A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Racism and the Kalamazoo Promise

[Belated Blog against racism day essay]

Many, if not most, institutional systems in the United States were explicitly, and without apology, created with racist intentions. Our constitution declared ‘Persons held to Service or Labour’ (that is, black slaves) to be worth only three-fifths of a regular citizen with respect to representation. Educational systems were set up as separate systems for blacks and whites. Housing covenants were written to restrict blacks and other minorities from living in certain neighborhoods. Even churches were explicitly racist; Dr. King famously called 11:00 am Sunday morning (a traditional time of protestant Christian worship) ‘the most segregated hour in this nation.’

Because racism has been so embedded, so endemic to American institutions, racism’s effects last for a long time, even after efforts are made to address racism systemically. In Kalamazoo, where I live, there are several obvious and lasting effects of past (and present) racism. The city of Kalamazoo has a total population of about 77k, about 20% of which is black. Our neighbor to the south, Portage (population 44k), is about 4% black (2000 Census). The median income for Kalamazoo is $42.4k (whites: $49.1k; blacks $26.4k); for Portage, the median income is $61.2 (whites: 61.7, blacks: $41.1). That Kalamazoo has a concentrated population of African-Americans; that they tend to be poorer than whites; that there is a rich suburb nearby which is largely white and much better off financially–this will surprise no one, and are only the most obvious signs of racism.

Recently, an anonymous donor (or group of donors) has endowed the Kalamazoo Public Schools with enough funds to create The Kalamazoo Promise, which is a guarantee that any high-school graduate of the Kalamazoo schools will receive up to 100% scholarship for tuition and fees at any Michigan public post-secondary school (which includes the world-class University of Michigan and Michigan State University). Recipients are guaranteed this scholarship just by graduating–a 100% scholarship for a student who has attended Kalamazoo public schools since kindergarten, but even students who enter at ninth grade are guaranteed a 65% scholarship.

This is a hugely generous gift.

And I think it has been given very wisely with respect to helping reverse racism’s effects in Kalamazoo. Students who were not thinking of college at all are thinking of attending the local community college; those thinking of attending the community college are thinking about attending Western Michigan (the regional state university in Kalamazoo; it’s actually a very solid school for a regional university); those thinking of attending WMU are thinking of Michigan or Michigan State. For some of the individuals affected, it means a chance to achieve goals not possible otherwise. It’s suddenly much more possible to have an equality of opportunity for these students.

But I think the donors were wise not to make means testing a part of the scholarship. The Kalamazoo Promise suddenly makes Kalamazoo a more interesting place to live, and a more interesting place to move to. Already, signs are showing up on the lawns for houses for sale in Kalamazoo: ‘Kalamazoo Promise Qualified.’ It may be that the best school for our daughter will be non-public, or out of state; but should she and we choose a Michigan public college, our financial burden is much smaller. Even people on the high end of the income scale can appreciate saving $40k over four years (the approximate current cost of tuition at Michigan).

The reaction from Portage government and school officials has been positive, as has been the reaction of other neighboring districts, as well as the parochial school systems in Kalamazoo. They recognize that an educated, economically strong Kalamazoo is in the area’s best interests. Michigan has, sadly, a surprisingly low percentage of the population holding a college degree. It’s widely agreed that there is ‘a strong correlation between overall academic achievement and a community’s economic vitality and quality of life’ (Kalamazoo Promise Questions and Answers). By giving this gift to all of Kalamazoo’s public school students, the donors behind the Kalamazoo Promise have made it possible for all of Kalamazoo and its neighbors to benefit.

[Thanks to Natalia for letting me know about Blog against racism day.]

3 responses to “Racism and the Kalamazoo Promise

  1. Martin Glista April 13, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    Very thoughtful commentary. In the four months since you posted, the controversy continues, with obvious jealousy being expressed by some non-kalamazoo residents.

    Of course the simple solution is to make The Promise happen in every sizeable community. An endowment can be created even by working class people willing to pool modest donations towards a future goal of guaranteed college tuition for children of their community. 75 years ago, this was the idea behind building and loan associations which brought home ownership to poor immigrants in this nation. Philanthropic individuals with sizeable trust funds can be found in nearly all our communities. Many if not most could be convinced to fund such an endowment, especially if all other residents pledge to contribute, too.

    In a relatively short period of time, thanks to the magic of compound interest, Portage, Vicksburg, Scotts and other communities can have a Promise, too. It only takes a few people with vision, and an understanding of delayed gratification, to start.

  2. Jim K August 2, 2006 at 11:50 am

    Mixed feelings on this –
    I grew up and graduated from PNHS many (too many) years ago, and then moved away to pursue a career. I’m raising a family in suburban Chicago but have been thinking about a move to pursue a simpler, slower paced life.

    Suddenly, this Promise puts Kalamazoo back on my radar. But I’m very, very hesitant to make the move until I see confirmation that KPS is improving. I’m no expert, but real estate services show KPS as one of the worst in the state (6th percentile, IIRC). Where we are now, the schools are phenomenal.

    So here’s the racism angle for me: I worry about low-income families being priced out of the market (and I’m making the blanket assumption that many of KPS’s low-income families are people of color). But at the same time, I simply CANNOT pull my kids from great schools and deposit them in poor schools simply to save dollars on tuition. My main concern is gangs — which I’ve always heard are a major problem in KPS. Don’t know if this is fact-based, but perception is reality, right?

    Make no mistake, please. My preference would be for the influx of new tax base, teachers, and motivated students to lift KPS and bring ALL students with it. My preference is to have my children in a learning environment where they see African American children striving, acheiving, and destroying stereotypes on a daily basis.

    Honetly, I’m just not willing to accept the risk that this rosy scenario doesn’t happen.

  3. James D. Bilotta September 4, 2006 at 6:12 pm

    Editor, an excellent and powerful book suggestion for your readers: 3rd ed. of: Race and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1848-1865. Backed by 18 years of research this is a serious treatment of US racism/ethnocentrism and is not for the timid. Dr. James D. Bilotta/raceandrepublicans.com

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