If America had a subconscious, race would be its neurosis. And it’s no wonder, as one way neuroses develop is when the reality of a given situation does not match up with what one is being told. The disconnect that is created between the official narrative given by an authority figure and the reality of your own senses makes the human machine malfunction, and worse, in the case of teachings about race it creates separation where there should be community.
In the United States from grade school onwards we are inundated with stories of racism. Like the Milgram Experiment, after years of this teaching most everyone seems to assume their given role: whites are the oppressors and blacks are the victims. And, there is seemingly damning evidence for racism all around us: Donald Sterling rants, police pull-over rates, incarceration rates, lower college attendance rates, lower incomes; the list is endless.
Through making a documentary film on an inner-city school (Google “Teaching and Learning in Compton”) I began to realize that the rhetoric of racism and privilege not only doesn’t help solve any problem, it actually hinders us. Unfortunately, talking about race, or privilege, or class, is so much easier than talking about the reality of what it takes to fix the problem. And the reality? Unfortunately, it involves work: lots and lots of work. The absolute, no bullshit, bottom-line answer is that the children of poor people will need to work a hundred times harder than their well-to-do counterparts to achieve a similar level of intelligence and skill.
Read Chapter 9 in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”. It’s called “Marita’s Bargain”. It may be the most important thing that you ever read about race and poverty in the United States. It tells the story of Marita, a young girl whose family is very poor. Through her mother forcing her she attends a KIPP school in the Bronx and thereafter her life is changed forever. What’s a KIPP school? It’s basically a military school that takes her out of her social and family environment and shoves her into a world of year-round schooling.
This is the dirty secret of race and class in the US. Success and intelligence are not inherent, nor are they withheld or bestowed, they take work. The difference between rich and poor children, and generally therefore whites and blacks, is how much time is spent on learning. Gladwell points out in his book that wealthy kids and poor kids have exactly the same aptitude for learning. In early grades, their test scores are very similar. It’s only as time goes on that a disparity emerges. The reason isn’t anything other than time; the rich kids tend to learn year round while the poor kids tend to sit idle in the summer and after school, not enlarging on what they’ve already been taught.
The only tangible solution for racism in the US, and more importantly for poverty, is for poor children to work harder than anyone else. It might sound simplistic but it is the difficult truth. Programs like KIPP should become de rigueur in every poor and underachieving school district throughout the US. If you read Gladwell’s book you’ll realize this will take dedicated teachers and a firm hand with parents, but it is the only realistic solution.
Then, we can also begin to address the other issues that will come up: is there truly a pervasive race problem in the US and if so how do we address it? It’s an important question but let’s solve the first problem first: to have year-round, intensive public schooling available for our country’s poor.