Top Leaderboard, Site wide
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
June 23, 2017 Disclaimer: Please read.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.

What’s Next for the Bill Cosby Sex-Assault Case?

Truthdig Bazaar more items

Email this item Print this item

Second-Class Students

Posted on May 2, 2011
AP / Jeff Chiu

A class meets in the auditorium building at Oakland Technical High School.

By James Harris

In a recent interview, Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith shared with me one of the most mind-numbing statistics I have ever heard: According to the Alameda County Health Department, a black child born in West Oakland will, on average, die 15 years before a white child born in the hills of Oakland.

Square, Story page, 2nd paragraph, mobile
“Surely this must be enhanced or inflated for shock value,” I said to Smith. “This can’t be real.”

“That is a real statistic that exposes serious inequity along racial lines in Oakland,” said Smith. We sat for a minute talking about our hopes for our children and our hopes for Oakland schools, but the statistic stung me with a viscous dose of reality, which quickly transformed into deep concern and doubt about Oakland’s education system.

I imagined being a young, black student in 2011 and hearing that statistic—not only hearing it, but feeling the piercing reality of it every day I go to school. The dilapidated flatlands classrooms, the out-of-date texts and lack of technology—the message would be clear: They (whoever “they” are) don’t care about me or anyone who looks like me.

The question is will I live
no one in the world loves me
I’m headed for danger
don’t trust strangers
Put one in the chamber
whenever I’m feelin this anger
Don’t want to make excuses
but this is how it is, what’s the use
Unless we’re shootin,
no one notices the youth.
It’s just me against the world.

      —Tupac Shakur, “Me Against the World,” 1995


Square, Site wide, Desktop


Square, Site wide, Mobile
This statistic shows that two realities exist in Oakland, one for children and families with resources, and a daunting, painful second one for those children and families without resources. It would be myopic to suggest that the education problem in Oakland is all about race, because it’s not. That black children are dying at an alarming rate and underperforming in schools compared with their classmates of different races is a problem so complex it troubles me to write about it. But black children are not the only victims. What is happening in the predominantly black public schools in Oakland is indicative of what is happening in poor public schools around the nation. The unfortunate fact is that in Oakland, black and Latino people represent the large majority of the poor underclass.

Don’t get me wrong. Oakland education is not all bad. It is only bad where families do not have time, money and resources to dedicate to their schools. I have seen public schools in the worst neighborhoods thrive. Think College Now has managed to build a haven for children to learn their curriculum and about themselves. Before I visited that school, at 29th and International—one of Oakland’s high-crime and high-poverty areas—I doubted it was possible. But when I went there I saw principal David Silver and his teachers breathing life and love into children and beating the odds. I saw parents attending the morning assembly to send their kids off to class. I saw magic. Through community, all things are possible. This was my proof.

At Crocker, Montclair, Redwood Heights and the handful of other schools in Oakland that have continued to succeed despite the economic downturn or lack of funding to public schools, the story is the same: Involved parents and solid communication between the teachers and students make for a combination that gets the job done. Success is indeed possible in both the richest and poorest communities.

However, of the 14 predominantly black public elementary schools in Oakland—most of them in poor communities where the black student population is 60 percent or more—only two are performing with API scores above 800 (a state proficiency requirement), the Carl Munck and Burkhalter schools. 

If we see examples of success in all types of communities around Oakland, then why isn’t it happening across the board? Why are the predominantly black schools underperforming? My family has lived in Oakland since 1950. All of my family went to public schools and—let them tell it—received an excellent education. My father says his Oakland Technical High School education prepared him for life.

But it’s clear to me after talking to graduates of today’s Oakland high schools that the quality of education in the system has dramatically declined. I spoke to one graduate of Oakland High’s Class of 2003 recently at Luka’s Taproom who said of her education: “It was all right—it was the best Oakland could do.” Have we come to settle for mediocrity? The trends show that people are giving up on Oakland public education. Over the last decade Oakland public schools have lost nearly 30 percent of their students, with enrollment declining from 54,024 in 2000 to 38,446 in 2010, and an increasing number of families are choosing either charter, private, or parochial schools. 

The population loss and divergence make sense when you consider how much money has been cut from the Oakland Unified School District budget in the last 20 years. Budget cut after budget cut has left the school district today funded at the level of the 2005-06 school year, according to OUSD statistics. And such cuts always have a more devastating effect on poor and under-resourced students and families.

