Hairston's appointment a message of inclusion

March 16, 2000|By Michael Olesker

Joseph Hairston's race should not matter, but it probably does. After a selection process that was both exasperating and embarrassing, he will become the first black superintendent in the history of Baltimore County's public schools, a system that is doing quite nicely, if we all agree to examine only the test scores of white children.

As everybody knows, Hairston's appointment was a little delayed. He thought he was getting the job a few weeks ago, but County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger applied the brakes. Ruppersberger wanted a little more time for everybody to get to know Hairston -- not only county politicians who had been excluded from the school board's secretive selection process, but school administrators, teachers and, not to be minimized, parents.

For the past two weeks, Hairston has been meeting with all of them and winning much applause. His most poignant remarks were delivered one week ago, to members of the African-American Advisory Group, the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Baltimore County Alliance of Black School Educators.

"Race is scientifically insignificant when it comes to academic success," Hairston told them.

How awful that such a thing has to be enunciated so late in the game; how dreadful that such a message has to be reinforced in the year 2000, as though someone would still try to sell the idea that skin color indicates intelligence possibilities.

Your children, Hairston was declaring, are just as bright as white children. No one should think otherwise. And yet, in Hairston's mind, such reinforcement was clearly necessary. Because, in schools across Baltimore County, there is still this perplexing gap in academic achievement between white and black children. The gap also is seen profoundly in the city schools, which are overwhelmingly black and where academic scores trail those in most of the state.

"Something else is at play," Hairston said.

He meant cultural effects. Hairston talked about so many black kids imagining they can become sports stars or entertainers that they slough off academics. Dreaming is nice, but so is perspective. Hairston talked about role models, not Michael Jordan or the hip-hop star of the moment, but mothers and fathers who hang in through the years and check their kids' homework each night and thus show their children that such a process is valued.

This gets us closer to the heart of the matter. When Hairston said that race was "scientifically insignificant," he was reaching into a whole history of American supposition, in which generations of black people were told they were inferior and were forced to send their kids to second-rate schools, with undereducated teachers and outdated books and equipment, and thus the message of inferiority was reinforced.

That kind of psychological scarring doesn't go away overnight. It is passed, from one generation to the next, around kitchen tables, and in barbershops and church gatherings, and it becomes a general assumption: This is not our system; this system has been imposed on us and stacked against us. Therefore, we have to find our own system.

Hairston's appointment is supposed to say a few things. First, it's to say that Baltimore County got the best available person for the job and that race no longer matters in such a process. But simultaneously, it's supposed to say to black parents and their children: The system is ours as much as it is white families', and here is the proof.

That, too, is important. But it is not the entire story. In the city of Baltimore, for example, we had the case of Walter Amprey. He was a man with great intentions, a big bear of a figure, full of warmth and love for children, a superintendent who talked about being a role model for black youngsters and declared their underachievement a mirror of their own lack of self-respect.

It's not that Amprey was wrong. It's that the argument didn't go far enough. It didn't address classroom problems, and North Avenue administrative bungling, and it didn't get close enough to so many of these kids' home lives, where the father is unknown, the mother overburdened, and the exhausted grandmother is the stabilizing force in the family. All of which leaves the schools utterly overmatched.

The teachers have these children for six hours a day; the world has them for the other 18. Last week, Hairston's message was: The heart of that world must be the parents. They're the ones who have to slough off a history of feeling marginalized, of feeling the system is someone else's, and of passing on those sentiments to their children.

Hairston's appointment should be an important symbol to black parents that the system is theirs as much as everybody else's. And it should be a symbol to white parents that, in America, the thinkers on a suburban school board found the best person they could, and he happened to be black.

And Hairston's words about parents as role models should be a lesson to everyone.

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