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Saturday, March 21, 2015

What's Best for Me

Ellis Island
Photo by Cheuk-man Kong
     The United States has a lengthy and reliable history of xenophobia. In some ways it’s comforting to see such ongoing and dependably predictable hostility toward anyone not like us; it demonstrates that we have not lost touch with our heritage, rooted as America is upon slavery and genocide.
     Don’t get me wrong; I love my country and consider myself a patriot. My chest swells with pride to hear my kids recite the pledge of allegiance, and I choke up whenever I sing the national anthem. Throughout America’s history our men and women have sacrificed their lives to secure for us the freedoms we enjoy. But when I consider some of the things we as a nation have done, and continue to do, it’s entirely appropriate that we be ashamed of ourselves.
We stole a people’s land out from under them, obliterated their culture and legacy, and murdered the majority of their population.
We enslaved an entire race, subjecting them to unconscionable and indefensible treatment in the name of economic prosperity.
We incarcerated whole ethnic groups, without consideration for their circumstances or citizenship, under the guise of national security.
We defended abominable practices of clandestine torture and abuse, formerly (and likely still) associated with uncivilized and immoral societies comprised of savages and sadists.
We continue to push for laws to keep our money in and those foreigners out.
     The tenacious theme running through all of these offenses? “What’s best for me is all that matters.”
     This week The Economist, published in the U.K., ran a report on Latinos in America. The largest growing segment of our society, people of Hispanic descent are changing the demographics of America. Whites are expected to become a minority by 2044. But far from fomenting the destruction of our country, such immigrants are exactly what we need to sustain ourselves and our way of life. While the median age of most other developed nations will continue to rise into the golden numbers in the coming decades, America’s is expected to hover at a youthful 41 by 2050, due in large part to the influx of Latinos.1
     Why is this a good thing? Because octogenarians do not contribute significantly to the workforce or the GNP. Because older populations levy social security, Medicare, and welfare programs. Because someone has to provide for those who no longer can or do.
     Let’s hope all these for’ners don’t adopt our American ethos about “what’s best for me”.
     Xenophobia and cultural egoism are relevant topics in my daily life, because my children attend a Title I school in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, where Caucasians like us comprise less than 5% of the elementary school population.
     Our zip code’s population, on the other hand, is 38% Caucasian, according to
     Assuming that the school community is roughly proportional to the overall community (we do not live in a retirement haven or an urban yuppie hotspot), one wonders where the rest of the white children have gone.
     They have transferred to “choice” schools, that’s where.
     The state of Virginia was one of the last in the country to desegregate its public schools; full compliance with federal mandates regarding integration did not take place until the mid-1970’s. Even then, when minority students sought to enter “white” schools, a complex application process made it very difficult for them to do so. 3
     That system, or one very similar to it, still exists today.
     To apply for a transfer out of one’s neighborhood school and into a choice school in the Arlington Public School system requires parents to fill out an application, attend a presentation at the neighborhood school, attend another presentation at the preferred school, and get signatures from the principals at both schools. Upon acceptance, parents must also attend a mandatory orientation at the preferred school. At best, this process requires two business days off work.*
     That may sound perfectly egalitarian, until one considers that middle- and upper-class parents who hold white-collar positions have much more flexibility and autonomy over their schedules than do poorer citizens. Lower income families, where Mom and Dad may both have to work two or more unskilled jobs just to put food on the table, find it either impossible, or a significant hardship, to give up two or three days of work in order to complete the convoluted transfer process to move their children to a more preferred school.
     Never mind the difficulty of navigating the system if English is not your first language.
     The result is that immigrants and lower-income families pool at neighborhood schools, while wealthier families withdraw to their own preferred quarters and circle the wagons around themselves.
     If this system was not intentionally designed to allow the privileged an escape from having to rub elbows with all those undesirable others, it proved a very happy coincidence for the self-concerned and wealthier cadre of beneficiaries and administrators who propagate the scheme and deny that anything’s unethical about it.
     In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the upper-class enclave of St. George is petitioning to create its own city and school district, separate from the rest of Baton Rouge, because the wealthier citizens are tired of paying taxes into the larger district, which provides services to all families, including the ones who pay much less into it. In Separate and Unequal, a 2014 Frontline report about the St. George district’s efforts, a pastor at a local church applauds the secessionists, encouraging them to “do what’s best for your pocketbooks”.4
     If this movement succeeds, the result will be that the rich in Baton Rouge have even more and the poor have even less. And it will encourage other factions of haves to find ways to cordon themselves off from the have-nots.
     There is no defense for this kind of insular and self-serving behavior, either in the annals of Christian charity or the democratic halls of social justice; its only logical rationale stems from a questionable moral code which contends that might makes right.
     Yes, “what’s best for me” is the American way.
     The Economist summed up its study on the American immigrant situation as “an extraordinary stroke of luck… Making the most of this chance will take pragmatism and goodwill. Get it right, and a diverse, outward-facing America will have much to teach the world.”5
     In a nation comprised almost entirely of immigrants’ descendants—if your ancestors lived in this country prior to 1492, you’re off the hook—the fact that racism, prejudice, and exclusionism are still practiced so proudly and rampantly makes me dubious about our chances of getting it right. It’s long past time for Americans to stop asking “What’s best for me?” and start asking “What’s best for us?”
     If we don’t, all we’ll have to teach the world is that we’ve learned exactly nothing from our own history.

*Update: Since publication of this article Arlington Public Schools has changed its school transfer policies, now requiring only a simple application turned in to one's neighborhood school. Kudos and thanks to the superintendent and school board for doing the right thing.

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1 “How to fire up America.” The Economist 14-20 March 2015: 15. Print.
2 “22204 Zip Code Detailed Profile.” Advameg Inc, 2013. Web. 16 March 2015 <>.
3 Daugherity, B. J. "Desegregation in Public Schools." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. <>.
4 Separate and Unequal. Frontline. 2014. Webcast. PBS. <>
5 The Economist, op. cit.

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