Thursday, August 22, 2013

The March on Washington, Racism and Education in Philadelphia

The following is an address I gave on Thursday, August 22 at the POWER Forum on "Philadelphia in Crisis: Race,Education and Economics. POWER is a network of 41 congregations in Philadelphia that have come together working on issue of economic justice, immigration and public education.

March on Washington
We gather tonight at the nexus of conflicting realities. Our public school system is in crisis, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Students, parents and teachers are caught up in a chaos of uncertainty.  Residents of our city struggle with poverty and joblessness. While the police commissioner says that homicides are down, there is still way too much violence on our streets. These are the grim realities that many of us face and all of us live with.

Yet this Saturday, my wife and I, along with what is expected to be 100,000 other people, are going to gather on the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place on April 28, 1963. The March was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, head of the Pullman Porters Union, and was first proposed in 1941. On that day an estimated 200,000 people gathered from communities across the country on that sweltering August day that is most often remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which he proclaimed that they had come there to cash in a promissory note at the bank of justice.

I was only ten years old when that march occurred and was living in an all-white Midwestern suburb where the Civil Rights movement seemed something far removed from my family’s life. However, today I realize that what Randolph, John Lewis, Dr. King and the others who were speaking about was essential to the well-being of all Americans. And so I am going to pay tribute to that original vision, and reaffirm my commitment to work to help realize the Beloved Community that Dr. King so often spoke about. That’s what POWER is about, and why are so concerned about the struggles of people in our own city.

Goals of the Original March
For a few moments I want to look back at the original March on Washington and the goals that brought folks there. They were as follows:

-            - a comprehensive civil rights bill,
-            - legislation to protect the right to vote,
-           -  a $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide,
-            - desegregation of all public schools,

What came of their efforts?
-        They got a Civil Rights Act  of 1964; but through legislation like the Patriot Act we have seen those rights eroded.

-        They got the Voting Rights Act of 1965; but just a few months ago the Supreme Court gutted the provisions that required the states to get federal government approval for changes that might disadvantage certain groups of their citizens; and so even here in PA we are fighting Voter ID laws specifically designed to disenfranchise poor and senor voters and voters of color.

-        When they marched, the minimum wage was $1.15/hr. and it was raised $1.25. Which doesn’t seem like much but that would translate to $9.54/hr. today. $2 would have equaled $15.27 today. Today our minimum wage is $7.25/hr.

To further put things in perspective, unemployment among African Americans is higher today than it was in 1963. In 1963 it was 10.9%, today it is 12.6%, and we know that roughly 25% our citizens in Philadelphia, working or not, live below the poverty line.

So, while much has changed for the better since 1963, it must be put in perspective.  Many of the gains that were made then have been eroded or lost. This is why organizations like POWER are so important; the struggle for justice is never done. As Frederick Douglass reminded us 175 years ago, those in positions of authority never relinquish their power without a fight and a struggle; that is what we in POWER are engaged in.

However, I want to speak specifically about education.

The March  also called for the desegregation of schools because even though the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation it have given states the freedom to decide when and how they would desegregate; Most states did nothing. For instance, I went to Boston in 1971 and they were just beginning to desegregate schools then.

Not much has changed on that score. Just because a law is in place, does not mean it will get enforced. For instance, the PA constitution requires the state government to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” What we have been experiencing is anything but thorough and efficient, and if they were offering maintenance and support, would we be in this position?” Sometimes OUR JOB is simply to get the political establishment to do ITS JOB.

The rationale for fighting so hard for desegregation in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s was not just so black and white kids would go to school together. No, those in the NAACP and others who fought for desegregation realized the only way that black kids would get access to same resources  as white kids  was by being in the same schools with them.  Then and now desegregation was about ACCESS and RESOURCES.

When we look at what is happening to our schools here in Philadelphia we see that our system  discriminates against students of color and poor kids of all colors;  that it denies them the access and resources they are entitled to by LAW. What we are looking at the effects of a system that is racist and economically unjust.

