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What went wrong? Race and class in Seattle

January 2, 2011

Twenty five years ago a white father and a black father in Seattle had a dream.  What if their eighth grade sons, one attending the elite prep school Lakeside, and one from Seattle’s Central Area, were on a mixed basketball team? White kids would have their eyes opened about entitlement and black kids would be exposed to wealth and achievement and get a chance at private school.  It seemed to work as the team bonded and won a regional AAU championship.  But this story does not have a happy ending. A  courtside seat to an experiment

Tyrell Johnson, a black teammate of Doug Merlino, a white student at Lakeside, was murdered five years later in a ditch in Seattle.  Merlino, haunted by this, set out to find out what happened to his other teammates.

His four North End white Lakeside teammates all went on to college. Today, they are a King County prosecutor, a hedge-fund manager, a winemaker and an employee-benefits broker.

Of the six black players from south of the Ship Canal, five got swept up in the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, to varying degrees. One is killed. Two go to prison for drug dealing. Only one manages to navigate a more or less straight-line path to prosperity — high-school graduation, college, job — like his white teammates.

There are no easy answers to how social forces play out in situations like this and to think that they don’t have an impact is to be ignorant.  A black teammate recalls how Lakeside students would chant at them when they were losing a game:

It’s all right, it’s OK, you’ll all work for us someday.

The black teammate who appeared to succeed the best became a “code switcher,” skilled at switching language and culture of multiple groups.  It makes me wonder how well the white students would have done if they had to constantly be navigating between two worlds, one in which they had power and familiarity and one in which they were unfamiliar and judged as “less than.”

I sometimes hear white people making judgments about people of color that assume  everyone starts on equal playing ground. That kind of ignorance has been fostered by the myth of  “anyone can make it in America” if you just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” completely denying the economic, psychological, and social legacy of slavery and years of systemic discrimination.

Merlino’s conclusion is sure to be provocative. For integration to do more than “paper over” these chasms, he writes, “the group with the advantages — money, position, status, education — has to let down the armor of superiority, has to give up its edge.”    A  courtside seat to an experiment

Merlino says white people have to challenge the assumptions they hold and seek to understand the experiences of people of color from their eyes.  Only with that understanding will what has gone wrong be changed so that things can be made right.

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