Local control of the schools in the sweet home of George Wallace, or something like that

An obscure suburb of Birmingham recently made the news when a federal judge ruled that its effort to form its own standalone public school system, although likely motivated by a collateral intention of racial segregation, was sufficiently motivated by a sincere, bona fide desire to establish local control to be lawful as a matter of civil rights. Since this happened in Alabama, the crude glosses are irresistible: song, song of the South, Millington for Sheriff and I shut my mouth–Lawd, I do declare that that came as quite a shock, even if the strongest Northside Juice endorsement by an Alabaman today is an official federal one, coming straight from the Attorney General himself, Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Secessions. Well, how did that slip in there, too? Mercy, what’s happening, Mrs. O’Hara? As they say in Vancouver, we didn’t settle the frontier just by wiring a chair; we’re mobile, and our hydro is as portable as we are. Say, Jeff, tell me, boy, what is your problem with a well-dressed gentleman and officer of the law who knows his way around a paramilitary command structure and a horse?

What the hell was the point of all that? Does Jeff Sessions deserve such a treatment just because he comes from a highbrow horse-fancying corner of Dixieland, and a Confederation sounds a lot like a Confederacy? No, he deserves it because he’s a Klan creep in a state with an alarming history of Klan governance, and now he’s the chief federal prosecutor in a nation that increasingly abhors, for compelling reasons, everything he defends and supports. It’s good praxis to denounce the folk devils of the Old South; it helps them learn that they are not welcome in polite society and that there are social consequences for indulging in I’m not racist but omg I’m such a slimy racist dogwhistling.

That said, denouncing these folk devils isn’t nearly enough, and if it’s the only response, the resulting collective wisdom can be misleading. George Wallace, for example, wasn’t a racist; he just played one on TV. Sessions may have a similar thing going on roughly in reverse, in which he larps the kind of planter who is too refined to personally whip his slaves. One needn’t be landed to do that. It’s proper and fitting for a damn Yankee to be hostile to the cotton belt secesh–y’all lost, recall?–and to demand that the federal government impose the rule of law on local tyrants regardless of what bogus downhome origin story they peddle. (That current chief lawman, tho. Oops.)

This does not, however, mean that things on the ground in the South are as straightforward as they appear from the North. By most accounts, Alabama has an especially bad problem with racial bigotry, both official and private. By all accounts that I’ve heard, it’s definitively worse on race than Georgia, and at the macro level it sounds about as bad as South Boston. It isn’t a state where one would expect to hear about racially integrated industrial unions under Jim Crow, but Birmingham had exactly that, in an era when Slavs and blacks were routinely clashing in street battles in a number of Northern industrial cities.

This stuff is too complicated to be explained by habitually scapegoating white Southerners, as so many Northerners are wont to do. It makes us look good, but mainly before the ignorant; the constant, broad-brush shaming of the entire South as nothing but Planter the Peanut and a big saltine box comes back to bite us in the ass whenever anyone starts noticing the nuances. Jeff Sessions may insinuate that he speaks on behalf of the South, but it’s impossible that a great many Southerners of goodwill, of all races, don’t find him horrifying. Northerners trying to absolve themselves of their own bigotry by pointing at goofy Klan fanciers like Sessions and construing them to encompass an entire Solid South (oddly eliding the South’s huge black minority) is a bad look, but let it not be said that we don’t know how to do bad looks.

The Birmingham-area school resegregation case that I mentioned above is, like the other nuances that I’ve been banging on about, not just a bunch of salty crackers expressing their undying, unreconstructed (heh) hatred for the Community. Gardendale, the suburb with the incipient home-rule school district, is roughly a tenth black. That isn’t the effect of racial covenants, fam. At the municipal level, at least, it is integrated. Absent extreme gerrymandering that the average municipal government wouldn’t bother attempting, its new school system will be integrated, especially at the high school level, where any neighborhood-level segregation will be neutralized by a larger (probably citywide) catchment area.

It’s true that Gardendale is a great deal whiter than the Birmingham area as a whole, which is roughly half black. So are a number of other neighborhoods and cities in Jefferson County, which remains quite segregated on the whole. The racial dot map shows some hella white hills south of downtown Birmingham, for example. I’ve never been to Birmingham, but I certainly assume that the hill people receive better government services than the holler people of a certain other race in the same city. Gardendale is not attempting to establish the Honky Heights Community School District. It’s an existing separate incorporated city. If it’s trying to remove itself from black majority rule at the county level, its goal is merely to place its schools under its own existing city government, i.e., white-majority rule with a significant black minority. It clearly isn’t a sundown town; it wouldn’t be over 8% black if it were.

