Monday, December 9, 2013

The white blindspot -- My response to Valerie Strauss

"We called it ‘segregation,’ they called it ‘apartheid,” it’s the same system and the same political and military and diplomatic players. We had to fight that same system running parallel.” -- Rev. Jesse Jackson
D.C. Mayor Gray at South
African Embassy (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
I never thought I would be saying this, but I'm shocked and dismayed by Valerie Strauss's column in yesterday's Washington Post ("D.C. Mayor Gray needs a history lesson on apartheid"). Let me say first that I have been a big fan of Valerie's for years and not such a big fan of Mayor Gray's. I often link to her blog and re-post most of her columns on Twitter. She has been a superb defender of public education and a thorn in the side of the corporate school reformers and privatizers, while Gray often seems to be following in the path of his horrible predecessor and Michelle Rhee follower, Adrian Fenty.

That being said, yesterday's admonishment delivered to D.C.'s African-American Mayor Vincent Gray, over his daring, in a rhetorical way, to draw parallels between the conditions black people face today in the nation's capital with those faced under South African apartheid, was almost too much to bear.

Mayor Gray reportedly said:
I think there are some parallels because we have 632,000 people who continue to live under the yoke of a form of oppression.  You know, we can’t control our own money, we can’t control our own local laws. We have taxation without representation in this city. I think there are a lot of people who see a parallel between his experience and ours.
Strauss alerts us that Gray "didn’t say it just once on Friday," but "uttered similar words at least four times during the day." I guess that's the answer to who's counting?

Gray might have added (maybe he did elsewhere) that even as we speak, D.C. residents don't even have full voting rights including voting representation in the Congress. The Constitution grants the Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the District in "all cases whatsoever" including the District's public schools. D.C. is also a city that is in the process of being whitenized as thousands of poor black families are being pushed out of the district and its schools. D.C. is no longer a majority-black city and the black population has been shrinking steadily for the past few years.

Gray could have also pointed out, as Michelle Alexander does in her book, "The New Jim Crow", that the U.S. imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South African did at the height of apartheid.

Writes Alexander:
“In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”
Now Mayor Gray never said that conditions in D.C. were exactly the same or nearly as brutal as South African apartheid. But his drawing of "some parallels" between the two resonated, I'm sure, with many of the District's black residents -- of which Strauss is not one.

They also resonated with me. I have been to South Africa and spent time in schools there as well as in D.C. and couldn't help drawing numerous parallels between them and the apartheid-like, racially-segregated school system that still predominates in cities like D.C. and Chicago.

Gray wasn't really saying anything new here. Valerie (and all of us) would do well to read "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass" by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton. I'm sure she wouldn't find much to disagree with in the author's comparisons or with their emphasis on poverty as a driving force in the so-called "failure" of American schools.

It was author/activist Jonathan Kozol (who certainly needs no history lessons from any of us) who helped popularize the parallels between apartheid South Africa and school systems in D.C., Chicago, E. St. Louis and other cities, when he titled his 2006 book "The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America."

The irony here is that Strauss ran a great interview with Kozol on the eve of our 2011 Save Our Schools protest in D.C. In that interview, Kozol refers to NCLB as "an apartheid of the intellect."
NCLB, in itself, adds a whole new level of division on the basis of a child's economic class or race. An  One class enjoys the treasures of the earth and also learns to ask demanding and irreverent and insightful questions. The other class is trained to spit up predigested answers.
Valerie doesn't blink.

Obviously there are differences between the South African system of apartheid and U.S. post-slavery, post-Jim Crow, segregation. For one thing, hypersegregation here has become defacto instead of enforced by law as it was in South African and in Jim Crow America.

As Dr. King said in a 1963 speech,
"We like to draw parallels between forms of oppression to neatly summarize the experiences, but in the 1960s black Americans were recognized as human by their constitution, whereas black South Africans were not."
But the closer you are to systemic, historic, institutional racial inequities, often the harder they can be to see...for some people, even very smart people like Valerie Strauss.

The white blindspot.

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