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COMMENTARY: Looking at school problems means looking at racism


EDITOR’S NOTE: This newspaper’s Path Forward project looking at challenges facing our region has been seeking community solutions and insights into three of the biggest issues facing our community: the opioid epidemic, building a stronger economy, and problems in the Dayton Public Schools.

Today on the front page, staff writer Josh Sweigart continues his examination of the Dayton schools with a story looking at how issues of race and poverty affect the district. Here, we offer views from several readers on the subject.

What do you think? Follow us on Facebook and see previous stories at DaytonDailyNews/ThePathForward. — RON ROLLINS, Community Impact Editor

Systemic racism is a cancer that has been metastasizing in our community since the 1800s, so before we ask “what’s wrong with Dayton Public Schools?” we need to recognize that our educational system isn’t the disease, but a symptom of that cancer. We’ve just been too busy fighting off ancillary infections to notice.

Today black children in the Dayton metropolitan area are nearly five times as likely to attend high-poverty schools than white children. Our public discourse around schools in this area seems to account for this, as well as the understanding that high-poverty schools are more likely to struggle in areas like test scores and attendance.

While we may acknowledge these facts, we fall short in developing public-policy remedies for them because we talk about them as if they are passive realities bearing no connection to human action. But policy created socio-economic disadvantages for black families — often intentionally — and our status quo continues to perpetuate these inequalities to the near-exclusive advantage of white families.

If we want to “fix” Dayton Public Schools, we must first properly analyze how we got here.

That story begins with housing discrimination.

When the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation conspired with local real estate experts in the 1930s to rate the economic desirability of neighborhoods in Dayton, the results predictably downgraded areas with significant black populations. This “redlining” — a federal weaponization of local racism — depresses real estate values and undermines black mobility to this very day.

As recently as 2016, black applicants in the Dayton region were still twice as likely as white counterparts with otherwise similar financial attributes to have their conventional mortgage applications denied, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

These numbers are not accidental. They are the outgrowth of policy and a highway corridor that has facilitated the transfer of wealth and opportunity to white suburbs. The part-time city commissioners who happen to be black are relatively powerless to reverse a century of discrimination, especially when our local institutions continue to breathe air into the headwinds of structural inequality.

University of Dayton President Eric Spina in a recent interview cited previous poor leadership, difficulty attracting talent, poor morale, and lack of community confidence as key obstacles facing Dayton Public Schools. His analysis tracks with how the conversation around our schools usually goes. Not once is he quoted in the interview talking about systemic segregation, however, and one immediately suspects why.

He presides over an institution with a black enrollment that’s hovering around 3 percent, a university where mostly wealthy white students and alumni casually refer to the off-campus housing area as “the ghetto,” and where a number of prominent leaders in this town earned their degrees.

But it’s unfair to single out Spina — whose commitment to inclusion and equality appears genuine — when his institution is not alone in representing mostly white interests. As you’re reading this, citizens are working hard to pull together the money to build a cooperative grocery store called the Gem City Market because grocery chains refuse to service the segregated west side of the city.

Just last month Premier Health closed northwest Dayton’s Good Samaritan Hospital, even as the infant mortality rate between white children and black children remains stubbornly and embarrassingly wide. There was a lot of talk about Premier’s sound business case for closing Good Sam, but not so much about the racist public policies going back decades that created the business case in the first place.

Food deserts. Hospital closings. Economic disinvestment. Yawning health disparities. This is the environment in which we’re asking our black children to go to school. If we were living in the South during the Jim Crow era, we rightly would refer to the cumulative nature of all this as white supremacy, but we’ve grown accustomed in the North to solely thinking about white supremacy as an uncomfortable sideshow featuring white sheets and tiki torches, even as Ohioans travel to participate in racist, murderous marches.

This cancer then, coiled grotesquely around the organs of our city, cannot be eradicated with handwashing or placebo-effect questions meant to distract, no matter how much more comfortable it would be to solve everything by “fixing” our schools alone.

“Schools must now be held accountable by citizens of the community through the political system,” the Ohio Department of Education’s lawyer said when in 2002 Dayton’s desegregation busing officially ended, foreshadowing the schools-blaming approach we’ve adopted since then. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators alone have been held solely responsible for the systemic segregation against which they are by design powerless to defend.

While we have tried several iterations of holding our schools accountable, we have yet to properly interrogate the banks, business development organizations, and local municipalities whose collective policies and agendas have driven white people and their money to mostly white suburbs, essentially ensuring white supremacy throughout several spheres of influence.

But what about solutions?

New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones reports that in 1988, the peak of this country’s efforts to desegregate also represented the narrowest the achievement gap between white and black students ever was. Today, the black-white achievement gap is largest in the most segregated schools. Desegregation worked around the country, in other words, until we decided that equality wasn’t worth the effort.

We should consolidate Montgomery County schools into one district such that Oakwood parents — who currently send their children to schools with an unconscionable 0.8 percent black population — must contend with the same school system as their neighbors just streets over to the north.

I’m certainly not the first person to float such a plan. Oakwood and Kettering parents in 1972 attended school board meetings to complain about the prospect of their children going to Dayton’s schools when the idea came up in a lawsuit. One suspects the same parental demographic would stand ready to protest any county consolidation plan.

A review of the historical archives isn’t necessary to find examples of white people doing whatever they can do to prevent their children from attending school with black students. Earlier this year predominantly white school districts brazenly realigned sports leagues with the sole purpose of removing predominantly black Trotwood. Losing to black children, it seems, proved too harsh a reality for suburban school leaders to stomach.

“Schools are segregated because white people want them that way,” Nikole Hannah-Jones told an interviewer last year. And so it is in Dayton.

Jason Harrison co-owns Present Tense Fitness, a personal training and yoga studio in Dayton’s Oregon District.



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