The Casual Blog

Tag: desegregation

Happy Juneteenth! Let’s talk about police attacking black people

Sally’s orchid in late afternoon sun

Happy Juneteenth!  Change is in the air!  Aunt Jemima is finally retiring, and it sounds like Uncle Ben is soon to follow.  The Confederate flag is leaving NASCAR, and some of the many monuments to the Confederacy are coming down.  It’s true, these are just the symbols of our racial caste system, and there’s a lot more work needed to dismantle the system.  But it’s a start.

The Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd have now been going for several weeks.  The protests against police violence and discrimination have been mostly peaceful, with more black people coming out and more white people joining in.  Amazingly, the fires and looting that took place in the first few days seem to have stopped.  More recent violence has involved police attacking peaceful protesters.  And happily, that violence level seems to have come down, too.

On the radio and in the papers, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of discussions about how to address chronic violence by police against black people.  More conservative types tend to favor increased training to address bias, while more progressive types propose reallocating the police responsibilities and their budgets.  But there seemed to be a lot of agreement that something needs to be done about the abuse and killing of black people by our police. 

There is, though, a continuing counter movement, which views the protesters as violent insurgents, and the police as valiant defenders of civilization.  That Blue Lives Matter is an odd point to be pressing at this moment.  They do, of course, but no one is threatening to arrest and kill Blues.  

In this right-white universe, there are a lot of hymns to the heroism of the police.  Here again, there is an element of truth to the hymns.  Police work can be hard and dangerous, and we should be grateful to those who do it with fairness and integrity.  But the point being made by the hymns, even if by accident, is less noble.  That subtext of the hymns is:  we’re glad to see the police acting tough and violently attacking peaceful protesters, particularly black ones.  

We probably don’t know as much about police work as we assume.  We tend to think of it as a lot about finding and arresting dangerous felons, but that actually happens very seldom.  Much more often, police are responding to noise complaints, domestic violence, illegal parking, public drunkenness, and other minor disturbances of the peace.  The weapons they carry around are intimidating, but not often helpful in these situations.  

I used to enjoy watching television shows about cops.  The cops were so manly, and tough!  Except for Charlies Angels, who had such beautiful hair and legs, and could also kick butt.  I particularly liked The FBI, with the well groomed cops who always carefully did their homework to bring down vicious criminals.  Later, I enjoyed Miami Vice, with its stylish cops, speedboats, and explosions, and violent deaths for drug dealers.

My takeaway from so many cop shows was that police work required a lot of violence.  It was normal to shoot criminals, if you couldn’t beat them up.  It didn’t seem there were any other possibilities.  This seems to be where a lot of the right-wing proponents of police violence are now.   They, and in fact most of us, have not received any training in searching for peaceful resolutions.

It may be justified once in a blue moon for a cop to shoot a fleeing black man in the back.  It could be that the black man has just stolen the nuclear codes and is about to blow up the world, or that he’s making off with deadly bioweapons to start a massive plague.  But those cases are infrequent.  More often, police shoot black men because they’re black, and they refuse to obey them.  

Why do we think it’s OK for police to attack black people?  It goes back a long way.   When I was a kid, there was a lot of talking about desegregating the schools, but we didn’t really do it, and we aren’t even talking very much about it these days.  Indeed, there are a lot of people today who would vigorously resist a desegregation program.  

The people who opposed, and still oppose, desegregation may not know why they don’t like the idea, but I’m pretty sure I know.  They’re afraid of black people.  But why are they afraid?   Because they have very little contact with them, and they’ve been taught from an early age that they’re scary.  Some of their leaders keep reinforcing that message with racist fear mongering, which those leaders use to get votes.  

If people of different races went to the same schools and churches and lived in the same neighborhoods, it wouldn’t work.  They’d figure it out.  White people would gradually realize their black classmates and neighbors are OK.  Not scary.  It would take some time, for sure.  But eventually we’d quit thinking that the most important thing about a person is his or her skin color.  Eventually differences in color would matter no more than whether you have a sun tan, or don’t.

This would be great, except for those who benefit from the existing caste system, like fear mongering politicians.  And, to some extent, every person now defined as white.  White people will lose some advantages, like getting preferred over black people for jobs, schools, and catching cabs.  But nothing huge.  With black people competing on a level playing field, white people may need to raise their game.  But that’s just too bad.    

In fact, it would be good.  It would definitely feel good to be rid of the shame of racial oppression, of secretly knowing that we’re involved in something morally despicable.  It would be so good to take down the walls and fences, and have available more friendship.  We’d feel so much better.

