Schools and Culture: Beyond Separate and Unequal

Summary: Acceleration in the mortality rate among low income white males due to suicide and drug abuse holds a mirror up to a war on drugs which targeted disproportionately the black community. The comparison puts in relief the distance between the two communities, black and white, and identifies a natural and accustomed role for school people.

So, school people. Among many briefs, schools are to play a role in a reversal of centuries of discrimination toward black people and cultivate the academic/economic prospects of people of color in the backwash of slave times. Most of the focus is on improvement in curriculum and instruction and, in more enlightened areas, on the psychic fallout of poverty through relationship building and intensive human intervention.

But there is another element of interracial interaction where schools can and do play a less identified, but elemental role.

Seemingly out of the blue, in this era of improved medical care and declining death rates, including among blacks and Hispanics, the death rate among poorly educated white males is actually increasing. The rate of increase in mortality in this group is matched in modern times only by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and stems largely from psychological related ailments, specifically suicide and heroin and opioid poisoning or overdose. The increased mortality is linked with difficulty socializing, chronic pain, and poor health, all closely associated with depression, and hence full circle to suicide and drug abuse.

A key ingredient in the bundle of despondency has been financial distress, as hopes for a middle class life style have evaporated with technological efficiency and global outsourcing of low skill jobs.

Some commentators, including Jerry Large in a recent Seattle Times column, have pointed out that the dilemma of low income white males echoes a more chronic profile of black men who for years have struggled with dim economic prospects, poor health, and consequent depression and drug abuse. Crack cocaine. Heroin. War on Drugs.

Where now shock, compassion, and alternatives to jail seem the order for these latter day sorrows of poor white males, the response in past drug crises has been zero tolerance, and an epidemic of incarceration of people of color, particularly black men.
The wheel seems to be turning, not so much due to a new found compassion for people of color or even for the epidemic among poor white males, though the scales may be lifting from some eyes, but because the costs of incarceration for legions of substance abusers who ran afoul of the law costs so dang much, which finally has politicians paying bipartisan attention.

We, blacks and whites, one hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, live in two different lands, two very separate communities. The substantive conversation back and forth has been frighteningly meager in the big picture. The black community has seen the human waste from the ravages of drugs for many years, while whites mostly saw in the same scene only drug crime. Because whites held the power of narrative, they (we) responded with massive incarceration of non-violent black addicts. Any gut response to the psychic pain involved, to pain in the black family, for too many whites has simply not been a factor, at least in the political and collective response. Containment of the “other” rather than remediation within community was the order of the day. The white community, isolated from communication with blacks, was and is blind to the suffering.

Begged is the question, how might this separation moderate so that pain within any part of the community breeds a compassionate response, rather than gulag isolation?

In the second half of the twentieth century the political scientist Karl Deutsch analyzed a variety of social communications common to nation-states and nationalities — mail, phone calls, travel, media, commerce, and so forth. He was able to demonstrate that the internal communications within a community are far more frequent than are similar communications across boundaries outside the group.

In fact, the web of communications themselves define the community, both as an internal entity, and as an entity distinct from outsiders with whom there were notably fewer communications.

Deutsch’s insights provided a useful tool for understanding not only the glue of community, but also a way to understand an important dimension in how we remain relatively separate from communities exterior to our own.

Take the US border with Canada. The web of social communication within each country, were it to be designated by physical lines, would be denser within each country than across the border, despite the enduring reciprocity of this specific international relationship.

Bring the same concept back home, to blacks and whites in America, year 2015. Had communications between the white and black community been more on a par with the communications separately within each community, it is arguable that the incarcerations of black drug offenders might have veered into treatment and shorter term sentencing path. More specifically, were lines of communication between police and relevant black communities more robust, would Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and other legions still be alive today, absent demonization on both sides and first response by gun? Community policing may be a start.

Reasonable questions, I think, without assuming the answers are simple.

In fact, if communication across racial lines is to be a key ingredient to progress, then we currently may be moving in an wrong direction, as cities gentrify to white, and income inequality pushes white communities of wealth and black of low income further apart.

Meanwhile, black students do better across a range of measures, including health, academic skill level, socialization, mental health, and financial future when they attend desegregated schools, where proximity to white students is more likely to guide resources their way.  As a corollary to increased housing segregation, in many communities blacks are less likely to go to school with whites than in the recent past.

Finally, bring the discussion back to the role of schools and teachers, counselors, and administrators in the quest for racial equality. Granted the richness of resources is pivotal to success in bringing black kids to equality, desegregated schools also tend to be the place where black and white kids interact, become curious about one another, and begin tentative relationships. Some of that happens in sports activities or other extra curriculars, but also in the hall ways and in the classrooms as nurtured by teachers, who we hope are adept.

This cascading set of back and forth interactions among students, black and white (and brown), bridges social gaps as though across borders, and institutionalizes the transit of black and white students from outsiders in relation to one another to part of the same collective community. The effect is to inoculate blacks from the marginalization so injurious to African-Americans in our history, and we whites from our inability to see.

In fact, schools are a unique place where different races have an opportunity to break down walls within one community on a regular basis, and have been doing so for many years, Brown vs. Board of Education on.

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2 Responses to Schools and Culture: Beyond Separate and Unequal

  1. Deb says:

    Powerful piece, Mr. Brand.

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