21.12.02


MIRABILE DICTU

So the Republicans got it right, for once. They may even have improved their position, by forcefully repudiating even the appearance of nostalgia for the bad old days of legally enforced segregation.

But will they go on to claim the moral high ground of principled color-blindness? Or will they persist in the path of least resistance: goals, time-tables, set-asides—in short, the whole, dreadful, dishonest farce of affirmative action? My hopes are not high. For that would mean facing some facts about the way the world is that we all wish would just go away.

That’ll be the day.

Let me tell you about Percy (as I’ll call him). He’s one of my students. He’s black. He’s one of only three black students out of the eighty-odd in this year’s eighth grade class. (Ours is a small, rural district.) All three are boys. Percy is the best student of the three. Unlike the other two, he stands at least some chance of passing the semester, and the year, and going on to the ninth grade.

But it’s not going to be easy.

The problem isn’t stupidity. Percy isn’t stupid. Nor is it lack of encouragement. On the contrary: Percy gets more encouragement then just about anybody. He is one of those borderline cases on whom we focus all our efforts. The entire curriculum is structured to accommodate his capacities. If he wanted to, he could ace ever assignment and every test.

But he doesn’t want to.

The real problem, as Percy’s football coach told me one day, is that Percy is “too cool for school.”

Percy is natural eighth grade aristocracy—quite literally, you might say, for he was the popular choice of his class for appointment to this year’s homecoming court (yes, we still have homecoming court, here in the middle of nowhere.) He plays all the sports. He dates the girl with the biggest…uh…tracts of land. (She covers all her binders with blurbs written in whiteout about how cool Percy is, how sexy Percy is, and how squiffy Percy makes her feel.) He is as proud as a grand duchess—and he treats his teachers with the disdain that a grand duchess reserves for her overly forward social inferiors.

It’s hard to describe this believably to anyone who hasn’t been there. Every day, we beg Percy to work—or, at least, to try. And every day he spurns us, with his elegantly cloven hooves. In reading class, last week, we asked Percy to take his turn reading aloud for the class. Percy was ready for us. Percy let us have it.

First, he bugged his eyes out, in mock shock—as if to say, “Excuse me, are you addressing ME, sir? How dare you, sir? The presumption! To even imagine that I might have been paying attention to you!”

Sympathetic titters fill the classroom. Percy glances around, acknowledging his many admirers with a smirk. (Parenthetically, I must thank Percy for teaching me what a “smirk” is. I had always wondered. Now I know.)

We open his book for him, and show him the place. He reads, haltingly, in a voice the size of a mouse…

And so it goes. Every day. The wind and the rain. For the rain it raineth every day.

The only cloud that Percy can see on his horizon is that his participation in sports depends on passing (however barely) his classes. So, once each term, he must come in after hours and condescend to allow his teachers to steer him through just enough retakes of failed worksheets and quizzes to pull out that magical D-minus.

Absent his usual audience, he manages well enough.

He offers us no thanks, of course.

But we’re used to that.

Needless to say, there are some other clouds looming on Percy’s horizon that he doesn’t see coming. In fact, he can look forward to some very heavy weather indeed. While his athletic gifts, such as they are, may be adequate to earn the momentary admiration of the local girls, they will not be attracting the attention of any major league scouts. In fact, they will not even get him in to any of the nearby junior colleges. Five years from now he will find himself quite suddenly past his prime, and with very limited options.

He will be looking for someone (other than himself) to blame.

Who do you suppose it will be?

So this is where the issues get nasty. What are the roots of Percy’s failure?

Conservatives will instinctively suspect incompetent and indifferent teachers, protected by their nefarious unions. But this is not true. Percy’s teachers are both competent and caring. I know. I’m there with them. I’m one of them. And besides—Virginia isn’t a union state.

Liberals, on the other hand, will point to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and ongoing discrimination. But this won’t do either. The first two are simply too remote to have any bearing. What do slavery and Jim Crow have to do with this strutting peacock? One might as well try to explain me in terms of my exploited Yorkshire coal-miner ancestors.