New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

Join the conversation

Load Comments

By SirGareth, May 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

RE “We better hope that Paul Ryan doesn’t become aware of this racial disgrace in the Oakland area. If he becomes aware that those black kids aren’t going to live long enough to pay taxes at least equivalent to the cost of their elementary educations, he’ll add cutting Oakland black education expenses to zero to his Path to Prosperity budget plan.”

Hmmm so let’s let em out of school and let then shoot hoops til judgment day. At least they’ll have some fun ‘til then. 

We can then lay off their teachers with no guilt complex since they aren’t doing anything important anyway.  Maybe Get ‘em their own set of hoops.

Report this

By Juarez, May 15, 2011 at 6:52 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a natioal problem. School boards have higher budgets than most CEO’s of districts so why are we not seeing the result of these huge budgets.  I believe it is because no impetus is put on accountability.  The schools can blame parent involvement they can try to blame a lack or resources.  They really need to stop pointing fingers unless they are looking in the mirror.  Unless this country stops being the largest incarcerator of its population in the world and begins funneling kids to opportunity instead of dispair then we will have the same old same old.

Report this

By SirGareth, May 4, 2011 at 8:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

RE: “If he becomes aware that those black kids aren’t going to live long enough to pay taxes at least equivalent to the cost of their elementary educations”

Considering the teachers unions have charged $150,000 dollars educating a kid that can neither read nor write, I’m not betting against you.

Report this

By Chris Herz, May 4, 2011 at 8:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why educate these workingmen; just so they can backsass their betters?
You can be a better American than these over-schooled elitists, cheering on the war machine, celebrating assassinations, etc. with only the education needed to read the Bible and run the cash register at McDonalds.

Report this

By berniem, May 4, 2011 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

The greatest mistake made by this nation occurred after 1865 when the US failed to totally excise the cancerous tumor of the confederacy. By not stripping those who financed the South’s pro-slavery war effort of their wealth and property and bringing them to accounts for their treasonous acts allowed the   diseases of intolerance, hate, and bigotry to metastasize throughout the American body politic despite the 14th amendment, the Civil Rights Movement, as well as other attempts at promoting a just and equitable society. The “Dixiecrats” of old were encouraged to mutate into a larger and more rampant affliction by Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and, in league with the Neo-Liberal as well as an amoral and apolitical corporatocracy, added the secondary infection of greed to an already critical disease state. Interspersed throughout, of course, were the symptoms of impending debilitation such as Manifest Destiny, The Gilded Age, and the Reagan Era, among others which were ignored and inadequately treated. Thus today we see a society in disarray and fixated on it’s wellbeing but clueless as to what is needed to promote health and return to vitality before total somatic collapse ensues!

Report this

By MsDinosaur, May 4, 2011 at 7:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“...a viscous dose of reality”  Really?  Viscous:  of a glutinous nature or consistency; sticky; thick; adhesive.  Spell check alone is not enough!  If you are writing for a living, you owe it to your readers to proofread carefully.

Although I guess living in West Oakland would be somewhat akin to being stuck in a viscous mire.  wink

Report this
proletariatprincess's avatar

By proletariatprincess, May 4, 2011 at 7:40 am Link to this comment

Imagine if all the money and resources that go to the (so called) War on Drugs at federal, state and local levels went to the nations public schools. 
Imagine if the money and recources spent on prosecuting and encarcerating low level drug offenders went to public libraries.
Just imagine an educated and well read citizenry in the USA.
Just imagine it…......because nothing is likely to change.

Report this
basho's avatar

By basho, May 4, 2011 at 12:32 am Link to this comment

although the data is not current, the trend seems to be.

Report this

By richard roe, May 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Don’t blame prop 13 on the state of education in California.  Public education is being aggressively undermined across the nation under the rallying cry of “privatization”.  It’s more like “Pirate-ization” though, a scheme to redirect funds from public schools to private & religious schools via vouchers. 

Calfornia was sold the Lottery as a means to end all it’s financing worries for education, then, once that was in place they removed the formerly existing funding.  A classic “bait and switch” played on the taxpayers.

Report this
Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, May 3, 2011 at 2:36 pm Link to this comment


pd: The schools can’t turn off the T.V., or keep people gainfully employed when there are no jobs. They can’t keep people from joining a gang, or becoming involved in selling drugs, or criminal behaviors.

