A while back I asked some family members and white childhood friends who they remember as the first person of authority — a person whose opinions they were expected to respect even if they didn’t agree — who wasn’t white, in their lives.
Very few remembered anyone at all.
I grew up in a fairly segregated town and went to Catholic schools. All my elementary school teachers were white. In high school I had one black teacher and one Hispanic teacher. In college (state school) I had two professors of color, though there were more professors of color teaching, mostly in ethnic studies courses, who I didn’t encounter. It wasn’t until 10 years ago that I had non-white, non-male bosses. Mr. A started working for a woman of color for the first time two years ago.
An under-covered aspect of the Obama freakout (and then the Clinton freakout afterward) was the idea that a lot of white people living segregated lives — the only black people they ever saw were on TV, probably playing football — had to confront the idea of a black person having authority over them. Blah blah, I know, the president works for us, but there was a huge swell of rage at “having” to listen to a black man. They’d never “had” to do that before, and damn if it didn’t piss them off.
Segregation of AUTHORITY matters as much as segregation of housing, jobs, amenities and everything else. It matters tremendously to children of color:
Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, and Papageorge demonstrate that if a black male student has at least one black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grade, he is significantly less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to attend a four-year college (as proxied by taking a college entrance exam). They find that these effects are especially pronounced for economically disadvantaged black male students. For instance, they find that a disadvantaged black male’s exposure to at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces his probability of dropping out of high school by nearly 40 percent. This estimated effect is not just statistically significant, but also highly educationally relevant.
We are long overdue for so many corrections in this country, and this is the last one coming for myself and my fellow white folk: That people who don’t look like us have something to teach us, and that we should shut up and learn.