what we can’t afford

I don’t know what it’s like to be white. If, in a white supremacist culture, white is normal, default, ordinary, and average, and anything else is “other,” ethnic, urban, and exotic, I imagine that white people aren’t frequently reminded that they are white. I’m going to have to remember to ask a white friend that one day, like, “how often do you remember that you are white?” I’m curious, because I don’t know what it’s like to forget that I’m black.

Yesterday, I was having a conversation with the new girl at work. I like her. She’s young, recently finished school, and is very pleasant. As we talked about a neighborhood that she and I are both familiar with, she wondered aloud about a peculiar thing that I’ve pointed out to others many times. See, Philadelphia’s school district has a bad reputation. Many people who stay educate their children in private schools. Among those who stay in the city, many enter lotteries to get their children into charter schools, or quietly rub elbows and pull strings with the right people in order to network their children into the public schools that have better reputations than the rest. But of those parents who don’t have private school money or influential friends, many¬†leave the city once their children are school-aged, if they can afford it. I imagine that this may be true of a number of American cities. Anyway, the new girl said that she wondered why, on one side of this Philadelphia street, it felt like a completely different world from the other side of the street, which was another municipality, boasting one of the best school districts in the state.

It’s school segregation, separate and unequal. It’s completely legal because it’s not explicitly done on the basis of race, as it once was. When race-based school segregation is discussed in history classes, at least the ones I took, it’s usually discussed in the context of 20th century Jim Crow laws in the south, which were invalidated by Brown v. Board in the 1950’s. I remember seeing some stray notes about busing controversies in northern cities like Boston, but other than that, it seems Americans are content to pretend that school segregation discussions 1) don’t pertain to the northern area of the country, and 2) don’t pertain to the modern day. My grandmother lived her entire life in New Jersey, and she attended segregated schools. By the time her daughter had finished high schools, Brown v. Board made that kind of de jure race-based segregation illegal, but economic segregation had efficiently replaced it. Between the racist redlining of mortgages, hiring discrimination against minorities in unions and other companies, race-based application of the GI Bill, racism in renting, racism in town planning, and plain old intimidation, neighborhoods remained as segregated as they had ever been. White and middle class families lived and attended schools in the suburbs created for them in the post-WWII economy, while poor black and brown families remained living and attending schools in the cities they could neither afford to maintain with their tax dollars nor afford to leave with their lower incomes.

None of the housing and labor practices that created this situation are legal today, but by the time they were no longer in wide practice, the segregation had already been achieved. The declining urban schools kept the income stratification, and in turn, the segregation, going in perpetuity. As long as neighborhood public schools continued to be funded by taxpayer dollars, and black and brown neighborhoods continued to have lower property values, separate and unequal public education continued – pardon me, I mean continues, present tense. In Pennsylvania, talk of an equitable school funding formula is floating around. Imagine guaranteeing every child a well-funded education, irrespective of the property taxes their parents can afford. Sounds a bit like the opportunity to pursue economic success without being weighed down by caste, as Europeans often were before they came to the New World fleeing serfdom and seeking fortune. But I digress.

When my new co-worker asked why the worlds were so different on either side of a street, I thought the Cliff Notes version of all of this in my head. But I said simply, “It’s economic stratification. Folks on one side can’t pay the property taxes the other side can pay.”

You know why I left the race out?

You know why I left the race out.

I never forget that I am black. Not even in a non-professional situation with a co-worker. Not even when I have more tenure than her at work.¬† Not even when I’m well over ten years her senior. I’m black. She’s not. Expressing my opinion on race, even when it’s backed up by facts, could cost me, and much more than your average white colleague. Anywhere outside of the four walls of my own home, it’s my first job to remember that I am black if I want to keep a paycheck, take care of my family, or be safe from harm. Any mistake costs me more, because for me the rules are different.

“What about all those white people getting fired from their jobs or expelled from school when they go viral online being racist on video?” you may ask. Well, it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to the times we lose jobs, lose pay, or get demotions because of those times that we forget that our mistakes cost us more, because the rules for us are different. In a world where most people – even “liberals” and “progressives” – are willing to look the other way as de facto racial segregation continues in housing and education in this country, black people literally cannot afford to forget that for us, the rules are different.

One thought on “what we can’t afford”

  1. Discretion is difficult to teach but personally we have always had it. You are and always have been an excellent thoughtful writer. Once again, you are in point!

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