Lots of people no longer remember the riots that ensued in Boston when African-American children were bused to predominantly white schools. Mothers and grandmothers spitting, jeering and tossing trash and bricks at buses loaded with children. I bring this up as a prelude to a story about one of my aunts, a redoubtable, tough-as-nails Irish-American woman with a hard-scrabble background; in the 60s, thanks to decades of union effort to better the working classes, she and her family were just beginning to experience a little of that material comfort that so many identify with the American dream. In short, she was just the type of woman one would expect to see rioting in the streets to ward off the invading hordes.
But my aunt’s story is different. She lived in a quiet suburb where integration happened, for a blessing, relatively quietly and her children attended a school with many African-American children. As a result, in 1976 when Jimmy Carter was running for president, my aunt, a staunch Democrat, had to be reassured that Carter, a Southerner from Georgia, was not a racist, but had, in fact, spoken out against segregation. She explained her attitude in terms of her concern about the African-American children who were friends of her children and their parents, people she had met through school-related activities. In this case diversity in the classroom did what it was supposed to do – foster understanding and acceptance. I know that my aunt was an uncommonly open woman and her experience was not necessarily typical, but I bet there’s more like her out there and we’re a better country for it.
I bring this up because of Bill McClellan’s column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a few days ago, titled “Understanding Anger at Transfers.” The column addressed the court-ordered transfer of a contingent mostly African-American children from the failing Normandy district to the heretofore mostly lily white Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County. I want to be clear. I’m not going to rail against McClellan for racism. He’s a clever writer who specializes in empathy – real empathy, I think – especially for those who get short shrift almost everywhere else. I’ve always liked reading McClellan’s columns because he never presents himself as too good for the down-and-outers he often writes about.
I had a certain empathy myself for the point McClellan was making which focused on his father and McClellan’s perception that his upstanding, working class father would have had sympathy for the folks in the Francis Howell District. After all, McClellan implies, these white American who are responding with anger because their children may be exposed to poor, African-American children are actually only concerned that their children continue to enjoy the advantages they, their parents, have sacrificed to provide for them. McClellan concludes his column by acknowledging that he understands that anger too. He, like his father, saw solid neighborhoods decline after an influx of African-Americans.
Well-and-good. I understand what the fuss is about as well. I’ve had my own clutch of relatives who would have felt right at home with McClellan’s father. They were mostly people I loved and respected although I disagreed with them often. Because of them I know that frightened people often react angrily, even violently.
I part company with McClellan, however, when he neglects to point out that indulging this type of fear is destructive and prevents positive change – and when he fails to speak out about what’s really motivating the folks who label the transferring children as “trash.” I remember, after all, my aunt, one of the most hard-core members of her tribe, and her about-face when she learned first-hand that folks from other tribes aren’t necessarily as bad as they’re often cracked up to be.
In fact, McClellan seems to think (or not – more about his waffling later), that there’s a chain of facts that justifies the white flight that helped populate St. Charles county:
These are facts. Uncomfortable perhaps, but indisputable. The blacks arrived. The schools declined. The whites left. You can debate the underlying reasons, but you can’t argue the facts.
I’ll give McClellan the benefit of the doubt here. It’s possible that he is trying to say that this is the perception of the facts that fueled white flight, rather than the actual, complex sequence of events that led to the decline of inner-city schools. He must be aware that the sequence of events he outlines is itself questionable? Perhaps things happened this way in St. Louis – I wasn’t here then – but it’s not the story in Detroit and many other once thriving American cities where, instead, (1) the blacks arrived, (2) the whites left, and (3) the schools declined. And that decline had lots to do with loss of property tax revenue and jobs that fled to the suburbs where white folks continued to live their rosy lives while black poverty intensified in the inner city. Some folks, like McClellan’s father, tried to stick it out, but the majority of whites began the race to the suburbs as soon as the first black family hit their blocks. And when the money and jobs go, so goes the neighborhood and the schools.
McClellan’s column was weak-tea, nothing to get anyone really worked up. But, in the context of a society where real racists seem to feel more and more emboldened, it’s maybe worth it to take the time to note that he’s not telling the whole story. Understanding ugly emotions is not enough. In a world where a young,unarmed black teenager can be harassed by a gun-toting
vigilante neighborhood watchman, inappropriately confronted, ultimately shot dead, and the shooter is then found not guilty of anything at all, we can’t afford to go too easy on “white fear.”