This post is about the value of life and the weight arbitrarily assigned to various groups by people in power. While writing this blog, Nashville witnessed another Black man’s death at the hands of its police department. Daniel Hambrick, the deceased, was 25 years old and said to have been armed at the time of the shooting. The officer, White and also 25, has less than two years on the force. The first image released by MNPD was of the “suspect’s gun” in a pasture. The second image released by the police was Daniel’s mugshot. The images tell a story — as well as reveal a value statement.
Daniel got what he deserved.
Several years ago I read the book Angela’s Ashes, a well-written autobiography by Frank McCourt. The author writes of growing up with a stone-cold alcoholic father who drank away the week’s groceries, living with sick and dead babies, and being so poor that he was forced to walk barefoot in frigid temps. For two weeks my world appeared dark and dank like the cold, wet streets of McCourt’s childhood Ireland home. At the time, I could neither shake nor identify the source of my overwhelming sadness. Until I stopped reading the book. Suddenly the skies cleared and the impending doom retreated.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been poorly navigating a book describing American schooling recommended by a local educator and Twitter friend. At her recommendation, I dutifully checked out Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. The former teacher details the culture, conversations, and inequities within six school districts (East St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Camden, NJ, Washington D.C., and San Antonio) between the years 1988 and 1990. While I am nowhere near the end of the book, I feel I’ve reached a point – think Angela Ashes – where I am wobbly about continuing.
“How much is it worth investing in this child as opposed to that one?”
About midway through the book, Kozol correlates the racism influencing healthcare provider delivery to the inferior resources and dispassionate handling services of Black and Brown students in the public education system. The author writes White patients are three times more likely than black patients to receive bypass surgery and the Black infant death rate in Central Harlem equals to that of a Third World country. In the same vein, schools in poor communities are quick to place Black students into lower educational tracks and establish environments befitting criminals, not students.
After reading the havoc racism wreaks to the delivery of services on which our lives depend, I was unprepared for the question offered as a possible guidepost that informs such life and death decisions: Who Is Likely To Return The Most To Our Society?
Kozol also asks “How much is it worth investing in this child as opposed to that one?” Maybe seeing it in print knocked me off my pivot. To think that a medical professional or an education official could intentionally provide inferior services or refuse service to a human is, well, inhumane. Savage. But aren’t we inundated with statistics and daily experiences corroborating the notion that life and death decisions are based on the value providers place on the lives of the recipient?
- Police express their value of Black men through the use of their guns.
- We see the value districts place on Black boys through overidentification in Special Education.
- We see the value schools place on Black girls through over-suspension of Black girls.
- What about the values of a community when 86 percent of poor kids fail to read at grade level?
- Or the large gap in resources between public schools with majority economically disadvantaged students and public schools in wealthy zip codes?
- I think about the value evaluation of a nurse years ago when my son was rushed to the emergency room from football practice with a broken arm. She asked for his mother’s name and if he had a dad. First, the audacity! Second, if he’d answered no, would it have affected the services rendered?
I could go on and on with personal anecdotes and societal statistics where we have and continue to fail large groups of traditionally marginalized people. I suspect Kozol could have documented an untold number of schooling tragedies within America’s school districts. But perhaps for the sake of brevity (and maybe his sanity) focused instead on districts with the greatest degree of savage-ness.
So, I never finished Angela’s Ashes but watched the movie years later and was surprised to see it so accurately depict the book’s dark gray tone and somber tenor. Honestly, I don’t remember the end of the movie but I know the author’s life had a happy ending. McCourt made it to America and became a teacher and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author before his death in 2009.
In true form, I can’t promise I’ll finish Savage Inequalities. Maybe there is no need because as it stands, our system, 30 years from the book’s publishing, remains savagely unequal and inequitable.