Last week, the Center for Collaborative Journalism convened two community forums to discuss our report in The Telegraph about the growing racial concentration in Macon-Bibb public schools.
Discussions at the forums were largely civil. They were also wide-ranging, covering topics from discipline to testing to the role of parents. While race was at the center of the article that initiated the forums, conversation largely skirted the issue beyond widespread agreement that racial and economic diversity would be a good thing for our schools to have.
However, toward the end of the second forum, the conversation ”got real” (as the kids might say).
In the earlier forum, a Macon resident stated that he sent his son to a private school because “my wife and I had given birth to a thoroughbred; I wanted him to run with other thoroughbreds.” A video of his comments drew angry responses on Facebook, and two attendees at the second forum confronted the resident (who had returned for that second forum) to express how offensive they found his earlier remarks.
To some of us at the first meeting, it seemed obvious he didn’t understand that his comments offended some in the room. When he was confronted, he said as much. Yet he still did not appear to understand the reason for the offense until extended conversations immediately after the forum.
The thoroughbred metaphor has clear racial connotations. Thoroughbreds aren’t just successful race horses. They are carefully bred for their genes. The term is often used generically to indicate any purebred horse. As a metaphor for humans, it’s racially charged and evokes, for some, talk of master races and racial purity.
Since that forum, some of us at the Center, The Telegraph and GPB Macon have debated our role and responsibility in this discussion. Did our video make the commenter an unwitting target? Will the backlash discourage others, especially parents of private school students, from engaging in this discussion? Should someone have pointed out the potentially offensive nature of his comment at the first forum? Should we foster frank discussions on race?
Some readers and attendees have asked why the racial makeup of our schools matters. Are we being unnecessarily divisive by even looking at race and education?
It’s a fair question. The burden is on us to answer it, which we will attempt to do in the coming weeks and months. At a minimum, it seems clear that the racial makeup points to some underlying issues in our schools and community that need exploring. But we’ll also look at the impact of racial diversity itself on educational outcomes.
Some have pointed to the role of socioeconomic status in the schools. Shouldn’t we just focus on that?
Issues of race and class are intertwined in this community, as they are throughout the country. Teasing apart those two aspects is difficult, and some find it much more comfortable to discuss economics than race.
To be certain, we will examine the intersection of poverty and education. However, open dialog on race is important—for this community, in particular.
In 2013, the Macon Economic Development Commission commissioned Atlanta-based Market Street Services to help update its plan. The company recommended a holistic plan to look at a variety of issues that undergird the economy. This sort of plan had been adopted in cities like Nashville, Tennessee, and Greenville, South Carolina that the MEDC identified as aspirational models.
Market Street’s report pointed to issues around race as the top factor holding back development in Macon-Bibb. It concluded that underlying most of the issues confronting the city, “pervasive issues of race, leadership, and trust” have “exacerbated problems and stymied progress.” The report also highlighted the community’s educational challenges: “K-12 education system is one of the largest and most important challenges in Macon-Bibb, and the issue is inseparable from larger issues of race and class.”
If we are to continue moving forward as a community, and especially if we want to avoid leaving behind a large segment of our population, we must have honest, open dialog around race. Those discussions will be difficult and uncomfortable. They will be fraught with misunderstandings. But we need them.
The challenge is to make progress. We must move past that discomfort as well as our cynicism that says we’ve had these discussions before to no avail. We won’t solve our problems with a few forums and good reporting. Progress will be slow, but it can be made.
The exchange over the thoroughbred comments illustrates a little of what’s required.
First, it requires extending a little grace to each other. Those offended by the thoroughbred metaphor had every right to be offended. However, taking offense does not require assuming ill will on the part of others.
To be sure, Macon-Bibb, like other communities, is home to virulent racists—those who spew hatred and seek division. We must loudly condemn their racism and not let the worst of us speak for the rest of us.
But we have absolutely no reason to put the forum commenter in that category.
Second, progress requires courage. It’s not enough to condemn the worst extremes and assume the rest of us are benevolent. To stop there is to bury our heads in the sand and perpetuate our problems in the name of politeness. The deep-seated problems we face don’t live at the extremes. They dwell with those of us of good will who nonetheless cause each other harm through ignorance and insensitivity and even through our best-intentioned efforts.
We need to brave discomfort to find understanding. We must confront each other, but progress requires extending a little grace in doing so.
If one of us had explained our offense at the thoroughbred comment during the first forum, understanding may have come more quickly. In the end, a bit of progress was made through those uncomfortable conversations.
We need more of that, not less. The success of our community depends upon it.
A 2103 report commissioned by the Macon Economic Development Commission noted: “K-12 education system is one of the largest and most important challenges in Macon-Bibb, and the issue is inseparable from larger issues of race and class.”