Column: UnderCurrents: Downing the Stray Pigeons of the Slavery Discussion By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday June 24, 2005

“Black Americans and their leaders would be far better served if they would address the real problems in black education instead of the superficial and misleading issue of the name of a school.” So begins the April 19, 2005 Berkeley Daily Planet commentary by Berkeley resident Michael Larrick, writing on his opposition to the petition to change the name of Berkeley’s Jefferson Elementary School. 

The petition was submitted to Jefferson Elementary principal Betty Delaney in the spring of 2003, and called for the name change on the grounds that Thomas Jefferson “held as many as 150 African and African-American men, women and children in bondage, denying them the very rights which he had asserted for all in the Declaration of Independence. .... For some ... a school name which fails to acknowledge or respect the depth and importance of their people’s collective sorrow is personally offensive....” 

The question of whether the name of Jefferson Elementary should be changed has been argued at length in the letters to the editor pages of this paper, and elsewhere, and the issue of whether it would be changed was decided this week by the Berkeley School Board, which denied the petition on a 3-2 vote. 

But Mr. Larrick’s commentary raises a different point, which is whether the issue of Thomas Jefferson as a slaveholder—and by extension, the issues raised by the institution of American slavery in general—should be a topic of such discussion at all, given the many problems being faced by African American children in the public schools. It is Mr. Larrick’s opinion that such a discussion is, at best, a waste of time, and takes away from a concentrated attack on what has been come to be called the “achievement gap”—in which the educational results of black students in general (as measured by standardized test scores and grades, for example) persistently lag behind the educational results of their white counterparts. 

“The name of a school has absolutely nothing to do with academic achievement,” Mr. Larrick argues. “The real reasons for the ‘achievement gap’ are uncomfortable for many to discuss so the portrayal of blacks as perennial victims is used to absolve them from having to accept responsibility for their own actions and bad choices.” He concludes that “the black community needs to look to the future and make some changes in their approach to education and it goes far beyond the name of a school. Time is running out on the ability to play the victim card. Doing something to change incredible school drop out rate and the number of single mothers is what should be a priority or you may as well just change the name of the school to San Quentin Prep.” 

Mr. Larrick has let fly a number of stray pigeons out of this bush, in all directions at once. Let us pick them off quickly, one by one, before they get too far away. 

The first stray pigeon is the inference that African Americans suffer from the “Gerald Ford Syndrome,” taken from the remark by President Lyndon Johnson that because Mr. Ford had played too much football without a helmet, he could not both walk and chew gum at the same time. The apparent contention by Mr. Larrick is that African Americans cannot explore the historical causes of our present problems while simultaneously working to solve those problems, but, like Sam told his son, “You can either plow this field lengthways, or you can plow it wideways, but if you try to do it both at once, you’re gonna end up on the highways.” 

But that first stray pigeon is actually knocked down by Mr. Larrick’s own second, which is his contention that the Jefferson name change petition was brought by something he calls “black Americans and their leaders.” Actually, the name change was not put forth as part of some general black agenda, either local or national, even if such a general black agenda exists (which is doubtful). Instead, the Jefferson name change idea was initiated in part by Jefferson Elementary school teachers—some of them African American, some of them of other races—who pursued the name change issue on their off time—breaks and lunches, evenings and weekends—while continuing at their day job of educating the students at Jefferson. 

But Mr. Larrick has set forth a third stray pigeon—the implication that a prolonged discussion of American slavery is unproductive in and of itself—which has flown far and fast, and we must hurry to catch it. 

The question arises, to what cause can we attribute what Mr. Larrick identifies as the “lag of black performance”? 

In his commentary, Mr. Larrick cites, as one example of that “lag,” the work of Dr. John Ogbu, who “found that the very same problems plagued both Oakland and the affluent black suburb of Cleveland, Shaker Heights. Black students were absent more often, did less homework, watched more television and had less involved parents. They did not value education … [Dr. Ogbu] found that the students own attitudes hindered their academic achievement.” Dr. Obgu’s study, Mr. Larrick continues, “raises some uncomfortable questions about race, opportunity and responsibility.” 

Yes, but what are the answers? 

One can say, as Mr. Jefferson himself once did, that blacks underachieve because we simply don’t have the tools to compete. “Comparing [blacks] by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1782 essay “Notes On Virginia,” “it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior… and in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. … They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration…” 

Or one can blame it, as Mr. Larrick now does, not on genetic inferiority but on what he calls the black cultivation of what he calls a “victim mentality,” a sort of code word for saying that African-Americans are too lazy to get up and solve our own problems, but find it easier to simply shuffle along while continuing to blame our plight on a long-ended situation. 

But could the persistent “lag of black performance” have some roots in slavery and could a serious study of slavery—not a mere condemnation—reveal those causes and have a hand in the cure? Beyond that, could a serious study of slavery be profitable in understanding other aspects of American life? Having run out of space, we must leave the answers to those interesting questions to another time.