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Is this courageous conversation wise?

By Peter St. Onge

About four months ago, in this space, on this day of the week, a certain white Observer columnist declared that we need to talk more about race.

“Whether you want to see it or not, race still finds its way into lending and housing and the administering of justice,” he wrote. “It’s real. We need to talk more about it.”

Heath Morrison wants to talk about it, too. The first-year Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent wants to hire a consultant, Glenn Singleton, to talk to administrators and teachers about racial equity and student success. But Singleton is controversial, and people in Mecklenburg are fretted about him, and Morrison now seems a little wary, too. He’s holding back on his decision, which was supposed to come in January.

And I don’t blame him a bit.

Singleton is the co-author of “Courageous Conversations about Race,” and he’s consulted with school districts across the country, including two where Morrison has worked. Singleton and Morrison want us to examine our perceptions about how blacks learn. They want to have a conversation about the danger of diminished expectations – intentional or not – that whites have of black children.

It’s a worthy discussion. And for whites who don’t like the idea of the lens being turned toward them, remember this: Blacks have long been lectured by CMS and the community about how some are failing their children. What’s the problem with asking how others also could do better?

The problem, for some, is how Singleton chooses to frame the conversation. Instead of explaining to whites what they don’t understand about blacks, he tells whites what they don’t acknowledge about themselves. That is, that they’re the daily beneficiaries of “white privilege,” and that the racism that most whites harbor, be it institutional or internalized, is an obstacle to the success of black students.

His definition of racism: Something that comes not only from believing “one set of characteristics is superior to another set,” but perpetuating those beliefs “intentionally or subconsciously.”

That means even whites who abhor racism are prone to it. It’s a sweeping application of the word – and maybe that helps his book stand out from the others, but it’s part of the reason people are queasy.

Here’s another: Morrison isn’t saying much about how the district might use Singleton. Would it be an intensive, multi-year effort that influences curriculum? Is he planning to commit tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars? If we’re going to have a conversation about race, it would be helpful if Morrison were courageous enough to contribute more specifics.

One more thing we don’t know: Do Singleton’s teachings work? Officials in other counties applaud him for opening minds, but there’s little solid evidence that his work shrinks achievement gaps. Said one retired Maryland superintendent to Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms: “You’re not going to create any miracles with this.”

That’s important, because as with every other public decision that touches on race, it’s not enough that the result be good for us. It has to be good enough to compensate for the fallout. We know that well in Charlotte, where a decision to shutter some inner city schools three years ago saved CMS millions, but at the high cost of trust in the black community.

Here, as in many places, we’re forever grappling with skin color and fairness and history. We feel it most acutely in our schools, where blacks point to an achievement gap and whites point to a resources gap – and both are right. But whites who can afford to are pulling their kids out of public schools, while others are working to chop CMS into smaller, separate districts. Those parents don’t need Singleton’s help to be angry with CMS, but his presence will irk others.

All of which, oddly, makes a pretty strong case for that conversation we need to have. The gap between us is as striking outside schools as it is in the classroom. Yes, we need to talk about race.

But is this the way, and is Singleton the man to do it?

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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