My new Trailhawk, sandcrabs, sunflowers, and busing

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My new slightly used ride down the hill from the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park

When I was in Maine at the and of June, I had a rental car I really liked:  a 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. It was about the same size as my Mazda CX-5, and drove similarly on the highway.  But there were things I liked more about the Trailhawk: its seats, which fit me well, and its instrumentation, including a big touchscreen.  I liked its off-road capabilities, including a locking rear differential and towhooks to get pulled out of the mud. Also, I really liked the color:  velvet red pearlcoat. 

So I read some reviews and did some market research, and the day after I got home I traded in my Mazda for a red Trailhawk.  Later that week we took it to the Outer Banks to visit sister Jane and her family. We watched the 4th of July fireworks at the Currituck lighthouse from their deck, and shot off a few Roman candles.  I got up before sunrise with a plan to take pictures of sanderlings and other shorebirds at first light, but didn’t find the necessary birds.  

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Sandcrabs at Corolla, NC

I did, however, see a lot of sandcrabs.  They’re small and well camouflaged, and they can skitter quickly.  In places where I glimpsed a couple, I got down on my belly with my large zoom, and waited for them to get comfortable with me.   

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I’m sure the families walking by  on the beach thought I was a strange bird as I lay there.  But it was worth it. Eventually the tiny crabs came out of their holes, and I saw them working on different projects, like finding food and scaring off their enemies.  Though I wouldn’t call them beautiful, they are fascinatingly complex.  

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I was reminded of a sweet essay in the Times a few weeks ago my Margaret Renki titled Praise Song for the Unloved Animals.  Renki writes of the hard work by some of nature’s relatively unphotogenic pest controllers and garbagemen, like opossums, vultures, bats, and field mice.  She even finds a kind word for mosquitoes who are food for chimney swifts and tree swallows. She appreciates the complex interconnectedness of life. I’m sure she’d be happy to add sandcrabs into her list.  Yates-3812.jpg

We took the Trailhawk up to the beach area where cars are permitted, and verified that it will go on the sand without getting stuck.  We hunted for the wild horses that live there, and managed to spot eight of them.  

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Back in Raleigh, I got up early three mornings this week to check on the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park.  There were many of them! I tried to look at them in different ways. These pictures were my favorites.   I also got a shot of a little fawn on the edge of the sunflower field.  It was bleating loudly for its mommy.   It watched me for a long moment, then started to run towards me, perhaps thinking I could help find her.  I waved my arms and told it I didn’t know where mommy was, and the fawn turned and ran into the woods.  

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I never particularly thought of myself as a sunflower person.  And definitely never thought of myself as a Jeep person, or a person who liked red cars.  But if we’re attentive, we sometimes discover things about ourselves we didn’t know, and get past our prejudices.  

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Speaking of prejudices, there was a very fine essay in the Times yesterday  by Nikole Hannah-Jones about school busing.   Hannah-Jones has a great short summary of US system of separating black kids from white ones in our schools, which we still haven’t fixed.  She also decodes the political language. Back in the sixties, and now, Instead of saying, we don’t want our white kids going to school with black ones, we said, we don’t like school busing.  Using the language of “busing” allowed us to conceal from ourselves our racial prejudice, of which we are — and should be — ashamed.

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Hannah-Jones points up that busing was pretty effective in places and at times in undoing some of our legacy of segregation.  I think schools are only one part of repairing the damage of that system. Facing up to extreme inequality in income, jobs, housing, and health care are still on the to-do list.  But desegregating our schools is important, and doable. It is likely to involve buses.   

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Our therapy dog, and addressing resegregation of schools

Sally and Mowgli at graduation. Photo by Susan Foote.

This week Sally and Mowgli (Gabe’s dog, and our granddog, a/k/a Mo) completed their  therapy dog training. They’re now qualified to visit various kinds of institutions (like assisted living facilities, hospitals, and schools) and offer residents the comfort of doing some petting.  Getting qualified as a therapy dog team has taken a full year and many hours of individual training. They passed the final exam with flying colors! I can personally attest that petting Mo is very comforting, and I’m glad he and Sally can now share that gift with others.

This week there was a big protest in downtown Raleigh by North Carolina public school teachers, and I got to see them from our offices as they marched up Fayetteville Street towards the legislature.  I read later that there were over 20,000. The march had a festive air, but of course, they’ve got some serious issues.

