Stop Picking on the Black Middle Class

It didn't abandon urban communities, despite what some say.

One of many D.C. black professionals working to improve theirneighborhoods. (Washington Post)
One of many D.C. black professionals working to improve theirneighborhoods. (Washington Post)

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This is the premise of Jonetta Rose Barras’ cover article in the Washington City Paper. The piece profiles a white woman who was a change agent in her neighborhood public schools on Capitol Hill. This is easier to do when you live in a wealthy, mostly white part of the city, as she did. But she still deserves kudos for having the drive, focus and energy needed to create an island of success in a very dysfunctional school system.

But Barras goes off track when she tries to argue that black neighborhood schools have not seen a similar transformation because the black middle class has abandoned them. Part of the blame, Barras writes, goes to black culture itself: “In many black communities, schools are considered sacred institutions; reverence for teachers is similar to that for pastors  … Consequently, many have been reluctant to question administrators or alter the infrastructure of schools.”

Also: Black families “rely” on government to improve District public schools. This is exactly “backwards,” Barras writes. She singles out some black D.C. Council members who sent their kids to public schools in predominantly white neighborhoods. “The real culprit is the flight-not-fight mentality prevalent in the black middle class,” Barras concludes.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect teachers and administrators to do what we pay them to do. That’s the way public education is supposed to work in a democracy. And ask my public school teacher-friend who just got cursed out by a parent if the hood greets them like the pope! As for “flight-not-fight”? I believe that white people invented that in inner cities sometime after World War II.

But it’s not productive or even fair for me or anyone else to sit around assigning racial blame for the state of urban education. These are not black or white problems but societywide problems. The schools are a reflection of larger problems facing the urban core left to rot by disinvestment and poor policy decisions.

Blame transportation policies that built great big highways to take striving families right out of the city. Point to the decline of high-paying industry jobs. Take a look at “business innovations” such as crack, which filled the power vacuum in inner cities and made them dangerous places to live.