Rethinking Race and Opportunity in the City

Rethinking Race and Opportunity in the City

statueliberty

By Gordon Zubrod, MD

America has long been known as the land of opportunity, but as I learn more about our city—and I think it’s true of many places in our country—I am finding that opportunity is far from equal.

I hadn’t intended to write this article, but as I began to learn about our city and the challenges it faces, what I found disturbed me so much that I couldn’t NOT talk about it to other people.

I am a family physician here in York and most of my patients live in York City.  In addition to seeing patients, I teach doctors who have just graduated from medical school and are specializing in family medicine.  One of my responsibilities in training family doctors is teaching community medicine—all the things that happen outside of the office that influence our patients’ health and all the people outside the office doctors need to partner with to care well for our patients.  As part of that job I began to learn about our city, its strengths and problems, and all the people who care about it.  The other thing that gave me an interest in and love for our city was my involvement in a new church that is starting downtown, City Church.  We meet at the YMCA and began meeting for worship in September of this year.  I am writing this article because I hope that as you hear some of the facts and stories about our city, you will care about it too and begin to ask, “How can I be a part of the answers?”

Let me begin with the numbers because I think you, like me, will be disturbed by them.

York City School District

Surrounding Communities

Drop Out Rate

36%

1.6-5.8%

% Qualifying for free school lunch

77.9%

10.2-17.1%

Single Parent Homes

47.9%

11-19%

Planning to attend college

56.8%

72-89%

% Minorities

74.9%

3-15.4%

*Statistics taken from the York Counts Indicators published in 2006 and 2009

Pretty disturbing how different York City schools are from all the surrounding school districts.  Ten times as many students don’t graduate.  The large number qualifying for free school lunches goes along with a high rate of poverty in the city.  Half of city kids are raised largely by a single parent, usually their mother.   Pretty striking as well is how segregated the school districts are.  How is it that minorities end up at the school district where they are least likely to succeed?

The picture that I’m left with is that a child who shows up to a city school in kindergarten has a good chance of not graduating.  If they do graduate, it’s a toss-up whether they are even considering college (Note that we don’t have a way to measure who actually ends up going to college, so this number is based on the plans of students at the time of graduation, and the number is probably smaller who actually attend college).  Most likely that child will end up living near the poverty line, and there’s a good chance that the women will end up raising their children alone.  On the other hand, a child showing up to kindergarten at a suburban school has vastly more opportunities to graduate, go to college and get a good paying job.  That difference has nothing to do with anything those children have done prior to showing up to school that day.  Somehow, the system has ensured that the poor child without prospects is a minority and relatively the well off child facing greater opportunities for academic and work success is white.  Something’s wrong.  How can this be?

I need to stop here and clarify some things.  I am not saying that the reason for the difference is the school district.  I’ve had a chance to work with a number of folks in the City school district, and I’ve seen a lot of dedicated folks who are committed to seeing these kids succeed.  I’m convinced that every other school district in our county would struggle as well if they faced the same concentration of poverty, students with limited English proficiency and the high rate of broken homes.  Secondly, I need to say that there are some determined inner-city kids who overcome the odds, do great in school and go on to break out of the cycle.  It’s just that the cards are stacked against them.

The reality of these statistics and the limited opportunity that they represent for many in the city was brought home to me personally through a patient of mine.  He’s a black male in his twenties.  He was a good football player in high school.  He got into drug dealing, was arrested and spent some time in jail.  Now he is trying to stay clean, but no one wants to hire him because of his criminal record.  Each time he’s come to my office, I am struck that he is an excellent communicator and has exceptional people skills—someone whom I would have thought could easily get a job.  He doesn’t have a car, so he has a limited area in which to look for jobs.  He can’t make his rent or pay his phone bill, let alone think of going to school for more training.  How is he not going to go back to drug dealing?  What other opportunities does he have?

Sadly, my patient is not alone.  One in 8 African-American males between ages 25-29 in the U.S. are currently incarcerated, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Prison and Jail Inmate statistics.  That compares with 1 in 60 for Caucasian males in that age bracket.  Could a lot of these men be finding that our system really doesn’t give them a chance to make a decent, clean living?  I am not saying that turning to crime is justified; I am saying that we should be slow to judge because most of us that are making a decent living grew up in a world of opportunity very different from the world my patient grew up in.  Where would we be if we had faced the challenges he daily faces?

