Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers has been described as, "the angriest black man in Nebraska." I'm not sure where that would rank the senator nationally. Nebraska is not the first place I think of when I think angry black men. He is the only African-American senator and extremely liberal in that very conservative Republican state. Maybe that's what makes him so angry. He has also been described as the "defender of the downtrodden" and "the Maverick of Omaha." His name has been in the news recently regarding a law he backed which separates the Omaha School District in to three separate districts, one majority white, one majority black and one largely Hispanic.
The law has been described in the news media by civil rights activists and others as state-sponsored segregation. It has in the senators own words, "thrown white people into a tizzy." It's thrown a few black people into a tizzy as well. Beyond being an obvious lightning rod for controversy I think Mr. Chambers might be a political genius. And I think that this law, clearly a step backward on the road toward the ebony and ivory living in harmony society which we idealize and strive mightily to achieve in this country, might be one of the smartest pieces of legislation ever.
Chambers is not your typical state politician. He wears sweatshirts and jeans on the floor of the senate. Every year at the start of the session he introduces legislation to abolish the death penalty. He fought against an amendment to the state constitution to protect the right to hunt. Also, according to Mother Jones magazine:
He cajoled his colleagues into abolishing corporal punishment in schools, correcting the state pension system so that women would be treated equally with men, and back[ed] a switch from at-large municipal elections to district-based voting so that nonwhites would have a chance to serve. Under his sway, Nebraska led the nation in the 1980s in divesting in companies that did business with apartheid-era South Africa.
He frequently single handedly filibusters against laws he believes are harmful to the poor and powerless. He's served for 35 years and must step down in 2008 due to term limits he believes were voted into law to get rid of him. So why would a defender of the disenfranchised support segregation by law? When asked about the bill in a couple TV interviews, and in this article on CNN.com, the most trusted name in news, Chambers answers simply, "the district is already segregated." It has been segregated since the state stopped busing students to insure integration. This has resulted in an inequitable distribution of resources that leaves minority students on the short end of the stick. Minority students are receiving a poor quality education as a result. The change in the district lines would allow each minority group to control its own schools. That would give them the ability to allocate resources in a way that would give minority students a chance at a better education.
The odd thing about this story is that every time you hear it on the news or read about it in the newspaper, the fact that the district is already segregated gets buried under all the hubbub over the new law. The outrage seems to be not so much over the segregated school system, as it does over the law acknowledging that fact.
Why Our Children Isn't Learning
Recently the Oprah Show devoted two programs to a Special Report: American Schools in Crisis. The shows were eye opening and featured Bill Gates with his wife Melinda and their crusade to revolutionize America's school system, which is now failing. Oprah's web site cites statistics that are shameful.
Just 20 years ago, American students were among the best in the world, routinely coming in first in test results. Now, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, students in the richest country on earth are in 24th place in math. That's behind Canada, Germany, France, Korea...but also smaller, poorer countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.
Gates points out that at the rate American students are dropping out of school we are at risk of raising a nearly unemployable generation. Nearly a third of all American high school students drop out of school. That figure is 50% for minorities. On the same show author Jonathan Kozol appeared. Kozol is an educator and activist, and one of the most vocal critics of American public education. He has written a book, The Shame of the Nation, which compares the current state of the American school system to South African apartheid. Kozol says:
"We are now operating a school system in America that's more segregated than at any time since the death of Martin Luther King," he says. "Racial segregation has come back to public education with a vengeance."
The Oprah show compared an inner city Chicago school to an upper class suburban school and the disparity is shocking. At the city school students are greeted by metal detectors inside the doors. They have outdated computers that don't work, a gymnasium that is falling apart, a pool that has not been filled with water in decades and only a few broken instruments for music classes. The suburban school is a 65 million dollar facility with a new Olympic sized pool, a state of the art workout room which looks like a commercial fitness center, a modern computer lab and an award winning music department.
Located in a low-income community in Chicago, Harper High School graduates just 40 percent of its 1,500 students. Meanwhile, about 35 miles away in suburban Naperville, Illinois, Neuqua Valley High School...graduates 99 percent of its students....
The difference between the two schools can also be seen in their scores on state exams. At Neuqua Valley, 78 percent of students meet Illinois' reading standards, 76 percent meet the science standards, and 77 percent meet the math standards. At Harper, 16 percent meet the reading standards, 1.5 percent meet the science standards and just .5 percent meet the math standards.
