The Ballot and the Bullet

Today is the 86th birthday of Malcolm X, an occasion that in some ways would hardly seem connected to the meeting I attended this past Saturday on the deplorable state of black students in Los Angeles Unified School District. Malcolm, though an eloquent speaker and an international figure, was fundamentally a brother schooled by mean streets who had little faith in the black middle class to effect change for the black masses. The fifty or so folks who gathered at the Southside Bethel A.M.E. for the town hall last week were largely bureaucrats, consultants and professionals; there were some parents in that number, though they were fairly white-collar as well. Let's just say that the black community around San Pedro and 104th Street where Southside is located, the ground zero of South Central, wasn't exactly represented at this meeting.

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But that was exactly what I found encouraging. This ongoing effort by black people of relative means and influence to make public education a cause for all feels like an effort to seriously tackle the geographic and cultural gap between black haves and have-nots that exists everywhere, but that feels particularly aggravated in L.A., a city practically built on notions of separation. The state-of-the-black-student meetings that began last year has also offered a rare opportunity to unify the sometimes fractious black middle class organizations and nonprofits. Eric Lee, director of the L.A. chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a recent candidate for L.A. school board, spearheads the meetings that include representatives from the local chapters of the NAACP and Urban League, among others.

The meetings themselves have evolved into an entirely new group, the Coalition for Black Student Equity, an umbrella for all the groups mentioned above, plus pretty much anyone serious about helping to reverse the downward, or at best static, trend of poor black student performance in LAUSD. (Full disclosure: I'm a coalition member.) Speakers at the last meeting featured the founders of an exemplary charter school geared for black students that operates in Westchester, and new LAUSD chief John Deasy. Nobody took slightest issue with the notion that black students are in crisis and that something must be done now.

Of course, this is not a new issue--the miseducation of black students has been going on officially since 1954, when, ironically, the Brown Vs. Board of Education decision was supposed to start reversing all that. It didn't. Which leaves the black middle class in 2011 with a stark choice of re-igniting the cause or accepting the fact that in order to educate their own children they have to go well outside the black community to a chiefly white (or significantly non-black) one, or pay through the nose at some private school. There's also the sobering realization that without this kind of focused agitation, black students will continue to be consigned to the bottom of the statistics in terms of grades, API scores, special education, discipline and just about everything else that matters in school. This bodes ominously for the future of everybody black, whether they live in Baldwin Hills or at San Pedro and 104th.

One thing Malcolm X said over and over was that in order for blacks to build unity with anyone else--that is, in order to successfully integrate into America--they had to first build unity amongst each other. That was a radical, even anti-white idea in its day, but now it just looks like common sense. If blacks don't use that common sense, no one else will. Certainly not the students who, thanks to our negligence, continue to fail to learn what they need to know.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The photo on this post is by Flickr user St Stev. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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