Sacrifice and the black family

Written by Tami Winfrey Harris, ARP editor

When black families do what white families do instinctively and routinely—somehow, it pisses people right off. Taking advantage of the benefits that hard work, achievement, success or circumstance bring our way means selling out, abandoning our people, getting “uppity.” No sending the kids to private schools or heading to the suburbs. It is not enough that we understand failing educational systems or that we work to fix them. We must sacrifice our families to them. It is our burden.

… I do not know why Barack and Michelle Obama cannot send their children to a nice public school in Hyde Park. You understand that I am a bit unstable this election season (I voted for Hillary) and I do my research by erratically Googling from home. And all I know about Hyde Park — and, readers, I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong — is that even though real estate prices seem high, the brave little public schools in its ZIP code seem to be flailing. Their scores on are largely 2’s and 4’s (on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best). When you read the tea leaves as manically as I do, those low numbers suggest that few children of educated, middle-class parents are attending the local schools. Rather, they’ve withdrawn, with nary a ripple, into their whispery private enclaves.

Let us not even touch the term “community organizer,” so buffeted about, by both sides, like a balloon at a rock concert. Let us just say that if Mr. and Mrs. Obama — a dynamic, Harvard-educated couple — had chosen public over private school, they could have lifted up not just their one local public school, but a family of schools. First, given the social pressure (or the social persuasion of wanting to belong to the cool club), more educated, affluent families would tip back into the public school fold. And second, the presence of educated type-A parents with too much time on their hands ensures that schools are held, daily, to high standards. Read more…

In “The rantings of a P.T.A. mom,” Sandra Tsing Loh’s recent New York Times article, the author marvels at how the Obama’s have chosen to educate their children. Loh mentions that Joe Biden and John McCain’s children went to private schools, but the family that seems to stoke her ire is the Obama family. It is okay for a young Chelsea Clinton to attend the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, but how dare those presumptuous Obamas offer their daughters a private education. The local school’s low scores matter not. Why, if the Obamas would just take one for the team and chance their daughters’ educations, surely other families would follow…eventually.

Understand—I am an advocate of public schooling. I am the child of educators. I went to public school. My stepson goes to public school. But all public schools are not created equal. A lot of school systems, particularly the Chicago Public School system, are in crisis, and we all need to work to fix this. But if parents know that they are not able to make up for a poor school’s inadequacies, and if they are lucky enough to have options, they should not be blamed for choosing what is best for the family. Or, (if I recall correctly from The Audacity of Hope) if children have access to a FREE excellent private school education courtesy of a university where a parent teaches, they should be able to take advantage of it. No one need sacrifice their children to correct society’s wrongs.

The choices we make

I don’t know how the Obamas make decisions regarding their daughters’ educations. But I do know that many urban families, particularly black families living in areas like Hyde Park, Chicago, face uniquely difficult choices. My family did.

How do I find myself living in a small Indiana town today? Many reasons, but one of the most important is my stepson. We looked at the public schools in our Chicago area (We have lived in Hyde Park and the city’s near South Side) and found them lacking. We watched our son’s elementary school repeatedly get failing scores and narrow its curriculum to a bare minimum. Plus, we also looked at our small condominium and knew that while it was great for two, it wouldn’t do for a growing family. We looked at the city’s violent crime rates and we heard about too many children dying. Even with our good jobs, we could see no affordable place in the city that would provide the things we wanted most for our family. Private school was unaffordable, as was a home near our jobs that was big enough for three and maybe a dog. With hard work and luck, our family has been blessed with choices. And we chose to move away from the city. I am not saying ours was the best choice. It was simply the choice we could make work.

But I hear black families who make choices like mine or the Obamas’ demonized by the black community for abandoning our brethren and I hear our decisions questioned by people like Sandra Tsing Loh.

About five years ago, the Chicago Tribune published an article about how urban middle class black families are more likely to live in close proximity to urban crime and blight than similar white families. They are likely to continue to suffer the stress of poverty even if they have been successful in avoiding or overcoming it. Failing schools are part of the bargain. But that is to be our plight, it seems. Or, put more bluntly, that is our place. Even if, like the Obamas, we have the resources to seek better schooling, safer housing, etc., we are not to use them. If our kids come to college less-than-prepared…if a bullet finds one of our babies walking home from some extra-curricular activity…tsk, tsk…ain’t it a shame.

Only a black person in America could possibly be demonized for studying hard, earning a degree from an Ivy League institution, giving up a high-paying job to work for the community, getting a law degree, entering public service, becoming a successful author and lecturer, and offering his child the best education possible. It sounds like the American dream, but it’s not when we do it.

And yes, I know I appear to be ranting on like a pit bull without lipstick, which brings me to the final nail in the coffin in this sorry election year. As a Democrat I am horrified that Sarah Palin is the one who snagged the deeply profound — and absolutely ignored by professional smart people — emotional real estate of “P.T.A. mother.” I too am, in fact, not just “my kids’ mom” but their Title I Los Angeles public school P.T.A. secretary. This unheard female howl is, for better or worse, what Ms. Palin has set out to tap into; it is real, and I am sick that we’ve let the Republicans charge this ground.

Sarah Palin’s children went to what looks like a humble little public school: Iditarod
Elementary on Wasilla Fishhook Road. The school’s score on
is a 4. That’s a lot of street cred, for a gun-totin’, snow-mobilin’ creationist-lovin’ lady.

See, Obamas, if public school is good enough for the Palins, why is it not good enough for the son of a Kenyan goat herder and the descendant of African slaves?

Personally, I am more interested in education policy that the “emotional real estate of P.T.A. mother.” Loh’s view of Palinesque iconic parenthood seems to advance one concept of parenting as being supreme and noble. What about those moms and dads in inner city Chicago, working multiple jobs or odd hours, who can’t make it to P.T.A. meetings but love their children nonetheless? What of the parents who are pained because their children attend substandard schools? What about private school parents and boarding school parents? What about stepmoms like me who work a distance from home and thus are unable to be as involved in school activities as my stay-at-home and work-from-home counterparts? Is the Palin howl for us, too? Or is the battle cry just for moms who make Loh-approved decisions and black folks who don’t get big ideas about what their children deserve?

I know that Loh searched long and hard to find a suitable L.A. public school for her child (See her book, “Mom on Fire.”). That was her choice. Every child in this country deserves a good education. It is a shame that our country has not made that a priority. I hope that will change soon. Until then, though, every parent has a right to seek the best education they can provide for their children without apology—every parent: the black and the Harvard-educated, too. Parenting is hard and the decisions we make are unique and often informed by factors those on the outside cannot see. Before she drafts another sneering attack on another parent, Ms. Loh would do well to remember this.

See my post “I Colonize” about the challenges of urban living.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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