Institutional Racism
Let me pause here and say a couple things about racism.

First of all, when people think about racism they think about overtly racist acts or statements like George Zimmerman’s profiling of Trayvon Martin or Riley Cooper’s statements that have gotten so much press. But when you are talking about something like the Philadelphia school system, we are talking about what Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Ture) called “institutional racism.” People see a black school superintendent, a black mayor, a black City Council president, and Asian and Hispanic leaders in both the educational and political roles; so how can it be racist? Well maybe it’s because Governor Corbett is white – and he won’t authorize funds – is that why it’s racist? Not exactly.

In the courses I teach on racism I tell my students that when talking about institutional or systemic racism we need to distinguish between intent and impact. It does not matter what a person or a government or school system intends to do, it’s the impact of what it does that really matters.

So for instance, in the issue of school closings we look at impact. These decisions were made by a black superintendent – how could it be a racist decision? Look at the impact. According to one report I saw, black students make up 58% of the students in the school system, but make up 81% of the students affected by the school closings. White students make up 14% of the students in the system, but only 4% of students affected by closings are white.  We don’t need to know what Dr. Hite and the SRC intended in the decisions they made, we just look at the impact.

So first when talking about racism we need to look at impact not intent.

The second thing about racism is that we can’t talk about in isolation from other forms of discrimination.  When we look at the way public education is funded we need to take this into account. Racial segregation is important to note but it become much more critical when we see it linked to  what I call economic segregation. This dual form of segregation is evident in the way we have established communities in our wider metro area and the way schools are funded.

Example of Institutional Racism
One of the examples I often think of in this regard is a comparison of Overbrook High School and Lower Merion High School. The schools are less than 4 miles and 10 minutes apart on the map, but they exist in different worlds when it comes to education.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2012 the average funding per student in Lower Merion was $21, 399. In Philadelphia (of which Overbrook is a part) the average funding per student was $11,078. That’s a difference of $10,000 per student. In practical terms that means students in Lower Merion have smaller class sizes, more technology in the classroom, more highly trained teachers, overall newer facilities, larger and more contemporary collections in their libraries and an overall higher quality educational experience.
PA Dept. of Ed  reports that in 2012, Lower Merion HS had 98% of the students entered 9th grade graduate; By contrast, only 56% of the ninth grade students of Overbrook graduated.

Racism, mixed with economic discrimination spells segregation of another kind.

This why on the POWER Education Team we have been researching fair funding formulas for the State of PA. Pennsylvania is one of only 3 states in the US that doesn’t use some fair funding formula. As compared to other states PA depends most heavily on local property taxes to fund their schools. This is why Lower Merion ends up so much more per student – they have higher property values and even though their tax rate is lower than Philadelphia, the amount of money they take in is much higher.

And while money is not the only issue, it does translate (as we can see) to higher rates of success.

The Importance of Education and Despair
Why this is important is because we know that there is a correlation between getting a high school diploma and success and other areas of life.

There is a correlation between...
-                                   Dropping out of high school and joblessness
-                                  Dropping out and amount of income one can make in their lifetime
-                                  Dropping out and violence
-                                  Dropping out and incarceration

The reason we must address this issue of education is because so much else hinges on the kids in our school system getting a fair shot at making it in life.

Now one of things we need to remind ourselves is that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. In other words just because two things happen at the same time, that does not mean they necessarily caused the other. For instance,  dropping out of school does not necessarily cause joblessness, or poverty or violence. Often when you see correlations like this there is a third factor causing both. And I think the cause for both dropping out and the other social problems is despair.

At its root in POWER we are battling despair, people just giving up and throwing in the towel.
-        Its why it’s so important we partner with groups like PSU and YUC who motivate students to advocate for their own education

-        Why it’s important that we organize parents, so they realize they are not alone, when they stand up to principals, administrators and politicians and demand a quality education for their kids

-        Why this fight for education is going to be long and hard, and We MUST WIN.

