It ain't a pretty fact, but it's a fact that where there's a society, there's hierarchy, and where there's hierarchy, there's a bottom, social science's dreaded "Other." Maybe it's a religious group, a racial minority, people of a particular gender, or socio-economic class. It's not rational or fair, sometimes it's not even conscious, but there it is. And of course, Otherness isn't exclusive, so there might be several varieties of bias in effect at the same time.
In my experience in Portland, dating back to the eighties, class is the big dog of Otherness. In an otherwise mostly homogenous city, the differences between rich and poor were marked in carefully delineated unspoken categories: the actually wealthy (I don't recall meeting any of these mythical creatures), the upper-middle class, the middle class, the working class, the poor.
Like many (hopefully most) children, I was unaware of these categories as actionable distinctions, but I was aware that it was different to visit a friend in their single-family home in Oakdale than to visit one in an apartment in Kennedy Park: Their parents' speech was different, they wore different clothes, the buildings smelled different, the sounds and sights of the neighborhood were different. Both were a little foreign to me.
My mom grew up middle class and we affected many of the habits and characteristics of that background, but the finances of our young, single-parent, female-headed family put us in a different category. We lived on Sherman St. in a decidedly pre-gentrification Parkside. For the treatment of a colicky baby, the upstairs neighbors suggested a hint of heroin in the bottle. I remember my mom trying hard to distract from the giant smear of blood on the stairwell wall when we came home. I remember my confusion when we ducked into a building that was not our own to get away from the menacing fellow who'd followed us from the bus stop. We weren't as fancy as some people I knew, but we were fancier than others. My mom's always been a down to earth sort who didn't make a big deal about that sort of thing. My life has been incredibly rich in people, both casual encounters and lasting friends because she raised me to look beyond difference.
As often happens, though, those differences began to loom larger as I got older. I count my middle school years as among the most miserable, in part on that account. When I was there, King Middle School was a class war incubator. I would count as low points the day a bunch of girls told me they planned to "kick my fuckin' ass" after the school dance because I was friends with one girl's boyfriend and the day a boy threw a handful of pubic hair on my science table because I wasn't getting sufficiently upset at verbal taunts. Resentment flowed in all directions: Kids who came from tough situations and had little support actively scorned peers with more capital, financial or social, whom they perceived as soulless snobs. The flipside was the more privileged kids dismissing those with less as troublemakers and losers. The one time I ever got in trouble (for swearing, maybe?), a teacher (in what I recognized even at the time as a shockingly inappropriate move) told me not to act out to fit in. "After all," she said, "someday those kids will be pumping your gas."
To a certain extent, I think that's a fairly good summary of the marginalization of people in lower socio-economic classes in Portland, although it was rare for someone in such a progressive-liberal area to say it outright: "Those people" are criminals and deadbeats. "Those people" are a corrupting influence on respectable culture. "Those people" can be ignored. Sound familiar? It's the same horrifying script that appears in larger cities where the marginalized Other is a racial minority.
Which brings me to the real topic of this post: Portland Forecaster reporter Emily Parkhurst recently wrote a piece titled, "Students Tend to Flee Portland's Most Diverse Schools." It's a real humdinger of a headline, and it certainly caught my attention. Sounded like the ol' Forecaster (full disclosure: I freelanced for them roughly a decade ago and my ex-husband was a full time reporter there while we were married) finally decided to sink its teeth into a meaty story -- hot damn!
Unfortunately, the story was a pretty dry recitation of numbers -- numbers of out-of-district requests to and from various schools and the racial demographic data for those schools -- sprinkled with a couple of bland quotes from Superintendent of Schools Jim Morse. If you, like many, many people zone out when confronted with fistfuls of stats (it's how the Press Herald gets away with getting numbers wrong so very, very often), you'll probably be satisfied to accept not just the literal accuracy of the headline but the incendiary subtext that diversity is the reason students are leaving as well. One could argue that no such subtext was intended, but then I would say to one, "BAW HAW HAW! Let's cut the coy bullshit, shall we?"
First of all, I'm going to take issue with the literal accuracy. Yup, lots of students are leaving Riverton, Presumpscot and Hall (no demographic info presented on this last one). In fact, they make up the bulk of the transfer requests. The problem with making an argument that they're "fleeing" diverse schools is that it suggests not that a lot of students are leaving some diverse schools, but that, in general, diverse schools are seeing an exodus. Among the four schools here with roughly 50/50 white/minority populations, Riverton and Presumpscot are losing a lot of kids. Reiche and East End are seeing nearly as many kids transferring in as out. I have a hard time correlating the exodus with racial demographics, when the number of kids actually "fleeing" varies pretty widely within the pool of diverse schools, and the number of requests to leave paints an incomplete picture of how desired or reviled various institutions are.
