Why I Do What I Do

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Liz Dwyer, originally posted at Los Angelista’s Guide To The Pursuit Of Happiness

I have worked with almost 100 schools across Los Angeles and Compton over the past 8 years and I definitely have seen that race is a factor. If I take the top five lowest performing schools in Los Angeles, I can probably count the number of white students in those five schools on both hands. And that’s about 10,000 kids total. We have year-round schools out here because of school overcrowding. You’d be hard pressed to find a year-round school in a predominantly white area. Now, if I’m a kid on “B-Track”, from K-12, I’m going to get 2 years less schooling than a kid on a traditional school schedule. Would middle-class or wealthier white parents stand for that? No, probably not. Why? Not because they care more about their kids. No, they wouldn’t stand for it because they’ve been socialized to believe that they deserve so much more. As my mom used to say, “___thinks her ass is gold plated!”

It’s not that poor black and Latino parents don’t complain about all kinds of stuff, including the year-round schools, or that they don’t care or don’t want to challenge the status quo. First of all, some don’t even KNOW that they CAN complain about it. If they go to the school site and complain to the principal, chances are they are going to get treated in a disrespectful manner. I’ve sat in LOTS of front offices and seen it happen. We’d all be a lot better off if we just owned up to the fact that we treat rich folks better. And you throw some rich white folks in the mix, man oh man, folks are falling all over each other with their effusive shucking and jiving.

Some parents are just grateful that their kid gets to go to school at all. The pressures of being a minimum wage worker and trying to afford housing, clothes, food and put gas in the car are tough. If I work and get paid $10 an hour, that means I’m taking home, before taxes, about $1600 a month. Say my hard-working husband makes the same…. That’s $3200 before taxes. If I have two kids and we have a two bedroom apartment, I can automatically axe out AT LEAST $1K for rent. I’m really trying to figure out how someone survives on that and still manages to be at school for the 4:00 parent conference. But wait, if they don’t show, we want to say they don’t care.

Parents are stressed out just trying to put the food on the table and I’ve seen that this means that they can have a bit of a blind trust in the school site. We’ve bought the lie that everyone is getting the same great education despite where they go to school. That’s just not true. Parents are telling their kids to work hard in school, to act right, to stay out of trouble. And then what happens…they get teachers that sell weed on the side. They get teachers that can sit up in the classroom, give the kids a worksheet and read the newspaper. They get teachers that tell them, “If you don’t want to be here, don’t come.”

If I see a set of 35 science textbooks at a school, I know that 180 students have to share those books. The books can never go home. That would never happen in a wealthier area and yes, parents would raise hell if the principal told them, “That’s what our budget allows!” But to a poor black parent complaining about this, that parent gets treated like the problem for complaining. That parent gets told, “That’s the way it is.” And it’s suggested that the parent should be grateful that their child even has that. See that there are no real expectations that those kids are going to excel academically. Slavery and segregation weren’t just about physical oppression. It was about mental oppression as well. It was about getting black folks to the point where we don’t expect ourselves to excel too much and we don’t challenge the authority systems in this country too much, because guys only need to stop snitchin’ and girls need only be a booty-shaking slut…all images put forward with the stamp of approval of the white owned record companies.

Anyway, to me, that’s why the kids in Matteson, IL aren’t outperforming the kids in Tinley Park. White mothers in Tinley can walk into ANY hair salon and expect to have someone be able to do their hair. White fathers don’t have to worry about whether someone is going to call them “articulate” when they are at work. Neither have experience being asked by their boss to accompany them to meetings because a “black face” is needed to represent. (Has happened to me at my current place of employment more than once in the past two years and every time it’s, “I hope you understand why I’m asking you to come!”) If I went home crazy every day because of that kind of crap, who could blame me? What is the psychological residue of oppression? Not saying it’s an excuse, but to act like it doesn’t exist is inherently dangerous.

Seriously though, rich parents in Tinley Park don’t have to worry that the teachers are going to suggest that their kids are supposed to go to trade school. Can you imagine some kids going to New Trier High School in Winnetka being told to consider taking auto shop classes? I was told that though, “Because being an auto mechanic is a good career for someone like you.” You know what my first group of students was called by one of the custodians at my school? They were called the Penal Colony. Yeah, 3rd graders being called the Penal Colony. That has nothing to do with the parents or the community. And if you’re told you’re nothing, guess what, the self-fulfilling prophecy comes true.

Wealthy white parents will demand certain things because they have an inherent sense of superiority. They are the ruling class in this country. I always say that there are just as many drunks and drug addicts in Compton as there are in Beverly Hills. But guess what, the trifling crystal meth addict parent that shops Rodeo Drive by day and tricks with her husband’s friends by night is damn sure that her kid is getting a good decent education…because she has the money to pay for it. I’m sure Paris Hilton’s parents were really nurturing and loving people who helped Paris do her homework every night…oh wait, she dropped out of high school. No matter, Paris Hilton gets a reduced sentence for DUI. Is that going to happen to the average black 25 year-old? Nope.

I get angry over teachers, principals and school district officials knowing they can get away with the low academic expectations crap. They know that our society easily reverts to believing that black folks would succeed if they really wanted to…I mean, look at Oprah, the shining example of black billionaire-hood. She’s richer than most white folks so how dare anyone black say that racism exists in our educational system or anyplace else!

Here’s my thing: Make every school like New Trier and then if people choose to not take advantage of the education, then that’s their choice. And when every school is like that, hold every child and parent to the same expectations for academic success and involvement.

As it stands now, ultimately, our society is not going to be too outraged for too long if something bad is happening to poor children of color…and that’s why I get up every day and do what I do.

Liz Dwyer lives in Los Angeles with her husband of seven years, Elarryo Bolden and her two sons, ages six and three. Her great sense of adventure and desire to learn about diverse cultures took her to Guangzhou, China where she taught English to third and fourth graders, picked up some Mandarin, and managed to get into seven bike accidents. Liz also taught in Compton, CA for three years and now works for national education non-profit, Teach For America. She loves to write and reflect on the world around her and has blogged for over two years at Los Angelista’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness.

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