New Vision
Once we get the funding solved, and WE WILL, our job is not finished.  The racism we are facing is multi-faceted and multi-layered and requires a long, committed struggle. Down the road we will need to to look at what’s happening with charters, the privatization of the public schools,  curriculum, teacher training and innovative ways of doing education for specialized learners. More than that we need a vision of what the Philadelphia School System can and must be.

Dr. King inspired the people 50 years with his vision of a dream. We need to help the students, parents, teachers and administrators of PSD develop a vision beyond just surviving and keeping schools open. We need a  dream of quality education that can pull us forward. Then and only then will we live out the legacy Dr. King left us 50 years ago, a dream toward which we are still reaching.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

From Guns Into Bicycles

On a cold January afternoon four and a half years ago, I was arrested along with seven others for sitting down and blocking the entrance to Colisimo’s Gun Store on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. Over the course of two days twelve people in all were arrested for civil disobedience; another 300 or so rallied outside the store. At the time Colisimo's was believed to be the fifth largest source of illegal guns in the country, and the major source of illegal guns in the Philadelphia metropolitan area through the process known as straw purchasing. Straw purchasing involves a person with no criminal record buying guns on behalf of someone else who pays them for their services and then turns around and sells those guns on the street where they cannot be traced. Straw purchasing is the major source of guns used in most street crimes and is a major problem in communities with high rates of gun violence. (See my description of the event at this link.)

Members of the group that came to known as Heeding God’s Call approached Mr. Colisimo on three different occasions asking him to sign the Responsible Firearms Retailer Code of Conduct developed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns; three times he refused. In our action against the store we still sought to get Mr. Colisimo to sign the Code; in fact I had a copy of the Code in my pocket when I was arrested. All to no avail.

For nearly nine months, two times a week following this action members of Heeding God’s Call picketed in front of the store. The twelve who were arrested were charged with criminal trespass but were acquitted in a highly publicized trial. Yet guns kept being sold at the store. Several of us were in the process strategizing ways we might “up the ante” on Mr. Colisimo, when we received news that the U.S. Attorney Office had charged Mr. Colisimo with making false statements and failing to keep accurate records; eventually his license was revoked and his shop closed. As I wrote at the time, the action seemed like a vindication and affirmation of all the work we had done in the previous year. Heeding God’s Call has gone on to witness in front of other guns shops in Philadelphia continuing to call attention to practice of straw purchasing.

One disappointment in the Colisimo’s story was that when the store space was reopened, it opened as another gun shop under a new name. So while we had put a nefarious dealer out of business, we had not reduced the number of gun shops in the area.

So imagine my excitement when Kristyn Komarnicki, my friend and the editor of PRISM magazine, sent me an article indicating that the space formerly occupied by Colisimo’s had become a bike shop: Firth and Wilson Transport Cycles! See the article at this link.  I was so excited that I had to see for myself, so I visited the shop and spoke with the co- owner David Wilson. After introducing myself, I thanked him for being in the space and then briefly related my story.

Because the employees of Colisimo’s had locked the door when I and the others came that cold January day, I had never actually been in the shop. Today it is a long space with bikes out front and against the wall and a repair area in the back. David told me they specialize in transport cycles, that is, bikes that can be used to get around the city, transport children and generally be used in place of a car. They also have a shop in Fishtown where they build custom-made bikes of all kinds. They opened on June 1 and because it has been so rainy this summer, business has been a bit slow but is beginning to pick up.

He was aware of the shop’s previous history, and informed me that he actually rents from Mr. Colisimo. There is a special irony in knowing Mr. Colisimo is still indirectly involved. The prophets Isaiah and Micah speak of a day when people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” In spite of himself Mr. Colisimo, with the help of Firth and Wilson has transformed his guns into bicycles.

If you live in the Philadelphia area I encourage you to take a trip to 933 Spring Garden Street, stop in the shop, say thank you, and if need be purchase a bike or a bike accessory. I think I may go back and get a Firth and Wilson bike shirt, as a reminder that God has a sense of humor, and that faith and hard work can give us glimpse of the beloved community we all long for.