Editorial: Is ‘Berkeley for the Berkeleyans’ Good Public Policy?

By Becky O’Malley
Friday August 25, 2006

The ever-estimable Nation magazine’s latest issue highlights, among other things, what the cover calls “the new nativism”—the most recent episode in the “America for the Americans” tendency that has been with this nation since its founding. One article traces its historic roots: all the way from Ben Franklin in the 18th century inveighing against German immigrants to Pennsylvania (now the belovedly quaint Pennsylvania “Dutch”) through anti-Irish riots at the beginning of the 19th century at the time of the Potato Famine immigration, on to the Chinese exclusion advocated by the Irish-American Dennis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party in the West during the last part of that century, culminating in the 20th century charge against “hyphenated-Americans” led first by Theodore Roosevelt, followed by the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The 1965 immigration law reform was supposed to have put an end to national-origins quotas, but now all over the U.S. there’s a revival of crusades against Spanish-speaking immigrants both legal and undocumented. Xenophobia—the pathological distrust of outsiders—in other words is as American as cherry pie, as Stokely Carmichael was once castigated for saying about violence. 

Another piece in the same Nation might seem to be about a different topic, but is just another side of the same coin. African-American law professor Patricia Williams, a regular columnist, describes a nice camp which brings together children from war-torn areas to live together so that “they can learn about the humanity of those they have been raised to fear or kill.” But she contrasts this program with a couple of current cases now in the courts in which plaintiffs challenge the idea of diversity as a necessary coping skill which the public schools should be teaching. She characterizes this anti-integration rationale as “very dangerously circular—minorities have chosen their lot, so it’s entirely rational not to let them move into your neighborhood or mix with them in your schools…” Her own contention is that “schools…are a highly effective way to teach children to see past stereotype, if only we had the sustained will to mix them up—thoughtfully, consciously and across established social divisions.” Well said. 

But now a version of the new nativism seems to be surfacing in Berkeley, of all places. A “Berkeley for the Berkeleyans” policy is being enunciated in conjunction with the upcoming school board election. Here’s candidate David Baggins, Ph.D., a PoliSci professor at the school formerly known as Hayward State: 

“The heart of my campaign is a call to keep what’s wonderful about Berkeley schools while admitting honestly what is not. I particularly hope to address the issues of violence in the schools, the problem of historic under-enforcement of residency for registration, and the need to help low-performing students without holding back the other bright and inquisitive youths of Berkeley.”  

If that’s not clear enough for you, in July he wrote in a letter to the Planet saying that “…basic policies create both the achievement gap and the high violence rate… Of course African American students in Berkeley reflect Oakland under-achievement rates. They are, as anyone who observes after school traffic knows, substantially from Oakland. Berkeley is 13 percent African American. Berkeley schools climb to one-third African American substantially because of the unique BUSD policy of not enforcing legal residency. To some this unique policy is an extension of Berkeley’s quest for social change. To others it is yet another local government betrayal of the taxpayers and residential quality of life. Either way to word this unprecedented generosity as a curricular indictment is simply wrong.”  

In other words, if Berkeley’s test scores are bad and there’s violence in the schools, it’s because we’ve let in too many African-American kids from Oakland. And conversely, if we could keep those bad kids on the outside looking in, our own deserving kids would get an even bigger piece of pie. 

School board member John Selawsky and others have been quick to respond by defending the rigor of the current school administration’s efforts to exclude un-Berkeley students, though some think enough is still not being done. But what doesn’t seem to be playing a big part in the discussion is whether Berkeley-for-the-Berkeleyans as applied to our schools is good public policy.  

Baggins’ campaign slogan is “The Best Schools for Berkeley’s Kids.” Maybe I’m old-school, but I don’t think Berkeley kids would be getting the best schools if their schools were only 13 percent African-American. And it wouldn’t even be that high a percentage, because many if not most of Berkeley’s African-American residents these days are getting on in years, so the percentage of school-age African-American kids who meet strict residency requirements is probably a lot smaller. Living in Berkeley these days is much pricier that it used to be, and fewer African-American families can afford it. 

My three daughters got excellent educations in the Berkeley public schools in the ’70s and ’80s—not free from conflict or anxiety, but academically on a par with any in the country. They got in to fine colleges to boot. What they got at Berkeley High that they wouldn’t have gotten in Orinda or even Albany is the sense that they can be at home and okay anywhere in the world—that they can engage in dialogue with anyone without fear. The same teen-age divisions by race and class and academic track which existed then at Berkeley High still exist everywhere, even in all-white suburbs, but my kids benefited from many friendships which crossed lines. Because of this, they’ve been able to travel all over the place and do all sorts of interesting and exciting things with confidence.  

Parents are tempted to draw some sort of invisible line around their own homes and their homogeneous neighborhoods to keep their kids safe, but in the long run it won’t work. The parents who want to make sure that their children are firmly inside the Berkeley Bubble, that they always associate only with kids of a certain socionomic level much like their own, are not doing the kids any good in the long run.  

And then there’s the argument often made in support of bond issues and parcel taxes: that schools are not just the concern of parents and students, but of the whole community. As someone who’s long since passed the point of needing the public schools for my own kids, I subscribe to that argument, and support any school funding proposal they throw at us, as do most Berkeley voters. But I see myself primarily not as a dweller in the Berkeley Bubble, but as a resident of the Urban East Bay as a whole and of the world. I have just as much interest in the education of those Oakland kids who live ten blocks from my house across the border as I do in the education of Berkeley kids. I’m going to have to live with them, or close to them, when they grow up, after all. Until Professor Baggins started his campaign, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which the policy of the Berkeley public schools has evolved to favor the exclusion of outsiders, and I don’t much like what I hear.  

In fact—might as well put it all on the table—I allowed an African-American family who were not able to find a new home in Berkeley when their rental apartment was converted to owner-occupied to register their kids from my address until they found a legal place inside the city limits. Should I have been dreading a knock on my door by the school police some dark night? Of course if I’d really been worried I could have given them a “lease” to a broom closet at my house to keep the kids in their classes until their housing situation improved.  

From another Baggins letter:  

”Anyone who wishes to validate the extent of this issue need only take one afternoon in September to stand at the bus stops along Shattuck and wait for Berkeley High to let out. You will witness police deployed to monitor hundreds of students returning daily to other districts. It would seem that Berkeley’s police department has a greater awareness of the schools in this regard than the school-Board.”  

Or perhaps that Berkeley police are negatively profiling these kids They are, after all, the ones whose families care enough about them to send them to Berkeley on the bus because they can’t afford private schools. 

Baggins to the contrary notwithstanding, grandmothers and godmothers and friends of the family are going to go on doing what they need to do to make sure kids they care about are getting the best education they can provide. And what’s wrong with that? School Board candidates, please address this question.