Saturday, April 25, 2009

What We Can Learn about the History of Education, Race Relations, and the South with the Baltimore Ravens Draft of Michael Oher

There's much to be said about the Ravens's first-round pick of Michael Oher. They had valued him as a top-15 selection, so when he slid to the 20s, the team--always looking for the best value--snatched him up. The team's logic in picking Oher rather than, say, a much needed wide receiver, would probably sound something like: without a solid offensive line, a first class wide receiver (like the QB who throws to him) is a wasted commodity.

But there's a lot more to this pick than simply shoring up the left side of the offensive line. Oher was the subject of a long 2006 article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times magazine, which was subsequently turned into a book, which is subsequently being turned into a movie starring Sandra Bullock(!) and Tim McGraw(!!). Given that Lewis is probably the best narrative craftsman in journalism today, it's no surprise that the story comes off incredibly engrossing. But it probably would be without Lewis. Little is known about Oher's childhood other than that his mother was a crack addict, that his father ended up shot dead and thrown over a bridge, and that he probably didn't attend the Memphis Public Schools for more than 1/3 or so of the time he should have been there. He was the kind of kid Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society was worried about: someone in desparate need of early childhood intervention. He didn't get it. As a result, his intellectual skills atrophied. He scored abysmally low on intelligence tests. He was a homeless teenager.

To fill in how Oher went from this to being a NFL millionaire, read the Lewis piece in full. While the story is rightly about Oher, what caught my eye was the school where he eventually landed: Briarcrest Christian School, in E. Memphis. Lewis mentions that Briarcrest is almost exclusively white and that the woman who eventually took Oher in and raised him was herself an alumnus of the school, having been sent there by her racist father in 1973 after the courts ordered the Memphis public schools to desegregate.

It's implicit in the article, but Lewis never outrightly says it (perhaps because he established a certain relationship with the school): Briarcrest was almost certainly a "segregation academy." It, like many other private (largely Christian) schools in the South, was founded in the early 1970s as a response to the inevitability of desegreation. As a bit of background: from the moment of the Brown decision, many Southern politicians drew up plans to create state-sponsored ("voucher") private schools for whites to enroll in en masse that could enforce segregation in ways that the public schools could not. For a variety of reasons, these plans in state after state fell through, leaving it to local communities to form private academies where, just like a country club, they could exclude blacks.

But the interesting story here is not that oh my God the South was really racist, though that certainly was the case. The story, I think, is about how the South is trying desparately to change. That, in some sense, is what Lewis's article is about: a white, upper class southern family (driving pick-up trucks, voting Republican, sending their kid to a private Christian school) who is actively trying to get poor black kids from Memphis into the Briarcrests of the world. My understanding is that the number of African Americans attending these former "segregation academies" in the south is rising rather dramatically. At the History of Education conference I attended this past Fall, a couple of African American graduate students presented on the history of these institutions, and at least one of them was an alumnus of them. Private schools can be very exclusive or very inclusive, depending on the time and place. If Oher's story (and the movie, set to come out in two years) continues to grab attention, I imagine this won't be the last time we hear about Briarcrest and what it represents. I'm wondering if my understanding of this seems somewhat accurate to those who share a more intimate relationship with this world than do I.


Blogger scantron said...

I skimmed the Lewis article for context, so maybe I missed some of the nuances he picked out, but my view of the situation is considerably dim.

The Sheriff and I are arguably well placed to talk about the Memphis school scene, or at least the private East Memphis schools operating outside of the public system.

The unofficial view of Briarcrest disseminated throughout our high school was that they were dumb fundamentalist Christians who couldn't cut it at our own school. This view was bolstered by the non-negligible number of guys who dropped out of our school to attend Briarcrest. You have to understand, though, that this was all comparative: our hs was overwhelmingly Christian, often in ways that would seem obviously reactionary to many people, but in our own eyes (I say "our own" out of convenience) we hit the right balance. To look at the two schools objectively, according to demography, income, etc, they're largely indistinguishable, except perhaps our school aimed for higher and better college enrollment. The narcissism of minor differences, etc etc.

As for Michael Oher, there is definitely a lot to like about this story. In the long run, a life that was potentially ruined is now the picture of success (the usual worries about professional athletes post-career notwithstanding). The family that took him in is no doubt admirable. However, I don't know how much it tells us about the admirability of the whole Memphis school system, or about how this situation will positively affect the course of things. My feeling is that there are unfortunately several factors that could retard progress.

To make things shorter, the word I'm grasping after is "tokenism." My high school had a few black students as well. There was and is, as far as I know, a scholarship program to help recruit students who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity. (There were definitely black students whose parents were affluent and could afford good educations for their kids, too.)

