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What we say; what we hear: Scholars wish for more nuanced discussions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2013 - The topic of race was everywhere and nowhere in the room recently when Francis Howell School District officials hosted a town hall meeting about plans to accommodate students wishing to transfer from the failing Normandy School District.

The subtext of many of the comments during the often-heated discussion was race, though some speakers seemed to conceal that by expressing their feelings in coded language, according to scholars who have studied community issues involving race.

Examples at the meeting, the scholars mentioned, included references to an increase in crime and metal detectors and lower test scores. Some were thankful for the absence of light rail service across the river or bridge into St. Charles, while at least one suggested an earlier starting time for classes to discourage outsiders from attending district schools.

In some instances, the scholars say, the comments were well-meaning, expressing genuine fears about the unknown. But in a few cases, they say what speakers said and what listeners heard were quite different. For example, some of the comments by speakers focused on maintaining a stable community of residents, regardless of race, with values like their own. But, judging from some of the reaction in the audience, the underlying message heard seemed to be: keep certain groups on the other side of the county line. 

The pending transfer policy that triggered the discussion in Francis Howell stems from Missouri’s school choice law, enacted years ago and upheld this year by the Missouri Supreme Court. It says students in a failing district have a right to attend classes in a better performing district, even one across county lines. 

Normandy is in St. Louis County and Francis Howell is in St. Charles. A similar transfer plan is being readied for students in the failing Riverview Gardens district, which is offering its students the choice of attending classes in the Mehlville district in south St. Louis County.

Under the law, students in failing schools have a right to select any district, but Normandy and Riverview Gardens have chosen to cover student transportation cost only to Francis Howell and Mehlville, respectively.

John Durst, whose research and teaching at Ohio Wesleyan University focus on race, ethnicity and social inequality, noted that many speakers tried to avoid mentioning race. He turned the issue around, mentioning a woman who said race wasn’t the issue and accused people who disagreed with her of being prejudiced because she is white.

“This woman probably truly believes she is beyond race, but by pointing to her own race, she is bringing race into the equation,” according to Durst who reviewed some of the tweets from the meeting. So what did much of the audience take from her remarks?

In Durst's view,“that woman is going to be seen by some as a heroine for having the courage to say what she said. They will say the issue is about education, about our kid’s safety. Of course, they are not realizing that someone like myself might wonder whether they would have the same concerns if these were poor white kids coming across a different river or bridge? Would people have the same level of emotion?”

Fewer than 15 percent of students in the Francis Howell district are African American. Of district residents, Durst says “it would be interesting to know how they interact with people from diverse backgrounds, diverse settings. I’m assuming that many of these people live in protective bubbles."

On the other hand, he says many of the listeners took away the feeling that “we live in a good community and we want to keep it that way. We have an obligation to stand strong and almost a moral commitment to living in the right way and we are going to make sure only the other people who live the right way are going to live with us and around us.” That part of the message to the listener, he says, “offers moral support of the way we live and that’s good to hear from other people who think like me.”

Durst was also struck by the comments about metal detectors and guns. “It’s one more piece or layer of promoting fear, particularly of young black males,” he says. “The kind of references to violence is pretty harsh. It’s clearly a statement of concern, which I am sure is real. But it’s so misplaced that it plays into stereotypes.”

He notes that not all listeners agreed.  While some in the crowd “played right into that fear,” Durst says others took away a different message. “These folks said, ‘Come on. Let’s get back to the issue.’ “

The big issue to Durst and many others is quality education for all students, including those from a failing district. Two Washington University scholars --  Sheretta T. Butler-Barnes and Garrett Duncan -- say predictions that the students will bring down test scores can easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Butler-Barnes, who is part of WU's Brown School, argues that the academic potential of even the best and the brightest among black students can be undermined when the students are in a school environment that doesn’t welcome them.

In her study of public schools 60 years after the Supreme Court’s  Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954, Butler-Barnes found that black students from all socio-economic backgrounds encountered racial discrimination in integrated schools. Her study involved districts in Michigan.

“These weren’t districts that were distressed but were purported to be some of the best school districts in Michigan,” she says. “These African-Americans students ranged from living in poverty to those with affluent parents, doctors and lawyers. But the students still experienced racial discrimination across the board.”

The lesson for the school choice program in Missouri, she says, is that a welcoming environment is one of the best policies a district can offer. Students from Normandy “have academic potential, but they are going into an environment where people think they are criminals, suggesting they are bad elements. These children are going to feed off this.”

She adds that, “Parents in the Francis Howell district are expressing their concerns but they are using a kind of coded text.” Some say “they are not concerned about race but about ‘trash,' that they don’t want the bad element. All of these things, even if not implied to be racial, have both a racial and social class undertone.”

She says much of the reaction stems from a sense that “people fear what they don’t know. People have no intention of being racists, and I think a lot of the tweets have to do with social class. But we have to be careful because race and social class intersect.”

What was lost in the town hall meeting, according to Butler-Barnes, was that “children and parents have the same goals of a quality education.”

Duncan, who is part of Washington University's School of Education, has focused some of his research on the achievement gap. He shares the concern of Sheretta-Barnes that rhetoric, like that at the town hall meeting, will overshadow and even undermine academic achievement of the incoming students. He says it’s “important to students to know they are welcome, that they are wanted, that there is not an environment of hostility.”

He says the focus must be on student achievement, and that it’s up to teachers “to make sure all the kids step up and achieve, and to dispel any notion about young people who are coming and seen either as a threat to your academic reputation or to the welfare of neighborhood children.”

James Unnever, whose research at University of South Florida at Sarasota-Manatee has focused on race and crime, says discussion about violence and schools is going to be interpreted in different ways depending on the race and attitudes of those in the audience.

“It depends on the filter people are carrying into the conversation,” he says. He’s concerned about attitudes that speakers and listeners tend to bring to discussions about race.

“The problem is hundreds of parents are making assumptions without knowing the black children as individuals and are instead basing their beliefs on racial stereotypes that all young black men are violent or thugs.”

Like the Washington University scholars, he said white attitudes could be the most harmful outcome of the transfer program.

No matter what interpretations white listeners took from the comments at the town hall meeting, Unnever encourages them to “meet these kids and meet them as individuals before making sweeping judgments that they are going to cause greater problems of discipline.”

Fair or not, Unnever, the criminologist, says, “don’t forget that every single mass school shooting has been committed by whites. So if  whites are worried about their schools” being the target of extreme violence,“ they had better be looking at the white kids.”

However controversial, his point is “unless you know the specific history of each student, any sweeping generality about these kids is based on a stereotype. When you use the stereotype and apply it to specific children, it is by definition racism.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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