I find myself searching for explanations—why the segregation, why the little opportunity?  I grew up in a white, well off, conservative community.  Conservatives are quick to point to personal irresponsibility as the cause of poverty and broken families.  When I look at individual lives, I frequently do see some bad decisions that contribute to this cycle—skipping school, getting involved in drugs or gangs, teenage pregnancy, choosing not to get married.  Liberals, on the other hand, tend to blame social injustice for the ills in the city, while sometimes underemphasizing the importance of personal responsibility.  When I see the dense clustering of minorities and poverty, the segregation of minorities into the school with the worst outcomes and the markedly different rate of incarceration, to name only a few of the disparities, I am forced to conclude that something more systemic is going on here than random bad decisions.  The causes are complex but somehow the system keeps the poor, poor; makes sure the poor are mostly minorities; and the educational opportunity that they would need to break out of poverty is lacking.

That Bible says that neither explanation alone is adequate.  Proverbs 6:10-11 acknowledges the role personal irresponsibility often plays in poverty:

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest–and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (NIV)

But Proverbs 13:23 is also clear that social injustice plagues the poor and keeps them from getting ahead:

A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away. (NIV)

We need to acknowledge the role that both personal responsibility and social injustice play as we begin to think about responses.

So where does that leave us?  I think it should make us humble and slow to judge.  Our stories are not the same.  We grew up in different worlds of opportunity and challenge.  How do we allow inner-city kids the same opportunity that many of us have enjoyed?  The answers to that question are complex, and I am only beginning to come up with some ideas, but I do know the answer is NOT doing nothing.  If we let things remain the way they are, most inner-city, poor, minority children will stay in the city–without an education that opens up doors of opportunity—and struggle to find work and make ends meet.  The question is how will each of us respond to the inequity and unequal opportunity that exists?

I would love to hear your thoughts on where to begin.  In a follow-up article, I will discuss some ideas.

I would like to thank all the people that shared their experiences, discussed the issues with me and edited my many drafts of this article—my wise and thoughtful wife Grace; my pastor Aaron Anderson; Dr. Bobby Simpson, Executive Director of the Crispus Attucks Association; Stephanie Seaton, Director of the York City Human Relations Commission; my friends Marquise Charles and Willie Martin; Jim McClure, Editor of the York Daily Record; Rev. Catherine Rose, Pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church;  my mother Elaine Zubrod; my father and Asst. U.S. Attorney Gordon A.D. Zubrod; and my brother-in-law, author and publisher Christopher Perrin, PhD.

10 Replies to “Rethinking Race and Opportunity in the City”

  1. Wow, that's quite a list of helpers. No doubt you know the benefit and impact a support system provides. I hope I'm available to read and act upon your future articles. This one is insightful, well spoken and inspiring. Thank you Gordy (and team).

    1. Thanks Chris. I was really blessed with an experienced group of folks to help frame the issues. For me the process of talking with different people and hearing alot of perspectives was probably more valuable than the final product.

  2. One thing I always thought was to combine the city school district with the surrounding school districts into one school district and split the city population amongst the school – in one swoop making them equal racially and socioeconomically.. Just think of the financial savings you would have in combining the admin for all of these separate units and the negotiating power for resources. That is just good business. The problem is the township system of government that Pennsylvania has, whereas other states manage education on the county level.

    1. Breaking up the concentration of poverty, kids with broken homes, English language learners and special needs children does seem like a key step to equalizing the playing field.