And as for ongoing discrimination, it’s essentially nonexistent. This is not to say that there’s no racial prejudice here—of course there is. But it persists mainly at the bottom of the white-trash barrel, amongst the half-dozen hard-core red necks that everybody laughs at—whose bigotry even adds luster to the mystique of being black. Believe me: it’s a universally recognized honor to be despised by these guys. Amongst those whose opinion counts, black is cool. Way cool.

Come to think of it, the “legacy of slavery and Jim Crow” play a role not unlike that of the “ongoing discrimination” of the rednecks. Their direct causal effects on young black males like Percy are so attenuated as to render them almost nugatory. But their indirect effects are another matter entirely. For American slavery and the Jim Crow laws are the two most popular topics in the world of “education” today. They are brought up everywhere and all the time—not only in English and History, where there is sometimes good reason, but even in Math and Science, where any marginally relevant historical figure who suffered from either can be counted on to show up in a side-bar.

All of which merely adds to Percy’s excess of smug self-satisfaction. He seems to identify with these victims of innocence abused, even though he is neither the one nor the other. In imagination, he transforms his recalcitrance into innocence, and the desperate attempts of his teachers to teach him something into abuse.

I mentioned above Percy’s “participation” in Reading class. The particular story we were reading that day was the story of the abolitionist Grimké sisters. This seemed to interest him more than usual—as well it might. After all: this was a bit of his very own enabling myth of victimization. Alas, one passage, at least, seemed entirely lost on him. One of the most moving episodes in the story of the Grimké sisters tells how they taught their slaves to read, secretly and at night—for law and custom forbade it. This was a heroic act of liberation from the oppression of enforced illiteracy. Ironically, Percy sees himself as a victim in the tradition of the slaves, not because we forbid him to read, but because we ask him to do so. Such is the flexibility of conscience.

But if neither the inadequacies of the educational system nor the weight of America’s racist past are responsible for Percy’s failures, then what is?

Consider another of my students. Bobby is a good friend of Percy’s, and similar in many respects. He is popular, a great favorite with the girls, stylishly decked out in the highest of middle school fashion, and quite full of himself. And he, too, is a terrible student.

When the day of reckoning comes, no one will rush to make excuses for Bobby. Few will hesitate to ascribe his failures to his nature and to the bad choices he has made. After all—as a white guy, didn’t he enjoy every advantage that life could offer?

But Percy is as much a victim of his own nature and his own bad choices as Bobby! The impulses that drive them both to ruin are among the commonplace temptations of human nature and character.

Why do these impulses predominate in some, but not in others? One might as well ask why some puppies out of the same litter are friendly while others are shy. Welcome to natural variation.

When people think about the members of their own families, they have no trouble recognizing the role that natural differences in temperament play in shaping each individual destiny. They need to recognize that the same point holds true of others of all races. Whether people succeed or fail, chances are it has more to do with their own individual natures and decisions than with anything else. And no scheme of the state is ever likely to change that. No goal, timetable, or set-aside will ever get Percy to prefer academic accomplishment and the recognition of adults to the cheaper and flashier admiration of his peers. That’s just what he’s like.

Faced with the fact of natural differences and inequalities, politicians—indeed, we all—have a choice to make. One choice is to insist on strictly impartial procedures that may lead to wildly unequal outcomes, not only for different individuals, but for different races as well—simply accepting those unequal outcomes as facts of life. Those who make this choice must be prepared to be denounced as racists, as surely as if they pined for separate water fountains and blacks in the back of the bus. The other choice is to go on treating inequality as a moral crisis for which someone must be blamed and punished, generation after generation. Those who make this choice will enjoy all the pleasures of righteous indignation while at the same time enhancing their career opportunities. Let bureaucracy thrive! For a politician, this is not a tough choice.

I would like to think that the Republicans, with Trent Lott out of the way, could look into the possibilities for a bit of benign neglect on the racial front. But like I say: my hopes are not high.