White Progressives, Craft Beer, and The Classroom

Recently, I sat in a buzzing bar during happy hour with a friend. We were drinking craft beers, eating grilled wings, and having an animated discussion about a recent “This American Life” we had just heard while jogging in an urban park.

We are the kind of guys who who should have Bernie Sanders tattoos on our lower back. If there is a more white progressive activity, I have not found it. We were basically a living meme for “shit white people like.” Believe me, I kind of annoy myself. But there is no way around it: I love craft beer and NPR.

I Don’t Feel Slighted….

Our conversation at the bar hovered around a discussion that most people have had a few times in the last 6 months: how Donald Trump surfed a tsunami of white people who felt they had been slighted all the way to the white house. Then, my friend said something that made me think.

“I guess everyone feels like they have been slighted somehow.”

He paused and I sipped my imperial IPA out of one of those stylish glasses that is shaped like a tulip.

“Do you feel slighted,” I asked.

“Well, no, I guess not us.”

My friend, like me, is a 30 something straight white guy with a masters degree, a house, a wife, and a fulfilling job. Guys like us kind of float above the “slight” of our current political climate, and we certainly aren't victims of the systemic injustice that is impacting so many. Our health care is decent, even if republicans in congress highjack the system, our jobs are basically stable, and we don’t have to fear police pulling us over and shooting us. The only time we even feel slighted is when someone is parked in the spot on our street where we usually park. I’m not trying to make this into a joke, just to say something that we all know if we are honest with ourselves. Privilege is a real thing, and the underside of privilege is at best a “slight” and at worst… well, something terrible.  

I understand the irony in this statement, coming from a guy who loves bike lanes, but it’s worth questioning the goals of progressive politics. Maybe we need to look in the mirror and make sure our ideals are working as they should. It may be worth noting that as of now, they are falling short.

“Others Simply Want to Live”

When my friend and I go to vote or engage in activism, we are usually voting or fighting for some abstract ideals. In a sense, our involvement can be held at a distance. Or, in other words, we might not be impacted by any of it. I can easily justify this by telling myself that I am fighting or voting for my students, my neighbors, my city, or my friends who may not hold the same privileges as me. But engaging for abstract ideals is very different than engaging as a means of protection. In some cases, people are fighting for and protecting the very bodies that carry them each day. While some people want economic vitality, innovative jobs, tech-sector growth, and safer neighborhoods; others simply want to live.

I was thinking about this as Pittsburgh voted for a mayor in the Democratic primary last week. On one hand, was the incumbent mayor Bill Peduto. He is not a bad guy. Many would argue that the city has prospered under his leadership. Pittsburgh now shows up on almost every Buzzfeed list of cool cities. We are the new Portland, because Portland isn’t Portland anymore. Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Uber are expanding their presence here. Fancy apartments and hip restaurants are sprouting up faster than spring dandelions. Most neighborhoods are changing, and with that, looms the oppressive shadows of gentrification.

Peduto has done his part in fighting for low-income housing and trying to say the right things. In my humble perspective, he has been a really good mayor. Our city needed some money. And as a 30-something white guy, I benefit from the bike lanes and the microbreweries. He sounds like an incumbent who has done his research and looked at all the data on what makes cities grow. One could assume that if Pittsburgh gets better, that it gets better for everyone. That assumption might be wrong, though. In this case, Pittsburgh voters were reminded by another candidate that cities have experienced renaissances before, and they don’t always work for everyone.

That other candidate was named John Welch, a black pastor and activist who ran with a much different message. He talked less about all the new apartments and growth, and focused more on the mantra that Pittsburgh is not the “most livable city” for everybody. This idea that while a lot of us were saying, “hey, we don’t feel slighted anymore,” and celebrating, basking in the joy of going from an environment wasteland to a thriving city, many of our black neighbors were not enjoying the resurgence. They are experiencing the constant pain of injustice, far worse than a nagging "slight."  Income inequalities are just as bad, schools aren’t working in black neighborhoods, and the city is still steeped in implicit and explicit racism.

I texted a black friend the night before the election, as I was trying to figure this out.

“Who are you voting for?”

“My heart is with Welch.”

Peduto won. It wasn’t even close. The political message of being left out was, in the end, left out.

Persistent Injustice in school

The thing about blogging is that I try to work out all that spins in my head, at the risk that it makes no sense. This week, at the same time that Pittsburgh’s election results were coming in, we had a visit from a program manager who wants to offer what I thought was a really great opportunity to our students. There was a grant to give high school students an early college english class at the local community college, and students would be paid and supported to participate. Participants would be enrolled, get transferable credit, get tutoring, and earn some pocket change. I think the man presenting the idea wanted students to salivate and leap from their seats with excitement. But they didn’t, and it kind of frustrated him.

When people like me hear something that seems too good to be true, we get really excited because it feels like we won some luck lottery. But when my students, all Pittsburghers and all black, heard this same news, they assumed that it was probably not true at all. That it would fall through.

As one of the students said later, “things like that always fall through.”

Later that day I was talking to another of my students who loves computers about the recent purchase of laptops at our high school for next year. According to the plan, each kid will get their own computer to take home and use in class. I’m excited because I’ll be able to do more with my instruction.

But the kid caught me off-guard with his response.

“It won’t happen.”

“D- I think it will,” I panned, completely missing what he meant. “I think they already bought them.”

“No, there will be a reason like they don’t work or that kids behavior messed it up or something, but it probably won’t happen.”

Obviously our students have been let down before. They trained their minds and hearts not to build some false hope that things will work out. While I nerd-out and get excited about “too good to be true,” my students assume, often correctly, that it probably isn’t true. Instead, it’s just a cruel joke. The student had given up on the small hope of seeing a simple promise of a computer come into fruition. Hope, in summary, is the privilege of believing that things will probably work out as planned.

When things don't "work out" so often, you start to expect it.

But where does that leave us?

History books prove my students right, they probably will be let down, and we could have guessed that John Welch’s message wasn’t going to win him an election. So, does that only leave us to write average blog posts that make fun of the world of racial privilege and offer no real solution? Maybe. I’ve read this post 5 times in the last 15 minutes, and each time it annoys me a little, mostly because I can hear myself saying nothing. It feels like the end of Serial in that I have no real ending. Adnan is still in jail, and we still live in a pretty jacked up place.

Many of the kids in our city's classrooms haven't had time to care about bike lanes or artisan cheese shops. And its possible that John Welch wasn’t the answer, but I think it’s time we work a lot harder to build the inclusive city he talked about. This city, which I love, is 200 years old. So we are 200 years too late.