How do you get past race when it both is, and is not, the issue?
The election of a new majority makes it imperative that the Buffalo School Board figure that out – quickly.
It is naive of anyone to think that the schools can be fixed without the active buy-in of the African-American and Hispanic families who comprise the bulk of the district’s enrollment.
Yet gaining that buy-in will be infinitely more difficult after a campaign that broke along the same racial lines that split the current board. It also will be hard after a campaign in which the winners creating the new white majority were backed by Carl Paladino, whose racial baggage taints anyone he touches.
For instance, one of those winners – Patti Bowers Pierce – will tap her law enforcement background in crafting solutions. But talking in a vacuum about solving social problems such as truancy by using a criminal-justice system that blacks already distrust – often with good reason – is a recipe for alienation. So is talking about putting kids in boarding schools, an idea she heard Paladino espouse.
That doesn’t mean that those aren’t legitimate topics for debate or that many blacks might not agree. But it does mean that anyone proposing them should take the advice of human relations guru Dale Carnegie and talk about things “you’ve earned the right to talk about.”
Whites earn the right to talk about saving black kids by going to the community meetings and other events to understand the fears, the suspicions, the history and the culture of the people in the neighborhoods. They don’t earn it by pontificating from above or swooping in like the hero in a “Tarzan” movie with solutions that raise red flags.
Fortunately, the other newcomer – top vote-getter Larry Quinn – has talked about the need to “be inclusive” while still creating the revolution that’s needed. The self-assured Quinn also is not likely to fall under the sway of Paladino. If he can reach out to third-place finisher Barbara Seals Nevergold and incumbents such as James Sampson and Theresa Harris-Tigg, he has the potential to create a biracial “sensible middle” to get past the divide.
Much of that divide centers around Superintendent Pamela Brown and the effort to get rid of her, almost before she unpacked. It would be disingenuous to think that none of this was about race.
But it also would be dishonest not to admit that a case can be made for her dismissal that has nothing to do with color. That case can be based solely on her repeated failures, missteps and flip-flops that have the district in the cross hairs of both its parent group and state education officials.
There are grounds for her departure if she were white, black or polka dot. But her removal still will be a hard sell to those who perceive a white power elite telling black people what’s best for their children.
That means things now could go either of two ways. There could be a role reversal, with the new white majority imposing its will and the black minority doing everything it can to obstruct, much as some members did to Brown.
Or the new board majority could recognize the racial split in the community, marginalize extremist members and form a coalition to find solutions with residents, not for them.
On paper, the answer seems like a no-brainer.
But with race, power and emotion involved, we can only hope that’s not how it gets decided.