Opening a can of worms

You know what’s funny? I grew up in rural Mississippi–a state with a civil rights record that ranks right up there with Myanmar, China, Congo, Uzbekistan, and Alabama. My parents both came from lower middle-class families, and neither were what anyone would call “forward-thinking.” Like most of the folks in our all-white neighborhood, we had a black maid, and when my mom took to her bed with chronic depression during my teen years, we had black cleaning ladies, a black cook, and black yard men. And of course, up at my grandfather’s farm, all of the fieldhands were black.

Despite all that–despite the fact that to outsiders, it might seem like I was raised to be a card-carrying member of the KKK (if, indeed, the KKK issues cards), and despite Nina Simone’s numerous laments in “Mississippi Goddamn”–I can honestly say I never witnessed virulent, hardcore racism until I moved to New Orleans.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t some really interesting dynamics here in the way that racial lines blur: the proud heritage of the Creole community, the unique opportunities afforded slaves by the Napoleonic Code (under which slaves could buy their freedom and live as Free People of Color, many of whom owned slaves themselves). But in other ways, the lines drawn between blacks and whites here seem harsher and more confrontational than anywhere else I’ve been.

Nowhere is this aggression more obvious than in the Orleans Parish School Board. Is there anyone who’s not completely sickened by the way they behave? Is there anyone who thinks they’re doing a good job? Is there anyone who holds out hope that one day, they’ll stop thinking with their skin and use their brains? Is there anyone who doesn’t think that the State of Louisiana should step in and kick their collective asses to kingdom come?

I don’t know what else to say that hasn’t been said about them. If there were any justice in the world, they’d all be extradited to Sudanese refugee camps for some life lessons. Or at the very least, someone ought to make them watch a couple of ABC After-School Specials.

10 Comments so far

  1. Clay (unregistered) on May 24th, 2005 @ 12:17 pm

    Aren’t most of the school board members, themselves products of the New Orleans public school systems? Ignorance begat ignorance. Terrible formula for success. And it seems like nobody will stand in a public forum and call it like it is. Being PC is BS. IMO

  2. jfbiii (unregistered) on May 25th, 2005 @ 9:55 am

    When I moved to Mississippi a couple of years ago from New Orleans, I expected to experience the same sort of racism here that I did at home. But surprisingly, racism is far more pronounced in New Orleans than it is in semi-rural Northeast Mississippi. I think that it boils down to the fact that class lines are drawn much more sharply in New Orleans.

    And the fact is that class has far more to do with the problem than race. Based on my own experiences growing up I know that I am not the racist that my father was, and that he was not the racist that his father was. Same with most of my friends. Where parents or grandparents wouldn’t associate with people of different races because they were different races, we discriminate — subconsciously for the most part — based on how well people fit into our lifestyle. Do they have similar interests, career issues, brains, disposable income, wit, sex lives, etc.? If so, then race is not much of an issue. We’re more focused on how similar where we might be headed is than how divergent our pasts have been.

    But in a city like New Orleans, the class distinctions sharpen the racial distinctions. There’s a lot of pressure to conform to the values, or lack of values, that are embraced “where you come from.” So even if you’ve moved up, you’re conditioned to believe that success was achieved despite roadblocks rather than because of personal ambition, talent, and effort.

    So, in the case of the School Board, it matters little whether or not they are able to run an enterprise that educates children. What matters is that they have an enterprise that is theirs to run, however poor a job they do. And they seem to feel the same way parents in every social class feel: the fact that I spit out a baby imposes a financial obligation on you. Not only does a large portion of the breeding class (and I mean this to be derisive without regard to race) assume that city, state, and federal governments have an obligation to support their offspring, most of that portion also don’t feel as if that support should come with any strings.

    Personally, I don’t think the State of Louisiana is capable of kicking their asses. Our legislature, while both more crooked and slightly more competent that the one found here in Mississippi, is still scraping the bottom of the nation’s IQ pool.

  3. Tyler (unregistered) on May 25th, 2005 @ 10:35 am

    My reading of the article that Richard cites in his post leads me to believe that there is a movement within Orleans Parish to come to a public understanding that the governance system has failed–and perhaps failed spectacularly. It makes me wonder how many truly believe the racism account of why things failed. As the article reads, it sounds like some parents believe control is being taken away because the ‘white’ majority of LA (or northern LA?) is hostile to the ‘black’ majority of Orleans Parish (or NOLA in general?) specifically because of skin color(s).

