Monday, December 24, 2018

Race, school, and civic responsibility

Over the past year or so I've run across some really good articles that are all related in some way to using one's own social capital to improve the area around oneself, as opposed to using one's advantages in life to cherrypick the best of everything.  Concretely, I am talking about parents' not always looking for the outcome that most favors their own children individually, but rather those options that might provide their children with a decent life and opportunities while not depriving others thereof.

Here's an article by an important analyst of black Chicago, as she muses on what school she should send her young daughter to within the Chicago public schools.  She doesn't have a definite choice yet, but she does not want to funnel her kid into one of the handful of elite schools within the public system.  I have read similar reflections from other parents, and never cease to be surprised that it's often parents of color who are thinking about the greater good of the larger community.  In theory there are a lot more white folks in the US that enjoy a level of economic and academic security that would allow them to think honestly about not maximizing their individual gains at the expense of general wellbeing.  But once again we see black folks serving as the voice of conscience for a larger nation that often doesn't want to listen.

Here is a summary of research into how high-income whites reinforce patterns of social segregation by using their own advantages to maximize positive outcomes for their kids without regard for the effect on everyone else.  Here are a few pithy quotes: 
"These affluent white parents are in a position where they can set up their kids’ lives so that they’re better than other kids’ lives. So the dark side is that, ultimately, people are thinking about their own kids, and that can come at the expense of other people’s kids. When we think about parents calling up the school and demanding that their child have the best math teacher, what does that mean for the kids who don’t get the best math teacher?"
"white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens."
"We have other societies that do things differently. I think when we look across time and history and geography, we can see that the way that we’re doing it—prioritizing your own child over everyone else—is one way, but I don’t think that has to be the only way. I don’t have any grand answer, but I think people could think in bigger ways about what it means to care about one another and what it means to actually have a society that cares about kids."
I would add to this researcher's analysis that it's not just in the US that we see people trying to distance themselves socially from others. Across the developing world I see people replacing long-standing traditions that fostered equity across society with new, consumerist habits wherein everyone is scrambling to buy on the private market goods like education, health, and infrastructure. These are goods and services that should be public goods that we all fight for to get for everyone, but in today's post-Cold War world a lot of that ethic of equity has been replaced by a logic to look out for your own immediate interests regardless of, or even at odds with, every else's wellbeing.

I'll close with a link to an uplifting Op-Ed by Michelle Obama for the Chicago Defender.  In it, she urges the black population of Chicago to stand firm, to keep investing in and believing in and loving our kids, even when the rest of society doesn't much value them.  Again on display here is a commitment to the larger community, and a recognition that our own immediate children are no more important or deserving than anyone else's children.

Says the former First Lady of herself and her brother, "neither of us was anything special. When we were growing up, ... the South Side was full of thousands of little Michelles and Craigs—good kids who worked hard and knew the difference between right and wrong. The rest of the world just didn’t get to see that very often."

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