The man leaned out over the podium, looking at the robed students
seated in the first rows of the auditorium.
"You're multicultural with different lifestyles and beliefs," he said,
"and together, you represent the face of America."
Those words could have come from the mouth of another of this
weekend's commencement speakers, President Barack Obama. The President
has made multiculturalism as American as apple pie, and invested what
used to be fraught cultural territory with a sense of shared destiny.
In this case, though, I was listening to Dr. John Ruffin of the
National Institutes of Health address the 25th graduating class of
Morehouse Medical School, which includes my cousin.
The medical school is affiliated with Morehouse College, a
historically black male undergraduate institution founded after the
Civil War. Yet though the majority of students and families were black
American, other families helping to robe the newly-minted doctors
included women in saris or wearing Muslim headscarves; mothers and
fathers in lavish matching garb from West Africa; parents with the
last name Chen or Rodriguez; and families from our nation's racial
majority for another three decades, plus or minus: white Americans.
Just a decade ago, America was in denial about our rapidly changing
racial and cultural landscape. The U.S. Census had released
projections that by the year 2050, America would have no racial
majority. Today, they've moved that projected date up to 2042.
Some people think that having a black President means we can afford to
put away the topic of race altogether. That complacency, combined with
our current economic crisis, could put the lives and futures of
students at risk. Education is what turns the American Dream into the
American Reality. And education is in deep trouble, not just as a
thing-in-itself, but as an indicator of our racial future.
As Dr. Ruffin called on these young doctors to end health disparities,
I flashed back to experiences I'd had a decade ago reporting a book
called The Color of Our Future. For two years, I crisscrossed
America from the Crow reservation in Montana to the Georgia/Florida
line, to get teens' take on the role of race in their lives. Many of
them struggled to reconcile the fact that the deck was stacked against
them -- because of race, income, immigration status, and more -- with
their own righteous belief that they could break through the barriers
and fulfill their dreams.
The Media Academy at Fremont High School in Oakland put those
struggles in plain sight. It lies on a street filled with idling day
laborers, and operates out of worn trailers or "portables" over a
decade old. But it has a track record of doing big things with tough
or educationally challenged kids.
Earlier this year, I brought graduate students from the journalism
school at The University of California, Berkeley, to meet the teens at
Fremont High. The grad students were a mix of races, themselves; but
the Fremont students included immigrants from several countries
including Vietnam and El Salvador as well as black students born in
the neighborhood. As was true a decade ago, the high school was what I
call ABW -- Anything But White.
We talked about media, education funding cuts and local school
closures (which one brave Fremont student was investigating, much to
the consternation of some officials), plus issues including the
economy and the fatal shooting of a cuffed man by transit police on
New Year's day. A mix of student and professional crews videotaped the
event so we could leave some record of who we were and what are
struggling with in our time.
In another environment, many of these kids would be tracked
low-achieving or low-literacy and put on the back burner of society.
Instead, this graduation season brings moments of joy as students from
this tough little program get their diplomas and gear up to go to
college. That kind of scene doesn't happen often enough.
Yes, the Obama Administration is juggling the crises of jobs,
foreclosures, banking, wars, and healthcare. We still have to ask when
our President intends to foreground educational opportunity, and what
he will ask of us as a nation. For example: how will we balance
short-term stopgapping (like the State Fiscal Stabilization Funds)
with "big think" long term change? Why are so many public schools
today, even high-achieving ones, "ABW"? Is school integration
effectively dead, fifty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education?
How can not just white but middle -- and upper-middle-income families be
reconnected to public schooling? Will the new political rainbow
coalition lose its might once people start debating who should get
affirmative action -- rich and black, or poor and white? Will
"equality," in this economic crisis, mean that more white Americans
are poorly educated, as opposed to more students of color doing well?
(That prospect should chill our bones.)
Let's take a moment during this graduation season to ask how we can
raise the profile of educational equality among the issues our nation
faces. When I looked at the smiling, multi-ethnic group of newly
minted doctors marching out of Morehouse Medical School, I saw an
extraordinary example of how shared struggle and success brings people
together. The question for all of us is how we can take this kind of
achievement, broaden it to the education system at large...and make it
the rule, not the exception.
Farai Chideya is an award-winning journalist who has written three
nonfiction books on media, politics and race, including "The Color of
Our Future"; plus the newly released novel "Kiss the Sky." She is now
researching "The Color of Our Future in the Age of Obama."