    Jfbiii makes a great point that there is a deep class-race component to all of this, at least in NOLA. Richard’s anecdote about the structural/economic racism of Mississippi of his childhood, and jfbiii’s echoing of that analysis, makes me wonder if the parents that are angry about ‘racism’ are using ‘race’ talk to describe a complex phenomenon: class, race, culture, and geographical/state-regional politics. Are they being dumb, or outside of the rantings at public meetings are there attempts to tackle that very large problem? Do we have only one language (race-talk) to get at the historical complexities of how race and class came together to create a problem when trying to solve a huge mess in the school system. The language is inadequate to the task? I want to believe that everyone isn’t uniformly ‘dumb.’

  4. oyster (unregistered) on May 25th, 2005 @ 2:43 pm

    Richard: Perhaps I’m misreading you, so correct me where I’m wrong.

    Your implied argument initially struck me as eerily similar to the Segregationist arguments of the 50’s, where Suthin’ legislators would point to the race riots of Chicago and other northern towns as an example of how much better and less “confrontational” life was in the rural Deep South. “Those wild cities… that’s where the problems really are.”

    Much of what you say hinges, I think, on how you’re defining “hardcore”. Is a place where black and white divisions are more accepted really less “harsh” than a place where they constantly bubble up publicly?

    And precisely who is the “they” you are referring to in the last two paragraphs of your post? From your various comments I can’t tell if you’re talking about the School Board as a whole (the majority of whom voted for the state “takeover” you support) or just the African-American members (are they the ones you say are “thinking with their skin”?).

    Is your bottom line claim that the most virulent racial distinctions you’ve seen are the ones drawn by black New Orleanians against whites? Is this the racism you’re talking about, or am I misinterpreting your argument?

    [Also, if “everyone” agrees with you that the entire school board is lousy– then where is the problem or division? I’ll remind you that the predominantly black districts replaced all of their School Board Members, while the white Board Members were retained.]

  5. Aaron (unregistered) on May 25th, 2005 @ 10:05 pm

    Well, as a product of New Orleans Public Schools, and I’m talking kindergarten through 12th grade, I can safely tell you all that you are right and wrong on every count. I benefitted from getting into all the best schools that NOPS has to offer, and I’ve turned out just fine (or horribly, if you have a bad attitude about lawyers). However, I have also volunteered to help other public school students and I can tell you that the disparity between where I went to school and what programs those kids are going through is as stark as comparing Princeton and Delgado. There ARE serious defiencincies in the Orleans Parish Public School system, and they will exist until a major overhaul takes place. There is not enough money, there is a lethally fractured leadership in place, and there are historically negative attitudes against making ANY schools better than any other ones.

    Let me enlighten the masses of metroblogging by relating my personal experience in Orleans Parish. I started out at Hynes Elementary in Lakeview, which, because of its location in one of the more affluent areas in New Orleans, sported a very active PTA and generally engaged parents to ensure the students studied and did well. Then I went to McMain Magnet for middle school (7th and 8th) and got into the advanced classes there which made extra effort to teach students beyond the bare minimum required because they perceived (and rightly so) that we were capable of it. I then went to Ben Franklin Magnet which is by far (and I mean FAAAAAAAR) the best public high school in the city and arguably the best school period in New Orleans. I took AP classes, was challenged to do well, and got opportunities generally not available without a lot of extra effort to other public high school students. When I started college at the LSU Honors College it was a breather compared to the effort required at Franklin. I also started with over a full semester’s worth of credit hours because of the AP tests and other knowledge I gained (spring testing to test out of class credits). My experience was far from the norm, though. Let me relate another story concerning my time in public schools which still irks me to this day (7 full years after graduating from Franklin): there was a big stink raised by other public high school students in NOPS and then school board members that Franklin unfairly discriminated against minority students (read, African-Americans) because we only had about 15% black students in a 60% black population city. NOW, never mind that almost every other public high school in New Orleans sports anywhere from 80 to 100% percent black populations (McMain to Kennedy, Fortier, etc.), apparently double standards aren’t recognized. The stink was that the entrance exam (read, IQ test) was unfairly biased against black students. So they proposed to DO AWAY WITH IT. Magnet School. Really. Anyway, what they did succeed in doing was dumbing down the test so that more people passed, and THEN doing a blind lottery for EVERY student who passed. Let me tell you a funny story about what happened next: three years later when those Franklin students who got in under the dumbed down test took the PSAT, Franklin had about 16 National Merit Scholars, and Jesuit, a prominent private school, had over 50. These were records for both schools. Before that year, Franklin had an AVERAGE number of 30 National Merit Scholars for classes numbering about 200 students, and Jesuit had an average of 15 national merit scholars for classes averaging 400 students. What happened you say? All the smart kids went to private school. They didn’t spread out and equalize the crappy NOPS system. Their parents actually care about them, why would they allow that to happen? When I graduated, Ben Franklin was Number 1 in the Nation for percentage of National Merit Scholars. I don’t even know if they rank nationally anymore.