Second of all, let's look at the insinuation that parents are requesting school for the their kids specifically to get them away from minorities. Riverton, the school throwing up the biggest numbers of requests to leave, is diverse, yes, but it's also classified as a "failing" school by the federal government (East End, also diverse, is also failing). The housing development associated with the neighborhood has had a rough reputation for quite a long time, hitting a new low this summer when a police SWAT unit evacuated residents during a day long armed standoff. Presumpscot and Hall, the next most fled establishments, are both currently over-enrolled, by 25 and 20 percent respectively in part because of previous requests for students to transfer in. It strikes me that there are a number of legitimate reasons that parents might wish to move their children from these schools.
I'm also curious how race became the only cross-referenced demographic in this piece. To get back to my seemingly unrelated intro, I'd be willing to guess that if there's a great big cultural-bias driven factor in this, it's class over race. Riverton has a low-income housing development, Hall has Sagamore Village, and the most requested schools, Lyseth and Longfellow are, yes, overwhelmingly white, but also located in comfy, relatively stable, relatively affluent neighborhoods, the kinds likely to have helpful neighborhood "School Grandmas" and attentive PTAs and boosters.
It's taken me a while to figure out what really bugged me about this article, but here's a short list:
1) Incomplete reporting. Again, I'm curious about the socio-economic data for these schools. I'd like to know about class sizes, program reputations, teacher turnover, etc., at least to the extent that I'm satisfied they were examined by the writer on my behalf. In the middle of this article there's a mention that schools consider reasons for the requests in their deliberations -- I'd like to know how those given reasons break down. Most of all, I'd like to hear from parents, those removing their kids and those keeping their kids in the most-left schools. It would almost certainly be more informative and engaging than Jim Morse saying dumb shit like, "Sometimes we say yes and sometimes we say no." If you're going to insist on this demographic angle, wouldn't it be nice to have quotes relevant to your thesis?
2) General haphazardness. It's just a little random the way the whole thing is presented, what gets scrutiny, what doesn't. I'm now completely preoccupied wondering about Hall's diversity numbers, for instance. Honestly, it feels like Parkhurst filed the FOIA for out-of-district requests, had a hunch it was related to race demographics and proceeded to research the story exclusively from that angle despite the uncomfortable fit of that data and the results.
3) Sooo weirdly irresponsible. I guess I'm thinking about this from a place where I assume that Parkhurst only had the data she included in the published story. I suppose it's possible that she talked to a bunch of parents who confirmed they fleeing diversity or had access to all kinds of demographic data and found that the closest thing to a pattern was in the racial data. I just can't imagine that could be the case since it would be ridiculous not to reference any of that in the published piece. I could also assume that maybe she wrote the story from a bland, straight place and some devilish editor put a provocative headline on it, but based on my experience with the paper, that most likely wasn't the case. If the only evidence that parents are yanking their kids from schools to keep them away from minorities is what's presented in this story, I don't buy it and it makes me pretty upset.
Portland is in the earliest stages of negotiating race relations as the minority population grows. There's definitely racism afoot, but there's more of the ignorant, I'd-be-mortified-if-I-realized-how-offensive-that-is, "You people have such nice hair," style racism for the time being than the n-word-using, unabashed hate-style. At this stage it's crucial that we address racial tension where it crops up in order to build a healthy future for our community, but it's irresponsible and counterproductive to stir up conflict where it doesn't seem to be.
From a school perspective, framing this as a race issue ignores the fact that there are a couple/three schools with significantly higher numbers of requests to leave. Let's figure out what's going on in the schools that makes parents trust or mistrust particular institutions more than others. I feel strongly that this article makes racial tension in elementary schools an unfortunate red-herring that distracts us from more pressing school and social-justice issues.
Every society has an Other, but the goal should be to mitigate that condition rather than instigate additional mistrust. Unfortunately, this kind of poorly supported surmise will likely make minority families feel even more uneasy and unwelcome and feed the embarrassed discomfort that many white people who have little exposure to diversity feel when these discussions arise. Many white Mainers haven't thought much about diversity one way or the other, but a good way to poison the well is to give them the impression that they're perceived as bigots. Likewise, I'm sure the minority community would prefer to give their neighbors the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming they're secretly wishing them ill.
I'm curious to hear what people think. I suspect there's a certain Rorschach aspect to this wherein people will identify the social ill they're most in tune with as the problem.