To use the example from my own class, our one black student is now MIA and may or may not be a drug addict (the Sheriff perhaps knows the details better). He was always an outsider in high school, although he certainly had friends. His situation as our lone black student did not go unremarked. Popular kids called him "Ja-mez" (real name James) or "Jameses." After high school he enrolled in the military, but dropped out for the aforementioned drug reasons, as far as I know. Now, it's possible that his story would have turned out as it did even if he was white, but somehow I doubt it.

One thing making the situation hard for him at my high school would have been its contradictory stance on African Americans. On the one hand, it was official policy that outright racism wouldn't be tolerated, in the sense that no one could assume any longer that blacks were naturally inferior, essentially stupid, whatever. What you find in the post-segregation South, however, is this view existing comfortably beside the notion that everything about blacks and black culture (in their current incarnations) is wrong, unsuccessful, and their own fault. So the point is to pity individual blacks and confirm, in a "Pygmalion" sort of way, one's hypothesis that they are not genetically inferior by giving individuals the opportunities of affluent whites. Thus the assumption becomes that blacks *need not* be lazy, uneducated, and criminal, but that they currently are. You genuflect towards the Civil Rights movement, going so far, if you're our principal, as to awkwardly sing "We Shall Overcome" onstage with aged civil rights leaders, but in the meantime joke about throwing bus tokens at less affluent black spectators at sports games.

The results of "social experiments" like that of Michael Oher, therefore, would seem to be an emphasis on individual charitable giving and private initiative. These people have long given up on the Memphis public school system. The public/private, inner city/east Memphis divide is still de facto segregated, aside from a few exceptions like White Station High School. The more selfless people like the Tuohys help people like Michael Oher, the more they will bolster their case that government help and public spending is worthless and that the best we can hope for is private charity. Nevermind that such a system could never come anywhere close to creating equality of educational opportunity; the point is that that many more inner city kids will succeed thanks to the private initiative than by the currently existing public system. Again, that is not to denigrate the selflessness of the Tuohys, but that is where it would seem to lead us.

I don't know the numbers for black enrollment in the Memphis private school system. Maybe you could forward some my way.

The other corrective I would supply to the picture would be to say that for every Michael Oher story, there is also a story somewhere (if not several) about a tireless public school official who bootstrapped a low-performing kid into higher education and college. For Briarcrest a student like Oher is an exception and ultimately an accomplishment. For the Memphis public school system it's a daily reality. Of course you know that, but the point is that the exceptional cases become stories in the New York Times and the daily routine goes unreported.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Interesting stuff. I think that's very well put. Nothing I would disagree with. I'm certainly not celebrating this story as the kind of structural changes that will lift poor African Americans out of poverty. Far from it. Who knows what Michael Oher's career options would be if he wasn't born with incredible physical attributes. He very well could have ended up like the individual you mention.

I spoke with the Sheriff earlier and he made a similar point re: tokenism, to which I'll respond in two ways. First, of course it's tokenism. Given the structural inequalities of American society, private schools can only take token actions toward socio-economic inclusiveness. I would hope that fact is not lost on anyone. Second, however, is that I'd say that we should not prima facie dismiss the story, both because it's a growing tokenism (I'm still looking for the statistics on this, but I know they're out there), and because it's symbolically an interesting development given the origins of these private institutions as sites designed to literally segregate by race.

I should also say that the 'We Shall Overcome" story is one of my favorites.

2:28 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Robot, I don't know if i'd use the word toeknism. Surely, this is tokenism at it's best (worst?) but at the same time it isn't that Oher is a token exception to what happens to the vast majority of blacks in this country, but rather that he is a perfect example of the mythology of American individualistic success. Even if we paired every single struggling minority youth with a selfless, charitable person, the system would still be no better as it would still rest on the somewhat paternalistic assumptions of charity, and the more dangerous voluntarism of the same. I think Scantron was pointing towards this end of the argument and made a good point of it.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

It was Scantron's word, I swear!

6:00 PM  
Blogger scantron said...

Oh yeah, I didn't think we would have many differences really, Robot, I just thought I'd fill in what we both assume to be true with a personal experience (and an appropriate one, considering it's Memphis) that would seem to confirm the picture.

The Sheriff is right, too, I was talking about the big-picture consequences of tokenism; I think that picture will continue to be true even as these sorts of Oher situations increase in frequency, interesting as they are.

I think my main point was that a decrease in straight-up racism may be occurring in the South, but there are still many cultural assumptions and institutional tendencies that won't help the general black population, outside of a tiny sliver of lucky kids, and that this kind of privatization will make it worse.

9:05 PM  

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