I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History Season 2 episode 3, Miss Buchanan’s Period Of Adjustment, which is about school integration, when a few thoughts stuck with me. Who were the people that objected to their schools becoming integrated? Who were those people in those black and white photos standing outside of schools with protest signs as a six-year-old girl walked into a school building? What do they think now? What have they thought since?
What the works of others such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Ava Duvernay, and Richard Rothstein have in common with this piece by Gladwell is they try to educate and convince their audiences that we have not progressed on racial inequality as much we’ve thought. We like to think the Jim Crow era is a separate and discontinued past, failing to realize our need to contribute to the continued progression of racial equality. When will we understand this? How will this happen? What actions need to be taken? Do we need to use South Africa’s reconciliation as a reasonable model for a starting point?
Gladwell discusses studies on gifted children which show evidence that gifted black children are less likely to be identified in majority white schools than white gifted children. This is unless there are black teachers in these schools. This piece isn’t just about modern day unconscious bias, Gladwell talks about how school integration in the U.S. obliterated the black teacher workforce. Schools became integrated, black schools were shut down, black teachers were fired, and then many, though not all, of these black students were in schools with teachers that didn’t care about their success as much as their previous teachers did. Today, the number of black teachers nationwide still hasn’t recovered and students of color still may be getting shortchanged, though to a lesser degree than before.
Racial inequality, especially for black Americans is both structural/systemic and upheld by individual choices. We have good ideas on how to address the structural components, but do we understand how to change individual choices, individual choices of both black and white Americans? How do you persuade others that the poor circumstances/environments of many disadvantaged people were constructed and thus, require intentional structural readjustment? How do you persuade disadvantaged people to engage in prosocial behaviors such as completing primary and secondary education, practicing healthy eating habits and exercising, and avoiding illegal activity despite their circumstances/environment? How do you persuade people to acknowledge unconscious biases?
It’s easy to see the problems and solutions in retrospect, but how do you see them in the present and for the future?