This means war?

14 Dec

Here’s what still bugs me about Phil Bronstein’s San Francisco Chronicle op-ed  “Seeking diversity through segregation” (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/12/05/ED5E1M7H7G.DTL):

Remember the waterboarding opening? Bronstein writes, “San Francisco parents are going through the annual academic version of waterboarding–abused, suffering and praying in order to get their kids into finite slots in the city’s top private schools.” Then he seems to switch topics to his gripe about affinity occasions for prospective families of color and LGBTQ families.

Seems to.

At first, I read the first few paragraphs as unskillful transitioning, but what I realized after reading the whole op-ed over is that he isn’t changing topics at all. If we connect the dots Bronstein provides, the LGBTQ and Families of Color nights that he decries are part of the “cruelty” (on par with torture) that San Francisco parents are subjected to.

Although he never explicitly demonizes anyone, choosing instead to direct his critique at a general mentality he sees as obsolete, Bronstein’s allusion to waterboarding invokes an “us v. them” war mindset, which begs the question: who is the enemy?

Let’s think about this… if the admissions process is like torture, and affinity events are part of the torture, are LGBTQ families and families of color… the enemy? (And then, when Bronson speaks for the tortured SF parents, does he really, more specifically mean the white heterosexual parents?)

While he never come right out and says any of this, I can’t help but hear the implications simmer just under the surface of his outrage. Diversity, like war, tends to create a combative mentality, as if justice is a zero-sum equation, in which more for you means less for me. Thus, any of “you” who stakes a claim to more rights and privileges is a direct threat to me.

This logic is flawed not only because justice is not a zero-sum equation–rather, it is an all-or-none proposition: either we all have it, or none of us do–but because it ignores the impact of social context on each of us, including our respective access to opportunities and resources.

Justice is not just a matter of counting how many “parties” (to use Bronstein’s parlance) I get, and how many you get. Justice asks us to recognize the systems, precedents and current circumstances that shape the experiences of people of diverse and unequal social identities.

Now, before we argue about merit (i.e. if there is a majority of white heterosexuals in independent schools, it’s because they all deserve and have earned their place), let’s be clear that a myriad of factors have limited diversity in admissions, including:

  • special consideration for legacies
  • the need for full-tuition-paying families
  • the need for full-tuition-paying-and-generous-donation-making families (I say this with no disrespect to schools or the generous families that give to them: donations are part of the lifeblood of non-profits, including schools)
  • inequitable distribution of application resources (application and essay writing coaches, SSAT test prep, family friends who know someone in admissions, etc.)
  • previous independent school experience and cultural fluency
  • sibling policies that give special consideration to children who already have a sibling attending the school

And that’s not even considering the impact of larger, social and historical phenomena like red-lining, which, in actively discriminating against people of color seeking to secure home and student loans, has had a domino, generational effect on the financial worth and security (including the educational access) of countless individuals and families of color.

Let me be clear: I am by no means arguing that white heterosexual kids, kids who come from white heterosexual families and/or kids who come from wealthy families have gotten into independent schools illegitimately. I am arguing that their individual merit is inextricable from social and historical circumstances that advantage them.

So if Bronstein wants to keep score, tallying who does and doesn’t “get a party,” all I ask is that he keep the full score, not just this myopic one.

In the larger picture, I would also ask that he reconsider the histrionic torture metaphor he invokes to exacerbate an already emotional and charged process for kids and their parents/guardians. This is not war. And we are not enemies.

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