I am, to use my roommate's vernacular, a mere tourist of the racial issues still facing the south today. In fact, I'm probably a lot less - the metaphorical equivalent of sitting at home watching the war on tv. As both an undergraduate and a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, I was exposed to a veritable race cornucopia. The city of Montreal, and indeed McGill, is as varied and diverse as any I have personally seen and also a lot more than any cities, burgs, or backwaters I would ever find here in Maine. However, the history of Canada and its once-largest city of Montreal is entirely different than that of the American South.
If I noticed anything in my stay up North it was an extreme lack of active consciousness with regards to ethnic issues - which is not to say people ignored the problems.. there just weren't that many problems.
In the south public education for anybody but those in posh communities is, if not in the sewers, then at least in the toilet waiting for a flush. Meanwhile, many small, historically black private institutions that charge much higher tuitions than state schools are sinking below acceptable levels of education.
I came across this article
in the St. Petersburg Times today. It is an epitaph of one man's attempt to make a difference at a small private black school. It starts optimistically enough:
The first ray of hope that August morning came as I unlocked my office door and was greeted by Constance Bayne, my most diligent journalism student. The mere fact that she had bought her textbooks made me feel some degree of success. My first year, many students had refused to get the textbooks even when they had vouchers to cover the cost. Constance's enthusiasm was reassuring, and I remember thinking that if I had 10 students like her I could transform the college into a place that attracted other high achievers from throughout Alabama.
But things get depressingly worse:
During the fall semester, I would try to make eye contact with students and speak to them as we passed in the halls and on The Yard, the grassy campus gathering spot. Very few of them would return my greetings. Most were sullen. But I also saw something more disturbing in their faces: Many of these young people were sad and unhappy. Very few smiled.
The most saddening bit to me, in the end, was the lack of respect for both students and teaching staff given by the administrative workers:
In an essay, a female student wrote: "Each time I go to the financial aid office, I get my feelings hurt. The ladies behind the counter talk to you like you're dirt. I hate to go in there. They don't know how to treat people, and they don't try to help you. They make everything so hard. My mother said they're just a bunch of sadiddy niggers, and I shouldn't worry about it. But I have to worry. They give me my check or they don't give me my check. You better not make them mad."
Many of my colleagues agreed. They told me that much of our students' hostility was the result of the constant rudeness and humiliation they experienced while trying to do something as routine and essential as completing the right forms for a loan or a grant.
This is patently reprehensible behaviour and the worst of it all is that it is perpetrated by their very own brethren: the majority
[of the staff] were middle-aged to older black women with local roots.
The author of the piece goes on to talk about the student's own lack of respect for the establishment:
While disagreeable staff members and financial red tape were constant irritants, nothing was more appalling than the students' disregard for college property.
During the spring semester, the Tuscaloosa Fire Department put out trash can fires in King Hall. I was angry and embarrassed to see a team of white firefighters trying to save a dormitory named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that black students had trashed.
"Why do they do this to their own buildings?" a white firefighter asked me.
And my only response is to posit that what we see as "their building" is really just a monument to the disrespect showered on them by the college in their eyes.
The end of the article contains a table comparing large state schools with small historically black ones. The numbers don't lie; Stillman - the school written about in this piece - costs over double that of the state University of Alabama. Furthermore, the size-year graduation rate of the UofA (63%) is well over double that of Stillman's (29%).
As I stated at the beginning of this post, I have very little experience with these issues. Regardless, it seems fairly obvious to me that pressuring disadvantaged kids to attend expensive higher education (something they already see as a hassle) where they are belittled and treated poorly is just not going to be that effective.