June 16, 2015
Your son is the only Black child in his preschool class. It is a very good school. It was probably out of your single-mom budget, but you made some adjustments to afford it because of the quality of the education and the importance of this education for your son’s future. But you do not want him to be the only child who looks like him in his classroom for the rest of his education. You know the damage that can cause.
You grew up in a small town in the San Gabriel Valley in the eastern part of Los Angeles county. Yours was the first Black family to move there. The deed to the house your father bought still said it was illegal to sell houses to Black folk. You remember being followed in stores. You remember, interspersed with social ostracization, the racist comments from your teachers and classmates. You remember being called nigger. The first time, you were 7 years old. You lost count by the time you were 10. You were always the only Black person in your classroom. You grew tired of defending your right to exist. You do not want this experience for your son.
You are looking for a place with clean air, good schools, green spaces, and diversity to raise your son. You wonder where you can live in the greater Los Angeles area—where you must stay because of the nature of your custody arrangement—and make this possible. On some days the air in your hometown was so polluted you would not be allowed outside for P.E. by the school board. Air pollution is a given here. You think you will look in Western Los Angeles county, toward the water. Perhaps the air will be cleaner there.
You are told to try Leimert Park and Ladera Heights, the two predominantly Black and middle-class areas of L.A. But the public schools are terrible. You cannot afford private school. This is why you also ruled out Compton and Inglewood immediately, even though these are the areas with the highest concentration of Black folk. Plus, you have heard the stories of the violence in Compton. But it is important to you that your son grow up with people who look like him, that he not be the only Black kid in his school, that he not be subject to the thousands of daily micro and macro aggressions one experiences from being the only black body in a white space. The kind that ends up with the Black boy followed by the White man who thinks the boy does not belong in that part of town because of the boy’s black skin and shoots him dead. Or the kind where the Black boy is profiled by police and harassed, paralyzed, and then dead. Or the kind where the Black boy is invaded upon in his own home because they cannot believe a Black boy lives there. Or brutally attacked and traumatized just for swimming in the neighborhood pool. Or just shot in the park for playing with his toy; blamed for his own murder afterwards.
Again, you do not want this for your son.
You hear rumors that there are Black people in Long Beach and other parts of the South Bay, the southernmost part of L.A. county. Only the South Bay is home to an oil refinery and the third largest oil field in the United States. It is also home to the Port of Los Angeles, and all the pollution from the shipping, train yards, and diesel trucks involved in shipping oil and cross-Pacific cargo. You do not want him to fall sick from the methane gas and other toxins seeping into the ground water and air, the concentrated diesel pollution in the air. Not to mention what will happen when a large enough earthquake hits these areas that are not just drilled but also fracked. This rules out Inglewood and the rest of Central and West L.A. county again. Because, of course, the Inglewood oil field spreads from that neighborhood through Culver City and Baldwin Hills; there is even an oil rig right next door to Beverly Hills High. You have already ruled out East L.A.—Hollywood is unsafe and Silverlake, Westlake, and Echo Park have terrible school systems—and this whole area has another oil field of its very own.
You look further South to Orange County. Orange County is very safe—two of the cities here have been listed in the top five safest cities in America. The schools here are excellent. The air is excellent. But there are no Black people here. In a burst of wishful thinking, you do your research online. At most, a couple of schools have a 1 percent Black population. That is rare. Most schools are at zero percent Black population.
You cannot fathom this. You will not do this to your son.
You understand now, why it is possible that 91 percent of White Americans have zero Black friends—or maybe they have just one. You understand the effects of this are cops who do not see Black kids as human, and fraternity brothers like the young men of SAE who sing about lynching n----- in their pledge song. You understand that the effects of this are not just an elitism of educational inequality, a hoarding of resources by White parents—but the systematic perpetuation of racial profiling and institutional racism. For these young fraternity brothers are the future bankers, lawyers, doctors, politicians of tomorrow. And if they learn that Black people are invisible, Black lives do not matter—well, doesn’t that just explain everything?
