Friday, April 13, 2007

Race and Racism in Omaha

by Ryan Anderson
There are two stories about race on the front page of today's Omaha World Herald: one that's important and one that isn't. First off, Don Imus.

I'm trying to be professional about this story, but I just can't get past my first reaction, which is a sort of maddening, fuming indifference that wants to scream and point fingers but might be satisfied with a sermon or lecture so long as my "holier than thous" are on prominent display. Well, neither reaction is warranted. Imus' comments were inexcusable, but they weren't unforgivable.

They certainly weren't unforgettable. And the real subject of my anger, the real object of my sermon -not just the mass media, but the masses themselves, for driving this story and swelling those ratings- well, they deserve something less than my "Godawmightys", too. Then again, they deserve much more than another sideshow witch hunt masquerading as "racial dialogue".

I can understand the attraction of this story. Race is still a dominant issue in our lives, but we're so bottled up about it pretty much the only release we'll allow comes from those minor celebrities stupid enough and mean enough to say the wrong words at the wrong time. Well, we've got another head on the pike, what good'll it do us this time? Will it branch out into a larger discussion, not just about the them -the hip hop artists and the talk show hosts and the rednecks- but about the us, about all of us, about how we've fallen short of that ideal of Dr. King? That dream to live free of color, free of division... that one?

No, of course not. It didn't happen with Michael Richards, it didn't happen with Mel Gibson, it won't happen now. There are real problems with race relations in this country... are we seriously going to deal with them just as soon as we scrub the Earth clean of every shock jock, one by one?

Our task is too big and Imus is too small to matter. Let's start with OPS.

On the integration question, there are two proposals: the superintendent's plan, which offers priority to any student whose first choice of a school would help improve that school's socioeconomic integration (be they a poor student choosing to go to a wealthy school, or a middle class student who prefers a poorer school); and the Raikes plan, which would allow low income students their first choice of schools, even if it didn't improve that schools' diversity.

The superintendents claim the Raikes plan will only work to integrate middle-class schools, leaving poorer facilities far less diverse. They're right. But their plan won't work either.

The truth is that the voluntary integration OPS has relied on for decades is too little, too late for most students. There's some data considered in that sweeping statement, but for the most part I speak from experience alone. I was a "West O" student who attended a "North O" magnet school, Omaha North High, a fine and diverse school which is nonetheless quite segregated. Voluntarily segregated.

North attracted kids from out west with genuinely high quality academics, especially in the areas of computers and technology. Most of these recruits were serious students who bussed themselves halfway across town to take advantage of North's exciting honors classes. The majority of the neighborhood kids, like the majority of kids everywhere, elected instead to take the path of least resistance and filled up desks in the academic classes (some, like me, occupied a bit of both worlds).

The result was like squishing two schools right up next to each other: the West O's and the neighborhood kids, with some overlap but not quite enough. Not that there was racial conflict. Race was a dominant issue in our lives, but we kept ourselves pretty well bottled up (I remember that, as editor of the Commentary section of the school paper, the only thing the administration ever censored of ours was a political cartoon about the alleged racism of the school's security, a controversy quietly acknowledged by students and staff alike but never discussed in any productive way. Reminds of me news today that OPS condemned an article in Benson High School's Gazette that attempted to deal with student use of "the N word").

This isn't the fault of North, or OPS, or the Legislature. Not any of them alone. This is a problem that can't be solved by policy alone. But there are a few things we can do to help, so long as we're honest about the shortcomings of the status quo.

The first is an equitable distribution of the city's wealth, for which this "Learning community" seems an adequate solution. We could also do something about the "3,000 children, 3 or 4 years old," most of them from North Omaha, who "are either on waiting lists or otherwise not being served" by Head Start in Douglas County (OWH, 1/24/07). The lack of adequate funding for preschool and elementary education in North Omaha contributes significantly to the "black-white achievement gap", which is worse in Nebraska than many other states (you can play around with state by state comparisons here).

But this is an issue that's too big for the Unicameral and the superintendents. It's an issue that's way too big for Don Imus. It starts with letting some pressure out of that bottle, letting the students at Benson open up a real dialogue and encouraging their parents and neighbors to do the same. It starts, too, with an integration plan that will help convince some more "West O" students and their families to drive east of 72nd Street. It starts with us, with all of us, and a dream. Yes, that one.

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Anonymous logipundit said...

Good points on Don Imus, and thanks for the link to NAEP...very interesting site.

BTW, I'm adding you to a list of "Nebraska blogs" It's a very short list, so be honored. Forming a sort of ad hoc "Senate" of bloggers who are in tune with local politics as well.

come see us...

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

I am indeed honored to write for the NNN and sincerely appreciate every opportunity to reach a wider audience. Thank you for the heads up.


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