In the Summer of 2010 I wrote a piece for The Meridian Star on the insignificance of race when it comes to effective leadership. It remains true that, when it comes to the leadership of any type of organization — or the lack thereof — the skin pigmentation of the leader is not a key component of his or her successes or failures.
At the same time, however, we are not color-blind when it comes to race. When we see someone whose skin color is not the same as our own, that cosmetic difference is one of the very first things our brains recognize; the initial step in a cerebral process. It is an automatic, involuntary response and it is inherently human — not inherently white or inherently black.
But what happens after that initial, split-second recognition of difference?
At this next stage, the process slows down, becoming more emotional and less neurological, a matter more of the heart than of the mind. We are now dealing with another inherently human trait — free will. We now choose whether or not we will: A) End the process right there, leaving each other with our respective “first impressions” and, therefore, knowing each other based on our differences alone, or, B) Move forward in the process, recognizing each others likenesses and similarities, developing a relationship based on what we have in common, and, ultimately, building trust in one another; thereby answering God’s call to make this world a more peaceful, harmonious place.
The choice we are called to make is the latter. Indeed, we are compelled to learn how to live with one another through the formation of relationships and the building of trust, regardless of our cosmetic differences.
And if we are called to learn such things, at what age should this learning process begin?
While it’s never too late in life to learn something new, aren’t childhood and young adulthood the optimum starting points, i.e., Elementary, Middle, and High School?
We “learn” by doing.
Our children can listen to a teacher talk about diversity, but if they are in a classroom full of students who virtually look the same, they have not fully grasped the concept. A High-School Honors student can read about racial tolerance in a text and write the perfect, A+ essay on the subject; but if he or she eats lunch in a school cafeteria that is essentially all-black or all-white five days a week, forty weeks a year, he or she has not mastered the material.
And when it comes to real student diversity in our local public and private schools — “real”, meaning student bodies whose demographics come somewhat close to mirroring the demographics of our community — we, too, have failed to master the material.
In a City with an almost 64% African-American population and an almost 35% White population, the Meridian Public School District’s 6,424 students are a disproportionate 86% African – American and 12% White.
I sometimes wonder how often a local student — he can be Black or White, private or public — becomes inspired by the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, only to look around his classroom to realize that Dr. King’s dream did not fully make it into his essentially all-black or all-white 3rd period Social Studies class.
Despite the teacher’s best efforts, this reality is the polar opposite of what is being taught. The student takes in his surroundings and thinks “Why is there only one black kid in my class?” or “Why are there no white kids in my class?” We, the parents, answer these questions to the best of our abilities when the student comes home from school that day, but do we ever ask ourselves these questions?
And when we do, will we accept the answers and just keep on trucking along, embracing the seductive comfort of the status-quo? Or will we find the courage to go against the crowd, defy the status-quo and take a stand for our children and for our community?
Taking a stand means building a truly diverse student population in our public schools — a population that is reflective of the community we live in. Today’s Meridian Public School District is a school system full of new leaders with exciting, new ideas. There has never been a more opportune time to take such a stand.
And whether you are currently a “private school person”, a “parochial school person” or a “public school person”, we all have a role in joining together to make Meridian a singular, powerful community of “public school people”.
If we live inside the District, yet do not have our children enrolled in a public school, we must communicate with other parents and make a group decision to take an honest look at our neighborhood’s public Elementary, Middle or High School. Through campus tours and first-person, face-to-face conversations with students, teachers and administrators, we can form a factual, informed opinion. By communicating and acting as a group, however large or small, we can keep our children’s’ tight-knit circles of friends intact should we make the switch.
If we already have our 4th or 5th grader enrolled in a public Elementary School, but we are considering moving out of the district or switching to a private school in the near future for whatever reason; we, too, must stop and take an honest look at our neighborhood Middle School(all three of our City’s Middle Schools came under new leadership in the Fall of 2010).
If we are certain that our children will go all the way through public schools no matter what, we must triple our efforts in promoting the countless benefits of a MPSD education.
A historic moment…
Today, our schools stand atop a great and unprecedented tipping point in our City’s history. From this point forward, we shall either fall backward towards virtual segregation and renewed fragmentation — scenarios that can, have and will completely suffocate the economic and cultural growth of any American city — or, we shall lift ourselves up to a new level of healthy, robust diversity, thus becoming the most culturally affluent and economically vibrant community in the Southeastern United States. And, more importantly, thus becoming a community who answered the call to truly “teach” our kids about diversity by giving them the privilege and preparedness of being educated in a richly diverse environment on a daily basis.
Much like the individual choices we have between first impressions and real, substantive relationships, we must now decide which path we are called to take as a community — backward digression or forward progress.
The path we choose will be revealed in the places of learning where our young people reside. Let us be diligent, knowledgeable and universal in our discernment.