Doria Dee Johnson, Washington, DC
August 21, 2013
Upon opening the Evanston Patch webpage on Monday and reading Ms. Wolf’s column I was struck by the tenor and tone of the printed opinion piece, and wondered aloud how this essay could make it past an editor’s desk, or beyond a private observation? There is little substantive traction here, backed by any sound reasoning how and why the author has/had a problem with Dr. Murphy except he was not aesthetically pleasing, available when she deemed appropriate, had a plan (agenda), overly concerned with money, and he was ‘polarizing,’ –a term that for some of us is coded language for racially biased. Ms. Wolf’s concerns sent up a red flag among my social and professional circle as her writing is couched in a long-history of unfortunate biased and discriminatory concerns with folks stepping out of their prescribed roles, and their ability to tap-dance for certain members of society to accommodate their uneasiness.
Dr. Murphy ran Evanston’s grade school system with over seven thousand students and a dozen-plus schools. Certainly, if one wanted to disseminate an unfavorable opinion of him in a published community paper, then why not comment on his missing qualitative, measurable, or/and tangible professional accomplishments, or least start there, or mention one or two? I read this column and was immediately thrown back to the days pre-Dr. Gregory Coffin, where even he commented that Evanston was as polarized as what the 1968 Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Commission described as ‘two Americas’, unequal and separated by color. Moreover, I am not afraid to say that as a Black American who grew up in Evanston—pre and post-segregation, and one who studies race and gender for a living, I read her column as smacking of racist, paternal-based complaints about acceptable social behaviors befitting the codes written and enforced by she, and her group.
For instance, I have little idea why Ms. Wolf would think Dr. Murphy would not seek out salary increases and job longevity, is it not the American way? Not many other workers sidestep that same activity every single day. Even in the public sector, why is he held to a different standard? I don’t know for sure what Ms. Wolf’s personal politics are, but I can offer some insight into why I, and others, read her comments with concern.
Critical race theory is a rising discipline that can help neatly sort out and unpack these types of views. One helpful tenet is called ‘cognitive dissonance’, which says folks sometimes feel uncomfortable with unfamiliar concepts, advances, and people that collide with our established traditions, social structures, cultural understandings and value systems. For instance, take the proliferation of negative media images of Black males, in particular, even within our own Evanston news portals (see the latest Gang graphic in the Evanston Patch published on August 12th with some questionable and ‘loose’ information, but published nonetheless). Marry these concepts, and it would follow that we are sometimes unconsciously shaken by the sight of a Black male who does not fit or follow the social prescription of the day, and we therefore feel comfortable relegating them back to a place that satisfies our comfort levels and familiarity. This postscription can be subtle, verbal, physical or institutional. I immediately thought of this as I read the column that concerned my writing here today.
Another important tenet to consider when thinking about the discursive educational structure in Evanston, is ‘interest convergence,’ or the process where programs like integration, or the building of the failed Murphy-supported Fifth Ward School, are only approved by the dominant group when values and rewards from the proposed change simultaneously overlap, converge and/or benefit them. Dr. Murphy not only supported the new school, but adhered himself to many other programs that would uplift and benefit minority children, which did not endear him to some in the community. It would seem counterintuitive that a modern administrator directing a school district in today’s changing-demographic-America would not seek more inclusive and cutting-edge educational initiatives that help advance ALL children.
My goal here is not to stir the pot, or to call my friends and neighbors racists, but it is meant to educate and open dialogue so that we all benefit from sharing our unique vantage points. Wolf’s words hurt because some Black and white folks understand acutely how the tenor and tone of her essay harkens back to the days where it was aesthetically and socially unsettling, and sometimes deadly, to see African American males wearing suit and ties (or a military uniforms), educated, speaking the King’s English, and with precision outwitting and outsmarting his neighbors business acumen, while securing a safe space for his village members—too.
For many in our community, Dr. Murphy represented a continuation of a dream, one that many simply could not obtain because of time and place. I view his suits and diction as a source of pride and proof that one can finish school, and lead a ‘diverse’ community. Sometimes our dreams, aspirations and the physical embodiment of them, the business suit, drew violent attention and thus the wearer’s dreams, and sometimes their bodies, were killed. The references to his attire, in that context, sent chills up the collective spines of those of us who know, lived, survived, study and recollect this history.
Every time I saw Dr. Murphy he was somehow involved in the community; coaching FAAM basketball (which called for him to have direct contact with his students), participating in the Dajae Coleman tournament, facilitating a men’s forum, or looking this young scholar in the eye and asking how my dissertation was going, while listening intently to my answers. What this latest episode of Evanston’s history has done for me, including marrying Ms. Wolf’s comments with my recent re-reading of Dr. Coffin’s papers, is secured my recommitment to my home village.
I just hope during my re-entry I will be judged based on my commitment to the children, and not my aesthetics and seeming social graces.