Friday Reading List: The Drug War, Climate Change, Segregation ... You Know, Intractable Things

Before you do anything today, watch this quick video from The New York Times about the statistical failures of the drug war. If that pitch isn't enticing enough, I should mention that the narrator is Shawn Carter, better known as Jay Z:

I'm glad that Jay touches on the growth of the legal marijuana business, as there's a particular hypocrisy involved in imprisoning large numbers of men of color for a thing that now enriches the mostly White early adopters in that industry.

Alia Wong has a long-form piece in The Atlantic examining the real problems behind schools integration policy:

Many experts and advocates fear that while integration programs based on choice are necessary—anything that doesn’t give parents a choice is doomed to fail—they also have clear limits. That’s the narrow path any successful integration policy will have to navigate. “All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”

Hopkinson makes the critical point here; when offered a choice to integrate, most White people choose "no." As readers of this blog know, I think those families are making the wrong decision by choosing to self-segregate, and the reasons they deploy to justify those decisions are mostly rooted in assumptions about the unearned privileges conferred by the existence of race and Whiteness in our culture. I'm not sure any policy alone can deal with that; we need something more like a mass movement to change mindsets.

If that problem seems intractable, Mareesa Nicosia has the story of an Alaskan school that will be the first in America whose physical existence is threatened by climate change:

Each year, the water slides closer, buoyed by wind and rain storms, record-high temperatures and melting permafrost. Next year, estimates say, the river will flow past the shoreline houses and reach the school, which is the village’s highest point, its community center, and its only source of running water. If the current rate of erosion remains constant, the school—the first in the country to shutter because of climate change—may not make it through 2018. The current roster of high-school seniors will likely be the last graduating class of Newtok.

In the meantime, the United States is the only country in the world wherein a major political party denies the existence of climate change. (*cough* Republicans *cough*).

In other news, Sharif El-Mekki, a middle school principal, shares a tough story about his interactions with police officers in Philadelphia:

Last year, a female officer put one of my 7th graders in handcuffs and put her in the back of her squad car. When I got the call, I was extremely concerned. When I found out it was because the twelve-year old “got smart” I was livid. To me, that is code for something with a sinister and racist history. When confronted, she said, “Tell my Captain! I don’t want to work with these bad ass kids anyway!” Officer, that’s 90% of the problem. The other 10% of the problem is that your Captain sent you here anyway.

There are some dark truths here, harkening back to the Melinda A. Anderson article I shared last week about the security apparatus in schools serving children of color.

Those schools are also the most likely to be subject to dramatic school improvement strategies, and Peter Cunningham is in U.S. News & World Report looking at public opinion on that issue:

Eighty-four percent of the public prefers fixing struggling schools while just 14 percent want to close them, though the question was asked without much context for why a school is closed. In most cases, schools close because they are under-enrolled, and they are under-enrolled because parents have moved away or chosen to enroll their children elsewhere. The motives of parents differ dramatically, whether it's safety, school performance, school culture or convenience. And, in some cases, enrollment declines are linked to policies like deconcentrating poverty or factors like declining birth rates. In Chicago, for example, both are true. In any case, the big factor driving school closings is that parents want better options for their kids.

Cunningham later addresses the rub here, which is that school improvement efforts have a low success rate and require significant political tradeoffs in order to work, leaving policymakers like:

Finally, Holland Cotter is in The New York Times with a review of the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture:

Given [Congressional resistance to funding the museum], it’s easy to see why the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, has been at pains to emphasize the Americanness of the museum. The emphasis is clear on the institution’s website (, where, of four “pillars upon which the NMAAHC stands,” one is the mandate “to explore what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture.” This is a plausible statement. But it’s also too close to being a piece of feel-good Smithsonian-speak. And taken as such, it rings hollow to many at a time when violence is hammering African-Americans. And it is to the credit of Mr. Bunch and his curators that, despite diplomatic words, they have made centuries-old history of that violence clear in the opening display of some 3,500 objects, selected from the 40,000 in the museum’s collection.

I was an adolescent when the Holocaust Museum opened in Washington D.C., and visiting that institution felt as much like a responsibility as an act of intellectual curiosity. In retrospect, it's both upsetting and predictable that the United States took so much longer to reckon with its own sins of oppression. I hope that all Americans make the pilgrimage to this institution and pay respect. Have a great weekend.