You think briefly about homeschooling. You have read articles saying that homeschooling is the future for Black families because of these very issues. Maybe, if you live in a Black neighborhood like Leimert Park, homeschooling may solve the education gap, but not the lack of diversity in classrooms and how that affects our society.
Or the toxic pollution from the oil drilling.
You do more research. In Orange County, you find one school in Irvine that has a 4 percent Black population. You have almost, almost resigned yourself to this when you read that there is a nuclear power plant next door, just closed because of radiation (still leaking) into the ground. It is not a question of if the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant will become the next Fukushima, but when. The cutoff for the immediate range of the contamination is just south of Long Beach, where, again, the oil and shipping pollution begins. You cross the OC off your list.
You look north again, past the pollution and high prices of West Los Angeles to Ventura County. This seems like the answer. Good clean air, good schools, green spaces. Somewhat affordable. There are not that many Black people; the schools, again, are between 1 and 3 percent. But you are beginning to understand you will not find good schools, clean air, and Black people in the same city and you are scared. You do not want your son to encounter the racism from teachers and peers resulting in lowered expectations and stereotypes. The perception of ignorance and stupidity that is layered onto Black kids, the excessive punishments which lay the groundwork for the school-to-prison pipeline that Black students in predominantly White classrooms experience.
But, you think, if you can provide a regular diversity through driving to Black spaces, your son will be okay. For a week you look at listings in Ventura County and call real estate agents. And then you read that Simi Hills, smack dab in the center of the county, is leaking radiation into the ground from waste from an old nuclear testing factory that has not been properly cleaned up, causing cancer and death to people who have lived there. Animals who roamed the hills have been found dead. You cross off Ventura County and the surrounding areas.
You begin to understand why your father chose the city you were raised in.
So you return to the east side, looking east of the San Gabriel Valley. Yes, it is hotter than the Westside, and yes, it has air pollution. But all areas of Los Angeles county have air pollution. This is a given. You will take this over the added oil pollution and nuclear radiation. And it is probably a better choice to live inland, what with the fallout from the Fukishima disaster still expected to affect the Pacific Ocean and Coastal L.A. areas for another few years. Surprisingly, here in the inland valley, in one of your favorite prospective cities—a lovely town with trees, parks and a renowned public school system, you find an elementary school with a 10 percent black population. But, of course, it does not have a gifted and talented program.
Your son is very smart. He is 2 and already he is singing, playing piano, doing math, and learning to read. You do not want him to get bored in school and turn away from achievement.
You look southeast. Another nuclear supply factory has done a “dump the nuclear waste and run” routine, poisoning the land and people. You look further east. A different chemical company has polluted the groundwater supply.
You realize that there is nowhere to live in the greater Los Angeles county that is safe for one’s health—let alone that boasts good schools and diversity. It is just a question of lesser evils—nuclear radiation versus oil pollution, poisoned groundwater or poisoned beaches.
If you were still drinking, this is when you would pour yourself a glass of wine.
Looking for a place with good schools, a healthy environment, and diversity has taken over your life. You can’t help but mention it in conversation at your son’s preschool. A White mom says she has never thought of diversity as being important when choosing her daughter’s school. She says it doesn’t matter. You know she is only saying this because it has never been her experience to be at risk of harm because of her race. You wonder how fast it would take her to react if no one in her child’s classroom looked like her child—if her child came home crying from being teased and insulted by teachers and peers alike from being the only one.
You realize that White moms of White children are lucky. This is the essence of White privilege. They can live anywhere and be safe. They never have to think about how these decisions will shape their sons' educational future. And sometimes, quite literally, also his life and death.
You put aside your personal life to concentrate on work. You are assigned to interview a famous Black woman poet. Her wisdom is astounding. You find yourself talking to her about this journey to find a school for your Black son. She shares with you what she did with her two boys, now in college. She went through exactly what you are going through, she says. So she tells you what her own mother told her when she, too, was in the middle of all this: At the end of the day, your children go home to your house. Meaning: Your influence is the most important. Trust yourself, my sister. Trust your love for your child to lead you to right decisions.
You meditate on this. You breathe. You understand you and your son will find the way to do what is right for him.