After the Report about Race and School Discipline, What's in Your Heart?

Jun 17, 2014

  The story I read Saturday by Post-Standard reporter James T. Mulder  told of how an investigation by the state's Attorney General found that black students in the Syracuse city school district are twice as likely to be disciplined as white students.

That was among other things in the A1 digital edition article that were likely to make parents, teachers, administrators, students and anybody who lives in this community to once again say, uh-oh. Overall, Syracuse suspends students at a higher rate than just about every other school district in the country, the story says, and the district also regularly violates the legal rights of students facing discipline.

Another hammer blow: Thirty percent of all students in the district were suspended during the 2012-13 school year, the report says.

All of this sounds awful. That must make this a hard place to learn and teach.

Indeed, putting numbers and percentages on systemic troubles must have its place for those trying to fix these ills of education.

But I tend to fret more about individual faces, and what's inside each and every heart.

That's why that statement about black and white discipline hits me so hard. It's a loaded statistic. It carries with it the potential to polarize students, teachers, schools, neighborhoods.

It could cause people to rush to available stereotypes. Black students must be getting disciplined more because they act up more, for example. Or, on the other hand, black students must be getting disciplined more because white teachers assume black students are in the wrong.

What ugly assumptions both those broad strokes carry.

I don't want this boiling in my community. Yet the statistics above don't lie. This is a tough time in a hard place.

But good people live and work and shop in Syracuse. I see them. They're trying. There have to be positive stories in their hearts.

I'm hopeful enough to think that a dialog about black and white and Syracuse might help in this summer of 2014.

I'd love for students, teachers, administrators, workers, retirees, black, white, all races to look into their hearts and share their story with a comment below. And then get your parent or child or friend or neighbor to do it, too.

I'll start:

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s on Long Island in two consecutive neighborhoods that were mostly white. One of my father's core group of friends at work was black, and my sisters and I called he and his wife Uncle Cliff and Aunt Joyce. Uncle Cliff and his brothers took me golfing when I was a teen. I felt funny when all the white foursomes were staring at us. My father  explained to me when I got home how Uncle Cliff and his brothers had gone to Howard University and were engineers, professional men, successful men, and to never, ever think I was better than people of any other skin color. Which I never had in the first place, thankfully.

At the University of Maryland in College Park, my friends and I regularly traveled into Washington, D.C., which was called "Chocolate City" by all the black Maryland students and D.C. residents we encountered. My friend Rami, from New York City via Israel, showed me real soul food restaurants, and we'd eat ribs and collard greens and sweat hard in the humid D.C. summers next to the black folks, all of us quite peaceful and happy.

I moved to Syracuse in 1983, where I found less daily integration than in the nation's capital. But when I became music writer for The Post-Standard, I loved the atmosphere at the annual M&T Jazz Fest, where I thought the races most naturally came together every summer, dancing side by side at the free-admission event, and talking about the great acts between performances, too.

I loved it when Emmanuel "Manny" Atkins of The BlackLites invited me to the club on South Avenue to watch that seminal Syracuse R&B band rehearse, and how welcome he and the guys in the band would make me feel every time I'd see them perform, including at Dunk & Bright's outdoor lot on the south side. The late, great singer-guitarist Roosevelt Dean had me come see him play at the traditionally black B&B Lounge on South Avenue, and he'd often call me on the phone, pull up outside the newspaper office in his van, and have me pop into the passenger seat so he could play his latest music on CD while we talked. Rapper Seth Marcel and I get along famously, from his days starting out with The Mad Pack up to that day he accepted my invitation to lecture and then rap for the college journalism class I was teaching at Le Moyne. Seth enjoyed telling me that he grew up on Westmoreland Avenue, "one block from the projects and one block from the 'burbs." 

Now, living in Eastwood, I love it when the black kid growing up in the apartments across the street wheels over on his bike just to chat when he sees me, oh, three years now and going strong. He's the type who walks the neighbor lady's dog for her and asks if you need help carrying in your groceries.

This is what we have in Syracuse. This is what we need to keep going in Syracuse.

Your turn.