Our unincorporated community in Northern California has been economically depressed (though culturally rich) for decades. We have struggled just to get sidewalks and streetlights on our main street.
Within the last year, two wealthy individuals have bought up a lot of real estate on the commercial strip. They’re planning new development, in the process helping to address our affordable housing crisis. They also respect the history of our area. I’m an artist and historian, and they’ve asked me to be involved in bringing art and history into the proposed project.
Then someone learned that one of these rich folks made homophobic, anti-marriage-equality Facebook posts and that their business partner was backing a Tea Party group. Outrage blossomed on social media, with many vowing to boycott their businesses.
I worry that a boycott would hurt the locals who work for them. Additionally, the investors are making a commitment to the area that no one else has. This situation is a stark example of the effects of wealth concentration. We are being all but forced to accept the capitalists’ abhorrent views in order to receive the benefit of their wealth. Is a community boycott the best way to react? What else could we do?
Hold a town meeting and abide by whatever is decided there. If the businesses are national or global, your community may be too small to have an impact through a boycott. What about a commercial rent strike on these investors’ main street properties until they apologize for the homophobic Facebook posts and cease funding Tea Party organizations? A labor strike involving anyone who works for them—that includes you—could strengthen this effort. But if people decide not to jeopardize the investment, that’s also reasonable. One problem with capitalism is that when the 99 percent lack leverage, capital flight may be too costly to risk.
Our school district (28, in the New York City borough of Queens) is embarking on a diversity plan, and I am confident that as a result, we will be enrolling our children in private school or moving to the suburbs. In my heart, I understand and believe in the goals of such plans. I feel strongly that all children deserve access to a top-tier education. But for our family, it would not be realistic to have my child take a 45-plus-minute bus ride in the opposite direction of our jobs for a school that has a lower rating than the one a few blocks from our home. For the first time, my progressive values conflict with my family’s best interests, and that is unsettling. If our desegregation plan is similar to the one recently adopted in District 15 (in Brooklyn), a large percentage of seats (over 60 percent) in each middle school will be reserved for families classified as low income, living in temporary housing, or English language learners. Those are not good odds for my family. In our area, many lack access to subways. Our neighborhood has mostly dual-career households; both parents have to get to work on time, and they rely on access to local after-school care. How can we be expected to embrace a change that will cause logistical mayhem? How do we move forward?
There is no plan in your district yet! “There is a lot of misinformation and hysteria,” says Vijah Ramjattan, the president of your local Community Education Council. The district has a $200,000 grant from the city to create a diversity working group, which will spend about two years holding meetings with parents, students, teachers, principals, and all affected community members on questions of diversity and integration in the district. The working group doesn’t exist yet, though it may by early November. Its meetings will be held several times a month; times and dates will be announced on the CEC’s website. After all this listening, the group will make recommendations. Solutions might indeed emerge from this process, but it will be a long process, and you’ll have plenty of input.
I would urge you to go to the meetings. If you don’t think the CEC is doing enough to get the word out, let its members know that.
You should support integration. New York City’s schools are among the most segregated in the nation. Going to diverse schools increases everyone’s social intelligence; in this respect, it’s as good for rich kids or white kids as for anyone else. In an unequal system, with some people’s schools better than others, segregation is a kind of resource hoarding by the privileged, and desegregating schools is redistributive. All parents want the best for their kids. We have to fight to expand the pie and redistribute the pieces at the same time. Government desegregation policies significantly reduce the black-white test score gap without harming white kids’ achievement, and no other reform does this, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has written. Such policies also boost outcomes for black kids in ways far more important than test scores: less poverty, less incarceration, and longer lives.
With such stakes, it seems OK to inconvenience some people. And if your district does take action on segregation, the impact on your family may not be what you imagine. If District 28 ends up with a plan similar to District 15’s—and we have no idea whether it will—your kids might end up less likely to attend your zoned middle school than they are at present. But keep in mind, you’d list only schools that you want on your application and might well get something else that’s acceptable to you. Remember, too, that middle school kids in New York City can use public transit to get themselves to and from school and after-school activities, so your work locations don’t necessarily matter. (Although the specter of busing haunts these debates, long commutes to school are common in New York City not because of desegregation policies but because of school choice.) The middle school process in the city has an appeal period, so if your kids are placed in schools that are unreasonably far away, don’t despair. Reforms can—and should—undermine privilege, but they don’t take away your ability to advocate insistently for your kids. No one’s asking you to give that up.
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