Birmingham

On a recent trip to Alabama I had the opportunity to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute which chronicles the struggles of African-Americans during the early-and mid–20th Century in the South. I found the experience to be moving beyond my expectations.

While at the Institute several busloads of high school-aged children arrived. As they toured the facility I noticed each group had one common characteristic — all were people of color, not one single White child was among the groups I saw. This raised two questions in my mind:

Memorial at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

Memorial marking the spot where Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion killed four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley on September 15, 1963.

The first is, do White kids ever get to see what their forebears did and what the effects of those actions were? The second question is, do these children attend segregated schools even today? If so, what was the point?

White kids need to see what happened to Black people during Jim Crow. They also need to know people with a different skin color, and know them on a personal basis. White kids need to know that all people share the same humanity. If they don’t injustice will continue generation after generation.

One of the exhibits showed the differences between typical classrooms for White and Black children during the middle of the 20th Century. It doesn’t take a genius to know that White kids learned in state-of-the-art classrooms while Blacks were given leftovers from a bygone era. Teachers in Black schools were paid significantly less than their White counterparts, which meant that people with the skill and motivation to be great teachers had to find work in other fields to provide for their families.

The tragedies of the status-quo are numerous. The parents of White children scrimp to get their children into segregated private schools for no reason other than fear. Black parents typically have fewer resources so their children are forced into substandard schools where they don’t learn what is needed to compete for high-end jobs in a global marketplace (forgive me for generalizing here, but it doesn’t take a social scientist to observe reality). With nothing to disrupt it the cycle will continue for generations, into eternity.

My education and experience have not provided me with the answers to resolve the present dilemma, but I’d like to offer a few ideas anyway:

  1. Stop giving tax dollars to so-called Charter Schools and dis-incentivize religious schools. The goal must be to educate children in a diverse learning environment, not indoctrinate them. In addition to reading and arithmetic, children must learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Not every child will excel but each should be familiar with the concepts. Home-schooled children, who most likely will miss diversity, must demonstrate their knowledge in these areas before being credited with having passed high school.
  2. Provide incentives to parents who put and keep their children in schools with ethnic and cultural diversity. There’s a genius somewhere with the skills to write an algorithm that will account for the percentage of students with different ethnicities and cultures then provide tax incentives for parents who keep their children in public schools with the most diverse ratios.
  3. Affirmative Action is a well-meaning program that has missed the point because people of color who have the skills to compete on an equal footing with anyone are labeled as having been given special treatment. Again, I don’t have a solution, but surely there’s a way to eliminate the stigma of studying and working while Black. If rocket scientists can invent the credit default swaps that tanked the economy in 2008, surely a few can be found who can fix social inequality.

Life isn’t fair. Some will be born with the silver spoon, others with leaking Canadian tar sands. In a civil society, neither social station at birth nor biology should define destiny. Well-meaning Blacks and Whites, despite our best intentions, have been abject failures at resolving the inequities that have continued for more than fifty years because we lack whatever it is (knowledge? skill? commitment?) that will make society right.

It’s time to change our methodology or we’ll live with the status quo for a long damn time.