days of innocence!

My next relevant memory was in third grade at Newark Academy in New Jersey. Our class was almost 100% white, except for one black kid whose father was a department store manager. By then I was aware of this imbalance, though I didn’t know what it really meant. At least the class was religiously balanced: being mathematically minded even back then, I counted carefully and found that the class was precisely one third Catholic, one third Jewish, and one third Protestant. From those data I naturally generated a hypothesis that New Jersey had the same distribution. (Why New Jersey? Why not just Newark Academy? Or perhaps the whole country? Who knows!) I certainly didn’t experience much racial diversity in school, to put it mildly, but my mother was active in the civil rights movement and the Urban League in particular, so consciousness of racial injustice became part of my life around that time.

High school was a different matter. Well, not so much actually. At Phillips Academy (a.k.a. Andover) we had a class of 260, all male, of whom I recall only one black student. Or maybe there were two. Surprisingly, it was economically diverse, with at least 35% of the students receiving scholarships, but certainly not racially. We elected our one black classmate president of the Civil Rights Club without realizing how patronizing that was. But this was the era of the March on Washington, so we all fancied ourselves racially enlightened. We knew that injustices existed, but that was only in the South. Surely not in Massachusetts (or New Jersey).

Change occurs. Andover is truly diverse now, being coed and racially very mixed, along with an enlightened Head of School (see subsequent post on BiblioTech). It’s clear from what I have read that the students are “tuned in to injustice” now.

You can change city hall — or at least schools.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning