The Warren Court in 1953
If a man burst into your house, seized your belongings, and carried them off for his own enjoyment, you would call him a thief. He not only took things you had from you, but denied you the future enjoyment of them. We have laws against this sort of thing. Everyone would expect some kind of punishment to ensue. If a man seized your child and beat him or her so severely that it caused brain damage, so the child might never be the same again and never able to do all the things that we once dreamed, we would call the perpetrator more than a thief. He stole not just things, not just future pleasures, but a life. The child might live and there may still be happy times and sad times. I will not argue that a life fully ended beats a life disabled; people must make those choices for themselves. But if not for that beating, the child could have grown into a healthier, more successful adult. A monstrous crime like this should make the news. We should hear about the man’s history of mental illness, real or imagined. We should look forward to hearing that he will spend decades in prison. Someone would make a joke about rape. Others would argue that through his crime he had exited the species and concerns about human rights no longer applied. Whatever the guards and fellow prisoners wanted to do, we should look on with delight. We should cheer the execution of righteous violence against the embodiment of evil.
Perhaps the small crime of stealing one life cannot excite. I have known people for whom that sufficed, but people known to a history blogger do not constitute a representative sample of Americans. Imagine that a group of people broke the skulls and wounded the brains of hundreds of children. Imagine they did this for years on end, putting their victims in the thousands. Coming up on fourteen years ago, Americans responded to this scale of misdeed with enthusiastic vengeance against not merely the guilty, but against anybody who so much as looked like them. We accomplished even the remarkable feat of attacking an unrelated country in response. Patriotic commercials hit the airwaves. On the internet, everyone posted cartoons of an eagle calmly sharpening its talons. A general told us that we had no responsibility to reconcile the guilty to their god, only to arrange the meeting. A decade later, we did.
I don’t think we should admire the lust for vengeance, but I can understand it as well as anybody. When pricked, we bleed. When wronged, we revenge. Few things unfetter the more vicious side of our nature than the heady drug of righteousness. This does not make us a singularly evil people any more than it makes us singularly virtuous. Humans of all nations feel the same impulses and struggle to contain them or release them as much as we do. But if Americans have not earned a reputation as a singularly forgiving, restrained people, then the world has judged us unfairly.
Consider that in 2007, the Pinellas County School Board voted to re-segregate its schools. As various Supreme Court decisions have left Brown vs. Board of Ed. with only slightly more weight as precedent than Dred Scott, they could do this. John Roberts told the nation that year that integration schools constituted a racist offense as great as segregating them. When the Pinellas Board voted to re-segregate, it knew precisely what would happen. It promised that all manner of aid would go to predominantly black schools so that they could remain equal while becoming separate. It would all work out.
The aid never arrived. Instead, according to the Tampa Bay Times:
In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.
Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.
Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.
They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.
Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.
Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.
Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.
The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing
The board turned average, middle of the road high schools into conspicuous failure. It took from the children consigned to them whatever futures they might have enjoyed with better conditions, conditions entirely within the Board’s reach to deliver, and made failures of them. The Board took from them education, the ability to improve themselves, chances for a better life. It took these just as surely as if it had gone around with a van to every home in the district, rounded up all the black children, and dispensed lobotomies. Pinellas might not have had the of best schools before, but it had at least average ones. The Board chose to make them worse. The bureaucrat’s pen can do the work of the billy club, bomb, and gun far more efficiently and no less destructively.
The reporters spent years investigating, reading thousands of documents. They checked Pinellas against other districts and learned that the Board had manufactured literally the worst place in Florida to commit the egregious crime of attending public school while black. They found:
Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.
The usual excuses come at this point. People who insist they are not white supremacists will say that black Americans have a culture problem, the fashionable way to say that they’re just inferior to whites. Or they have a poverty problem, which somehow adheres to their skin color through means beyond our understanding. Who knows how these things work? Not the school board:
“This is a nationwide thing, not just us. You hear school districts everywhere talking about this,” said Peggy O’Shea, who also voted for the plan in 2007. “It’s an issue that’s everywhere, unfortunately.”
