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"Jail," Barber told the group rehearsing at Pullen, "is a place from which you testify about what you stand for."

Frames and facts in Wake schools 

"Ain't gonna let nobody (clap), turn me 'round (clap), turn me 'round (clap), turn me 'round (clap) ..." Nor—I sang—would I let segregation (clap) turn me 'round, because with gospel belter Mary D. Williams fronting the room at Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church Monday night, and 50 others singing with her, even the tuneless had to pipe up.

This was a rehearsal for the pro-diversity march and rally on Fayetteville Street Tuesday morning, and Williams was teaching the group—mostly students, but not all—such civil rights-era hymns as "Wade in the Water (Children)" and "We Are Soldiers in the Army." These are songs, she said, that Martin Luther King sang in 1955 during the Montgomery bus boycott when King was marching for justice. "Because that's what you're doing," Williams preached. "You're marching for justice, too."

Eight months into the tenure of the new Wake County school board majority, and the pro-diversity side—the majority's opponents—have definitively, exuberantly seized the moral high ground from them. Not that it was much of a fight.

The Majority-5 bloc took power last December, pointing to some slippage in Wake's test scores and in the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students. The "5" were intent on eliminating diversity as an element in student assignments. Lest the "5" be labeled, however, as uncaring about the disadvantaged students who were supposed to be helped by diversity, but—in their discourse—were being neglected, the "5" created a special task force on low-income students. Voluble John Tedesco, already point man among the "5" for assignment policies, was put in charge.

Thus far, though, the task force charged with addressing economically disadvantaged students has met only twice and accomplished nothing except perhaps to confirm the suspicion that it was a scrim to obscure the majority's abandonment of these kids.

Make no mistake, the "5" represent the five districts (out of nine on the board) located on Wake County's perimeter—in short, the five suburban districts. The other four are located wholly or mainly in Raleigh, including downtown and the Southeast Side.

When the "5" talk about neighborhood schools or—as outlined by Tedesco—an assignment plan to whack up the county into four or five "regions" (with 18 "assignment zones" within), what they're talking about is splitting Wake into several suburban school districts and one or more urban, or Raleigh, districts. That is, to undo the '70s merger.

Tedesco's talk early on that the urban districts should be the focus of "special" efforts on behalf of low-income neighborhoods was an obvious grab for the moral high ground. But he's failed to follow through, and his four Majority-5 mates (Debra Goldman, Chris Malone, Deborah Prickett and Chairman Ron Margiotta) have done nothing to help him.

I thought about this in connection with a recent essay, "Disaster Messaging," by George Lakoff. Progressive readers will recognize Lakoff as the guru of political framing. A linguistics professor at UC-Berkeley, he's famous for explaining why conservatives win the messaging battles with progressives.

"In politics, the high-level frames"—the concepts that register at the deepest levels with people—"are moral frames," Lakoff says. Life, freedom, responsibility, equality and fairness are among them, and they're all that conservatives talk about, while progressives get caught up in the details of legislation and only belatedly remember to say (when they're losing and the need for "disaster messaging" sets in) that they, too, are for fairness, etc. But doing so, Lakoff says, only serves to "activate and strengthen the high-level, deep, conservative, moral frames" already established by the other side.

This is why "moving to the right" doesn't work, Lakoff says. Instead of mimicking the conservatives' frames, he argues, progressives must establish their own "high-level moral system."

This analysis struck me as exactly what happened in Wake County over the last decade. Conservatives like Margiotta and his Republican Party allies blasted away at "forced busing" as if driving kids to school affronted their freedom. Ditto "mandatory year-round schools," though only a handful of students were ever not allowed to choose a traditional-calendar school. Kids had a "right" to neighborhood schools, they said.

Meanwhile, the old pro-diversity school board was deep in the policy weeds of coping with Wake's high growth, the lack of funding from the conservative-dominated Board of County Commissioners and moving nodes around to maintain socioeconomic balance (i.e., diversity), despite the reality that Wake's booming suburbs were anything but balanced.

In last year's elections, Tedesco and Prickett even used the fact that the old school board was having trouble maintaining diverse schools against the policy itself. "See?" they said. The number of schools with more than 40 percent of kids from low-income families has increased from half a dozen (out of 159) to more than 50! So diversity's a failure—and it's a double failure because of that 54 percent graduation rate for low-income kids.

Well, this made no sense whatsoever, but remember, voters respond to frames, not facts. So when the progressive candidates said that the fact that so many schools were no longer diverse was contributing to the low ED graduation rates, it was too many facts, no frame.

So the conservatives won, but they immediately forgot about framing, showing themselves to be interested in fairness only as it might apply to their own suburban districts.

Meanwhile, civil rights leaders like the Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, and the Rev. Nancy Petty, Pullen's new pastor, were framing the fight in Wake not as a policy dispute but a moral struggle, five decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision against resegregation of the public schools. It was a question about fairness of the most fundamental kind.

Not only that, it was a question of national importance: Schools outside of Wake County (but not in Wake yet) are more segregated today than they were 40 years ago, according to an important study done at UCLA.

When Barber, who is black, and Petty, who is white, were arrested along with Duke historian Tim Tyson (white) and Mary Williams (black) at a school board meeting last month, the effect was electrifying. They epitomized the moral imperative of integrated schools—of diversity—and they were willing to be jailed for it.

"Jail," Barber told the group rehearsing at Pullen, "is a place from which you testify about what you stand for."

  • "Jail," Barber told the group rehearsing at Pullen, "is a place from which you testify about what you stand for."

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