'Learn this language of exasperation'

'There is no pain that compares to the struggle'

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

At one point in episode three, Oak Park and River Forest High School English teacher Dan Cohen and board member Jackie Moore are discussing the failures of the District Equity Leadership Team (DELT).

According to OPRF's website, DELT was formed in 2012 and is "composed of administrators and faculty members" who are supposed to "guide the work of exploring the impact of institutionalized racism on student learning, create a vision for eliminating racial achievement disparities, and work to dismantle the barriers to academic success for all students."

"Does anyone have anything to say," Moore recalls former District 200 Supt. Steve Isoye asking members during a DELT meeting she attended. "It was, like, dead air. I'm looking around the table and I see administrators, I see predominantly white men and I don't understand how this group can move the conversation forward for this school community." 

The "white male silence in DELT was deafening," says OPRF English teacher Dan Cohen, one of the white males in the group. "It has huge ramifications for white males in power to be silent when race talk is going on. The racial systemic transformation plan has not been touched in about 10, 11 months." 

Fade to the monthly meeting of the district's Citizens' Council — a name that I silently puzzled over before the school board changed it to Community Council in February 2017. 

Citizens' Councils, after all, were white supremacist organizations formed in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled segregation in public education unconstitutional. 

That something like this would be lost on so many people, for so long, in as liberal and learned a community as Oak Park, is telling.  

It reveals a lack of historic awareness and basic understanding among many Oak Parkers of racism's, and by extension white supremacy's, entrenched history in this country and their uncanny ability to survive by any means necessary — even by stealth. 

The late scholar George M. Frederickson observed in his essential 2002 book, Racism: A Short History, that racism "does not require the full and explicit support of the state and the law" nor "an ideology centered on the concept of biological inequality."

Discrimination "by institutions and individuals against those perceived as racially different can long persist and even flourish under the illusion of nonracism." 

During the aforementioned Citizens' Council meeting, Isoye tells African American parents that they must be cautious about reaching for the "low-hanging fruit," which comprises the basic stuff, like teachers having higher expectations for their black students, like counselors not writing off their black students' postsecondary prospects.

As one African-American parent says of her son's experience at OPRF, "He had a sense of urgency to rediscover his identity and I know [he], like a lot of other black kids here, couldn't get to a historically black college fast enough. … He grew up in a home where he knew who he was. It is about expectations. The call I got from my son's counselor his senior year was, 'I haven't heard about his college plans. I'm going to Triton next week, so [I'll sign] him up.'"

If systemic change is to happen at the school, Isoye lectures the group at one point in the meeting, then teachers, students and parents "have to be ready." When "people say we want these things to happen now," he continues, "some of these things can't happen now, but these conversations move the needle." 

As Isoye spoke, I could see James Baldwin forming in the side-eyed faces of some of the black women on the screen, some of whom have been fighting the same tiring fight in this village for many, many years. 

"There's no question that in the next 30 or 40 years a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States," Bobby Kennedy, himself poised for the presidency, once said.

This sounded "like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people," Baldwin said.

"They were not in Harlem when the statement was first heard and will not hear and possibly will never hear the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn which was taken when the statement was greeted from the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop. 

"Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the presidency. We have been here 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become president." 

To implement systemic racial progress, whites (and even non-whites, for that matter) will first have to learn this language of exasperation. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

Reader Comments

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Dean Rogers  

Posted: September 14th, 2018 4:17 AM

I have asked these questions publicly,and to the school board for over 20 years,and have yet to get a straight answer. Yes,an achievement gap exists,and has existed for decades. But what is the "gap" for entering students?Perhaps OPRF is narrowing this gap,not widening it as the "institutional racist blamers" claim.How about a legitimate research study of variables other than race?I'm willing to bet the gap is greater for students of single parent families,white or black,than for two parent,minority families.Yet,no such study has ever been done by the school.To find a solution,you must define the problem.OPRF refuses to acknowledge that factors other than race may be involved.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: September 13th, 2018 10:59 PM

Ramona I agree. I am enormously critical of what I consider his out of touch and tone deaf editorials. But he performs an enormous public service as you point out. He can do what he pleases, irrespective of the First. But in general he has chosen to nurture a prosperous and vigorous market place of ideas. ... and some of those ideas clearly contrary to his own. He could have chosen otherwise. After all it is - as you point out - HIS web site.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 13th, 2018 10:26 PM

I must say I appreciate Mr. Haley allowing us to post comments on his website. I'm sure he gets a lot of criticism about it, but as contentious as things may get , when people have legitimite discourse we all benefit. So again, thank you Mr Haley for providing this platform for expression.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: September 13th, 2018 4:35 PM

I agree with Ramona: Why is the onus of closing the gap fall entirely on the laps of white faculty members? Is there NOTHING the black students can do to improve? Why is personal responsibility literally NEVER mentioned? Also, is there anything they can do to help White students in need of finance, college choices, fear, etc.....

