One of the first things my professor, Sister Mary Woods, taught me in Biology 101 was the first law of nature: self-preservation. Pain and fear, she explained, are innate warning mechanisms that cause organisms to produce “fight or flight” responses, instincts to preserve their lives when confronted by threats.
In my New Testament survey course at Dominican University, Sister Melissa Waters taught me about the first law of the Spirit: love. We analyzed Bible verses mandating justice for the poor; forgiving those who have wronged you; loving God with all one’s heart and loving one’s neighbor as yourself—with neighbor not meaning the person who lives next door, but any person in need of help. A person who loves and seeks to preserve life, but not necessarily his own.
That was my Catholic education: a robust mix of academics and faith, a constant tension between the natural world and the supernatural. Twenty years later, I still find myself in a daily battle between self-preservation and love. And depending on the day, one side gets the best of me.
In the education arena, no place illustrates this battle better than Ferguson, Missouri. Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown—an anniversary that was shattered by more gunfire, more clashes between police and protestors, and another police shooting of another black man (who police said shot at them during a chase).
Underlying the claims of police brutality in Ferguson, however, was an even deeper, more troubling issue: how to address the decades-long racial segregation within the St. Louis suburbs and school districts—searingly captured by Nikole Hannah-Jones in her recent “This American Life” audio report.
Separate But Equal
When Missouri first attempted to force integration in Ferguson in the 1980s, white residents fled. Their self-preservation instinct perceived blacks moving in as a threat to their socioeconomic (and perhaps physical) safety, so they moved to the all-white suburbs.
In 2013, when the state of Missouri revoked accreditation from the Normandy School District in Ferguson (from which Michael Brown graduated), droves of white parents in the Francis Howell School District packed a town hall meeting to lambast the law that would allow black kids from the Normandy district to be bused to their white, suburban schools.
This, too, was an attempt at self-preservation, but it was fight, not flight.
Black kids from Ferguson were an invasive species, a threat to the placid ecosystem of upward mobility and privilege that whites had carved out for themselves. While I never heard any of the angry white parents use the word “black” in the audio recording of the meeting, they used every euphemism imaginable to push back against “those kids” coming into “our community.”
A Matter of Life or Death
More than 20 percent of the students in the Normandy School District near Ferguson took advantage of the opportunity to be bused 30 miles each way to the Francis Howell School District during the first and only year transfers were allowed. For kids, waking up at 5:30 a.m. in the morning to board a yellow school bus and endure the hour’s drive was an act of desperation.
For those 1,000 bused students—invoking thoughts of Ruby Bridges who in 1960 became the first black student to integrate a public elementary school in the South—entering a middle-class, white community that had loudly announced it didn’t want them there was a brave act of self-preservation. You see, these kids knew that their fight for a quality education was a matter of life and death.
Unfortunately, a small, but formidable band of poor, black people in towns like Ferguson has no desire to fight against the relentless systems of oppression. Unlike some middle-class blacks who choose to relocate to the suburbs for a better quality of life, most can’t afford that option.
Instead some of these poor, disenfranchised people create their own insular community within their racially isolated one. For those who can’t find a job, never received a quality education, and feel like they are being hunted for sport by the police, they find ways to exert a smidgen of power, money and influence.
They run their own corporations (gangs); create their own economic opportunities (selling drugs); and administer their own justice (drive-by shootings). Make no mistake, it is very much a community—but one that is survival of the fittest.
The majority of low-income black people find themselves stuck—victimized by the chronic violence in their neighborhoods yet unable to afford to move to safer, more socioeconomically diverse areas.
Meanwhile, too many whites, who since the birth of this nation have been at the top of a racial caste system, continue to flee from and fight against any wide-scale school integration reform to share their educational wealth and resources. Some white suburban parents claim they resist inner-city transfer students to force the state board of education to fix the urban school districts; other white suburban parents make it clear that they believe in a separate-but-equal style of self-preservation.
As my blog begins its new home at Education Post, I hope to drive the education debate closer toward love than self-preservation. This is not just applicable to discussions about race, but when trying to reconcile any controversial topic—charter schools, teachers unions and standardized tests.
True love is a challenge. It’s painful to consistently put children’s needs above those of adults. It’s much easier to recite talking points, pass the blame to others or convince yourself not to try because no amount of intervention will help.
A year after Ferguson, the call for racial justice is as loud as it’s ever been in America. Blacks and whites everywhere need to try a new strategy because fighting and fleeing isn’t working. Let’s choose love instead.