It was a refreshing exercise to see the number and the vigor of the reactions against the statement of the writer who saw a “gang sign” being given by an African-American OPRF High School student, as well as against Wednesday Journal’s decision to publish the photograph.
There is another side of that picture, however, that is less comforting. We, especially in Oak Park, enjoy identifying villains, culprits, and other unsavory types who violate our sense of fairness, justice, and good citizenship. It felt good to castigate the person who worried out loud that stadium lights might bring in urban gangs. Perhaps he was a racist, and perhaps not, but he was clearly wrong, and we enjoyed pointing that out. It was just as satisfying to point out the misdeeds of the Wednesday Journal, although they took most of the fun out of it by being extraordinarily professional in admitting that they were wrong, and making a clear and unequivocal apology.
More recently, Mr. Kolodziej [The cause of the achievement gap is primarily at home, Viewpoints, Dec. 27] asserted that the cause of the racial academic achievement gap is in the homes of the black students. Again, the culprits have been identified! And of course he is right; after all, if those homes did not exist, there would be no achievement gap. In fact, if those parents had not produced offspring, there also would be no achievement gap. Case closed. Didn’t that feel good?
While these responses were certainly understandable, and maybe even appropriate, they are much easier and less helpful than trying to think through the issues of how, specifically, we as a community can change the conditions that brought about the problematic behaviors. It is even more difficult for us to analyze the sources of the three school-related problems that seem to concern our communities most:
1) the racial academic achievement gap,
2) the unfair tax burden that is placed on property owners, and
3) the problems faced by parents and the school systems in delivering special education services to students in a way that is satisfactory to all parents, while meeting the unfunded state and federal requirements.
We (not just Oak Parkers, but Americans in general) have a tendency to insist that all problems have simple, direct causes which can lead to a clear identification of the persons who are responsible. This trait tends to leave us helpless when we are faced with truly complex issues with multiple causes; we look for culprits and bad guys who are responsible, and who can be held responsible for fixing the problem.
What is needed, more often than not, is serious analysis (sometimes involving costly research) of the factors that we have the power to control, and identification of those over which we have no control, followed by a set of long-term likely solutions. Sometimes a projected timetable for such solutions can be much longer than the public will tolerate. However, public impatience is no reason to give up on problems that require long-term solutions; and seeking “culprits” is often a form of giving up.
When there are no governmental or social agencies that seem capable of dealing with the really difficult problems, such as the three mentioned above, it will become necessary to cross jurisdictional lines and form partnerships which blur legal boundaries, and even involve non-governmental resources. A current situation of this nature which is being considered now involves District 97 and the use of TIF funds. I believe this type of approach deserves further attention and support.
We in Oak Park, River Forest, and our surrounding communities are in an arguably better position than most areas of the United States to make substantial progress in solving these long-term problems. This is true because of economic, ideological, and demographic reasons that can be fairly easily demonstrated.
We have the opportunity and the means. I hope that we can move forward and develop the political will to do so.