“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” – James Baldwin
Our West suburban community has been captivated by the Starz docu-series, “America to Me.” In the series, Oak Park parent and documentary filmmaker Steve James highlights some of the racial issues that continue to plague this self-proclaimed, liberal, anti-racist, suburb’s public school, Oak Park-River Forest High School (OPRF).
I haven’t watched the show myself. Not because it isn’t interesting; rather, I don’t watch it because racism and racial achievement gaps in Oak Park are topics I have been writing, talking, and fighting about since my husband and I decided not to place our children in the schools there five years ago. Not only were Oak Park schools racist, but, it was painfully obvious that they had no real desire to fix the racism.
Don’t get me wrong. Oak Park had committees, boards, and community meetings, that talked about the racial achievement gap. There were and are lots of community meetings about racism and the racial achievement gap. Oak Park has even written some good reports about the racial achievement gap. But while Oak Park education leadership and community leadership has excelled at meetings and writing reports, they have failed over and over to actually implement any measurable success that actually fixed the racial achievement gap. Somewhere between the meetings, the committees, the plans, and the writing of the reports, actually implementing anti-racist policy in the schools has fallen by the wayside.
Oak Park’s historic inability to actually implement any anti-racist policies or programs that address the root cause of the racial achievement gap leave me skeptical that anything will change now. So the idea of engaging in any well-meaning but time-sucking meetings, discussions, or creation of plans to close the racial achievement gap that takes place now, thanks to the momentum of “America To Me, ” would be frustrating and a waste of my very limited energy.
Instead, I have smiled and nodded at all the people who ask me if I am watching “America to Me” or want to know my opinion about, “the racial issues the docu-series” is exposing. I have gotten really good at not outwardly rolling my eyes, when I hear a group of Oak Parkers, saying “Oak Park needs to come up with a plan to stop racism and the racial achievement gap.” It is, literally and figuratively, “white noise;” loud sounds that are not really saying or doing anything. After 400 years of hearing this kind of white noise from good intentioned White folks while the experience of racism goes unchecked, Black people have gotten really good at smiling and nodding.
There is only ONE REPORT I WANT TO READ ON RACISM AND RACIAL ACHIEVEMENT GAP AT OPRF: a report that lists all the policies, programs, and initiative that have been attempted before and an accurate, honest analysis of why they multiple attempts to end the racial achievement gap failed to achieve the desired results.
Since that report has yet to be written or proposed, I continue rolling my eyes inward, while smiling and nodding, about “plans for reform.”
The hard part about of being friends with White Oak Parkers who call themselves anti-racist is that, while they are sincerely well-meaning, they lack either the ability or the community support needed, to make real change. I don’t believe anyone currently employed with or associated with the Oak Park Public schools truly has the skills or tools to bring real racial equity or even fix the racial achievement gap. More painful to admit is the White residents of Oak Park, many whom I love, are not truly willing to do anything to fix racism because, like most White Americans, they are selfish, opportunity hoarders.
Many Oak Park residents would gladly come to a #BlackLivesMatter rally. Yet these same people will fight any reforms to the gifted and talented program, especially any that could possibly mean– gasp– loss of resources for their White children.
The same Oak Parkers who love to demonize white Trump supporters rallied against, or remained silent, when a Black woman principal tried to hold public discussions about the racism, structural and individual, at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School.
The same Oak Park folks who are staunchly against school choice and charter schools have no problem paying for a pool for OPRF. What about meeting the academic needs of Black students with a quality new option? The same people who claim “charter schools will drain money from the Oak Park public schools helping Black students,” are apparently more willing to pay for a new pool than to ensure equity of opportunity for Black students in our community. A $200 million referendum failed by a sliver. Meanwhile, charter schools can’t get traction.
So, I and other Black folks in the community continue to smile and nod while White liberal Oak Parkers, vow at meetings that this time, they will do something, really, this time, to fix the “racial achievement gap.” Meanwhile, we Black parents with options and resources enroll our children in other schools. We’re tired of hearing talk about the “deficits” of Black children while nothing changes to address the structures that continue to hold our kids down.
While all the hand-wringing goes on as a result of “America to Me,” I’ll continue to smile and nod at talk of “really stopping racism this time.” But the only meeting I’d ever want to attend is the one about how to reduce White people’s racism. Until I hear a public admission of the racism of White Oak Park residents, schools, and institutions, and a plan that centers on reducing the racism of white people, or, have a group of White liberals who are willing to voluntarily give up the aspects of White privilege that benefit their children, I’ll skip the meetings and keep smiling and nodding.