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We Shall Overcome

January 18, 2009

Goodwill flowed through the blocks-long crowd, united in a march for peace. I was in grade school and well remember holding a candle and singing “We Shall Overcome” over and over. I loved the flickering lights, the music, and an overwhelming feeling of belonging.

We went on several peace marches as a family, my father went to Selma to be a part of the final march to Montgomery, and our house filled with shock and grief with news of MLK’s assassination.  My younger brother, adopted as a 3-month old baby, is black. My classes in grade school and junior high were well integrated and my social life reflected it: my best friend’s mother made a chitterling dinner in my honor; my romantic crushes never obeyed race lines; and I’m sure that my friends and I, who loved to dance, were responsible for a huge portion of sales of Jackson 5 records.

I count these experiences among the many privileges my background (white, educated, social-activist family culture) has afforded me. And I count myself among the many, many people for whom the election of such an impressively smart, rational, strategic thinker as Barack Obama, our first black president, has personal meaning.

The setting for these experiences was the public school system in Evanston, IL. Evanston lies on Chicago’s northern boundary, along Lake Michigan’s shore. It is home to Northwestern University, huge homes, leafy streets, high taxes, and a black population that has shrunk in proportion to the increase in home values, which grew steeper after the city’s legalization of liquor sales in the mid-1970s (attracting more restaurants, retail, and business as a result).

Many years later, there are few issues that get my blood boiling as the inequities in public education. That the local tax base, determined by local property values, is what funds public schools is a form of apartheid I find utterly reprehensible. Families with means either move to a community with “good schools” (i.e. higher tax base) or send their children to private school. Come on people: this is how and where children are left behind!

Worse than tolerating it, unequal funding of public schools is an issue that barely makes it to the discussions on educational reform much less to candidates’ platforms. It’s invisible.  The default remedy is to leave it to community organizations, such as churches and committed non-profits, to step into the breach, often with funds that start out as tax dollars.

Such a system is not only perverse, but overwhelmingly inefficient. It costs more on the front end and the back end. American ingenuity is one thing, but without decent education to keep stoking opportunity, production, and innovation, getting out of our economic hole is going to be hard to do.

My friend and colleague, Clyde Prestowitz (listen to his comments on reversing the “Asia Makes, U.S. Takes” trend, Marketplace,1/16/09) recently conducted a study comparing the economic success of similarly sized countries. Among them were Ireland, Singapore, Taiwan, and Norway; because they differ in political and economic systems, he looked for other success-related factors shared by these countries. Clyde’s study yielded a significant finding: social cohesion accounts for a country’s economic and political stability more than any other factor.

Some countries come by this naturally, a result of a relatively homogenous ethnic population. This is especially true for Taiwan and Norway, and Ireland to a lesser degree (due to religious, not ethnic, conflicts). Singapore doesn’t fall in this category, however: with a population that’s 60% Chinese, 30% Malay, and 10% Indian, Singapore had the most to overcome.

With such a diverse population, social cohesion in Singapore was, instead, achieved through its education policy. Mandates for education in Singapore include an equal distribution of resources and quality of education among schools, courses are conducted in English and that, to discourage the formation of ethnic ghettos, each school’s demographic profile must reflect that of the general population (i.e. 60-30-10).

Given that Singapore is governed by dictatorship, and that every country faces a unique set of economic, political, geographic, and demographic conditions, Singapore’s policy is equally unique to its circumstances.

That said, America would be wise to borrow from the most important principle accounting for Singapore’s economic success: that social cohesion in an ethnically diverse country can be accomplished through equality in education.

Does social cohesion necessarily translate into socialism? It does only if you care what it’s called. The truth is that we have long lived in an economy that has both private and social investment in the mix, the proportions of which fluctuate according to conditions (increased private in good times, increased public in crisis, aka “Capitalism on the way up, Socialism on the way down”).

I don’t know how we can ensure private freedoms without ensuring structural integrity of the systems on which they depend. The most vital of these structures are the constructs of democracy, justice, and human rights, for which Americans are generally agreed.  It’s the more tangible aspects of public welfare, such as education, health care, housing, training, that stir ideological debate (who’s responsible, private, public, individual?) and have strangled both progress and access as a result.

Roads and bridges aren’t the only parts of our country’s infrastructure that need repair. The financial, health care, and educational crises are due to a lack of structural, as well as moral, integrity. Crises often call our better selves to lead; I wish President Obama every success in rebuilding these failed systems, and hope that we’ll be able to face and overcome inequities in public funding of public education as a part of those efforts.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2009 10:58 am

    I can tell that this is not the first time at all that you write about this topic. Why have you decided to touch it again?

  2. April 7, 2011 6:51 am

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