Honestly, How Can We Make Things Better?
The course of events – and dialogue – over the past few weeks around race and inequality in America has been startling in its speed and ferocity. It feels as if we had all been sitting on a tinderbox waiting for something to ignite it, and – for many of us – unaware of how combustible the mixtures all wound us had been, and continue to be. For those of us whose memories stretch back to times when racial unrest erupted throughout the country, the ‘being caught unawares’ is particularly striking; many of us had thought that the schisms and rifts now being exposed had been healed. All too apparently not.
It would be beyond presumptuous to think that there is anything more that I could add from my vantage point – largely removed from the challenges experienced by those who feel a sense of unequal treatment in the justice system, and those who are responsible for ensuring the safety and well being of our communizes, in these times of remarkably high stress and anxiety.
Instead, I’d like to pose a question that has been on my mind, and one that I believe might be on the minds of others, as well. The, I’d like to propose an answer; likely not a very new one, but note that I think may resonate with others, as well. At the outset, I recognize that the overall case I’m making may be somewhat self-serving, but I make no apology for trying to walk the walk of this talk. Let me elaborate –
Over the course of recent weeks, with shootings, deaths, lootings, arrests, denouncements, blaming police, blaming young men now dead, of mourners, and of funerals; of these weeks of talking heads, of press conferences, of finger pointing, f citing histories going back at least two hundred years, of hash tags, of Ayatollahs getting into the act, of mayors of presidents, and place commissioners; of these weeks of anger, frustration, pain and despair, I’ve wondered why there is so precious little said about what we should do. Apart from (a relatively short lived) campaign to put cameras on police and trying to achieve more representative police forces in major urban areas, painfully few ideas have sprouted on how to change the fundamental problems that afflict poor, minority neighborhoods.
While I am not qualified to judge the merits (or demerits) of placing cameras on police, I have to wonder in a place where the murder rate of young black men – the leading cause of death of young black men – is roughly fifty times than of young white men (and over 90% of those murders are not committed by whites), where the income gap between back and white has actually increased over the past six years, where the likelihood moving out of the lowest quintile economically has become harder – not easier – in the past twenty five years – what will police cameras do to improve the lot and the future to minority children and youth?. That is my fundamental question; what can we do to make things better?
I’m agnostic on the issue of policing – I hear the great frustration from many different sources, but I wonder what approaches will make things truly better twenty years from now. As someone who remembers the last eruptions, it’s a very fair question.
In essence, the question is ‘how can we transform lives’?; how can we make the prognosis for the future better than what it appears to be now?
My suggestion is an obvious one; transform lives by giving people – especially young people – the tools they need in order to make more of their lives. Give them the tools to explore, to discover, to master their surroundings; give them the tools to consider, to debate, and to choose; give them the tools to understand to reflect, and then to forge new ground, and let their future be a future of their own making. In order for all of this to happen, give them the tools of learning; give them dedicated teachers in schools that can succeed.
In essence, I’m suggesting that the answer to the question of ‘Honestly, how can we make things better’ is simply, ‘schools matter’
This is the point in the piece where a ‘don’t take my word for I’ reference is useful. For that I turn to the only book I a know of that was a number one best seller on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Boston Globe, USA Today and Washington Post lists, a McKinsey Business Book of the Year, An Amazon, Economist, History Today, Library Journal, and New York Times ‘Best book’ of the year (2014), a Google Trends Top Search of the year, and many, many other accolades that space just won’t permit noting here. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, indeed, a big book (including notes and index, just under 700 pages and five pounds). In it, Piketty outlines the definitive comparative historical research on income inequality, and “provides a fresh and sweeping analysis of the world’s economic history that puts into question many of our core beliefs about the organization of market economies. His most startling news is that the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free market capitalism, is wrong. Rather, the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.”
It is a dense and thorough book, which addresses the very core of the issues of inequality and inequality of opportunity. And while he spends far more of his focus on the ratio of the growth of capital as compared to the growth of income, tax structures and the future of capitalism as a whole, it is worth noting that early on in the book, Pikkety sharply clarifies what his work is about, titling a section ’The major Results of This Study,’ (which follows a brief review of his methodology and theoretical constructs). He starts this ‘ major results section, with the reflective question, ‘what are the major conclusions to which these novel historical sources have led me.’ He then gives relatively brief regard– but for our purposes, remarkably important insight – into the forces that work to reduce inequality, what he terms ‘ mechanisms pushing towards convergence’. Here, with respect to the significance of the insight, I quote a length:
‘The main focus for convergence are the diffusion of knowledge and investment in training and skills…Knowledge and skill diffusion is the key to overall productivity growth as well as the reduction of inequality both within and between countries…From a strictly theoretical standpoint, other forces pushing towards greater equality might exist. ...Over a long period of time, the main force in favor of a greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills.”
Piketty’s case is our case – the problems of inequality are deep and significant. And while there may be useful approaches to consider around economic policy, for those interested in asking what can be done to make things better, his suggestion should animate us; the roles of those individuals and institutions that promote the diffusion of knowledge and skills stand at the forefront of addressing the issue of inequality. This is a legacy solution – the ripples of investing in improving schools now will yield fruit in a generation, and in generations to come. For those interested in making a significant, lasting and effective contribution to the problem of inequality of opportunity, there is one shining path – do what you can to help schools most effectively diffuse knowledge and skills.
I have no useful point of view on the particulars of which school or the other (or which school program or the other) is best; I only suggest that the vehicle out of this mess is the one that enables minority youth to learn and to blossom. The world needs their insights and contributions; when we lose that, we lose a fundamental resource that we simply cannot afford to squander.
My own skin in the game (I don’t know if we can use that term any longer) is centered on building outstanding leadership for schools; the claim is that leaders are the levers that can make schools into places of transformation for students and staff; if we find the strategies to grow the capacity of school leaders, we can potentially be prepared to answer the question of ‘how do make things better’ at a time of unrest and potential hopelessness.
Other voices, other strategies may arise, but so long as he prize is unlocking opportunity, about addressing inequality, then the work we do to help schools and school leaders transform remains our single best hope. And in pursing this, may we call to mind Walter Brueggemann, who wrote in The Prophetic Imagination about the two elements of prophetic vision. One is criticality, recognition of the world’s pain. Second is hope, recognition of the world’s possibilities. May we respectfully acknowledge the first, but never lose sight of the later, and may our efforts always be for seeking, finding and building a better world for those to whom we leave it.