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Prisoners of Class


By Fran Schumer

IN A QUIET, residential area of Brooklyn, N.Y., a crowd of angry white teen-agers surrounded the main doors of James Madison High School chanting "We want the Niggers, we want the Niggers." Armed with sticks, rocks and fragments of glass, they waited for the black students in the school to leave the building. The police, who were called to the school earlier that morning when fist fights between black and white students erupted in the halls, forced the crowd to move on down the block so that the black students could leave the building safely. After the white crowd moved out of sight, the black students quickly headed for the local trains on which they would make the one-and-one-half hour trip homeward.

Two minutes after the last police car pulled away, the black students raced from the subway station back toward the school under a shower of bricks and rocks. The white mob, which had apparently moved from the school vicinity to the subway station to wait for the blacks descended upon them. On the one side of the blacks stood the closed school doors from which the handles had long since been removed to prevent trespassers from entering the school in between periods. To their other side loomed a mass of white fists, tear-streamed faces and rapidly-moving lips mouthing the language of racial hatred.

Twenty years ago the students who attended James Madison, considered one of the finest high schools in Brooklyn up until a week ago last Monday, were the college-bound sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors and business executives. They were all white and mostly Jewish. They were the pride and joy of city school administrators. During the past ten years the student population has undergone a gradual transformation. Now the academic stars of the school are the children of hardware store owners, bookkeepers and salesmen. Their last names are DeMario, Poulanski and occasionally Goldberg. They are headed for the state universities and, more often, the vast salesrooms of Macy's.

The changes evolving in the neighborhoods surrounding Madison High School are similar to those that portended the rapid appearance of "For Rent" and "Sold" signs in cities across the nation during the last fifty years. They predict the beginning of a scenario familiar to urban sociologists; they hit the homes in Flatbush last week with a startling thud.

The participants in last week's riots all know how the story will end. They are tragic victims because they cannot possibly alter the inevitable course of events. For one reason or another, they are all stuck at Madison. No reformist program--the human relations office that will soon be set up in the cafeteria, the assembly programs on Martin Luther King that will be performed in the auditorium, and the parent-teacher meetings that will be conducted--can stop the emerging sequence of events. There is nothing mystifying about why this certain pattern must set in. It is a result of everyone in James Madison responding in an immediately logical manner.

White students, assaulted and insulted by blacks, get scared. Black students, who hate riding the trains for three hours every day to attend a school with an all-white administration nestled in an all-white community, strike out at the whites. The black parents voluntarily commit their kids to this school transfer program because they believe their kids can get a better education at Madison than they can at the decaying neighborhood school. White parents fight tooth and nail the entrance of more black kids into the school because they fear the fall of property values and they can't afford to exit the scene. And teachers at Madison, who would prefer to have the children of lawyers and doctors as their students, children who don't cut class, don't etch "fuck" on the desks, don't shoot-up in bathrooms, throw up their hands and cry to administrators, "If we can't perform our role as teachers, at least protect us in our role as policemen."

None of these responses are illogical when viewed as the responses by individuals to private troubles. All of them are irrational when viewed as responses by a social system to public issues. They are reactions that each member of Madison must take to save his neck, but combined, they are the reactions that will ultimately strangle all of them. Every time another black is knifed in a ghetto school, another black parent ships his child off to Madison. Every time a black freshman fights back in hatred of the alien atmosphere at Madison, a white student goes home wounded. Every time a white fist hits a black jaw, another "For Sale" sign crops up. And every time a place like Madison turns from a school into a prison, enrollment swells in another suburban school.

When the only steps individuals can take lead to 14-year-olds throwing rocks at each other then it is clear these people are victims of a social system that is not working in their best interests.

But to whom is this clear?

It is certainly not clear to the principal of Madison, who announced a day after the riots that Madison will continue to prove that "it is the best high school around." It is not clear to the black and white parents who continue to blame each other. And needless to say, it is not clear to the students who would have killed each other had the police not arrived.

It is possible that people at James Madison High School will never know the pieces add up to their own victimization. As long as the prisoners of class and the prisoners of race must make self-destructive choices, they will continue to fight each other for the breadcrumbs. But after all, they choose to act this way and this kind of free choice is as American as apple pie, Watts, Hough, Bedford-Stuyvesant and in a few years, Flatbush.

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