When people say they believe a particular institution is racist, or are convinced that they, their children or others have been treated unfairly for reasons of color — by educators or the police or anyone else — I’m in no position to disagree with what’s in their hearts. My history is not theirs; their shoes are not mine, and if that is what they sincerely believe, that is what they sincerely believe.
What I can do, however, if I disagree with their views about the presence or power of race in particular situations, is to explain, with full appreciation for centuries of sinful American history, why I believe their arguments are faulty on the facts or excessive in gravity.
For instance, I don’t believe the Minneapolis Public Schools, for all their troubles and shortcomings, are choking miasmas of institutional racism. Big-city school districts tend to be as “enlightened” and “correct” on matters of race, gender and the like as any institution.
Many students are doing poorly and dropping out, not because of any embedded racism, but because they don’t take their schoolwork seriously enough, and because too much family breakdown in the Twin Cities means that too few homes are sufficiently conducive to academic effort and achievement.
More broadly, I agree with a colleague who argues that while racism in Minnesota and the United States is wide, rarely is it any longer deep.
As for questions of gravity, recall how it came to light a few months ago that reading books intended for young children featured offensively stereotypical characters: a black girl named “Lazy Lucy” and an American Indian girl named “Neiko, the Hunting Girl.”
Did those books deserve to be tossed? Without question. But did the screw-up by Minneapolis school officials rise to a level warranting demonstrations closing down a school board meeting? Not nearly. Might potential school board members of major accomplishment, perhaps men and women equipped to bring world-class business savvy to the Minneapolis Public Schools, have said to themselves: “Who needs any of this? No way will I ever run.”
Or recall when Bernadeia Johnson, a former superintendent of MPS — who’s African-American and grew up in Selma, Ala. — was called “Jim Crow” by disoriented African-American critics and was accused of treating “black kids like cotton.”
Granted, that slander was schoolyard-laughable on its face. But it didn’t enhance anyone’s confidence in the seriousness and sobriety of the district. And never mind that Johnson, a very good woman and educator, was “hurt to my core.”
Or think of how contentiousness over Minneapolis student suspension rates has risen to federal proportions. Or, crossing the Mississippi, consider how a pricey consulting firm, Pacific Educational Group, has persuaded school officials in St. Paul that it’s educationally advantageous for white teachers to obsess over being white.
Twenty-five years ago, two political scientists, John Chubb and Terry Moe, wrote that education in big cities is compromised not by too little democracy but by too much, in the sense that public schools are perfect environments for all kinds of interest groups, who fight over all kinds of issues, for all kinds of reasons. “It’s one of the prices,” they wrote, “Americans pay for choosing to exercise direct democratic control over their schools.”
Saying that a public institution suffers from too much democracy can sound terrible. But grown-ups fighting like children can sound worse.
Incidents like these, ugly as they may be, are not the most harmful way in which preoccupations with matters of race and racism undercut what public schools can do, not just here but across the nation. It’s not just the name-calling, not just the shouting. Rather, it is an assumption that American life in general and educational institutions in particular are so suffused with institutional racism that kids of color are bound to do less well.
And that to erase achievement gaps, it’s essential that schools first eradicate their racist ways.
But this raises a pivotal question: If critics have little confidence that American institutions can actually rid themselves of racism, are they not implying to students: “What’s the point?” Sure, some kids interpret such messages as calls to work extra hard. But others read what they hear as: “Why bother working hard in the first place?”
It’s difficult to think of anything less likely to improve education in general and the achievement of minority and low-income children in particular than ceaselessly dwelling on race. For how many decades has virtually every issue in Minnesota and American education been funneled through prisms of “diversity” and “multiculturalism”? And for how long have such preoccupations been party to not nearly enough kids learning how to read, write and compute adequately?
The lesson here is simple: Making the revamping of society a prerequisite for educational progress is futile.
Exactly in this vein, I was asked seven years ago to contribute to a University of Minnesota symposium based on the premise that “institutional racism is at the bedrock of [educational] disparities.” Let’s just say it was ironic that I was invited to write on this theme the very same month the United States elected its first African-American president.
Where does educational progress stand in Minneapolis? Doubled over in pain. Witness four-year graduation rates under 50 percent for minority students. Or, as a recent study by a branch of the University of Washington put it: Counting all students, regardless of race, four-year graduation rates for public school students in Minneapolis rank 50th among 50 American cities. Dead last.
The picture is similarly grim for minority students in Minnesota when it comes to national tests. Here are two quick sets of recent 2015 numbers from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
With regard to reading, the average NAEP score for all Minnesota eighth-graders is 270, compared with 265 for eighth-graders across the country. Pretty good.
Broken down by race and ethnicity, however, while 51 percent of white Minnesota eighth-graders are either “Proficient” or “Advanced” in reading, the corresponding results are 33 percent for Hispanic students and 16 percent for black students.
Or take eighth-grade scores in math. The average in Minnesota is 294, compared with 281 across the country. This is lower than no other state and significantly different from only three other high-scoring states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey. Terrific. (Or “terrific” at least in comparison with other states. Minnesota and the nation as a whole don’t do nearly as well when compared with many other countries.)
But, broken down again, while 72 percent of white Minnesota eighth-graders are either “Proficient” or “Advanced” in math, only 25 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders and 16 percent of black eighth-graders are.
Bluntly put, when combined with extraordinarily high family fragmentation rates, it’s impossible to see how dreadfully large numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics and other Minnesotans, very much including many white men and women, won’t wind up socioeconomically stuck and worse for the foreseeable future.
This is already a catastrophe.
So what to do? I’m pleased that organizations and programs such as Generation Next, MinnCan and the Northside Achievement Zone are on the job, all led by talented and devoted people, doing useful things.
What doesn’t please me is their dogmatic refusal to recognize that a large number of the children they are most concerned about would doubtless — yes, doubtless — do better in private schools, including religious schools, and that they deserve a chance to attend them.
This is not a wild slam at public schools, of which I’m a grateful product. Rather, it’s recognition that it is unreasonable to expect secular institutions — which governmental schools are, by scrupulous definition — to adequately address what legitimately can be understood as spiritual problems in the lives of many young people growing up in unstable worlds of parental loss. Boys and girls whose lives are eons away from those of Dick and Jane, calling up earlier stereotypes.
Research on the effectiveness of private schools when it comes to low-income and minority children — routinely conducted by top-tier scholars with strong ties to Harvard and Stanford — is clear and encouraging. But putting aside increased test scores and graduation rates, recall how the late John Brandl, a former DFL state legislator as well as dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, used to write and speak about how private and religious schools provided “some disadvantaged students with a substitute for the care they are not receiving from family and neighborhood — something possible but very rare in public schools.”
And, yes, if you’re wondering: If properly designed, such school choice plans are wholly constitutional, deemed so by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago.
In regard to the desegregation suit filed Thursday against the state of Minnesota, and with seemingly perfect anticipation, economist Benjamin Scafidi of the Friedman Foundation wrote just last month that “the existing evidence on private school choice programs in the United States indicates that those policies have led to greater racial integration in schools.”
This is a good spot to emphasize that many young people, regardless of race, would do better in life if they had greater high school opportunities to participate in up-to-date, directly job-relevant vocational and apprenticeship programs.
Slavery was America’s original sin, with racial bigotries much longer infestations. Yet that is not to say that racism, be it institutional or individual, exists everywhere it is said to. Nor should overdone assumptions about it be allowed to contort the work of educators or lessen the learning of students.
But that is exactly what’s happening, not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul but across the nation.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His most recent book is “Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future.”