“We only talk about it in black schools,” she added, “but we resegregated white schools as well.”
It all sounds plausible enough if one cannot bear the burden of thought. Just how do cause and effect work? By what strange alchemy could one connect isolating black children and depriving them of the resources necessary for them to get an adequate education lead to their failure to do so? The white kids left and the test scores went into the sewer. We can’t explain it. Nor can we explain why the white schools do better. These things just happen. Then comes the meaningful silence that we must fill with the unspoken truth: the black kids can’t do better because their nature makes them into the inferiors of whites.
But the Times burdened itself with facts and committed an act of journalism:
All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.
School districts everywhere don’t manage worst in state performance. That takes a rarefied gift. One has to work hard at it. Fortunately, the Pinellas Board had that kind of effort in them. Animated by the best American can-do spirit
After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.
One can’t say that they did not know how to do well, since the Board did better until 2007. Nor can one say that they lacked examples of how to do well elsewhere from which they could have learned, had they curiously forgotten the art:
Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things.
This does not happen accidentally. This does not arise from ignorance or indifference. The Board knew precisely what course they chose, what it would accomplish, and have stood in the way of all attempts to undo it. As Board member Carol Cook had it:
“We’ve looked at just about everything we can and put things in place,” said Carol Cook, who also voted for resegregation in 2007. “I think we’re on the right track.”
Dylann Roof’s victims, via the BBC
She means every word of that. They set out to plunder the lives of black children and have had a rousing success at it. They have not made mistakes; they have achieved goals. It would not do to admit that, just as it doesn’t do to hoist the Confederate battle flag, don the white hood, and go off a-lynching. Nobody wants to look like Dylann Roof when one can reach his ends without such gauche accoutrements. Better to play ignorant:
Linda Lerner, who voted for the plan that resegregated the district in 2007, blamed the schools’ problems on “the cycle of poverty,” not on actions by the School Board.
Lerner has may not have learned that the connection between poverty and skin color did not arise naturally, but rather people like her created it deliberately. We could blame her schools for that. Or she could have learned the connection, correctly understood her traditions, and carried them on happily. Florida has places where poverty, however constructed, and violence, however encouraged, impede education. But those places do better than Pinellas. Once more, the Times had facts:
In St. Petersburg, the crime rate is 12 percent lower than in Orlando, 15 percent lower than in Daytona Beach and 21 percent lower than in Panama City.
The poverty rate among blacks in Pinellas is 32 percent, compared to 33 percent in Escambia County, 35 percent in Alachua County and 36 percent in Volusia County.
Yet the black neighborhoods in Pinellas are home to schools that are doing far worse than schools in any of those places.
At West Jacksonville Elementary — in a neighborhood so violent it’s nicknamed Lil’ Baghdad — black students are passing reading at twice the rate as at Fairmount Park.
In Palm Beach County, at Belle Glade Elementary — in one of Florida’s poorest places — black children are passing reading at three times the rate as at Melrose.
There were 1,664 regular elementary schools tested in Florida in 2014. Students at 1,650 of those schools passed reading at higher rates than children in Pinellas County’s five most segregated schools.
Poverty doesn’t explain Pinellas’ problems. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math.
If Pinellas managed typical performance for a Florida school in similar circumstances, then the Board might evade some of the blame. They could paint themselves plausibly as victims of larger trends outside their control. But Pinellas’ achievements in excellence beat those of places that have it worse.
The rate of failure in the five elementary schools is unlike anything that occurs elsewhere in Florida.
The Board could see a light at the end of the tunnel if they wanted to. They could undo all they have done. They need only want to. But why should they? Carol Cook said she thought the district on the right track. She knew the numbers when she said it. She heard the complaints from parents. She could see how other districts did. None of those things mattered to her, or the rest of the board, because they had the opposite goals from other districts. They wanted not to help black students improve, but rather to ensure their failure. The designed a program to achieve that and it has worked. Where we see defeat, they celebrate victory. They have stolen the futures available to black children and put them in the hands of white children in accord with the American Dream:
“They won’t even consider what other school boards have done,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “They refuse to accept that there are people who are doing things better.”
