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  • Robert Farago

I Was A Racist

No one in my family ever used the “n” word. My classmates at Moses Brown School did. Me too. We threw around all the slurs: whop, spic, kike, chink, dago, polack, etc. Fag was the most common. No surprise for an all-boys school at the time. An all-white, all-boys school.

That changed. The student body gradually became diverse, adding Asians, Iranians and Blacks. At the same time, the nation lived through the violence down South and up in Southie. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Race riots.

By the time I graduated, the n-word was history. No one I knew used it, including MB’s black students.

Racism RIP?

My “casual racism” bit the dust well before graduation, when a neighborhood kid and I were browsing a now-defunct luxury gift store in Wayland Square.

A Black man walked in dressed in a fur coat and hat, looking and talking like Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch. We watched, fascinated, as he purchased a silver cigarette case.

“Did you see that n-word?” my barely teenage companion asked when the customer left with his beautifully-wrapped prize.

“Shame on you,” the store owner snapped. “ I don’t care what color he is, as long as the color of his money is green.”

A Jewish Immigrant’s Perspective on Race Relations

A typically Rhode Island perspective. Also my father’s.

“In no other country in the world can an immigrant with $10 in his pocket make such a comfortable life for his family,” he reminded us on a regular basis. “Everyone has a chance here.”

Don’t think for a minute my father viewed his adopted homeland through rose-colored glasses. Antisemitism dogged him at RISD and after. Prejudice that only let him rise so far; Jews weren’t welcome in the WASP clubs and associations that ruled the roost in Little Rhody.

Antisemitism didn’t ding Peter Farago’s conviction that capitalism was the glue that held our country together. If anything, it strengthened it. And led directly to my gift store light bulb “don’t be a dick” moment.

From that moment on, the n-word in my head was dead.

Affirmative Action

As I headed off to college, the cultural landscape changed. TV shows relied less on offensive stereotypes. Affirmative action kicked in.

The practice ran against my belief that equal opportunity should be absolute. Ipso facto. Setting different, never mind lower standards for people of color or a particular ethnicity is unfair and, ultimately, counter-productive.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that some people don’t have the opportunity to gain the education and/or skills that Jews and other caucasians receive as a matter of course.

The public school system in minority communities, for example, is a joke. Poverty in their communities is no joke. I also know these deficits were born of racism.

But racism is now illegal in education, hiring and any other sphere. The door of opportunity is wide open. More open than it’s ever been. More open than anywhere else in the world.

Race-Specific Affinity Classes

So when I read The Wall Street Journal headline “High school in Evanston, Ill. offers so-called affinity classes, in which Black and Latino students are separated from white students” I was shocked.

Seriously? How is that even legal?

School districts in Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., offer optional, race-specific elective courses. Federal anti-discrimination laws prevent public schools from mandatorily separating students by race, but education lawyers say optional courses can comply with the law.

If those unnamed lawyers are right, it’s the race-specific loophole from hell. A carve-out that flies in the face of the long, bloody fight for integration that defined the Civil Rights movement.

I’m sure you can guess the rationale for this, dare I say it, unAmerican educational trend. If not…

“A lot of times within our education system, Black students are expected to conform to a white standard,” said Dena Luna, who leads Black student-achievement initiatives in Minneapolis Public Schools. The district offers middle- and high-school students electives focused on African-American history and social-emotional support, taught by teachers of color. Created in 2015 for Black boys, the format has expanded to Black girls and will soon expand to Latino students. An internal study showed improved attendance for Black boys in the program in 2017 and average GPAs of 2.27, compared with 2.14 for Black males districtwide.

The segregated classes – with teachers hired based on race – are OK because they lead to a six percent Grade Point Average improvement? All the way to a 2.27 GPA out of 4.0?

White Standard

By the same token (so to speak), what is a “white standard”? If it exists, how is it bad? Someone should ask the Oakland Unified School District school board.

The district also offers elective and advisory classes designated for Latino, Asian Pacific Islander and Arab students, said Jerome Gourdine, director of targeted strategies for the district’s office of equity.

Can you imagine the uproar if a public school offered elective and advisory whites-only classes?

By segregating minority students into small subgroups, that’s exactly what Oakland’s done.

Full Circle

Race-specific affinity classes are an Orwellian reversal of integration, betraying the spirit of the hard fought laws designed to bring us together.

Who would have thought our collective journey to a more perfect union would end up here?

Not me in that gift store that day. But what did I know? Only this: racism is unacceptable in any way, shape or form.

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