    So yeah, there are problems, and until addressed the system will remain shoddy, but NOPS does have it’s bright spots, besides Franklin being NOCCA and the New Orleans School for Sciences.

    Aaron – very proud product of NOPS system.

  6. Aaron (unregistered) on May 25th, 2005 @ 10:11 pm

    As a sidenote, and for pertinent comparison, my best friend at Ben Franklin FAILED OUT his junior year and went to McMain for his senior year. He became McMain’s only National Merit Semifinalist.


  7. Richard (unregistered) on May 26th, 2005 @ 10:27 am

    Oyster: When I say “hardcore,” I mean that EVERY discussion in the NOPS system comes down to a question of race. In DC, votes fall along party lines; here, it’s race lines. That goes for both white and black members (and that’s what I meant by the phrase “thinking with their skin”). The new Board member, Lourdes Moran, is Hispanic, and at the moment a wild card.

    This isn’t to say that there isn’t lots of racism to be seen in school systems across America. However, in New Orleans, it’s always the first and last issue on the table. It’s the deciding factor. There’s little or no willingness for members to cross party (i.e. racial) lines.

    As far as the recent replacement of black Board members is concerned, as you know, that whole election hinged around the failed ouster of Amato. Fahrenholtz and Anderson fought aggressively to keep Amato onboard, backed by the majority of NOPS parents, so they were re-elected. The other folks–the ones who tried to carry out a secret plot to boot Amato from office–weren’t so lucky. In other words, at the time of the election, people held out hope for Fahrenholtz and Anderson, thinking they had some sort of ethical standards. Now, who knows? All I know is that at LEAST Fahrenholtz and Anderson are willing to consider making changes to the dismal status quo. The black board members stood as a solid block, completely resistant to change.

    Aaron: I, too, am a product of public schools. And not to sound like an old geezer waxing nostalgic for the “old days,” but just as with you, the public schools I attended have slipped in recent years. If I were a parent today, I would no more send my children to New Orleans public schools than a man in the moon–with the exception, of course, of McMain, Lusher, and Franklin. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in that sentiment: part of the reason NOPS are suffering so much is because most parents who could afford to pull their children out of public schools have done so.

    And I’ll agree with you that Franklin and the New Orleans Center for Science and Math are good public schools. Note, however, that NOCCA was ceded to the State of Louisiana several years ago–it’s no longer a part of the New Orleans public school system.

  8. Aaron (unregistered) on May 28th, 2005 @ 12:43 pm

    I’m glad NOCCA did get ceded, then. Maybe it can avoid becoming every other NOPS school that way.


  9. JJ (unregistered) on May 29th, 2005 @ 7:07 pm

    Refreshing to hear comments about this. As bad as New Orleans schools are, everyone knows what the problem is, I guess that is the dilmena.

    I grew up in New Orleans. Went to public school, McMain Magnet, and at the time, it was probably the number 2 school to Benjamin Franklin. I then went to LSU only to find out that I couldnt do algebra and had to take a few semesters of pre calc classes. Talk about dissapointing. This after taking trigonometry and advanced math at Mcmain. Mcmain is considered a college prep school.

    I think there are two main problems to the New Orleans Public school system. Money and community involvement.

    Looking at the schools you can see the difference between public and private. I have been to many places around the country and NEVER seen schools in the physical condition they are in, nevermind the overall inability of the teachers. I had personnal haad some great teachers in highschool, but if I had to do it all over again, and had the money, I most certainly would have gone private. One example, i graduated from my High School in 1992. We didnt even have air conditioning. Talk about agonizing, particularly in New Orleans heat.

    Its also hard to have change when there is really no involvment in community issues. Hardly anyone in New Orleans votes. And if they do its pretty racially divided voting. When i was in high School, the PTA was non-existant. I have witnessed many council meetings and it is just disgusting the politics that goes on in them. The members totally play off the emotions of the people. I totally agree with one of the writers here, this all or nothing attitude had got to stop.

    Unfortunatly, the big problem with New Orleans is Money. As much as I hate casino’s I thought that would help. But whenever I visit New orleans now, it looks like the same old same old. What we need are real community leaders, and involved people. It is amazing to see the class divide in new orleans. The Classes simply to not mingle. Its almost as if there are two cities in new orleans.

  10. Clay (unregistered) on May 30th, 2005 @ 4:49 pm

    “Its almost as if there are two cities in new orleans.” (I like your post, by the way)

    A Tale of Two Cities. Rich and Poor. Black and White. Old and New. Newman and McDonogh. Tulane and Xavier. blah blah blah blah blah. let’s just call it like it IS. our city council and our school board and our public schools suck ass! has anyone seen “Lean on Me”?

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