STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.
This week, State of Opportunity presents an hour-long documentary on race, culture, and kids in Michigan. What’s the problem and why does it matter?Jennifer Guerra goes into some of our state's high schools and finds them to be more segregated than one would think possible in the 21st century. She speaks with teachers and students about how race today shapes their experiences in the classroom and using restorative justice techniques to reduce conflicts. And we hear what students think about growing up in, what some claim, is a "post-racial" society. What are you hearing about race from the kids in your home, in your classroom, and in your neighborhood? Help them share their stories with us. And come chat with us on Facebook when the documentary airs Thursday, May 2nd.

RACE: Students share their thoughts on race

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Michigan has a lot to be proud of - top universities, the Great Lakes, a (now) thriving car industry. Having some of the most racially segregated schools in the country? Not so much. 

When it comes to racial segregation in schools, Michigan tops the charts.

True, Michigan doesn’t have any actual segregated schools on the books, those went out a long time ago. But de facto segregation is very real. And it’s hard to argue that we’re moving toward a post-racial society in Michigan when black kids mostly go to school with other black kids, Latinos with Latinos, whites with whites.

Gary Orfield directs the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. He says one thing people need to understand is it's almost never just segregation by race or ethnicity. "It's almost always what we call 'double segregation.' So high concentrated black or Latino schools tend to have concentrated poverty as well, so there’s a double level of segregation."

And for a lot of Latino students, Orfield says it’s triple segregation: segregation by race, poverty and language.

"Almost anyone would agree," says Orfield, "that just sitting next to a white kid isn’t magical, but being in a middle class school where most of the kids are going to college and everybody’s preparing them to succeed there, that is magical."

Orfield goes on to say that as the country moves towards a majority minority, the double and triple segregation that's happening in schools needs to be addressed. If not, "the average level of education will decline as whites are replaced particularly by Latinos, which is the underlying dynamic of our population now. If we don’t figure out how to educate those people who are actually here in our country, we will create new barrios and ghettos with people who have no future in this society and no real connection to it, and we’ll pay huge costs for that for generations to come."

Students share their thoughts on race

We often hear adults - teachers, researchers, community workers - talk about the race in the classroom. But what do students think about race? I mean, how do you talk about differences – like race – if all you see, day in and day out, in your school and your neighborhood – are people who look just like you?

Take a listen to this audio postcard, where you'll hear from a number of students – Latino, African American and White – about what it means to grow up in a de facto segregated world. We’ll start with the students at Pershing and New Tech High Schools, where more than 90 percent of the population is black.

After listening to Michael, Andrea, Tanesha and all the other teenagers who were so willing to open up and share their thoughts on race, I couldn’t help but wonder: If Michigan schools are among the most segregated in the country, what would it feel like to be a minority at one of those schools? The odd man out. The one who so obviously looks different from everybody else.

So we gave a recorder to a young woman named Kennedie King, and we asked her to reflect on what it’s like to be in the minority at her school.  She attends a high school in SE Michigan, where she is one of the few African American students.

Kennedie King (second from right) shares what it's like to be one of the few minorities at her school.

Here’s Kennedie:

An audio diary by 15-year old Kennedie King

On friends: "From my white friends, it’s usually always like ‘do you wash your hair every day?’ those kinds of questions. ... Black people it’s always matters of the voice and whether or not you came from Detroit. Like my voice, because of the way I speak, people thing I’m trying to be “bougie.” Again it’s just me speaking proper English, how I was raised."

On historically black colleges: "I mean they may have the same drama, but it feels nicer to be among your own, the ones that understand your familiarities."

On school: "I think my school doesn’t deal with the issue of race. It’s kind of like a 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy. Makes me feel like the school doesn’t care. I don’t know how everybody else feels, but to me, it makes me not like the school altogether because I mean you avoid this one little issue and it turns into a whole heap of mess. I mean, I’ve always asked the question how adults expect kids to settle this problem like when they go into the real world, and it’s a problem that should’ve been settled generations long, long past."

Do it for Ashley

The issue of race is complicated. It can’t be boiled down into sound bites and simple statements. It’s dynamic, it’s messy. Being born Black or Latino or Native American shouldn’t play a major role in determining your life outcomes, any more than being born White should.

Not too long ago, then Senator Barack Obama shined a spotlight on race in a speech he gave in Philadelphia.

In it, he talked about segregated schools and discrimination, racial tensions, anger in the black community, resentment among whites…

He ended his speech with a story about a young white woman named Ashley. Ashley’s Mom had cancer, and the family had to file for bankruptcy after she lost her job and health benefits.

Ashely says she joined the Obama campaign because she wanted to help others in similar situations.

Here's an excerpt from the speech:

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

What we’re talking about here is bigger than any particular party or campaign.

It’s about equality.

Racial disparities aren’t going to disappear overnight; it will take a lot of work to ensure that all children – no matter what color their skin, or what zip code they live in – all children have the opportunity to succeed.

We should do it not just for Ashley, but for  Shaquiria Harris-Bey, Tanesha George, Andrea Salsito, Erica Bland, Mikaela Strech, Austin Feldman, Destiny, Katie, Leah Levine, Jason Mondrie, Vanera Vasquez, Alexa Callero, Cheynne, Darrion, Michael Bertrand, Eddie Solis, Kennedie King, Navia Daniel, Nicholas Gordon, and all the other youth we've spoken to over the course of our State of Opportunity project. 

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.