what i remember about school in (near) detroit

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I grew up in suburb a few minutes outside of Detroit, one which was mostly white until late. A lot of the white residents blame a realtor there for bringing the blacks to the city, and thereby ruining it. It’s a laughable statement, because the street I grew up on, almost entirely white except for the hint of color my family brought, was a little crime ridden. There were two or three drug busts on the street. I remember the FBI came to a neighbor’s just across the street from my own because the two mentally disturbed brothers were stealing mail. Crime doesn’t have a color; it is only a disease which festers in the pockets it can find. Of course, those areas are poor. At least, how most people imagine crime. White collar crime hardly constitutes illegal activity, and really, who does hurt, right? Certainly not the homeowner who buys a brand new house that is poorly insulated and poorly constructed, that requires a large of part of the subdivision to pay for new windows and doors and new roofing after less than ten years (I almost forgot to mention the siding is rotting) all developed by a company that with great timing folded within a year of the development of the area, just before the bubble burst. That’s my parent’s house. It’s worth mentioning that somehow most of the people of color in that subdivision have been grouped onto one street, locally called “The Hood” because of its concentration of Egyptians, Mexicans, Chaldeans, and blacks. I’m sure the realtors had nothing to do with that.

            But I have a focus here I don’t mean to divagate from. In elementary school, the student population was less than a quarter black. I was only slightly conscious of it at the time, but minority students were grouped together and given the worst teacher in each grade. In fourth grade, I was placed in the minority dominant class, which the teacher did not handle, and which I, being a straight A student, grew extremely frustrated in. I liked learning, I wanted to learn, and not being able to made the class unbearable. My mother had to petition the school to have me placed in another class. I’d like that to sink in. Some idiot racist may think that it’s better to keep the minorities together so that everyone else can learn properly, let the disruptive group keep to themselves. Aside from the obvious stupidity of such sentiments, there is a little grain of truth to it. The black students were not the best performing students. But to me that is not surprising.

 

            As I mentioned before, I was not very conscious of this at this time, mostly because I was not affected by racism in the same way that the black students were. My brother and I were the only Hispanics in the entire school, and prejudice against Hispanics is not as strong in Detroit, if only because of the relative scarcity and our distance from the border. We could also kind of pass. I was an excellent student and behaved well, so even if a teacher held my Mexican heritage against me, I’d most likely be held up as a credit to my race. I do remember being sent to a speech therapist once though, and maybe that was fucked up because my English was fine and I didn’t even speak Spanish when I was young. The therapist was a little confused because she agreed that I had no problem with speaking, and the other girl who saw her with me had a very strong lisp for which she was perpetually made fun of. Another digression, yes, but this is rather complicated and subtle. The big picture only comes with the accumulation of details.

 

I have a very strong memory of an interaction between a black student and a teacher in class once, it shocked me at the time, and it continues to have a strong effect on me. A student had asked something about Arabs, but she pronounced it Ay-rab instead of Air-ub. While I understand that this is a slur, it is also common for the uneducated to mispronounce things, like Eye-talian instead of Ih-talian. My father says Ay-rab, and he means it without offense. It is in part due to the tendency of English speakers to frontload, to put the emphasis on the first syllable. Let’s look at a bunch of words we do that with: English, Mexican, Franklin, Arthur, Angela, Jordan, Georgia. So instead of correcting a young fourth grader who I highly doubt understood the negative connotation of mispronouncing Arab, the teacher told her that Martin Luther King would be ashamed of her, and she said it with all the fury that she could muster. The class was silent for at least a minute, and the girl’s mouth hung open. It was obvious she didn’t even understand what she did. To her credit, she didn’t mouth off, nor did she cry. She was really tough. I know that in her position I might have cried, because I once almost did when I got in trouble for something I didn’t do. I’ll never forget that day. Even that young I knew it was a fucked up thing to say to a child. But it was more than that day. The black girls were never doted upon like the white girls were. The black students never received as much help, and they always got into more trouble than the other kids for doing the same things. If you got into a kerfuffle with a black kid, the lunch moms or the teacher generally took your side, which was great for you if you were white and in the wrong. I, somewhat unwittingly, took advantage of that loophole a few times to save my own neck, because as kids we can be shitty to save ourselves. Well, I was.

 

I do remember one black girl crying to the teacher – this was around first grade – because she never believed her when she told her someone was picking on her or took her things, or ever took her side. The teacher felt bad about it. But that’s what went on. It’s no surprise to me that black students underperform in an environment that is hostile to them, or even makes them feel unwanted. Well, they just need to buck up and hit the books harder to make something of themselves, some asshole racist might say. Never mind of course how school, where we are supposed to do just that, becomes connected with alienation and distrust for many black youth. Ask any kid who is bullied how hard it is to want to be in school when you are uncomfortable being there. America bullies its black students and then blames them for underachievement as indicative of their race. And it’s all done by people who don’t even realize they are doing it.

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