The special goes on to show that crime rates and poverty are directly related to the disparity in education. They visit a prison where they talk to inmates and discover that 75% of the inmates are high school dropouts. The schools don't educate students and essentially these high schools become prep school for prison. Prison is merely higher education for criminals. They also point out that it costs $34,000 a year to house a prisoner, about 3 times what the state spends on the average student per year. This all ties in to a post I made last week about Angel Davis and her campaign to abolish prisons.
I don't know the specifics of the Omaha school system. But I doubt it is very much different. As Jonathan Kozol points out, this is happening across America. The busing experiment is over for the most part and schools are once again separate and unequal. The other part of this controversy that gets minimal coverage in the media is expressed in this NY Times article. And that centers around the fact this bill started out as an attempt to incorporate surrounding white majority schools that were within Omaha city limits, but were in suburban school districts, into the Omaha city school district. It was an attempt to provide a larger tax pool for school funding and to integrate the district. Voters in those districts revolted fearing that the measure would result in school busing to achieve integration goals. This short excerpt from that article says it all:
Parent reaction is divided. Darold Bauer, a professional fund-raiser who has three children in Millard schools, said he was pleased that the law had eliminated the threat of busing, although he said he was not thrilled about sharing a common tax levy with the Omaha schools.
What this law does is protect the boundaries of my district," said Mr. Bauer, who is white. "All the districts in the area are now required to work together on an integration plan, and I'm fine with that, because my kids won't be bused."
There it is in black and white. White parents don't want their children bussed to achieve integration. And they aren't thrilled about sharing taxes to make minority schools better.
My European friends ask me all the time why America doesn't do what they do in Europe. The first time I was asked was 20 years ago by a friend from the Netherlands. Just recently I was asked by a German friend. Why not allocate money for all the schools from the state's general tax base, and not by district according to real estate taxes, as is the current practice? Then every school gets the same amount of money per student no matter whether the students are black, white, brown, or any other minority. Whether their parents are rich or poor. That ways no child is truly left behind.
I believe that when this is seen as an integration issue, basically a black and white issue, it short changes both blacks and whites. Specifically poor blacks and poor whites. Because it is the poor of both races and other minorities who have poor schools and end up stuck in a cycle of poor education which leads to prison or poverty or both. Which leads to in turn poor education for the next generation. My finely tuned sense of paranoidar leads me to suspect that it's a good way for the rich folk to keep out the competition. Kids with rich parents don't have to compete with the poor for a good college education and later for good jobs and eventually for a nice house in a good neighborhood. It keeps poor folk right where they are generation after generation. A kind of neo-serfdom. The poor and middle class, distracted by arguments over integration, spend time fighting each other over busing, as America under-educates its potential workforce into third world status. Meanwhile the privileged point their fingers at minorities and blame them for generation after generation of failure. But this is a failure of the system. Given the same chance at education, the poor, all the poor, minority or otherwise, would have much improved lives.
A Liberal Legislative Genius
And this is exactly what makes this piece of legislation one of the craftiest moves a politician ever made. Especially a liberal politician. Unable to get his state to fix the inequities in the school system through integration or providing adequate funds to minority schools, Mr. Chambers got them to vote for something they apparently find more palatable. Racially segregated districts. The legislature voted for it, and Republican Governor Dave Heineman signed it into law. He got them make a law that opponents to segregation have no choice but to challenge.
We are fifty-two years past Brown v. Board of Education. Fifty years past the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosy speeches have been made on Martin Luther King Day and at the funerals of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. At this point in our history we simply can't have laws that reflect the true state of segregation of our country's school system. Civil rights groups will fight this in the courts, but Chambers wins either way. Because if they fail to strike down the law, minority parents get control of their kids education. If they win, it will still involve court battle which may go all the way to the Supreme Court. The media attention from that fight will certainly also shine a light on the problem that was his focus in the first place; that the district is already segregated. It may well bring focus to the problem nationally. I can't tell you if this was his plan from the start, but if it was, he's the Bobby Fisher of state senators.
And that's why this lone legislator who forced through some of the most liberal laws in the country in one of the most conservative Republican states in the nation is without doubt a genius. He is also one of my personal heroes and a revolution of one. We could use a guy like this among the do-nothing Democrats in the US congress. Now that Omaha is retiring him involuntarily he is available. Hell, I'd vote for the man for President, but I don't think the "angriest black man in Nebraska" image will play nationally with white voters. Barak Obama he is not.