Not many days after my last editor's note—about the determination of young Mississippians like the subSIPPI filmmakers to stay and build in Mississippi—I was staying in a hotel in Atlanta's midtown. I was there as a fellow in a journalism conference on school discipline that my graduate school hosted, and no small part of the conversation was about the problems that underfunded and, often, resegregated public schools face.
One speaker, a white parent and student advocate from the previously very-white Gwinnett County, Ga., talked about how discriminatory school discipline had followed black families from urban schools to the suburban ones in her district. I looked up an article on my iPad as she talked that explained that, in the Atlanta metro, many people of color are now moving into the suburbs even as many whites, especially younger ones, are beating a path back into Atlanta, including into booming neighborhoods like midtown where we were staying.
That fact has mixed blessings. Certainly, it's great for the city to see the reverse of the white flight that plagued it and cities such as Jackson after Jim Crow ended in the 1970s. But on issues such as school discipline, crime perceptions and school funding, the movement of more African Americans to suburbs sadly means that many whites either pull their kids out of the public schools or pick up and move farther out. It also means that discriminatory school discipline (or "zero tolerance" as the increase in suspensions and expulsions is often called, or the "cradle to prison pipeline") follows families of color, as our speaker illustrated.
Now before some of you wig out at that idea, as many did when I dared even mention our historic "white flight" in my last column, you should know that study after study (including a huge one in Texas coming in January and even supported by Texas conservatives) show that children of color are disciplined more harshly for the same or lesser offenses than white kids. It is simply not an issue of "black kids act up more," as many really want us to believe.
Put another way, just as white flight created larger problems for the areas left behind—problems that inevitably catch up with those who flee—the lack of resolution for discriminatory school discipline follows the flight path as well. When a school falls into the predictable, and often unintentional, pattern of using school discipline that has a disparate impact on kids of color, it tends to treat all kids, including white ones, harsher than before.
Because, in a twisted way, that is the only way to claim "equal" treatment.
As I was sitting in these fascinating sessions getting more educated about school discipline—one of my graduate-study focuses, but I was rusty on developments of the last decade—I couldn't help but think about how solutions to so many problems created by past discrimination are right beyond our fingertips. It's as if we just won't stretch another few inches and grasp them.
Watching the predictable string of angry comments under my subSIPPI column—all because I dared say "white flight" out loud—just makes me shake my head. Is there seriously anyone out there who honestly believes that the entire world doesn't know that our state handled race relations poorly? Saying the words "white flight" out loud, especially in a positive column about change, won't suddenly alert the world that Jackson (or Atlanta or Memphis or New Orleans) has been so challenged in recent years because so many families pulled up roots and moved before they would let their kids go to school with African Americans. This is a well-known fact already.
We can stipulate now that such a decision was shortsighted. But the key is to look at it, and at the problem of kicking vulnerable kids out of school and onto the streets to get into more trouble, and ask ourselves what we can do instead of continuing to make the kinds of decisions that created these problems in the first place.
Instead of selling and moving a bit closer to Vaiden if your block gets past the diversity "tipping point," how can you build new relationships that help all families?
Instead of, say, making it easier to suspend or expel more kids for increasingly lesser offenses to pretend that discipline disparities haven't existed for decades, why don't we join together as a community to figure out better solutions for all kids? And while we're at it, why don't we make the baseline the belief that all young people have potential and that their lives are valuable—even if and when they do something stupid?
While in midtown Atlanta, we walked around a lot and were astounded by the street activity day and night, with active sidewalk cafes and diverse people of all ages wandering the sidewalks, laughing, talking. That area has changed tremendously in a decade or so, and it's because people decided they wanted to live, play and enjoy life in their city, despite its problems.
Put another way, they decided to stop running and invest in their city.
It probably also doesn't hurt anything that about everywhere you look, you see a major thoroughfare named for Dr. King or Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. A while back, Atlanta made the decision that its city was "too busy to hate" and embraced its past, which has both helped its tourism industry and made it a better place to live for residents of all races. And make no mistake: There are people who still live in the past there, mired in hate and fear of "the other," who aren't happy about it. But it's not up to them.
Here in Jackson, and in Mississippi as a whole, we must make the decision that we are too busy to live in constant fear and start talking up our city and living its potential. Just as I said in my last editor's note about the zoo, it makes no sense to just pick it up and move it to a place where some white folks feel more comfortable—for the moment—until those same people decide to pick up and run away from diversity once again. That is a vicious cycle, and we lose every time it spins around again.
It's time to dig in here and now. The grass isn't greener, or safer, in another cow pasture or flood plain somebody wants to develop. Our strength as a city and state is in our shared history—just as in Atlanta—if we allow it to be. Go to the new civil rights museum when it opens, invite someone of another race or background over for dinner, open yourself up to frank conversations.
I've long believed Mississippi can be the most impressive state in the union if we decide to be. We had farther to come for greatness, and we've thus come farther than other states. Let's complete this journey.