Unfortunately, it’s easy enough to imagine what the citizens of Gardendale are trying to avoid by carving out their own school district. It’s reasonable not to want to be trapped in a school district under the auspices of a recent Chapter Nine municipal bankruptcy case. It’s reasonable not to want one’s children attending chaotic, violent public schools plagued by troubled student pools, where they’ll be miseducated, if not outright harmed. As fashionable as it may be to chide white parents for not wanting their children attending black schools, who wants to be the one to tell Gardendale’s black parents that they’re bigots for not wanting to send their children to schools that are basically zoos? I don’t know how true this is of Birmingham’s public schools specifically, but I’ve heard damning stories, in print and in person, of majority-black public high schools in Philadelphia, and the social pathologies at play are more or less universal to the American ghetto, with a handful of blessed exceptions.

How do we fix this? Many observers insist that we don’t. They’re resigned to the assumption that we won’t fix the pathologies of the black underclass because we can’t. The hardline South has some special circumstances, notably including blindingly white private academies that mysteriously sprang up like spring wildflowers in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, but the North is making shit for progress of its own on improving the lot of the black underclass, as Philadelphia shows. We aren’t seeing a rush of hot takes about Lower Merion Township being a den of racists, and God knows the Main Line has some White whiteys, so maybe this quasi-scandal over Gardendale isn’t really about equity.

It’s all about race until it isn’t really about race. To Kill a Mockingbird is construed in racial terms because that’s less intellectually demanding than noticing that Atticus Finch, a noted white boy, really hates him some white trash. As I said above, if Gardendale was populated by such racists, it wouldn’t have a significant black population. Its white residents would have used racial violence to ethnically cleanse the entire city, the same tactic that lily-white communities throughout the South (and in parts of the North, including the City of Brotherly Love (lol)) have historically used, sometimes to lasting effect. An overwhelming community will to be free of racial minorities is not enforced with real estate values that are maybe a bit high by local standards and bargain-basement by the standards of hot markets in the urban North; it’s done by the crowdsourcing of Bull Connor for generation upon generation.

There’s another question that the sorts of Northerners who like to deliver racial tolerance homilies are too ignorant to ask: if Gardendale’s white residents, who can afford to live beyond the Birmingham city limits and are engaged enough in their local politics to vote to form their own municipal school district, dislike black people so, and are so uncomfortable around them, why they hell are they still living in the Deep South? Why haven’t they moved to Northern Idaho, where they might have the opportunity to discuss race realism with Mark Fuhrman? Or to Spokane, whose most famous black resident is a notorious white girl? (It’s an expansive Community.) In much of Oregon the black population can only be measured in tenths of a percent, or even hundredths. Every attentive racist in the United States knows that Alabama is a terrible place to shelter oneself from black people. There are organized movements to evacuate presumably beleaguered whites from racially diverse areas and resettle them on self-governing Whitey Reservations. If you’d like to guess which sector of the country is most underserved by the Whitey Rez system, I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “mouth.” Anyone who’s serious about getting the hell away from, shall we say, the local color knows these things.

What’s going on in Gardendale, which is formally about education and denounced by outsiders as being about race, is really about class. It’s always about class, cracka. Every fucking time. “Education” is never about actual education, as in learning shit instead of being forever a witless moron. The expression of class interests in Gardendale is probably one of the least odious of its sort anywhere in the United States in recent decades. In their defense, the voters there can remind scolds that they’re trying to limit their exposure to their own clusterfuck of a county government and that there are enduring sociological problems in poor African-American communities that it is not their children’s duty to magically fix with their incidental presence in a troubled public school system. Manhattan has parents who bribe admissions officers at selective preschools on behalf of their precious little brats. The Archer episode involving the special batch of hamantashen for the headmaster isn’t a piece of dystopian fiction; it’s a current-events report, and frankly an understated one.

If I may say something really unpopular and inflammatory, intellectually curious children will have no difficulty more than adequately educating themselves, with or without the schools. No, I’m not arguing for the abandonment of children in some vacuum that will be filled by an emergent Lord of the Flies nightmare vigilante government. There’s nothing wrong with the elusive niggas who have something to do with their kids. Parental engagement is some good shit. The problem is that I’m talking about actual, personal parental engagement, and engagement by other older relatives and friends of the family, for that matter. I’m not talking about bitching to teachers, principals, and the school board every time little Taylor doesn’t get the 4.05 GPA that he/she/shit deserves. Think about it: if that isn’t the opposite of homeschooling, it’s pretty close. Parents who are outraged by the thought of the state providing public services in the form of Amtrak or Section Eight throw a goddamn shit fit when the state denies their own children an imperceptibly tiny extra portion of that educational sugar sweet. They expect the state to wrap around their own children on demand and turn them, by fiat, into perfect students who will have perfect professional attainment after graduation. A third bore under the Hudson to Penn Station would be unacceptable big government, but God forbid that little Madison isn’t offered a full AP courseload by the tenth grade, because that’s the only thing that will get her into an Ivy League proxy and keep her from condemnation to a life sentence in the cashiering pool at 7-Eleven.

