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Unsocial Studies 

The real lessons of Hamilton High

Wednesday, May 12 1999
Photo by Jenafer GillinghamTHE HAMILTON HIGH SCHOOL STORY IS not what you think it is. It is not what I thought it was. It is melodrama that can only be described in epic terms, so here goes:

This is a Greek tragedy playing out in the furthest reaches of the Western world -- at a modest but comely red-brick high school in the hinterlands of West Los Angeles, just off the Santa Monica Freeway. This is a story riddled with ironies, some of which are infuriating but most of which are profoundly saddening, because they illustrate how real issues can be obfuscated by people who wrap themselves in the mantle of reform but who actually advance very small, and often poisonously small-minded, agendas. This is about no leaders. This is about the utter failure of collective reason in an age of fevered individualism. This is about the powder keg of racial frustration that keeps blowing up at odd and seemingly inappropriate moments because, 35 years after it relinquished its last legal claims as enforcer of a social and economic apartheid that was birthed in slavery, white America is content to live in a state of perilous ignorance about the persistent inequities of black and white. This is about the Faustian price black America often pays for being heard, about the ill-conceived celebrity of a justifiable rage. This is not about us, and all about Us. This is about a white friend living on the Westside who immediately and fearfully inquired upon hearing the rudiments of this story, "Is there going to be a riot?" This is about a flashpoint of brilliant possibility colliding with banal disbelief.

This is L.A.


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I. The Big Issue


Three weeks ago, I got a call from a coalition of black parents who were eager to meet with me to discuss some distressing incidents of racism at Hamilton High School, which also houses two magnet schools, humanities and music. I didn't know anything about the story beyond what I'd read in the April 17 L.A.Times: Some students and parents had staged a protest on campus against some magnet teachers they felt were racist and were exacerbating a separate and unequal educational situation. At a school that was once upon a time largely white and was now largely minority -- chiefly black and Latino -- minority students were doing markedly worse academically

than their white counterparts. This has become an all too common story that has prompted alarmingly little concern. The parents were particularly irate about the fact that the magnets, which had more white students, had more resources and more access, and consistently outperformed the main school on standardized tests -- no accident, they said. Money and success follow white children; low expectations and dismal academic performance dog minority children (of course, minority students in the magnets performed markedly better than their main-school counterparts, too, but I put that fact aside for the moment). This sounded reasonable to me, and I was glad that black people were publicly advancing a cause that never got enough headlines or generated enough moral outrage. It was time. I vaguely recalled my younger sister, a Hamilton magnet alumna, tangling with her teachers back in the '80s, complaining that she and her friends were singled out, and getting suspended once -- was racism playing itself out even then?

Probably. I would bring this story to light.

I met with the parents in the Crenshaw district, in an office building on a tree-shaded block of Leimert Park Village. Wil Wade, chairman of the African American Parent Coalition for Education Equity (AAPCEE), led the discussion around a long conference table with five other parents and two students. He wore a business suit, and clasped his hands together on top of the table; he didn't lean back in his chair once. The parents began by saying they had called me because they didn't want the real issue here -- the systemic inequities of public education, the concerted miseducation of black and Latino children -- to get lost in the furor over the teachers. They pointed out not only that the magnets (40 percent white) were glaringly better than the main school (90 percent minority), but that minority students in the main school were not being tracked in college-prep courses -- Advanced Placement and Honors classes seemed to have predetermined white populations. In a post-affirmative-action world, this was unacceptable.

"The issue isn't race, it's equity," explained Wade. "The white parents are afraid that we want to take money away from the magnets, but that's emotional. That's not true. My daughter's in the [music] magnet school. But I'm not interested in only doing for myself, getting mine and being done with it. We need to make sure these issues are addressed for the benefit of all the kids, all the generations coming behind."

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