You’ve hit the nail on the head. This is precisely the challenge of modern societies around the world. It has become a societal phenomenon in those economies that reach a threshold level of per capital income.

First an foremost in our Western Civilizations is the incessant promotion of wealth accumulation. It is all over the Boob-Tube. It thus has become, in a highly competitive America, a “success story” by which people claim victory. Wealth as the unique criteria of success and has become “show ‘n tell”.

We do not see this societal attribute, however, through to its consequences. That is, not everyone can be a millionaire, so why even try? Today’s media keeps underscoring the message that “You too can become a millionaire!” As if this goal was the be-all and end-all of existence.

We need another set of values that we lost over the past half century - when once-upon-a-time a middle-class existence of familial harmony was sufficient for which all to aim.

Now we crave ostentatious consumption to show how better or how smarter we are than others as we try to differentiate ourselves from others. For some of the young, the societal objective is therefore to associate oneself with a gang, since this attribute disassociates themselves from the masses.

Obtaining wealth, however, is also access to another “gang” - one of the richer classes.

This sort of Individualistic Differentiation leads to taking dishonest short-cuts towards achieving the sole goal of Material Wealth. As did both Wall Street and Main Street during the SubPrime Mess of 2005/2008.

“Money can’t buy you happiness”. It can only obtain one the outward appearance of wealth - a notion that has captivated, I submit, our youth. We have the Me-Me-Me Generation upon us - and it seems to exist at all levels of society from bottom to top.

And from bottom to top, the means to Individualist Differentiation is illicit, a path strewn with immoral and unethical behaviour.

No doubt, we cannot all be made from the same mold. Humans innately have great diversity. That specific diversity should suffice for all of us to be different but harmoniously the same.

And yet ... prolific are the examples of those who must have the accouterments of success (Ferrari cars, Gucci sacks, D&G bracelets, Ferragamo shoes, etc., etc., ad nauseam).

Report this

By Anonymous, May 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“The unfortunate fact is that in Oakland, black and Latino people represent the large majority of the poor underclass”

Would it be more fortunate if the large majority of the poor underclass was asian or white???

Report this

By Lew Dunbar, May 3, 2011 at 1:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If I was living in poverty without a job, a decent education and a desire to work to improve myself, I would choose not to have children. Bringing children into the world in that situation is selfish and irresponsible. The odds are that this child is going to end up like the parent. I would feel guilty every day knowing I was responible for subjecting another human being to such a bleak future.

Report this

By Morpheus, May 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm Link to this comment

We shouldn’t be shocked. Most people don’t care. Our country doesn’t work for a lot of it’s citizens.

Read “Common Sense 3.1” at ( )

We don’t have to live like this anymore. “Spread the News”

Report this

By Shiftmore, May 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As with most social problems, it’s a lot cheaper to prevent them than to fix them after they crop up. If you intervene with a child and with the family, give them the tools to grow and learn in a stable environment, then they have a chance at life.

Politicians, though, don’t make any headlines by preventing problems. It’s in their best interests to perpetuate social ills so they can throw money. They also get points with the lawℴ crowd for building more prisons. The system has broken down.

Report this
Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, May 3, 2011 at 8:48 am Link to this comment


JH: That black children are dying at an alarming rate and underperforming in schools compared with their classmates of different races is a problem so complex it troubles me to write about it.

The problem is perhaps worst among blacks but is in fact colour-blind.

The other problem,  equally oppressive of blacks, is their incarceration for serious crime that effectively prohibits them from any ability to then find a job once released since there is little or no effort made at reclamation.

Which leaves them effectively imprisoned in a life of minimum-pay work with their place in society effectively null. This leads to a lifetime of marginal existence and even early death.


When a problem is of this magnitude, platitudes will not do and neither half-measures. A life debilitated by crime early in an individual’s existence is predictable. Extraordinary measures must be taken to understand by means of psychological testing to locate those children prone to crime.

Efforts must then be made to recuperate the child by means of disciplined learning and perhaps even extraction from their family environment. That is, a boot-camp of sorts where the child’s educative reclamation can be applied along with psychological guidance. This can have the effect of preventing criminal activity, which is first and foremost a sociological disorder.

If incarcerated due to criminal activity, innate competencies should be identified and then assure that the time spent is also a means for reeducation towards assimilating some skill or competency.

