Sunday, January 08, 2006

Kane Watch: This time it's personal

People may ask why I, personally, chose to have Kane Watch. Why would a white, middle-lower-middle-class male from the North Shore care so much about what Eugene Kane has to say about inner city blacks? Does my interest have to do with anything more than picking on Kane? Do I even care about what goes on in this city?

Actually, I spent 13 years of my childhood living in the city of Milwaukee. I lived in one part of the city throughout college, and in another part for five years after that. For the last seven years I've lived in a neighboring suburb...a half-block outside the city.

Oddly enough, I never attended a Milwaukee school. Before starting kindergarten, my parents decided that I should attend a school district other than one in which we lived. The weird thing is that we lived in Cedarburg at the time. Apparently, at the time, they thought the burb was too rural and they didn't want me going to a "farmer's school."

Wow how things have changed.

So they sent me to Brown Deer. And they kept me there. Seeing how often we moved, it was nice to not have to change schools each time. And it also meant that I'd be spending years with the same group of peers. Our class was small, so everyone knew everyone. I graduated with at least a hundred people I was having nap-time with 13 years earlier. We grew up together.

Brown Deer also happened to be one of the first suburban districts to take part in Chapter 220, a diversity inspired desegregation program that facilitated bussing inner-city students to suburban schools. As diversity was its goal, this meant that even though I attended a school in a predominantly white suburb I did so with black students. These were kids I played tag with at 5, got in trouble with at 12 (I got in a lot of trouble at that age), played sports with at 15. Without getting into all the dirty details, I grew up with them. Black and White. Asian and Hispanic. They were my friends. Diversity seemed to work pretty well.

Except for one thing.

During my senior year there were sudden calls for equality. Black students demanded the same recognition as white students. A Black Student Union was formed. The new union had a dance that only black students and a few white students attended. Accusations were made that white students didn't attend because they were racist. Things escalated. If a white student mentioned that he wasn't aware there was a problem, he was a racist. Three white students put together an underground newspaper with the standard "if you don't like it here why don't you just go home." They were disciplined for it. One day a fake job application for a black person was slipped under the door of every classroom. An investigation discovered two black students had done it. The whole thing culminated in black students walking out of school one day.

And with most of the white students who witnessed it asking "what the hell is this all about?"

Were there racist students in the school? Absolutely. But they were the fringe and few and far between and had always been kept in check by the administration. Was the administration racist? I was never privy to their conversations, but even if there were a few bad apples they never spoiled the bunch. Black students ranked among some of the best and most talented students, athletes, artists and leaders. It would seem they had the same opportunity to succeed, an opportunity often taken, as any other student in the school. There were interracial relationships, black homecoming kings and recognition of black student achievement equal to that any other student would receive. So did racism exist? Yes. Did it really matter? I don't think so.

Here's the kicker.

Unfortunately, this happened well before blogs. There isn't a vast electronic archive for the events I'm about to relate. This is based on an adult, the friend of a parent, explaining to me the course of events at the time. So I'm unable to give you all the links necessary. I can't even find anything about the events on google, even though I know the story hit the news a few times.

Apparently at around the same time racial issues came to a head at Brown Deer High School, there was a movement to build low-income housing in the village. The village resisted, claiming it was financially better for them to sell the land to a developer interested in building single-family houses. A black talk radio host (I can't recall who, but I did listen to him once or twice) claimed that Brown Deer was racist for not allowing the low-income housing. It just so happened a listener was a black senior at the high school. He latched on to her and lead the eventual walk-out himself.

He brought his fight, inappropriate accusations of racism and all, to my school. And even though the black kids we grew up with had always been our friends and equals, we were suddenly racists.

I'm not positive the events took place quite exactly that way, but I do know that where nobody ever saw a problem, there was suddenly a big one. I know that a voice of black Milwaukee was actively involved in these accusations. I witnessed first hand how making those accusations completely shut down any chance for resolution. I saw how that voice so quickly divided people, rather than bringing them together.

And so long as Mr. Kane wishes to play that role, he'll need to answer for the problems he makes.

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