As a product myself of N.C. public schools, I’m forever grateful to several teachers who took a particular interest in me and helped me along the way.  It’s been painful, and also puzzling, to see teachers caught in the crossfire as our legislature here has significantly cut funding for our public schools.  See some of the background here and here.  

Teachers here and also in other states have been doing poorly in terms of pay and working conditions.  A lot of them who started with an ideal of public service leave the profession in frustration, and potential teachers choose better paid and respected professions.  It’s a vicious cycle that’s been worsening our schools. What is going on?

I’ve long assumed that Republicans and Democrats, and others, by and large agree  on the fundamental importance of public education and the moral imperative to provide a decent education to every child.  This seems foundational — a primary purpose of our democracy, and a primary force in sustaining a fair and prosperous society.  

It’s becoming clear, however, that that’s not as well settled as I thought.  The anti-public-education movement has no publicly declared objective. But there is a movement that has worked quietly for decades to undermine public schools.  It has manifested itself in various relatively benign-sounding programs– vouchers, charter schools, tax subsidies for private schools, promoting religious schools, promoting home-schooling — as well as school budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level.

One can come up with innocent-sounding explanations for some of these measures, but viewed in the context of U.S. history — that is, of hundreds of years of discrimination against blacks — there’s an unmistakable pattern.  A lot of it has to do with race. Our schools are being resegregated, with programs that encourage whites to leave the public schools and fewer and fewer resources for students left in the public schools.

Nationwide, public schools have become substantially more segregated in the last 20 years, and that pattern holds in North Carolina.     This has puzzled many, since segregation is illegal, and there have been many successful efforts at school desegregation.  We’ve largely quit using references to race in the context of education, which might have suggested we’d overcome the worst of our racial prejudices.

Recent scholarship and recent politics shows that stopping the conversation about race was premature.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, makes a convincing demonstration of official anti-black discrimination in housing policy.  Through most of the 20th century, not only was it legal to discriminate against black people, but there were laws that effectively required it. Mortgage lending to blacks and building integrated neighborhoods was effectively prohibited.  As part of this system, white people were encouraged by financial incentives and fear mongering to move out of racially mixed inner cities and into whites-only suburbs.

The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties was successful in stopping this legalized discrimination, but it did not eliminate the conditions it created, including segregated neighborhoods and racist ideologies.  The emergence of the Alt Right and other unapologetic proponents of white supremacy demonstrates that racist views were not defeated, and are still salient for some people. The election of a President who expresses sympathy for “some very fine people” in the Neo-Nazi ranks suggests a fairly large iceberg of latent white supremacist aspirations and racial fears.

Something has happened in our schools that resembles what happened in our housing.  By defunding public schools, governmental policies have worsened the conditions of those schools and lowered the quality of the education provided.  Parents who want the best quality education for their children may try to support the public schools, but at a certain point most will decide that the education of their own children is for them the most important thing.  So they put their kids in private schools or charter schools. Increasingly, the kids who are left in public schools are those whose parents have no other options.

This dynamic has been mostly under the radar.  It’s hard to see from up close, and even from a distance it’s complicated, with multiple elements.  Those most affected are those with the least political power. Those most in favor of it, whether because of beliefs in white supremacy, fear and hatred of blacks, or designs to profit directly or indirectly from private schools, are canny enough to keep quiet about their true objectives.   

There are very interesting parallels between what is happening today and the immediate aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.  In 1956, North Carolina opposed desegregation with the Pearsall Plan, which allowed local districts to close schools that became integrated and provided for vouchers for white students to leave the public schools.    The Pearsall Plan was declared unconstitutional — but not until 1969.  Our current Republican-led anti-public-schools program looks like a slow motion version of the Pearsall Plan.  We may need to fight that same battle again, in much the way the victors of the Civil War had to fight another hundred years for basic civil rights.  

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and the Republican anti-public-schools programs have nothing to do with getting white kids separated from black kids and providing the worst services to the black kids. There’s an easy way to test that: ask your Republican representative what programs he or she favors to promote integrated schools, and what measures he or she is taking to improve program support and funding for majority black schools.  

I still think we’ve made progress toward racial equality, and I still believe we’ll eventually put white supremacy behind us.  And of course, the resegregationist project has not been completely successful — there are still good public school teachers and successful integrated schools.  But we need to stop this heartless, racist project and start moving in the right direction. Kudos for the public school teachers in N.C. and elsewhere who are marching.  More of us should be joining the parade.