The chilling facts were revealed to me Thursday night during a meeting of the admirable non-profit, independent investigative entity, Searchlight New Mexico. Their report, Raising New Mexico, fills in further alarming details.
This beautiful state, where many rich refugees from our bedeviled cities and coasts flee to find or build large second houses, presents a dismaying picture when it comes to our children: they face the highest rates in the nation of abuse and neglect, the highest rate in the nation of children who can’t read or do math at grade level, and a high school graduation rate of seventy-one percent, worst in the country except for Washington, DC.
Many studies have shown what must be done: home visits to head off some of these problems, Pre-K education, and dual-language classes for the many in the state who speak Spanish or one of several Native languages. Now with the environmentally pernicious oil and gas boom pouring money into the state confers, and the Yazzie/Martinez vs. State of New Mexico decision last September—that the Public Education Department has violated the constitutional rights of our at-risk children by denying them an adequate education—money must be spent on teachers’ salaries, upgraded buildings and many other glaring deficiencies.
But I think the fact that we are ranked almost as low as Washington D.C. packs another message. This state, like that city, has inherited decades of racial prejudice against people we white folk consider “other”: Latinas and Latinos, immigrants legal and “illegal,” and members of dispossessed Native tribes. In the capital, this prejudice largely affects African-Americans, but the result is the same: generations that have never experienced justice. Our schools are the examples of this ongoing crime, and money alone will not cure it.
So why am I calling this post “Rich kids”?
Because those are the children I know, and that was the child I was—although the phrase was never spoken and probably never even thought.
Of course children are not literally rich. Even Doris Duke, who was called “The Richest Girl in the World” after her father died when she was almost thirteen, got by on an allowance of a quarter a week until she was twenty-one and began to inherit from one of her father’s trusts.
But of course we were, and are, “rich,” and therefore, as Robert Coles discovered in Privileged Ones, the final book of his five-book study, Children of Crisis (as he calls us), have a special set of problems all our own: guilt, confusion, low self-esteem—all compounded by the silence that governs nearly all family discourse, whether rich or poor.
I doubt whether Robert Coles would have devoted 555 pages to analyzing these woes, which, after all, can be conquered with maturity and a dose of the real world. His reason for writing this fifth volume came to him from the lips of an eight-year old African-American girl in Atlanta who asked, “Why aren’t you looking at THEM?”
As a woman Coles was interviewing explained, “You can’t really know about plain working people unless you go find out about the big shots. It’s their decisions that end up making us live our lives the way we do…The rich folks are the ones who decide how the poor folks live.”
In terms of New Mexico and the rest of the nation, this is a glaring truth that is seldom mentioned: rich white people have eviscerated our public schools by choosing to send their children to private schools, recreating the old southern myth of “Separate But Equal”—which was always separate but never equal, because no state can support two parallel school systems; who have found ways to avoid state taxes through the endless loopholes poor people know nothing about; who live in beautiful, firmly segregated neighborhoods; and who avoid at all costs talking about the social costs of privilege. If we talked about it, we would have to cope with guilt, confusion, low self-esteem, and all the rest of it—which we are already doing, if we are halfway conscious, but secretly and in silence. This prevents action or any feeling of solidarity.
Coles spends his first chapter describing those “comfortable, comfortable places” where all of us who can afford them love to live. In New Mexico, he saw “large adobe houses abut cacti, corrals and often stunning views: across a valley, over toward mountains, miles and miles away. And the horses: they are not part of “hunt” club, not exquisitely combed, they are just there, grazing or waiting to be used, by boys or men as well as women and girls: Western style riding, sometimes barebacked. And the cattle. They have to wander far over the stingy land for food—and in the clutch, must be fed grain by quite well-to-do owners who don’t worry too much about costs, about profit and loss. And the dogs…”
Paradise, for the privileged ones, and maybe just over the hill are the miserable shacks and broken-down house trailers where most of our people and their children live.
But the problem is not only poverty. In this state as across the west, we inherit an often ignored history of forced separation of children, like what is going on our southern border today: until the 1970’s, Native American children were snatched from their families and sent to church-run boarding schools where many sickened and died—some of their remains are now being brought back and reburied, with ceremonies, on their families’ reservations. Russell Banks rends listeners with his description of these decade-long atrocities, the results of which no education can eradicate. And the prejudice that backed their removal lives on, as we see in attacks on homeless Native Americans living on our streets—and, just yesterday, in a jeremiad against the “mafia” of homeless people some well-off person in Santa Fe likens to an invasion.
Coles knows there is no easy solution, perhaps no solution at all, and he does not condemn children or their elders. He ends his volume with a quotation from James Agee: “Hope against Hope. And despair all the time a threat and a temptation.” Or, as Searchlight’s editor, Sara Solovitch states, “Real change depends on political will.”
Maybe just on one person who has just spend thousands on next summer’s opera tickets might donate the same amount to Searchlight New Mexico.
[The Raising New Mexico report can be downloaded at this link.]