Mike Hanline  

Posted: September 13th, 2018 1:01 PM

"I noticed that you disabled comments on the Steve James white man self flagellation tour." This idiot who hides behind a fake profile...

Dan Haley from Wednesday Journal Wednesday Journal Employee

Posted: September 13th, 2018 8:51 AM

The Journal is not opening comments on a photo gallery from our Steve James event on Tuesday evening. That's because the only content there is a batch of photos. Comments on our many other America to Me related stories, such as the one you just posted your comment to, are wide open for comments.

PJ Atlas  

Posted: September 13th, 2018 8:39 AM

I noticed that you disabled comments on the Steve James white man self flagellation tour. Given that the audience of The Wednesday Journal is forced to be on social media this feels like censorship. Did someone have the nerve to disagree with your propaganda?

Chris Deegan  

Posted: September 12th, 2018 4:29 PM

Part of dialog is hearing it first hand vs what we think others might believe or say. The OPRF administration and some faculty were reluctant to give access/cooperate with the filming. None were required to speak or be filmed. As a balance to the film series I think it would be really interesting - and insightful - to hear the voices of those who were reluctant, especially from the administration. It doesn't really matter who they are so it could be entirely anonymous. It's important to bring forward their thinking about the topics raised in the film series and how that influenced their stance on cooperation/non-cooperation. I assume they are all good people who have different or nuanced thoughts about the filming activity or its content. Those voices also need to be heard.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 12th, 2018 4:09 PM

Chris, Some faculty won't and can't have an open dialogue. If they express their opinions and those opinions are remotely critical of black students, well then we all know what happens after that. Self/career preservation kicks in and they keep their mouths shut.

Chris Deegan  

Posted: September 12th, 2018 11:51 AM

Interesting event last night at Dominican with Steven James and two students who were in the documentary "America To Me". Although it was referenced on the margins, it seemed to me that there was huge vacancy of information about why the OPRF administration - and some teachers - were reluctant collaborators on this project throughout the filming. Those who are reluctant should have the opportunity and responsibility to share their opinions openly with the community. For me, the story of this documentary is incomplete with the input of these folks who, during most of the year, have substantial contact with, influence over, and control of our students. Dialog about race can be tough, but meaningful change and progress without it is unlikely.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 12th, 2018 11:17 AM

John, leadership isn't fearful of white pushback. They don' say much because no matter what they say it will be considered irrelevant because of the color of their skin and if they say anything that could be construed as critical of the black community, they will be labeled as racists and their careers will be done. "these conversations move the needle." Evidently, they don't. We have been talking about it for 25 years and the achievement gap is getting worse. Talk is cheap!!! "Citizens' Councils, after all, were white supremacist organizations formed in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision" Probably the most blanket racist statement I've read on here for a long time. Why is the onus of closing the gap fall entirely on the laps of white faculty members? Is there NOTHING the black students can do to improve? Why is personal responsibility literally NEVER mentioned? Lastly, what will you write Mr. Romain if the achievement gap is still the same 3 or 4 years. Will you be critical of the black leadership of OPRF? We'll see.

John Duffy  

Posted: September 12th, 2018 9:30 AM

Michael--Once again, you instruct all of us, especially me as white racial justice activist, brilliantly about the racial contradictions and hypocrisy that abound when our school leaders retreat, or don't even step forward because of their fear of white pushback. Are we finally blessed with a BOE, led by Dr. Jackie Moore, and an administration lead by Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams with the will and courage to push back for racial justice and equity?With your sage analysis at the WJ, tied to your life experience here in OP and at OPRF, we will continue to demand this new standard from our education leaders.. John Duffy, Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education, in alliance with African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education, Suburban Unity Alliance, Oak Park Parent Empowerment Network and Oak Park Call to Action.

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