A second grader asked one of our tutors that question, innocently and without irony or sarcasm, as far as the tutor could tell. Momentarily stumped, he finally responded, “Well, I’m glad you’ve met some nice white people. But white people are like everyone else: some of us are nice, and some of us aren’t.”
Inner city Atlanta is an insular place—with a high degree of de facto segregation, by class and by race. Gentrification is under way, but right now, and for the foreseeable near future, the walls of division by race and class remain high.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the Harvard study showing Atlanta in 50th place out of 50 U.S. metropolitan areas, in terms of social mobility—the likelihood that a child born in a family in the lowest 20 percent by income level will manage to rise into the top 20 percent over the course of his or her lifetime.
It’s intellectually interesting to speculate about the causes of Atlanta’s abysmally low level of upward mobility for poor children. Some attribute Atlanta’s poor showing to “concentrated poverty and extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system that make it difficult to get to the job opportunities.”
It’s good to discuss the reasons for the problem. But while we’re analyzing the issue, it’s also good to to get to know our neighbors in the inner city—and to help the children grasp the opportunities that may be available to them.
That isn’t necessarily easy. One tutor reports that when she worked with a second grader using a globe to try to impart some basic geographic knowledge the child proved recalcitrant, declaring somewhat angrily, “I don’t need to know about other places because I’m never going anywhere!”
But, like people everywhere, the children we work with are individuals, and can’t be stereotyped. One of us remembers a rather precocious first grader who was a great admirer of President Obama and talked of her desire to go to Washington to see him, or at least to see the White House. She interrogated the tutor extensively about how to get to Washington. Would you go by car or by plane? How long would it take? How do you get to the airport? Can you get there on MARTA?
We’re pretty sure that kid is going places. We need to work to make sure that all the kids in Atlanta have the opportunity to get to the places they want to go.