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Life Arts    H3'ed 4/6/11

Dysfunctional Inner City Schools is What Happens When America defaults on promises it makes to itself

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A Review of the Book "The Bee Eater"

By Richard Whitmire

It is clear here that "Michelle Rhee and her Raiders" were the best at riding into Dodge, putting out the worst fires across the landscape of the burnt out inner city public school systems. However, the systemic fact that the landscape nevertheless remains scorched and charred all across America, seemed to be of less concern to them; or at the very least seemed to stay well below their operational radars? For clearly the DC public schools were just the tip of a very large iceberg that continues to blanket the black inner cities, from sea-to-shining-sea.

The question: Why 57 years after the 1954 Supreme Court Decision to integrate the public schools, are American schools still as segregated today as they were when the edict was rendered, was not asked by this author?

This "Michelle Rhee friendly" essay on what happened on the way to her being fired as Superintendent of DC Public Schools, in its larger context, is nothing less than emblematic of what happens when the U.S. defaults on the promises it makes to itself, and by proxy to its black citizens -- as was the case of the 1954 Supreme Court Decision to integrate America's public schools.

The reader may recall that in a brief supporting that decision the famous Psychologist Kenneth B. Clark (a protà gà of Gunnar Myrdal) convinced the Court that an education in a segregated school could never be considered fair and equal, and that growing up in such a school would have severe psychological consequences for the students who did so. Yet 57 years after that decision was rendered, that is precisely what we have today. Despite this monumental change in the laws of the land, almost all of the black kids in the nation's major cities are still being educated in completely segregated circumstances: The public schools in New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, Cleveland, Pittsburg, Miami, St. Louis, even Kansas City where the edict was first handed down, and Washington D.C. (just to name the first few that come to mind), are as segregated in 2011, as Mississippi schools were in 1954?

I am not buying either the author's attempt to make Michelle Rhee's "unremarkable upper class life," interesting; her an unsung heroine, or his not so subtle attempt to pin the failure of inner city public schools only on the teachers, their unions, and the graft and nepotism of the inner city school boards? As usual, where racism is the predicate that sets the social parameters, the situation is much more complex than that. A great deal remains unstated in the subtext of American society.

If, as the author and the teachers suggest, that "racism and poverty are destiny" in America, then clearly the "in place" repeal of the 1954 decision is as heavily implicated in the U.S. inner city school problems as any other variable. In fact, an equally compelling case could be made that this repeal changed the course of American history for the worse and perhaps forever. For among other things it restructured the architecture of the black community and ushered in what Tim Wise has called "racism 2.0," the calculus of which is simple: In the U.S. racism determines where you live. Where you live determines what schools you attend. What schools you attend determine your level of economic success in American society. And the cycle simply repeats itself for successive generations. So, by effectively re-segregating American communities (as a result of white flight from inner city schools), the 1954 Decision was repealed "in place" and even today still casts a long dark radioactive shadow over American society.

The social disaster that has resulted from the effective "in place" repeal of the 1954 decision cannot be overestimated. And is enshrined not just in the "burnt out" inner city landscape, and in the lives of all the brave professional warriors like the heroine of this book, Michelle Rhee, but also in the "gutted-out" inner cities projects (such as Altgeld in Chicago where President Barack Obama was a community organizer); their "gutted-out" public schools and the "gutted out" pseudo-communities left in its wake.   Along with the politics of welfare, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the repeal of the 1954 Supreme Court Decision (that this book so skillfully ignores) is as responsible for Michelle Rhee's problems and the social meltdown in America's inner cities, as is anything else.  

How can one say this?

It can be said because the racist forces within America (in both their active and passive-aggressive forms), from the day the decision was handed down, all across the land were hell bent on resisting, undermining, blocking and preventing the full implementation of the 1954 decision. They succeeded at this goal admirably, and in the process destroyed a once vibrant and enviable public school system. Replacing it with a "patchwork" of private schools and suburban schools, and now with "so-called" Charter schools, ringing the gutted-out inner city ones. As a result, the repeal of that decision rendered "still-born" the best hope America has ever had for a fair and just, racially equal and harmonious society. Yet, the importance of the 1954 decision as a predicate to American society is overlooked entirely in this book, a book, whose primary concern is precisely to get at the bottom of the problems of America's inner city schools?

How did the U.S. repeal the 1954 Decision?

It did so with over 50 years of racist bad intentions acted out in utter bad faith against the "settled law" of the land. That it was done systematically with brutal effectiveness, gives a whole new meaning to "law abiding citizenship." With rare exceptions, white America abandoned the cities in droves, specially to undermine the new Supreme Court ruling, moving away en masse to the suburbs, and taking with them the tax base, all the jobs, and the cream of the black community, etc. This organized, collective passive-aggressive maneuver, dripping with racist bad intensions, left what we now recognize as the grotesque landscape of decapitated, prostrate, drug, crime and poverty ridden, "pseudo-communities," populated with returning criminals, welfare recipients, transients, and held together by stressed out single mothers with out of wedlock children as heads of most the households that remain there.

These bombed out "segregated" enclaves of social and emotional misery are strewn out all across the nation and are tolerated as normal: They are now being treated by school officials and by Superintendents such as Ms. Rhee as if they are the same as the once vibrant, viable, alive, self-sustaining but "legally segregated" black communities they have replaced. But clearly the two have absolutely nothing in common and very little to do with each other?

I was a product of the former, where in our completely segregated school we had a dedicated cadre of highly educated and highly motivated teachers. Merrill High School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, had a "merit scholar" in my graduating class of 88 (Dr. Clifton Roaf). The SATs of the top ten students of my graduating class of 88 averaged 1250 and qualified all of us for either officer training status in the military, or for scholarships to elite universities. Our teachers had at least a Master's Degree, or were working on them. This was in 1959! One of the signatures of our school was not just to excel in athletics, but also in academics and we did both with the same esprit de crops, and with the same gusto. And clearly then we were not the exception. However, in today's much-diminished environment, we are very much the exception.

Today, as was the case then, it is a case of "out of sight, out of mind." The race-based "disaster zones" that are the direct result of circumventing and undermining the 1954 Supreme Court decision, would shame a nation of savages, and yet we Americans with our eyes wide open (including our mulatto President, and ex-mulatto Mayor of DC) pretend that we do not see them? But self-delusion does not matter: in the back of the minds of all Americans, our inner cities still remain an embarrassing blight on both the landscape and on the conscience of this nation.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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