“Meeting David Wilson” in Baltimore

Last evening, I watched the documentary “Meeting David Wilson,” which was about the film maker David A. Wilson exploring his own ancestry, tracing it back, from Newark New Jersey, to North Carolina, to Ghana. The film’s dramatic tension had to do with David A. Wilson meeting David B. Wilson in North Carolina, where B’s great great grandfather enslaved A’s great great grandfather.  The tenor of the film was reconciliation, and I found it to be quite poignant and as a teacher I think every school should make full use of this documentary and accompanying teaching materials.  If nothing else, David A would like the documentary to be used to start a conversation, and schools, regardless of their racial demographic should create curriculum to facilitate this endeavor.

For me, a NYC born white, jewish academic who does a lot of work in Baltimore communities, the 90 minute discussion after the documentary was as important as the film itself.  It was important for the unspoken tension (even tho it spoke of racial tensions quite a bit). I experienced a divide on the panels, not so much based on race, but on ways of speaking (discourse).

I saw the split in two ways. First, is the divide that David A commented on at the end of the discussion. He said he was bothered by the academese of the discussion and was concerned that most americans who ought to be engaging in this discussion would be put off by the jargon and theories being tossed around by such panelists as Michael Eric Dyson, Tim Wise, and from the audience Greg Carr.

The second divide overlaps the first and has to do with the ways in which the panelists talked passed each other, with some focusing on systems (macro), and others focusing on individuals/people (micro).  In this dialogue, the system’s speakers assume a more critical posture, and the “people” speakers assume a less critical and more conservative stance.  The most famous example of this is the Cosby–Dyson debate about which books (Dyson’s own) literally have been written. 

I happen to think that the term racism is a “systems” concept.  I adhere to the view that systems and institutions are racist not individuals. Individuals  may be bigoted and prejudiced, and can say racists things, but they are not racist, per se.  In Baltimore, it is difficult to talk about race without framing the discussion in the context of quite visible and obvious inner city blight. The blight covers a range of topics and statistics.  Fewer than 40% of Baltimore City HS students graduate; 1 in 3 young black males will be incarcerated; the incarceration rate is 2,420 per 100,000, one of the highest rates of any city in the country.  The city has about 300 murders a year, much of which is black on black, one of the nation’s highest heroin addiction rates which kills about as many Baltimore residents as are murdered each year. In all, Baltimore is the 2nd most dangerous city in the US of any city with a population of at least 500,000 residents.  We are talking about a racist system. 

I have done a great deal of work at the dallas Nicholas Elementary School in the Barclay neighborhood. The school is an almost 100% title one school. Right across the street from the school is the state parole and probation building.  The message for many dallas Nicholas Students when they leave school for home is clear: this is where you might end up. Last summer the neighborhood  experienced the city’s largest percentage of murders of many neighborhood in the city. 

This racist system needs to be overhauled. Period. 

At the same time, the Barclay neighborhood shows several signs of (re)vitalization, which focuses on life within the structures and institutions; it goes to the micro- issue because it is based on community building, individuals principals, teachers and residents who simply refuse to accept the sometimes over-determining feelings of powerlessness associated with how the system constructs and defines this neighborhood. 

I have worked with the “Barclay Boys” summer program, the BOOST after school program, the growing community school headquartered inside the elementary school, and the local neighborhood associations.  These programs and projects would not thrive were it not for the commitments of named individuals.

Still, they would not survive were it not for the threadbare financial support they receive from the city, state and local funders.

The politics of race in Baltimore’s barclay neighborhood integrates the macro and the micro, and concrete next steps have to do with increasing the numbers of committed individuals,  securing the political support of the local city government; going beyond individuals to mobilize political support that is capable of securing city, state and national funds for the schools, after school and community school programs, and so forth.

There is nothing about working on the micro level that excludes thinking and communicating on the macro level. Nothing about personal responsibility on the micro level and critical race theory theory on the macro level.  this leaves David A’s question about too much academese, and the challenge to people who are helping to frame the debate to lessen the jargon; it is quite possible and beneficial to communicate complex ideas, which we all have, in everyday language which makes the dialogue democratically accessible.

In sum, the dialogue needs to find a narrative that is capable of holding macro and micro issues within the same conversation. Only then will conversants really be able to hear and respond to each other.



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