Perfect Strangers: Racial Injustice as a Symptom of Continuing School Segregation


I remember faces.


Names fade over time, but after more than a decade of teaching in impoverished Western Pennsylvania schools, I still remember all my students’ faces. I remember the smiles, the mischievous looks, the winks, the fronting, the brows knit in concentration and the rare honest smiles when they surprised themselves that they really can do the impossible.


Most of those faces are brown though mine is white.


Does that matter? Sometimes I lie to myself and say it doesn’t. We’re all just people, after all. Sure we have different stories, different cultures. What does it matter how much melanin we have in our skins?


But it does matter.


All those brown-skinned faces walking in-and-out of my life everyday are in real danger. I’ve seen their pictures in the newspaper – gunned down, wounded by a stray bullet, sometimes even pulling the trigger. These aren’t strangers. They were my students. They came to my class almost every day and sat right there in those desks. I may still have their writing journals locked away in a drawer and I can read about what they wanted from life. I can read my pen-marked critiques on their papers – a beautiful image here, bad spelling and grammar there, did that really happen to you, excellent creativity…


And in a week there will be a whole new group. They’ll take those same seats and look up to me with the fear of the future shinning in their eyes. As time goes on, it’ll get easier to hide, but on that first day it will be piercing like a knife. It’ll be my job to calm them, to let them know it’ll be alright – at least for a while.


I love my students, but I don’t know what they go through. Even when they tell me. The only gun I ever saw as a child was a BB gun. The only dead body I saw was on TV or in the movies. The police never followed me through a department store. I never knew what it was like to go hungry, to wonder who my father is, to wonder when he’s coming back from prison, to wonder what he did to end up there so far away from me.


Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin – they could have been my students. Eric Garner could have been any of their fathers. And they were murdered – each and all – for no reason except they had brown faces. Meanwhile, white lips strained, white cheeks filled with blood and white foreheads creased with furrows as they killed these boys and men. But it didn’t matter. The White World – my world – would let their murderers go. They had only shut the eyes on black faces. A misdemeanor at most.


It’s a shock to me, but not to my students. It just reaffirms the fear I’ve seen in their eyes. And no matter what I do, I will always be a part of that White World where they can be gunned down for nothing. Will I rise my voice in protest once their bodies lie cold in the ground? Is that what I’m doing now? Does it matter?


In the adult world, black and white keep so apart, so distinct. We live in different areas of the city, work at different jobs, go to different entertainments. Separation breeds fear. Maybe if we knew each other better, maybe if we saw each other every day, maybe it would make a difference.


It used to be the job of the public schools to introduce us to each other. We used to go to class together side-by-side. Many of us even ate lunch together, played sports together, even got in trouble together.


Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal but it taught us something important: we couldn’t know what it was like to BE each other – you have to live a life to really know what that’s like – but at least we knew the other person was human, too.


Among all the educational “advances” of increased standardized testing, ipads and data walls, we’ve lost one of the most important lessons we could teach each other: each other.


Some schools – not all schools – still teach that. Certain schools that are given the most oversight, squeezed financially and bad mouthed in the press – the kind that serve impoverished populations. They’re the only kind that still mix. My kind.


But our educational policy of the past few decades has been to segregate public schools of all stripes – encouraging charter schools and private schools and taking the remaining public schools and making sure they serve mostly one race or another.


Charter schools have always been about segregation. They were invented in The South after Brown v. Board of Education as a means to facilitate white flight. Now these mostly for-profit ventures are set up in impoverished neighborhoods to suck out the black kids and bleach the public schools a more respectable color. Or sometimes they do just the opposite – enticing away the white kids. Remember charters can accept whoever they want. They don’t have to take everyone. The bottom line is profit.


School vouchers are just the same. What’s a school voucher but a free ticket to get away from all those brown faces? Marketers claim they want to help the black kids go to private schools, yet those same vouchers never provide enough money to completely cover tuition. They end up being a boast for more affluent white kids to get away from all those stifling black faces.


For those left behind in public schools, we have Common Core. It’s job is to feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline by sucking the life out of education. For instance, imagine being told to constantly read every text three times looking for different things each time. A poem – three times. A short story – three times. A nonfiction piece – three times. That will kill any love of reading for sure – especially if you didn’t have much to begin with! Policymakers like Bill Gates decry low graduation rates but then make huge dividends from the for-profit prisons that sweep up these same dropouts.


For a country that prides itself on being a melting pot, we certainly work hard to keep the various ingredients separate. I wonder if changing our education policies would make a difference. After all, it’s harder to fear the known. It’s harder to kill someone when you see them as a person. It’s harder to ignore the injustices of lost opportunity, unfair funding, senseless murder.


I live my professional life among brown faces. Most days I give my time, my strength, my thoughts to helping them, loving them. I don’t want to keep losing them. I want to be able to do more than just dim the fear in their eyes. I want to do more than just give them platitudes. I want more than to dry their tears after the violence is done. I want to stop if from happening in the first place.


Please help. Fight segregating education policies. Or else be haunted by the faces of all colors we fail.