MY LOS ANGELES IN BLACK AND (ALMOST) WHITE
By Andrew Furman Syracuse University Press, 248 pages, $24.95
In California, they call us freeway flyers — adjunct college instructors who commute between far-flung schools. Thus, half the week I teach at El Camino College in Compton, one of the more disadvantaged neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The other half I’m at American Jewish University in Bel-Air, one of the most advantaged neighborhoods on earth.
It’s been an education for the educator, shuttling between these schools: I’ve learned that segregation is alive and well in L.A. At AJU, the students are (surprise, surprise) almost all white and Jewish. And while there’s a lot of talk about social justice, few have set foot in South-Central. My Compton students are mostly Latino and black, and many don’t venture far from their familiar neighborhoods.
Andrew Furman, a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, is also interested in the fraught issue of race and education in L.A. Furman’s new book, “My Los Angeles in Black and (Almost) White,” explores the efforts to integrate L.A. schools, as witnessed by Furman as a varsity basketball player for his San Fernando Valley high school.
Part memoir, part social history, Furman’s book is a meditation on integration precipitated by an invitation to his 20-year reunion. Although he’s ambivalent about the reunion, he finds himself deeply curious about his black former teammates, who were bused to the Valley from their “hardscrabble neighborhoods.” This curiosity inspires Furman to delve into L.A.’s turbulent racial history and to make a brief journey back to see how things — and people — have changed.
“My Los Angeles” is particularly informative when Furman explores the history of integration in L.A. It’s a complicated story, but Furman provides a clear description of the decades of lawsuits and legislation, from Brown v. Board of Education to Proposition 209, which prohibits government entities from “giving preferential treatment” to minorities and women.
Furman’s personal impressions are also complicated, although for different reasons. The centerpiece of the book is a trip back to L.A., during which the author often seems trapped by his liberal ideals. He has a “visceral reaction” to the Bush-Cheney campaign placard in his former coach’s garage, and when a black former teammate politely declines to be taken to lunch, Furman agonizes over his own “bourgeois sensibilities,” wondering if he had “sought comfort” in the role of “white benefactor.”
Furman is hard on his fellow Jews. He recalls a Mr. Cohen, whose “lips and tongue seemed to protrude, fishlike, as if his oral cavity were too small to contain these fleshy organs.” When he spends Thanksgiving among Jews, he notes the “Johannesburg-sized diamond rings on the fingers of practically all the female guests.” Later, a couple of guests break out the guitars and play old blues songs. Furman finds the dark lyrics about racism “risible,” given the singers’ material wealth.
But his final chapter on the present state of resegregation in American schools is enlightening. Across the country, “race-neutral” initiatives like Proposition 209 are contributing to the isolation of minority students. And while everyone is suffering in overcrowded schools, minority schools are “egregiously overcrowded,” with many in physical disrepair to the point of “squalor.” Meanwhile, the achievement gap widens.
I’ve witnessed this situation with my own eyes. Certainly neither of my colleges neatly conforms to stereotype: Not all my Compton students are disadvantaged, and not all my AJU students coddled (AJU is in Bel-Air, but not necessarily of it). Still, there is no denying that only one of these communities is prospering.
Whatever its faults, Furman’s book provides a better understanding of how education, or the lack thereof, is both a cause and effect of this gap. The question is what we can do about it. Furman suggests that we can start by renewing a dialogue between blacks and Jews. I commend him for taking this step. But I wonder how many from either group will follow.
Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.