Archive | February, 2012

Tolerating Durham

2 Feb

A couple of weeks ago, in honor of MLK Day, the Daily Beast (a part of the Newsweek online publication) ranked Durham, NC as the Most Tolerant City in America. Wow! As they say in Britain, I was gobsmacked. As a North Carolinian and Durhamite, how could my town – the one I worked in and lived around – be thusly ranked?

At the heart of my issue lies this: the first paragraph of the story boldly states “while segregated schools and lunch counters may be things of the past…” Hold on!  Did anyone from Newsweek actually step foot in Durham before making this declaration? So they skipped straight ahead to measuring other criteria.  By so doing, I am afraid that the Daily Beast is leaving readers with a false impression of an implied harmony that exists in the Bull City, at least from what I have observed and lived. All you have to do is step into the school where I worked in the heart of Durham, W. G. Pearson Gifted and Talented Magnet School, and see that the racial make up of the school’s children is predominantly black and brown. According to the Daily Beast article, Durham is nearly 85% white, yet Durham Public School are only roughly 68% white.

Is this what desegregated schools look like? So where are all those other white kids in school?

They are at Durham Academy, the Carolina Friends School, the Duke School for ChildrenTriangle Day School, or anywhere but Durham Public Schools, if their parents can manage it. Schools are segregated and getting to be more segregated each year that we suffer under No Child Left Behind. Charter schools, private schools and home schools are draining away families with means from the public school rosters in Durham and many other schools systems as parents become more convinced that public school is not good enough for their children – and unfortunately most of these parents are right. Magnet school configurations have attempted to lure affluent parents to struggling schools; and in some places, where a commitment to socio-economic diversity has been a driving force, the programs have thrived. Wake County is a great example. (Raleigh was number 18 in the Daily Beast’s rankings).

Many public schools have become a quagmire of testing, retesting, and remediation, all surrounding performance scores on standardized tests. The dominant emphasis is on test-taking skills and test scores not on the needs, abilities, interests and gifts of individual children. True child-centered public schools (even individual classrooms) have become as scarce as hens teeth. Public schools represent, on the micro-level, the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in America. The percentage of black Americans living in poverty continues to be gravely disproportionate to the number of white Americans living in poverty. This plays itself out in the housing sector; even though there are strict laws about equal housing, most neighborhoods remain segregated. And churches in most of America – well, that’s another issue all together. My point being: the Daily Beast’s quick little declaration that segregated schools are a thing of the past helps us all feel a little better about the true state of things.

This accolade is a great example, also, of how research and solid fact finding can fail to tell the story accurately. The Daily Beast used statistics from reliable sources – empirical data, quantitatively ranked to place Durham ahead of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. But then, if tolerance means live and let live, then okay; I can let Durham have the number one slot. If progress means that we all live side-by-side and don’t really bother each other, it works; but somehow, I don’t think this is what Dr. King had in mind. Since the rankings were posted in his honor, I must take issue. I don’t think “sitting down at the table of brotherhood” meant that we would have separate tables. In the Durham where I worked, the folks were sitting down at the Chicken Hut while the Durham they were talking about in the article, most of those folks were sitting down at Nana’s, or maybe Four Square. These two sides of Durham may tolerate each other, but they rarely intersect. Maybe that is why the superintendent of the Durham Public School, , Eric Becoates, along with the Board of Education have made the mission statement of the school district “One Durham.” I wish them well in this endeavor because where the two Durham do intersect, like at W. G. Pearson Elementary, there is discord, dissent, and resentment  – anything but tolerance- but that is the topic of my next post. If Durham schools can become One Durham, then and only then will I agree that Durham is deserving of the Daily Beast ranking.

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