I was graciously offered a free copy of De-Leveling the System, Cris Thorne’s documentary whose snippet served as the basis for my previous piece “The Elephant”. After watching the entire film, I’ve determined that there is something deeper to this question, other than an issue of merely race or class, which is the result of the dangerous and destructive mélange of the two in the American conscience in the form of something which seeks to posit itself as disinterested in both – intellect.
You are a youngish professional who has moved to the town of Maplewood, New Jersey because of a number of factors. The train station makes the commute into New York, where you inevitably work easier, for it seems, at least with eyes almost-open, that no one conducts their business in New Jersey. The neighborhood is quaint, a word which is often condescending, and you use it condescendingly at first, too, until you begin to love your new home and hate yourself for loving it. But most of all, the school district is progressive. You find it odd that it is so diverse, a word which means nothing in this situation, for diversity comes only with the realization that the school district is not all white or all black. As you tour the elementary school, you smile at the young black girls who play with the white boys in an image of racial progress which makes your liberal face break out into a capricious grin. America, the promised land, is finally ours.
It is a lie, of course. Those children are playing together at that age because the institutions which are always at work, always invisible, have not yet triggered them into realizing who they are. Black boys and white girls and Latino girls and Asian boys play with one another in post-racial bliss because they are not yet aware. Like so many young mammals, children manage to function without opening their eyes.
The children will continue to play together into middle school, when the machinations at work will have thoroughly separated them from one another. The black kids, who are inevitably poorer than the whites, find their way into classes which resemble prisons insofar that their inhabitants show no desire to be there and see themselves as simply biding time until their sentence is through. They leave high school often with just as much confusion about the world as when they entered, a thirteen year-old in a seventeen year-old body. The white child is in the higher level classes, those which still create a spark in their teacher’s eyes for they know that there is something there, some untapped potential – some form of intellect.
What is intellect? Plainly, intellect is the ability to apply reasoning and problem solving skills to both abstract and academic materials. Our societies claim to be founded on the notion of intellectualism, the ability for a person to learn information through academic institutions and consequentially apply that information to real world situations. Whether or not intellect is important is something I will not concern myself with, for doing so would reveal a level of hypocrisy which would force me to give up the very endeavor of writing in general. What does interest me, however, is the way that intellect is used as a yardstick for racial progress, and consequentially, cultural deprivation.
A popular forum in Maplewood and South Orange is the website MaplewoodOnline. The forum offers residents a variety of services, including a discussion board for disgruntled parents to bitch about the way that the school district is failing their children. No right-minded parent would do anything to jeopardize the future of their child, and for the liberal-passing parents of Maplewood and South Orange, the anonymity of Internet spaces provides a mask through which true feelings can flow like a sewer. Ideas which have no place in ordinary conversation, which signal to the nearest person a response of guilt and disgust – not at the idea itself, but at the sickening realization that the idea contains some strain of legitimacy.
Racism is rampant on the Internet, for in such a space where words have no repercussions, one is only policed by their social conscience. And I am beginning to see that our notion of social conscience is deeply flawed.
During the conversation about leveling my junior year, a number of threads opened up on MaplewoodOnline about the issue. Parents were pissed at the notion of putting their kids in classes with “animals,” a euphemism used often to describe the swarthier denizens of the town. The prospect of combining levels which had implicitly existed to segregate the races was to these angry parents the school district’s declaration to impede the education of the intellectual students by offering charity to those of the lower economic brackets. In these threads, the townsfolk of Maplewood and South Orange, two towns steeped in liberalism, in the championing of civil rights, in the promise of suburban, middle-class, racial harmony, the true colors of race relations in the United States in the 21st century revealed themselves like an unhealed wound. For many, it was routine; people say ignant things on the Internet all the time. Yet, the proximity of these people – neighbors, coworkers, PTA parents – and the candidness of their dialogues disturbed me, for it made me realize that the person who may have given me a ride home that day thought that students who looked like me did not deserve to be in the same classes as their daughter, or that the woman who walked her dog past my house every morning considered young black students from working-class Maplewood to be intellectually or cultural deficient.
There is no legitimate metric to measure intellect for so often the tests which have been developed only take into consideration one specific type of intelligence, the likes of which is never inclusive.
Progressiveness fails us when it posits that only certain people – those who try hard enough – can succeed for hereditary privilege exists to secure the progress of the next generation while ensuring that others stay where they are. It was an unfathomable realization which these white parents felt – but did not understand – to realize that in order for lower-class Black kids to move forward, their children would have to give up the privilege of being in upper-level classes. For de-leveling to work, privileges must be sacrificed.
In the age of once-colonial nations demanding reparations for the atrocities done against them by the British, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish, this is a conversation which Black Americans should begin to take into consideration when dealing with their ex-colonial masters – White Americans. The issue of reparations is not an issue of funds, but an issue of guilt. The British, according to Prime Minister David Cameron, are no longer responsible for the egregious crimes committed in Jamaica, in Kenya, in Nigeria, and in India for that was an older generation. The current generation of Brits have not seized colonial lands, have not bartered the promise of industrialization and entry into Western civilization for the effacement of all pre-colonial markers of cultural life. The current generation of Brits is an atoned people who exist in a moral vacuum, growing filthy rich from the industries established and maintained in the colonial era.
This detachment is visible in Maplewood and South Orange in the way that white parents seek to view educational progress. By working hard, I have been able to establish myself and to give my children a good life. The realization that this “hard work” is subjective and impacted ultimately by the privilege of whiteness, by the privilege of middle-classness, goes unmentioned and unaddressed. And it is markedly difficult to make oneself aware of a phenomenon which in its very nature is invisible, is insidious. Yet, question that privilege, that unspoken truth, and watch their eyes grow red with fire in defense, all so that the poor can benefit from the hard work of the rich while the rich themselves flounder and do not progress.
How exactly does one progress further into richness? How rich can a person be before they realize the emptiness of their existence, the summation of their lives in dollars and cents?
By twelfth grade, children who were best friends in elementary school do not know one another anymore. They pass each other in the hall, staring at each other as if asking themselves from where they recognized that face, which is but a stretched out and hairier version of the one they used to love seeing. White children who once had Black friends now shrink in fear at the sight of them in the hallway, at the notion of being around them, for they have learned in school and among their friends that black people are incapable of progress. They ask themselves “What’s wrong with these kids?” or “Why are they so stupid?” while the black kids ask the same things about themselves in the mirror. And while these children conduct themselves in two different schools which occupy the same coordinates in spaces, it becomes as clear as day that the school district has done its job by failing them both.