Everybody Knows the Dice Are Loaded [i]
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In the wake of the Rodney King verdict (as it has come to be known - nobody knows the names of the four officers involved), and in the aftermath of the riots in L.A. and elsewhere, there has been a great hue and cry about the conditions in our inner cities. The plight of the schools, the families, the economies, and the races have been analyzed by liberals, conservatives, ministers, educators, politicians, and even a few of the residents of the cities, themselves. Ideas and proposals have been aired, dissected, and discarded. Programs have been promised and, already, rescinded. Nothing's changed.

But, then again, nothing's changed.

The path that we are on is neither new, nor swerving. It is not slowing down, and may be speeding up. The path we - the American people - tread leads to no place or condition which even the most apocalyptic among us would desire, I hope. And yet, we continue inexorably on our way. Physics suggests that we are even gathering momentum on this downhill slide.

America, that great melting pot, is acting to separate as much as to mix, and probably more so. I don't need to cite the newspapers on yesterday and today to demonstrate this, though I probably will. I instead will start with the words of Thomas Jefferson.

"Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end butt in the extermination of the one or the other race." [ii]

This is not a mild statement. Convulsions: A violent disturbance. An uncontrolled fit. Convulsions. Notice anything lately?

Footnote fiends will have already checked that source, and found it to be from a 1961 book. Before the Watts and Detroit riots. Before the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X assassinations. Before the "Great Society" programs and Head Start. Before 12 years of "Trickledown Economics."

"I have [written this book] because I am convinced we are allowing social dynamite to accumulate in our large cities. ... I am [concerned] about the plight of parents in the slums whose children either drop out or graduate from school without the prospects of either further education or employment. In some slum neighborhoods I have no doubt that over a half of the boys between sixteen and twenty-one are out of school and out of work. Leaving aside human tragedies, I submit that a continuation of this situation is a menace to the social and political health of the large cities. [iii]

Why are we surprised by the violence in Los Angeles? Why does the murder of Charleston Sarjeant, "in an unprovoked attack so savage and seemingly senseless that it defied any hope at all" [iv] surprise us? Isn't this what was predicted by Jefferson and Conant?

Perhaps even thirty years ago is too long, and the memory has passed. That's all right. I have books sitting next to me dated from 1968 through 1991. Equality; Inequality; Education and Inequality; Schools and Inequality; Beyond Bias; Just Schools; Schooling for all; Rich Schools, Poor Schools; Conflicts in Urban Education; "Shut Those Thick Lips!" A Study of Slum School Failure; The "Inequality" Controversy: Schooling and Distributive Justice; Barred From School: Two Million Children.

Understand, I didn't go to the education library to find these. They were on my shelves at home, and I pulled them with minimal effort (apart from bulk), with confidence that I can find another dozen books which raise similar issues, not the least of which would be last years best seller, Savage Inequalities, by Jonathon Kozol.

Why are we surprised?

Why should we expect change?

If those 15 books I named, and their millions of words, didn't change anything, and Congress hasn't fixed it, and the Presidents haven't fixed it, then who will? How could it be fixed? Shouldn't we just do those things within our reach, and not bother with those beyond our reach? Perhaps we should just fall back on that currently popular dictum, "Why ask why?"© [v]

A brief digression: I focus on youth and education for two reasons. The first of them I explain in my paper, "Toward A Caring Society." The second is that I know the population of youth better than I know any other, and what I have seen of it prompts most of my observations, and my desire to act.

The title of this piece suggests the inevitability of failure. Eeyore could have sung this song, or any pessimist/cynic. "There's no point in trying." "Can't fight City Hall." As a college roommate of mine explained to me, "Even if I came out to work for what I believe is right, someone else will come out to work for what they think is right, and, because we disagree, our efforts will offset and cancel out each other's."

Thirty years ago, many of the inner city dwellers were despairing. The Wall Street Journal review of Dr. Conant's book synopsized: "What Dr. Conant is saying, in effect, is that the school in a Negro slum district would improve if the students themselves had more hope that learning would lead to something." [vi]

There was little hope then. Before the riots, before the assassinations, before the Vietnam War, there was little hope. We have, as the young adults and students of today, the children, grandchildren, and, in some cases, great grandchildren of those people. The Sixties saw these folks who expected little get even less. In their children and their children's children, we hear the echoes and amplifications of the old despair. And it is spreading.

There is nowhere for the people to turn. The Republicans have been shown to be tools of the rich. Their corruption was on display with Watergate, but the more recent administrations have exceeded that as symbols of hopelessness. The Democrats have been promising "pie in the sky" and "high hopes" [vii] since Jack Kennedy was running for office. The Catholic Church, in its treatment of birth control lost much of its flock, but, with the disclosures of Church cover-ups of Priests' sexual abuse of children, the Church looks like one more political party.

The signs of decay are not always subtle, but they can be. Disrespect for authority in the Sixties was based on corrupt practices of those public servants. In the Nineties, the disrespect is because they are public servants. The police are guilty of corruption by their occupation. It's not as if the teens of today invented that attitude. They learned it from every yuppie speeding through a light, from every businessman who J-walks across a busy street because waiting would slow him down, even if going slows the traffic. They learn it from our parking ticket reactions, and our tax reactions. If something is inconvenient, today's adults don't accept it, they try to get around it, ignore it, disrupt it, or , if all else fails, berate it and complain about it - bad mouth it. Anything that goes wrong is not our fault, but that of some other person. Listen to George Bush.

The hard task is to resist despair - in yourself and in others. It is possible to do good in the world. It is possible to work to make the world a better place for yourself and for others. It is more than possible; it is necessary. If we do not work to slow down the decay, it will speed up. If you and I work to delay doom, to forestall collapse, there is the chance that we can reverse the process. It can only be done in small chunks - like this one . If I can convince you that you need to actively and aggressively care about others and to convince them of these principles, then the world is already healthier.

Who can you turn to? Yourself.

It was the lesson in "Willow" and again in "The Power of One." It is the lesson here. It is not enough to rely on others to do your work for you. Not when the work is this important. If you work to make the world a better place, it will be one. The more you work, and the more people who join you (us) the more improvement you and others will see.

The dice may be loaded, but maybe we can change the game.

[i] Cohen, Leonard and Robinson, Sharon, Everybody Knows, Pump Up The Volume, New Line Cinema Corp., 1990

[ii] Conant, James Bryant, Slums and Suburbs, McGraw-Hill, New York,1961, pg. 9.

[iii] Ibid, pg. 2.

[iv] Bennett, Philip, Boston Globe, Vol. 241, 5/6/92, pg. 1.

[v] © copyright Annhauser-Busch, 1991

[vi] The Wall Street Journal as quoted on the back cover of Slums and Suburbs.

[vii] "Just what makes that little ole ant/ think he can move that rubber tree plant/ every one knows that ants can't/ move a rubber tree plant. But he's got Hiiigh Hopes/ He's got Hiiigh Hopes/ He's got High Apple Pie in the Skyyy Hopes. So, if you get to feeling down/ turn your head around/ Just remember that Ant/ Whoops, there goes another rubber tree/ Whoops, there goes another rubber tree/ Whoops, there goes another rubber tree Plant." (I'll check the reference later, if you want.)