Six months before George Floyd was murdered, I discovered this quote from Alexis de Tocqueville: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
But de Tocqueville was wrong. We have yet to fully recognize our nation’s four-hundred-year-old racism, let alone repair it. And key indicators on poverty have also moved in the wrong direction. I hope this is the moment when we begin to live up to de Tocqueville’s observations of democracy in America.
In a forthcoming book on the relationship between community colleges and democracy, I write about growing up in Miami’s South Beach, a community that took care of all of the kids in the neighborhood as they were their own. That was an era seemingly gone by, but a few memories remain significant.
A post office sat on the corner of 13th Street and Washington Avenue. It’s still there. As a child, I enjoyed walking through the building, not because of its beautiful Art Deco design, but because there was an echo in the main rotunda. I loved to shout out and listen for the return: “Hellooooo!!!!!!”
But I also remember the two water fountains in the lobby. One had a sign above it that said, “Whites Only.” The other said, “Colored Only.”
Most days when I was not in school, I hung out at my family’s grocery store while my parents worked. On occasion, they would send me a few blocks to the 5th Street Gym. Some of the best boxers in the world trained there, including Muhammad Ali. I had all their autographs, including my favorite: “From your buddy, Cassius.” They were all such heroes. Many of those fighters would stop at the store to get their groceries, sometimes without money—just a handshake that my parents would accept.
On Friday nights, my dad took me to the fruit bar down the street. We sat at the counter, eating fresh fruit with ice cream and watching the “Friday Night Fights” on the small black and white television. Some of the fighters would be there too. I didn’t connect those signs at the post office with the men of the 5th Street Gym as we sat together and watched TV.
Many summers, I got shipped up to New York to stay with grandparents and extended family in Queens and Brooklyn. I would often ride with my uncle and cousin, as they drove north for work, along two-lane roads that ran through cities and towns.
One night, I woke up from a nap in the back seat to see my uncle walking into a gas station to get us some drinks. There was a sign next to the door, carefully etched in wood, with a light shining directly on it: “No Dogs! No N-word! No Jews!”
I was terrified. I didn’t say much for what seemed like hundreds of miles. No one did. Then I asked about the sign. I was seven or eight years old, getting my first lessons about racism and anti-Semitism. I remember thinking about the signs over the water fountains in the post office, that well-lighted sign at the gas station, and the men at the 5th Street Gym—all summer long.
Today, that post office water fountain sign is gone, and probably the sign at the gas station, too. But clearly, we have not fixed America’s racism.
From 1980 to my retirement in 2018, I witnessed the decline in state and federal financial support for community colleges. The steady decline of funding over those forty years, alongside a steady increase in the numbers of low-income students and students of color attending community colleges, is not coincidental. It is a symptom of systemic racism. Our nation is not looking out for all of our children as if they were our own.
Racism and poverty are toxic viruses. Being born into both can be lethal. During the first weeks after the murder of George Floyd, I thought about why he was out of work during the pandemic. I heard his brothers and sister talk about banana sandwiches and sleeping in one bed—food and housing insecurity that still affect too many today. Juxtaposed with the fighters from the 5th Street Gym, I thought about George’s fans yelling his name whenever he caught a pass under the Friday night lights as a high school football star. I wondered about the funding of the public schools of the Third Ward and community colleges of Houston, where he grew up. I thought about the financial aid that could have helped Mr. Floyd complete college, learning the skills and acquiring the knowledge necessary for him to achieve his highest potential.
I benefited greatly from public education and the teachers who selflessly gave so much to me. Without those opportunities, my journey might look and feel more like George Floyd’s. I am a white male of privilege and I work every day to get a deeper understanding of the complexities of these realities. Some days I do better than others.
As educators, business leaders, and policy makers, we must view the protests in our streets and the post-pandemic rebuilding of America as an opportune moment to make systemic change. We need to address both the symptoms and the causes of the viruses that plague us. Our nation’s experiment in democracy is teetering on the edge, and this moment will determine if it falls.
Going forward, the funding and support for our public community colleges will be a key indicator of the course of racial justice and our democracy. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., I hope that the arch of the moral universe and the arch of public education, long as they both are, bend with Godspeed toward justice.
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