      I keep debating with myself whether poverty should be included in that list of challenges. The Bible's perspective is that there is nothing wrong with being poor. If anything, the danger comes with being rich. Jesus spent the majority of his time with the poor and his sermon in Luke 6:20 begins with, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

  3. Gordy, this is challenging and covers the disparity of views we often fall back on as “answers”. I am looking forward to your ideas on how to deal with it. Thanks for caring and doing what you can to make a difference, for challenging us to do so as well. Mom

  4. Gordy – great write-up. I've been struggling with similar questions, more from the financial public policy perspective. We are clearly to have a priority for the poor – to what extent should that priority be reflected in our public policy? One way that it has been reflected has been through low income housing. This priority, though well intentioned, made a healthy contribution to the economic crisis by encouraging low income loans to those that weren't creditworthy, helping to spawn the subprime problems, which toppled AIG, etc. I think the moral of this story is that one must be careful in implementing policy measures to correct the ills of society. To what extent should these ills be the responsibility of the individual and to what extent should they be the responsibility of government? If the government, how do we use smart policy that does not enslave the recipient to handouts. Microfinance in third world countries is a good model because it invites the poor to the dignity that comes with working themselves out of poverty. How can we address this problem with smart public policy?

    Also, I suspect that the issue of broken homes plays a significant role in the problems you raised. Parenting and good role models can breathe hope and possibility into kids, or it can set them on a path toward destruction or the status quo. I think strengthening marriages is a good starting place that could have some good ripple affects on issues such as these.

    I look forward to hearing more of your ruminations on the path forward.

    Luke

    1. Microfinance does seem like a good model. It helps people who are facing what seem like insurmountable obstacles. But it does it in a way that doesn't just fix the situation temporarily from someone with money and power, reinforcing the belief that the poor are helpless. It gives the little encouragement needed to empower people to be the ones to find a way forward for themselves.

      It's always hard to know that balance–how much to do, how much to cheer on, how much to pray behind the seens.

  5. Gordy, your discourse is insightful and well articulated. Thank you for your work with the residents and the openess with which you have pursued this.

    How to intrude into the vicious cycle that many of our patients face is something I've thought about often. I believe that the system of welfare that exists is demeaning and tends to keep people down and entrenched in the cycle. I believe our society has to engage in this discussion in order to grapple with the justice issue you raise. There will be some risks involved; there always are whenever embarking on a project like this; certitude is not something that can be guaranteed and I believe our faith calls us to accept that.

    So, we have to start somewhere. For example, can the community work with the justice system so that at the time of release from prision, some evaluation and preparation occurs, thus positioning both the individual and the community for successful reintegration.

    As for being slow to judge, you are absolutely right. Disparitiy clearly contributes to this struggle. A prepoderance of opportunities for bad choice does also. We must also remember that Jesus Christ was always out on the margins of society, gently calling many to conversion. We have to be willing to go out there with Him and remember, at the same time, that we all have our margins and Jesus is out there too calling us all gently to conversion.

  6. I couldn't agree more with this article. As one of those individuals who was written off, I often get amazed when I stumble upon someone who expected me to be in a worst off position. They can't believe I have a College degree in Chemistry of all things. The point is I never gave up. As a result I'm working a professional job and doing well. When I go back into the City I'm often amazed by looking at the youth. You can see their short comings (attitude, lack of self respect etc) from a mile. They are often insecure and ill adviced. They remaind me of myself.

    They deserve so much more! Perhaps a mentoring program can help.
    If One is ever started, dont' hesitate to contact me. Maybe I can help. After all, Children are very impressionable and need to be molded with Values. One great way of teaching them is leading by example.

    I remember One place that helped me immensely, the Marines. Though now I see the world differently than when I was 20; the Marines made me realize the importance of believing in myself.

    I think finding confidence in themselves is what most of the Kids in our City Need; along with Guidance and support.

    [email protected]

  7. I couldn't agree more with this article. As one of those individuals who was written off, I often get amazed when I stumble upon someone who expected me to be in a worst off position. They can't believe I have a College degree in Chemistry of all things. The point is I never gave up. As a result I'm working a professional job and doing well. When I go back into the City I'm often amazed by looking at the youth. You can see their short comings (attitude, lack of self respect etc) from a mile. They are often insecure and ill adviced. They remaind me of myself.

    They deserve so much more! Perhaps a mentoring program can help.
    If One is ever started, dont' hesitate to contact me. Maybe I can help. After all, Children are very impressionable and need to be molded with Values. One great way of teaching them is leading by example.

    I remember One place that helped me immensely, the Marines. Though now I see the world differently than when I was 20; the Marines made me realize the importance of believing in myself.

    I think finding confidence in themselves is what most of the Kids in our City Need; along with Guidance and support.

    [email protected]

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