Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Not a Clue"

I woke up this morning to discover that, evidently, I have failed the "Tripp-test" for having a clue about education issues in St. Cloud. I've gotten on the wrong side of some of the self-appointed civil rights spokespersons in St. Cloud because I don't believe that constantly focusing on race and racism is a productive strategy for transforming public education. I'm not going to shrink from my opinions on this. I'm not arguing that we don't need to combat racism in our community, when it does exist. I just don't happen to believe that the "racism is the cause" strategy is effective, or for that matter accurate.

If you didn't read the story, my comments in the Times about the actions of one particular self-described leader of Somalis was interpreted as proof that I don't have a clue about racial issues in St. Cloud. My comments resulted from the fact that the leader in question had agreed to a meeting to discuss solutions and then over the weekend scheduled the demonstration for the exact same time as the meeting. I saw this as regrettable and wrong. I don't think that it makes you a racist, or ignorant, just because you disagree with someone who claims to be speaking on the topic of race. I'm not going to be bashful about speaking my mind, just because someone might write a Your Turn against me. The stakes are too high here. The subject is our children and their education and future.

One of the sad things about the level of dialog in this community on race is that many people on both sides of this issue think that if you don't agree with their point of view that you "don't have a clue." The result of this approach, which is all too common, for dialog here around the issue of race, is that we have trouble actually getting the community mobilized to do the hard work that is necessary to make systemic change.

My background and belief system may well differ from that of Mr. Tripp; I can't say, because he's never bothered to give me a call to find out what I think. I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964-1965 when racism kept black adults from voting and black students from going to decent schools. I have a masters in teaching with specialization in teaching disadvantaged students. In 1968, I helped found an upward bound program in Washington, D.C., a program designed to give minority students a boost into College. I taught high school in the D.C. public schools and in New York, before attending law school, after which I worked six years in legal services for the disadvantaged in the District of Columbia and then here in Minnesota. I try to read extensively on issues relating to the achievement gap, on school reform, and on best practices. My background causes me to see the educational crisis quite differently from Mr. Tripp. Respectfully, I think that the right strategy begins with high expectations.

Listen. The fact that you disagree with Luke Tripp, or anyone else for that matter, doesn't mean that you don't have a clue. It just means that you believe in following a different path.

Here is what I believe. I believe that constantly focusing on the racial divide that allegedly exists in this community will make it worse, not better. I believe in dialog, not invective. I believe in building bridges of understanding, not rehashing old grievances. I believe that the truly great civil rights leaders of the Martin Luther King era, some of whom I knew, were peacemakers not rabble-rousers. They counted their success based on the amount of healing that they did, not the amount of division that they created.

I believe that the keys to maintaining a strong public education system are the same for white and black students. They don't begin with focusing on class or racism. They begin with a consistent message of high expectations. The high expectations message begins in the home. It begins with a message of "you can do it." It begins with a consistent message that hard work paves the road to success. It begins with turning off the television and creating a common time for reading and study. It begins with reading to your children daily, and creating an environment of respect for the hard work that education requires.

I believe too that creating a welcoming harassment-free environment is important to creating the conditions for success. I just don't believe that you do that by constantly focusing on race and racism. Kids bully other kids because the bully feels insecure and channels that insecurity by trying to put someone down. Kids pick on kids that they believe are vulnerable--who they think their peers will let them bully. For some kids race is an opportunity to bully. For others it is a disability, or gender, or an age difference. Bullies are all the same; insecure cowards who pick on kids who they believe are vulnerable. Inflaming this issue with race does not, in my opinion, stop bullying. Maybe you disagree: if you do, I won't say that you don't have a clue; I'll just say, I respectfully disagree.

I believe that raising expectations for parents, students and teachers is fundamental to improving education for disadvantaged students. If Mr. Tripp would bother to take a look, our district is aggressively working on programs to implement best practices that provide opportunities for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity or income.

Earlier this year, a former civil rights veteran of my era authored a song called "Pants on the Ground." Maybe you saw it. It went viral. In a humorous way, the song was speaking to the very issue I am talking about. He was saying, listen, some of us risked our lives in the 1960's--some of us lost our lives--to transform this country to provide better opportunities for children of color. We haven't driven out racism completely, and we need to work on that, of course. But, I believe he was saying, look at the opportunities that you now have, as the result of the sacrifices of King, Schwerner, Goodman, Cheney, the church bombings, the cross burnings, and the beatings and brutality. Stop focusing on excuses: get to work. The opportunities are there. Study hard. Get to work. Overcome.

The road to better education in St. Cloud right now does not begin with demonstrations or anti-racism invective. It begins with mobilizing parents to become involved in their public schools. It begins with encouraging parents to become involved in their children's education. It begins with supporting teachers and schools. If you don't agree with that, well ok. But that is my "clue": for making things better.


  1. The race pushers aren't interested in being "fair". It's all about "winning" and thereby gaining an undeserved "privledge". And all they've got to do to win is to make your pain greater than your perceive your ability to be fair is worth to you.

  2. That wasn't exactly my point....


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