Whenever I listen to that tiger mom bullshit, I wonder why, if these parents so value advanced history and English instruction, they don’t personally fucking offer their brats some at home. Or math. Like Sam Cooke, I don’t know much about it (probably because I had such an easy time with languages, I found it le hard in school, and hence discouraging), but some parents do know much about it, so what the hell is stopping them from bypassing a disappointing school system and trying to teach their own children, I dunno, calculus?

GPA-whoring is even worse. Every time I hear about some compliant little suck-up being praised (often self-praised, because we’re all about the internal locus of control) for a maintaining a GPA that likely as not is mathematically impossible without extra credit for the sole purpose of cooking the books, I assume that I couldn’t count on my two hands the number of bums I’ve personally met who are better educated by any reasonable standard, probably because they aren’t preoccupied by neverending bullshit at school. Years ago I read an interview in the New York Times with an Afghan official posted to the United States who was upset with his daughter’s public school for allowing GPA’s above 4.0, on the basis that only God is perfect and a child therefore should not be told that she is beyond perfect. Looking around creation, I have to dispute the former point, but the latter point gets at least a 4.0 for soundness and clarity of mind. We’ve got a bunch of callow, neurotic little monsters running around thinking that they’re perfect and deserve to be rewarded for their perfection, all because their deranged parents threatened to make life hell for any school employee who got in the way of their snowflake’s grade inflation. Maybe even worse, we have these kids confusing their own compliance with busywork with accomplishment and brilliance. To summarize a story that I don’t feel like fleshing out at the moment, the policy ramifications of their studiously cultivated arrogance include my sleeping in my car. They submitted to the academic hazing rituals, after all, so what’s wrong with me that I didn’t?

These fuckers and their parents actually think that their school grades in non-professional curricula mean that they deserve something more in life than a certificate and a round of applause at graduation (if the audience has that little self-respect). They think, apparently sincerely, that they deserve to be apportioned extra rations throughout their lives through the impossibly baroque regime of reward and denial that they’ve helped entrench through their participation in it. They don’t see a problem with workplaces being structured in this fashion. They don’t see a problem with adults being punished for entire lifetimes for getting bad grades, and they definitely don’t see a problem with punishing the hell out of dropouts. Personally, I don’t see a problem with throwing some of these assholes off the Staten Island Ferry, as long as the firemen who rescue them are the grizzliest, rudest, least collegiate motherfuckers in the Tri-State. We have too many preppy shitheads in this country and not nearly enough people with a GED, an EMT certification, and an MS in fire science. We have plenty of autodidactic dropouts, but we don’t have the nerve to tell the prep squad to respect them like any decent person would.

The beneficiaries of this regime are desperately trying to shore it up, since sharing the spoils with the proliferating losers would defeat the whole purpose, but we haven’t seen nearly the last of the punching down or heard nearly the last outburst of yuppie self-justification in defense of this crumbling pile of moral rot. The idea that the residents of an unheard-of suburb of a barely large city are uniquely selfish and evil for not wanting to be stuck in a troubled school district under the auspices of a notoriously insolvent county government is as ridiculous as an application process for preschool. Love too hear rural Vermonters and Oregonians chiding them for their rank bigotry when Census data show that they already successfully #RaceTogether. Also love too hear national leaders proclaim that Selma has transcended history, Fukuyama-style, and is no longer the feudal Tobacco Road shithole documented within the past year and a half by Chris Arnade. We’ve all crossed that Edmund Pettis Bridge, after all, so who is some piece-rate brick salvager to piss on the parade by saying that we haven’t?

Yes, Virginia, there is a population that has finished school and is still unfathomably pig-ignorant. Many of them govern us.


2 thoughts on “Local control of the schools in the sweet home of George Wallace, or something like that

  1. “No, he deserves it because he’s a Klan creep in a state with an alarming history of Klan governance, and now he’s the chief federal prosecutor in a nation that increasingly abhors, for compelling reasons, everything he defends and supports. It’s good praxis to denounce the folk devils of the Old South; it helps them learn that they are not welcome in polite society and that there are social consequences for indulging in I’m not racist but omg I’m such a slimy racist dogwhistling.”

    I wish this were true, but the good folks of this country elected one of the Biggest Creeps of all. And said election has emboldened the racist remnants.

  2. Great essay, though. I might note that one of the direct reasons for the bankrupt County is because some of those very same preppies (in the spreadsheet diddling) sold them some magic rainbow financial “products” that will screw the County for generation. But, as Assistant Vice Principle for Discipline Obama wisely told us, what happened in the past happened in the past, and here is some more taxpayer money to play with!

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