'Can we go to school together?'

A discussion about the Seattle School District's obsession with racism suggests that even talking about the problem won't help, because the conversation is rigged.
A discussion about the Seattle School District's obsession with racism suggests that even talking about the problem won't help, because the conversation is rigged.

Last Friday, March 30, on Weekday With Steve Scher on KUOW-FM, our panel of five – Steve, me, Danny Westneat, Susan Paynter, and you – spent a good part of the hour talking about racism in Seattle schools. I recommend you listen if you missed it. The conversation was pegged to two stories in the Seattle Times last week.

One by Alex Fryer explored the difficulties the School Board is having grappling with the notion of institutional racism in Seattle schools. The school district, you may know, officially declared itself institutionally racist in 2004 and is in the middle of trying to hire a new superintendent. The other piece, by Lornet Turnbull, looked at how race and class have divided Madrona (K-8), a school literally on Seattle's racial and economic dividing line (one side the the street it's the Central District, the other side is million-dollar lakeview homes).

White parents have been pulling their kids out of the predominantly black school because they feel they are not welcome. Many African-American parents feel that white folks are trying to take over the school and are upset about the gentrification that is transforming once-black neighborhoods into "affordable" white ones. The Times ran a chart which shows that over the past 30 years that whites families have been abandoning the schools even as they have been taking over black neighborhoods.

The Weekday roundtable was especially interesting because Danny, a Times columnist, is one of the parents who pulled his daughter out of Madrona and switched her to a mostly white school. Danny described his family's experience at Madrona as a "demoralizing experience" and said it made him ask the question, "Can we go to school together?" He also said that he felt the school district was "enabling division."

Danny has often been a defender of the district, and the pain of his Madrona experience was palpable. He elaborated on his thoughts and experience in his Sunday, April 1, column.

The school district does have problems with racism, just like the rest of American society. But it also has a problem with a kind of institutional political correctness that sees racism at the bottom of everything – and this feeds a culture of aggrievement.

It's at the point where everything in the schools is seen as racist. Two-tiered learning is racist. The Washington Assessment of Student Learning is racist. Closing schools is racist. Recess is racist. Summer vacation is racist. Even white charity to raise money and help fund enhanced programs is racist.

No teacher, parent, or staff member, it seems, is ever accused of having good intentions, such as a simple desire to do the best for children in a flawed world. I think Danny is right that the district is enabling division in the name of solving it. Last year, the district was forced to remove from its Web site definitions of racism that were posted as fact rather than opinion. They were taken from a left-wing book on teaching social justice that defined individualism as racist, planning for the future as racist, and even denying racism as racist.

I wrote a column exposing the source in Seattle Weekly. In looking over my column, I was reminded that one of the examples of racist hegemony, according to the authors, was "discourse," the idea that rational discussion is itself racist. While relatively harmless as an academic mind game, I suppose, in the real world this construct is a recipe for toxic gridlock because it posits that the means of reaching understanding or a reasoned consensus are themselves suspect. How do you educate without discourse? How do you learn? And what are the alternatives? I don't think a group hug is going to work.

A caller to the show complained that we were just a bunch of white people sitting around talking about race. Well, yes we were. And good for us. Seattle – especially Seattle whites – has long been reluctant to talk about race, and that hasn't been a healthy thing.

White Seattle tends to want to believe that race doesn't matter, that we're all the same (read "white") under the skin. Talking about race issues is a good thing.

Race doesn't just belong to "people of color." But it's wrong to make the school district carry the burden of that discussion. It's wrong to look to the schools to solve society's race, class, and economic problems. It's wrong to put children at ground zero of adult dysfunction. And it's wrong to rig the discussion so that there is only one right answer: that racism is to blame for all of the district's problems.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.