the elephant: a response

When I was in high school, a conversation gripped the entire school for a number of months. It concerned the issue of course leveling, which, more visibly, revealed itself to be an issue of race. Yet, as I delve further into my studies, I’m beginning to realize that very little in life has to do with solely race.

I have never experienced in the United States a place which is more simultaneously homogenous and heterogeneous as the land in which I was raised. New Jersey, that armpit of a state – how so little is known about the Garden State, the narrow strip of land between rivers which once cradled the young and ignorant youth of the American film industry, which has sustained the lives of two great American cities with its sweat and its anguish. How it reeks of both inequality and the promise of advancement, the city skyline – which is different depending on where you live – an image of all our dreams, of all our fantasies and all our fears. It is here that I found myself clutching towards a consciousness which is still underdeveloped and raw, and it is here, among the trees and the broken pavements, where my soul will likely be bound.

Because I am from New Jersey, I feel qualified to judge her, and to do so ruthlessly. For only a person from the armpit can truly know of the inner machinations therein, of the insidiousness of class conflict and the brutal visibility of race.

As I mentioned, a certain conversation gripped my school my junior year. A documentary was being put together by a man named Cris Thorne on the issue of the academic leveling system which the school district used to separate students based on their strengths and weaknesses. There were four levels; 5,(which at times was synonymous with AP), 4 (which meant Honors), 3 (which was designated as average) and 2 (which apparently gave students extra support). It became apparent a long time ago that this system was inherently race-based, for students in lower levels classes were nearly always Black or belonging to a minority group. At the same times, AP classes were stuffed with white students. I remember sitting in my AP English Language class in eleventh grade and counting the black faces. I believe there were about six of us, which was a pretty high number, although that number was meager in comparison to the twenty-something white faces. I, as usual, was one of two black boys, but this gender reality did not dawn on me until after I had graduated. At the same time, I was taking a journalism class which peaked my interest in writing, if only for a little while. This class was an honors class – if I can recall correctly – although there was no lower level alternative. In this class, I was also the only black boy.

One becomes aware of their uniqueness rather quickly, especially when one is constantly aware of the nature of one’s stigma. It did not take me long to become aware of the fact that I was of a minority – the minority of black men in higher-level classes – although I did nothing with this information, at least not until my senior year when I became involved in a youth empowerment program. I will talk about this program at another time, although it is essentially the same issue.

When the conversation about the leveling system began to cause a stir, Cris Thorne had already begun interviewing teachers and community members. Some students were interviewed and eager to give their testimonies. It quickly became popular thought that the leveling system was wrong and racist and that the machinations which existed to provide support to students who needed it were now failing. I, the permanent skeptic and rarely one to jump on bandwagons, picked the opposite side, partly because it was fun to debate with people, but also because I did not see the leveling system itself as wrong. In my mind, it was the hideous reality which the leveling system revealed which upset people, the fact that Black people had been promised equality and freedom which was never actualized, that in the twentieth century, institutionalized racism still was keeping black people behind.

I did not think it was wrong to create a system which gives students deemed “smarter” – although no one used this language out of fear of seeming crass – harder work in order to mold their minds, because in my mind, individuals simply existed. They were not molded by communities, by parents, by opportunities. They simply sprouted from nothingness and had to clutch whatever was in front of them. Raw grit, determination and that word I loved so much in high school, although now it seems almost meaningless – ambition. Now I realize how naive I was as guilt crystallizes into an ulcer in my stomach.

Yet, in watching “De-Leveling the System: Community Speaks” I’m realizing that the narrow-minded worldview that I had of the political spectrum of the United States, of New Jersey, was just as flawed as the way the interviewees chose to see it. One teacher even remarked that Maplewood and South Orange had not only a racial diversity, “but a cultural diversity, a religious diversity and a lifestyle diversity” although the form which likely affected the leveling system the most, other than the most visible kind which is that of race, was that of class – the elephant in the room which no one wanted to address, which everyone sort of shirked at, hoping that in doing so, it just might disappear.

It is so easy to notice the transition between class zones in New Jersey. One only needs to drive down South Orange Avenue to find how opulent neighborhoods become poorer and poorer as they penetrate the dark heart of Newark. It is not a soft transition, either. The races and the classes live next to one another for they depend on one another in a way which makes the rich sigh in humiliation and the poor seethe with rage. Even South Orange and Maplewood are not homogenous. There are pockets, be them small, where inequalities in class make a difference. It has even reached the level of a joke in Maplewood, with the three sections of town – Upper, middle and working – dwindled down into a crude joke told among school students; Maplegood, Maplewood, and Maplehood.

Although I’m in the process of acquiring a copy of this movie, what I’ve seen of “Community Speaks,” a short snippet of the film posted to Thorne’s Youtube page reveals a startling absence of a serious conversation on the issue of class in academia. Perhaps it is the environment which I am in now which makes me almost paranoid in my vigilance of these kinds of transgressions, but still it is an issue which is so often ignored, especially in places where class is the unspoken truth of the land. None of the interviewees seem to be engaged with the issue of class stratification, for none of the interviewees are likely asked this question. I am skeptical to think that a person holding a PhD in sociology would ignore the relevance of class in academia, which is why I am skeptical to dismiss the response of the interviewees in such a manner. Therefore I turn towards the hidden mouthpiece which is guiding the responses which the interviewees give to the camera – the unseen hand.

