Racism is alive and well here in Ann Arbor. Or at least that’s the conclusion most people seem to be drawing from the scandal erupting over Elementary School Principal Mike Madison’s decision to arrange a field trip available only to his black fifth grade students. One woman, posting under the username EmilyA2, thought Madison’s decision was “completely ridiculous” because it “[gave] special privileges to children based solely on the color of their skin.” Now, if all I ever read about this issue were the biased op-ed pieces crowding the internet, I’d be a little upset too. But after sifting through various reports and reading the facts for myself, I came to the conclusion that while Principal Madison could have done many things differently in this situation, he is anything but a racist.
Even though much of what happened remains largely contested by both sides, everyone seems to agree that it all started last week when African American boys and girls from Dicken Elementary School took a school-sponsored field trip to have lunch with a black, University rocket scientist. When the trip ended, students returned to class and were booed by their peers. It’s at this point that things start to get a little hazy. Madison claims that after he heard all the commotion, he insisted the group have a class discussion about race. Parents, on the other hand, say Madison yelled at their children and even belittled a Muslim girl for speaking her mind.
When asked for comments about the ongoing controversy, Principal Madison said, “In hindsight, this field trip could have been approached and arranged in a better way. But as I reflect upon the look of excitement, enthusiasm and energy that I saw in these children’s eyes as they stood in the presence of a renowned African American rocket scientist in a very successful position, it gave the kids an opportunity to see this type of achievement is possible for even them.” It’s difficult for me to sympathize with Madison’s critics when it’s obvious to me that this man wanted nothing more than to connect a group of his students with a role model that knew what it was like to have walked a mile in their shoes. He wanted to show them that they didn’t have to be what the statistics condemn them to be: an underachiever.
It’s no secret that there exists a widening achievement gap between black students and their white counterparts. According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Education‘s National Center for Education Statistics, African-American students scored on average 26 points less than white students on their reading and math tests. The study also found that “while the achievement gap narrowed in some states as African-American students academically improved more than their white counterparts, the gap still remained.”
Minority students across the country, for one reason or another, continue to perform at levels that are well below that of their Caucasian peers. And while I’m no expert on education policy, I don’t think cookie cutter approaches like Goals 2000 or the No Child Left Behind Act did anything to help the situation. If you ask me, Principal Madison realized that this problem wasn’t being adequately addressed and took matters into his own hands.
He recognized that in a culture plagued with absent fathers and working mothers, many black students spend much of their time in search of strong, positive influences to combat the negative ones that seem to lurk behind every street corner. Before the likes of Barack Obama and Colin Powell, black students were rarely exposed to lawyers, doctors and bankers that looked like, talked like or even acted like them.
Growing up in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York, I was rarely introduced to successful black men and women that overcame adversity to make it in the “real world.” I never learned about prominent politicians that had walked a mile in my shoes. When it came to politics, the only names I remembered hearing were Bill Clinton, George Pataki, and Rudy Guiliani. Needless to say, career days at P.S. 139 were noticeably lacking color.
I genuinely believe Principal Madison thought he was doing the right thing when he arranged that field trip. Yes, he did choose these students “solely on the basis of their skin color.” But I don’t think it was for the reasons EmilyA2 and similar-minded critics would have you believe. He chose them to go on this field trip because he perceived a lack of accessible role models in the black community. Maybe he should have invited the white students along to the meet-and-greet and hosted an after school event just for the black students. Maybe he should have sent a letter out to parents before the excursion explaining his rationale. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a man who tried solving a problem, not creating one.
Noel Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.