On a crisp fall evening in November 2008, President-elect Obama stood before a crowd of thousands in Chicago’s Grant Park and delivered his victory speech. The words, of course, have slipped away. What remains indelible are the images of the people as they looked up toward the dais, their faces reflecting a hope that was palpable, a mixture of expectation and even disbelief.
There stood the first African-American president of the United States. Could anyone watching doubt that our nation had turned a corner and the possibility of a post-racial America now beckoned? It was a moment, many believed, that transcended all that had come before, a moment that broke that tenacious thread that connected us to poll taxes, Jim Crow, Plessy v. Ferguson (separate but equal) and, finally, slavery, that institution so stark and evil that today it seems all but incomprehensible.
But gradually, over the years, we have learned that the election of Barack Obama was not enough. And a cruel reality took form, perhaps reminding us of Aeschylus, who wrote, “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
That awful wisdom, that has been revealed once again in Ferguson, Mo., is that there remains embedded in our culture a lingering racism, born out of slavery and buttressed by a cycle of poverty and inequality. Slavery continues to be a shrouding legacy that haunts our nation, and its currents and attitudinal riptides are with us still, more than a century later. We remain segregated — people of color and those not — and we peer at each other across a chasm of misunderstanding, fear and anger, and the embers of prejudice and discrimination continue to burn.
Our truth is that a black man is far more likely to be stopped and incarcerated in America than a white man. Our truth is that parents of black children explain, in the most serious way, how to behave if stopped by the police, knowing that in a heartbeat their lives can be changed for all time. Our prisons are filled with young black men in far greater numbers than their population would suggest.
The above presents our society with a question — a conundrum, really — that asks, why? The answer remains ever elusive. It is a perfect storm of poverty, lack of opportunity and an absence viable employment, of lives sadly wasted, of urban public schools shamefully substandard, and families broken by stressors that can flatten the spirit and create a distorted and dark prism through which the future is viewed. There is also an abundance of street-corner drugs that deaden the reality of a hopeless tomorrow.
So what to do? How do we address the simmering rage of Ferguson, and the countless Fergusons that have come before: demonstrations and looting and confrontations that stretch back decades?
There does exist one possible panacea that follows the rule of Occam’s Razor: The most elegant and efficacious solution to an intractable problem may be the simplest.
I would suggest that we begin with what already exists: our public schools, K-12, buttressed by robust preschools on one end and a superior and vast complex of community colleges and public universities on the other. Our schools have the potential to level the playing field for all of our children.
To break the cycle of child poverty and educational impoverishment, we must devote not only our treasure but our attention to restructuring and retooling our schools for the 21st century. It should be our national mission.
We can still do big things. This is a big thing. We must build and rebuild our schools. From the leaky roofs and stained ceilings down to the crumbling foundations. Fill them not only with desks and books and supplies but also with well-paid and well-qualified teachers and counselors and support staff. Expand the curriculum, from science and math to liberal arts to fine arts and mandatory physical education. Build pools and tracks and grass-covered fields.
Get our children in school and keep them there. Let’s do this like we mean it. Let it be the equivalent of a Manhattan/Marshall/moon landing/Hoover Dam project. We can do this. Let’s feed them if they’re hungry, nurture them if they are alone, teach them and mentor them and tutor them. Do this and more and we will break this execrable cycle.
As a nation we have the wealth. What we lack thus far is the will.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.