Editor’s Weekly: Is this my problem?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2013: Dear Beaconites --
Three controversies roiled the feelings of St. Louisans this week -- the George Zimmerman verdict in Florida, student transfers in local districts and construction of housing for the elderly poor in Oakville. In each case, the chasms that separated different points of view were so wide that many people could only shout across them.
Yet these disparate issues and their fractious debates raised a common set of overarching questions: How do we define fairness? How do we achieve justice? What responsibilities do we have to each other?
They raised a common set of protestations: This is not about race. This is not about poor people. The government shouldn't interfere with citizens' rights to protect their own interests.
All this left me ruminating about one thing: Whose problems are these, anyway?
As the cliche goes, where you stand often depends on where you sit -- or, sometimes, whether you have the option to walk away.
This truth became clear to me one day in college. Campuses had been engulfed for months in controversy over the draft and the Vietnam War, but my roommate had avoided the subject. Finally, someone asked her point blank: "If you were drafted, would you fight?" She looked momentarily perplexed. "I never thought about that before," she said. Nor did she talk about it again. Only males were drafted. She had the option to ignore the issue.
Whose problem is the student transfer situation?
Your problem if you're a parent in Normandy or Riverview Gardens and you have only a few years to secure the best education possible for your children.
If you live elsewhere, you could, until recently, choose to ignore the problem of unaccredited schools. Perhaps you live, as many of us do, where public schools are good -- an easy solution if you have the means. Perhaps you care deeply about a good education for all. But you don't carry the burden of school disparities in the same way that Normandy and Riverview residents do.
Now that burden is shifting as students make plans to transfer. In the Francis Howell and Mehlville districts, some parents see the influx as a threat. Disparities in school quality bedevil the region, the state and the nation. Why should these two districts bear a disproportionate load in addressing the problem, they ask? And they do so with vehemence because the problem is now theirs, too.
Whose problem are the issues raised by Trayvon Martin's death?
Your problem if your son is a black teenager, if you have to worry when he leaves the house in a hoodie, if you must explain to him for his own safety that some people will stereotype him as a menace.
But if you are white, as I am, and if you live in a largely homogeneous neighborhood, as I do, then you can choose to ignore the hazards of being different. You can choose to see the Trayvon Martin case not as a racial matter but as a threat to your right to arm yourself and stand your ground.
Whose problem is it to secure affordable housing for the elderly?
Your problem if you're old and poor. But if not, then you can choose to focus instead on the imagined dangers of having old, poor people in your neighborhood. You may push to rescind the approval that St. Louis County authorities already gave for construction in Oakville.
Three controversies roiled the feelings of St. Louisans this week. Whose problems are they? Your problems if you are African American or old and poor, if you live in a substandard school district or one designated to receive transfer students.
But is it really in the self interest of the rest of us to ignore these problems?
It's possible -- sometimes even temporarily in our own self=interest -- to let others grapple with the burdens of unfairness, injustice and mutual responsibility. But ultimately, we all feel the weight when student potential is stunted, when fear and stereotypes stalk our interactions, when life ends in indignity.
In the heat of controversy, fear and immediate self-interest tend to overwhelm our better impulses. But long term, it is in everyone's self-interest to solve the problems facing our region and to use empathy and altruism as our guide.
Last night, Francis Howell board member Mike Sommer showed how this is done. “It’s my challenge to the patrons of our district to continue to be a school district of character," he said. "We are going to take this situation and make the best of it…. Francis Howell kids. Normandy kids. It doesn’t matter. They’re all our kids.”
In coming weeks, the Beacon will continue to report on these controversies, bringing to light facts and perspectives in the hope that deeper understanding will eventually bridge the chasms that divide us.