In the Board’s eyes, other districts have not done better but rather worse. No one can beat Pinellas’ performance. For this, for pillaging the youth of their county, we do not damn the Board. We do not have cartoons of the eagle sharpening its talons for them, no matter how many lives they destroyed. We forgive them the children taken away from all they could have achieved. No angry mobs gather at their doorsteps. No burning crosses adorn their lawns. The nation does not cry out for vengeance. We do not speak of scheduling meetings with their god. It takes a remarkably broad-minded nation to suffer such crimes.
This magnanimity ought to serve as a beacon in a dark world. Americans forgive. We have a great nation and when it does wrong, we forgive it. We always forgive it because we consider it ourselves. The Pinellas School Board, like the other segregationists and like the slaveholders before them, we see as part of ourselves. Forgiveness always comes easy in such cases. When the people do our actual bidding, instead of what we tell ourselves we have bid them to do, we don’t even feel it necessary to consider such things. Why forgive the absence of a wrong?
Peter from Louisiana
If black Americans suffer, then why would we deem that wrong? We belong to Club White, from which we have forever excluded them. Therefore the most horrific wrongs done unto them at best amount to an idle curiosity. We might feel a pang of conscience here or there, like we do for the victims of a natural disaster somewhere across an ocean. More often we know, even if we do not admit it, that we have not heard the miseries of the victims of hurricanes and floods, but the victims of our own designs. We have black America right where we want it. If we call ourselves innocent, then we mean not that we have not done these things but rather that we count them no crimes. They express what we honestly understand as our virtues, not our vices. Vices belong to other people, warmed in the light of different suns. Those children of lesser gods cannot help themselves, so we must subject them to discipline. If a few, a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million suffer for it, so much the better. They serve as an example to others. These creatures, which we begrudgingly call people, simply must learn their place.
As a slaveholder told Frederick Law Olmstead a century and a half ago:
After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard,” Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”
We tell ourselves that we have consigned these things to the past. America, born perfect, became better still. We made slavery past tense, even if half the country fought a bloody war to save it, fought another to undo its abolition, and then fought again to preserve its newer forms of subjugation. We keep telling ourselves that even as those new forms shift ever so slightly and continue along, almost unimpeded. We continue on, free from the burden of any facts, pretending that we have won one battle even we we pop the corks on the champagne to celebrate victory in another. We have only ourselves to congratulate.
I do not propose that we should turn the panoply of racial violence against the members of the Panellas School Board. No one should steal their property or their children. No one should terrorize them. No one should take from them the basics that human decency insists we grant to everyone. We need not end them to end this. But so long as we let it continue, we make ourselves accessories in their crimes. When we learn of things like this, everyone declares them not of America. We live in some different country. If our mail still reaches us at addresses in this one, if we vote in its elections, if we insist on using the same name as that strange place where all the virtues we pretend to count as vices live, then civility demands no one call the assertion into question. We have another, better country and we keep it that way by keeping the wrong sorts of people out. We made black and white so we would know which people deserved admission and which had to live in rude shacks down the hill.
We did not have to do this; no law of nature demanded it. Nor did we start this way. We chose our path beside the Chesapeake long ago and we have made ourselves its faithful inheritors. The brute facts dictate we could do otherwise. We could do it tomorrow just as we could have done it today and all the yesterdays sailing upstream on whip-cut rivers of blood and screams of agony across a continent, over the ocean, and through the centuries. We could do it, but confessing that means confessing also the harder truth: We have for all that time in a multitude of ways chosen to stay our course. We have chosen to call plunder right and justice wrong. We have not made a nation that celebrates civil rights martyrs and cherishes their legacy, but rather the nation that killed them.
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