Payton Head, student body president at the University of Missouri, my alma mater, recently wrote that while walking through campus Sept. 11, a pickup truck full of white guys screamed the word n*gger at him.
"I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society," Head, a Chicago native, wrote on his Facebook page the following afternoon.
It wasn't the first time it happened to him. On university campuses everywhere, the truckload of racist frat boys has become a well-worn cliche. But Head's experience struck a chord. For one, both of my siblings are undergrads there. Second, I'm familiar with that cliche: Just last week, a former University of Mississippi student was sentenced for hanging a noose and old Confederate-inspired Georgia state flag on the James Meredith statue in February 2014.
Thirdly, it struck a chord because something similar happened to me on the same campus. In fact, 19 years earlier, almost to the day it happened to Head, I was an incoming freshman at the school when my roommate and I attended a welcome cookout at the Black Culture Center on campus.
It was early and the party hadn't gotten going, so we decided to run out to a chain drugstore just off campus.
When we got to the store, my roommate went to get his stuff; I went to get mine. With my intended purchases in hand, I went to meet back up with my roommate when I saw him walking slowly in my direction, a couple of store associates a few steps behind. One of the clerks, who was white and not much older than me, alluded to the fact that my roommate and I had split up, presumably as part of our plot to boost deodorant, toothpaste and condoms.
"We don't like what you and your buddy are up to, so we're going to need you to leave," he said, reaching toward me and snatching the things I had planned to give them my money for out of my hand.
It's a good thing that I was momentarily stunned and unable to process what was happening because I might have put my hands on the boy. My roommate, who later went into law enforcement, positioned himself between me and the clerks, whose smirks of satisfaction only enraged me further. That rage was steeped in part in the fact that black kids—especially young men—who "make it" to college, like it's some kind of prize, are constantly told that we're special. In some black churches, whole recognition services are dedicated to young folks going off to school, and many provide scholarships to help pay for books and other supplies.
Shouldn't special people be able to buy deodorant in peace? Shouldn't all people? In the case of my roommate and me, we promptly returned to the Black Culture Center and recounted the confrontation to the presidents of the NAACP campus chapter, the Legion of Black Collegians, the black student government organization and black faculty who attended.
Hell was raised. The editorial boards of local newspapers expressed outrage on our behalf. We were invited to speak about the experience at campus events. There was talk of a race discrimination lawsuit. In the end, we got an apology from the store's general manager. Of course, I never stepped foot in the place for the rest of my time in school.
That wasn't the last similar thing that happened to either of us in my time there. After the first one or two, racial micro-aggressions become a fact of life for black students at predominantly white institutions. Contrary to belief, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren't called to handle every one of them; we mostly shrug them off or trade them like war stories over dorm-room spades games.
Head was widely heralded for bringing attention to the fact that, yes, racism is also very much alive and well at predominantly white campuses above the Mason-Dixon Line. In my mind, the bravest thing he did was to later tell the Washington Post: "It's not a Mizzou issue. It's a societal issue. And very few people are privileged to have the voice to speak up that people will listen to."
He's right that people were willing to listen because it happened to a person of relative privilege. It was refreshing to see because college-educated, "upwardly mobile" and professional black folks don't acknowledge their own privilege enough.
The reason for that is simple: A lot of us also buy into the false notion that people get to where they are in America through their own hard work, sweat and intelligence alone. Sure, I'm a hard-working dude, but my parents' decision to get up out the 'hood—move out of the inner city—and provide a life for me that they didn't have is as much to thank for whatever success I've had as whatever talent I might have been born with.
My family didn't have to worry about where our next meal was coming from or struggle to keep the lights on so I could do my homework, make good grades, perform well on tests, get into advanced-placement classes in high school, get college scholarships (in education-policy circles, they'd call these positive educational outcomes) and, years later, have a platform to write this column.
Meanwhile, cities are still hurting in this regard. Population declines have hit schools the hardest. One of my first jobs in this business was working for a political talk-radio host during a period when the St. Louis public-school district hired a "turnaround firm" that recommended shuttering neighborhood schools where enrollment had sunk to levels that in some cases made turning the lights on a break-even proposition. A hunger strike to protest the closing of a high school ended a few days ago in Chicago. The past few years in Mississippi, the most poorly educated state by many metrics, schools have been caught in the crossfire of ideological wars over budgets, school-funding equity, charter schools and Common Core.
At the heart of these fights is a question of student achievement: What, really, are we hoping to accomplish with higher test scores, high-school and college graduation rates—more black attorneys, doctors, engineers and other upwardly mobile professionals? Then what? Any discussion about education that ends with fat bank accounts and getting out of (and forgetting about) the 'hood is a wasted opportunity. When college-schooled and upwardly mobile black professionals are leading that conversation, I wonder whether they actually received an education at all.
Mississippians have been fighting unique battles over education for a long time. The jury's out on whether the charter-school experiment will work, whether Jackson's public schools can right the ship, whether Initiative 42 will pass or end up being litigated for years. Regardless, this is an opportunity to think really hard about the kinds of people we ultimately want our schools to produce and how they will represent us and harness the agency we empower them with on college campuses, in the workplace and as adults in their communities.