DuBois said that the issue of the twentieth century would be the issue of race when he penned Souls of Black Folk a century agoand he was indeed right. Both World Wars, the mass killing of European Jews, the Roma and other non-Aryan persons, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War and its auxiliary colored skirmishes and the liberation of the world’s once-colonized nations all concerned themselves with the pseudoscience of race which the 19th century held as its shimmering glory. Race; how that word is so powerful in its meaninglessness, how it says so much without saying anything at all. Although I am hardly saying we live in a post-race world – that’s actually the opposite of what I’m saying – it is meaningless and counterproductive for us to have any discourse on race without taking into consideration the other factors which complicate our understanding of race. Many of the racial constructs which served in prior generations to impede the progress of African-Americans have given way to the strengthening of a prominent and influential black bourgeoisie, the likes of which now complicates the American interpretation of African-Americans which persists from the 19th century. Images like Jim Crow and Zip Coon hardly apply to this industrious group of African-Americans – to which my family belongs and into which I was born – for this group transcends every notion of blackness which is launched against them. It becomes apparent that this group lacks something essentially black – which, for many, makes them white. This border-straddling image is conjured because we are looking at this picture strictly through a racial lens.

When we take class into consideration, our Venn Diagram of race becomes far more complex. The history of race becomes a history of class at Emancipation. I will not bore you with this, for I am not qualified to tell you about it, but I can tell you that this issue does not become resolved for a great number of African-Americans until the middle of the next century, nearly a hundred years post-Emancipation when Black students are finally being admitted to white institutions. [*] Having a college education was the necessary step which allowed millions of African-Americans, my parents included, to go up a class and to make more money than their parents ever had. With this comes new opportunities, many of which are bequeathed to black children who are now being raised in middle-class environments, most of which, at least in New Jersey, are predominantly white. Yet, not everyone in New Jersey is college-educated. There are pockets of varying sizes of working-class families sprinkled about the map, and these pockets bring with them the diversity which gives New Jersey its ethnic flair. Here we find various assortments of colored folk; Vietnamese, Filipino, Nigerian, Congolese, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican – the list of ethnicities and nationalities continues in these multilingual, multicultural communities as people from different continents live together in the poorer sections of what is a relatively opportunistic place to live. Yet, these are the people who strike fear into the hearts of the richer masses, for they see in these people a new problem that no one seems to have the language or the gusto to address.

A family friend once told me when he worked at my high school that the difference between students who struggled in classes and students who excelled often had to do with how much money their parents made and how many resources they could afford to give to their children. These resources vary from hiring a tutor to help make a B+ in Algebra II into an A, or putting someone through SAT prep. And this comes with the territory of class; it is within a parent’s interest to provide for their child the best possible upbringing and education at their disposal, and the more money you make, the more, it seems, you are able to do. When I needed to take SAT prep, my mother found the money to send me, and found the money to buy me additional books which I leafed through with ennui. Other kids did not have this luxury, barely had the knowledge to know that college was a possibility, let alone that they should take their SAT. And this is not because these students are stupid, as some of my peers may have remarked, if under their breath. It was because our society expected little of them because they had not worked hard enough, because their parents had not done enough. It was because these students often knew few people who had gone on to university, and because the notion of college seemed far, that dream became so faint that it disappeared. Some of the kids in my year had no idea if they would even pass the state-mandated tests to graduate, and were simply focused on getting out, not going up.

What becomes evident, at least to me, is that these were the kids I did not see outside of school because they lived in parts of town which my parents told me to avoid. They lived in Maplehood, where one could barely distinguish between the affluent suburb of Maplewood and the larger, blacker city of Irvington, or they lived on that scruff of land at the very edge of glimmering South Orange and brooding Newark. I hardly saw these kids because we were separated by class, despite us being of the same race. I expected to have some sort of shared bond, some kind of mutual loathing for whitey which did not translate. I believed I was looking at a brother, but the person in front of me only saw a white person with dark skin and woolly hair.

In our ascent towards the promised land of racial equality and prosperity, we must not blind ourselves to the ways that class serves just as insidiously as a race as a means to divide and conquer. It is the issue of class which will drive us into the United States of the future as we begin to see the unfolding of this capitalist dream of ours. Race may not remain as the primary indicator of one’s opportunities in the twenty-first century, but it will nevertheless remain a visible marker which easily conveys essential social information about individuals. Class, however, will be the issue which undercuts all conversations and we cannot fall into the trap of allowing that elephant to go undiscussed.

I am waiting to hear back from Cris Thorne about De-Leveling the System, which I’ve been interested in watching for years now, although I’ve never had the chance. I have since changed my opinions about leveling in general, believing that the system is more flawed than can be fixed, although I’m now removed from the issue, being two years out of high school now. Yet, every time I go back, I am reminded again of my home, of my patrie, and how its image is distorted by the lies it chooses to tell itself. I only hope that if I choose to live there, I will not be consumed by this unspoken rule as it has consumed everyone else around me, that my black collegiate radicalism will not die down to reveal nothing more than the pale flame of what once was as I, too, turn my head and refuse to speak.

Notes

* When schools discuss diversity, it should always be noted that most of these schools were willingly homogenous prior to their great humanitarian urge to “diversify.” So if you have a student center named after the first Black student to attend [——–] University, remember that that was the first Black student that the administration allowed to go there. 

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