And then, once over, placement in jobs whereby the state or Federal agency assures the individual against any wrong-doing. In this manner, prospective employers might be willing to hire them and set them out on a normal career and reinsertion in society.

Can such Social Justice be any worse than incarcerating these people all together within a prison society that is both anti-social and pro-criminal in inclination? Studies in countries testing this system show that recidivism is reduced very significantly.


Paying one’s debt to society in today’s prisons is no guaranty whatsoever that people will reform themselves. They are left alone to fester amongst themselves with little or no means of individual reclamation.

It is an opportunity, however, to offer them a means for obtaining gainful employment once reinserted in society.

And with the highest documented rate of incarceration in the developed world (see here), America needs to get beyond “effective police-work” and onwards to “effective reclamation”.

Report this

By samosamo, May 3, 2011 at 7:03 am Link to this comment


““It’s not just what’s happening to our young people, but
what’s going to happen to our country as a consequence of
what’s happening to our young people,” says Dr. Harry
Edwards, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.”“

This is something that has been around festering for a long
time. The main obstacle is that the people of wealth know that
educated people will interfere with their profits by having
those profits spread around. It is or was inherently
understood that vertical and horizontal integrations, being
pure monopolies and (I believe) illegal as I haven’t seen where
anti-trust laws have been rescinded, that competition would
create the ultimate economy, which on would think big
business would want to happen, growth and prosperity.

But in actuality, competition is anything BUT what these
behemoth monopolies want. They want to CRUSH the
competition and get as much or all the money they can get.
That creates the likes of GE and disney and others who own or
buy all the businesses that the can buy. Special trick for them
is to keep track of businesses and the successful ones soon
are made and offer and deal goes down a GE gets bigger and
who is around to care? Try checking out all the subsidiaries of
these TOO BIG TO EXIST business.

It goes also with people who are bright and ambitious that
schools or colleges keep track and report to their corporate
benefactors the those kind and they get ‘bought’ when the
deal and the time is right.

And suffice to say, this has been happening for quite
sometime now. And prisnersdilema is correct about this:

““schools can’t turn off the
T.V., or keep people gainfully employed when there are no
jobs. They can’t keep people
from joining a gang, or becoming involved in selling drugs, or
criminal behaviors.  All they
can do is give you a chance, and a choice.”“

But what it does is lessen the number of people that will be
allowed to share in those avaricious crooks take from the
money pool they covet so much by weeding out those whose
attention is distracted but the sights and sounds of the M$M
and the peer pressure call to deviant behavior.

Report this
prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, May 3, 2011 at 5:23 am Link to this comment

Why is the statistic a responsibility of the school system?  The schools can’t turn off the
T.V., or keep people gainfully employed when there are no jobs. They can’t keep people
from joining a gang, or becoming involved in selling drugs, or criminal behaviors.  All they
can do is give you a chance, and a choice. They can’t solve society’s ills, and shouldn’t
be expected to.

Report this

By bogi666, May 3, 2011 at 3:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I used to live in California. The school districts prior to prop. 13, are somewhat responsible that it happened. The school districts waited until the County Assessors released its information about the, at that time, increase in the assessed valuation until they completed the school district budgets. Their budget always increased the same as the assessed valuations increased. At that time, the late 70’s, the house I was living in, the property taxes would have been $3500 a year, costing more than my mortgage payment. After prop 13, by taxes were $700 per year, ridiculously low. Also, with it’s ballot initiative system, California is unmanageable as outside interests dictate how the citizens of Calif., are taxed and how the taxes will be used, but the money to pay does not have to be included in the initiative. The PIC, prison industrial complex, funds initiatives to increase the Calif., prison population and now there are prisoners serving life sentences for stealing a bicycle. The PIC funding exceeds the funding for higher education. The PIC always funds laws that oppose legalization of marijuana because it is their cash cow for increased prison population. The pretend christians are bribed by the PIC to assure increased prison population.

Report this

By TDoff, May 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm Link to this comment

We better hope that Paul Ryan doesn’t become aware of this racial disgrace in the Oakland area. If he becomes aware that those black kids aren’t going to live long enough to pay taxes at least equivalent to the cost of their elementary educations, he’ll add cutting Oakland black education expenses to zero to his Path to Prosperity budget plan.

Report this
Right Top, Site wide - Care2
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide

Like Truthdig on Facebook