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There Will Be No Heroes

HBO’s “Show Me A Hero” and This American Life highlight some of the most devastating realties of desegregation.

By Entertainment


illustration by Sophie Lucido Johnson

The most difficult scenes to watch in David Simon’s latest miniseries “Show Me A Hero” are not the ones where people are suffering at the grip of destitution; they’re the scenes that take place at lengthy town hall meetings, rowdy and uncensored. Set in Yonkers, N.Y. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the town meeting and council vote scenes depict an angry mob mentality, and it’s ugly. Footage shows the residents of Yonkers, who are vehemently against a federally mandated ordinance that would build scattered-site public housing in their mostly-white, upper-middle-class neighborhood. They boo loudly, screaming obscenities amidst chants. And while the protestors periodically repeat that “this is not a race issue,” they also say, “It’s about these public housing people bringing drugs and crime into our neighborhoods.” And on and on. The incessant unruliness begins to resemble sickness. It becomes hard to stomach.

Show Me A Hero,” which spans six hour-long episodes, tells the story of the housing crisis in Yonkers between 1987 and 1994. It follows Yonkers’ (very young) mayor, Nick Wasicsko, as he is swept up in the theater of the court ruling: His election hinges on his promise to appeal the housing order, but he quickly realizes that any opposition will be impossible without totally bankrupting the city. The people of Yonkers, however, are unmalleable. Soon,Wasicsko finds himself traveling to the cemetery to visit his father’s grave with a gun in his sock, because he’s afraid the townspeople of Yonkers are out for blood.

Meanwhile, the show paints a few quintessential Simon-esque portraits of housing projects archetypes: the aging woman rapidly losing her vision while her children struggle to support her; the immigrant mother unable to tell whether life in America really is any better than her life of squalor in the Dominican Republic; the teen mom who is manipulated by a trashy in-and-out-of-jail boyfriend over and over again. The portraits lack a certain depth, but we get the picture: People are suffering, and it’s not their fault. More telling than any of the side plots, perhaps, is the scene that shows scummy Councilman Henry Spallone cruising the housing projects in his car for pictures to bring back to his constituents. He knows what he’s looking for: His photographer snaps pictures of girls who are angry that a strange, expensive, black car is cruising through their neighborhood without permission; but he lowers the camera when he sees a distressed woman struggling to carry her groceries. Spallone and his ilk want pictures that will scare people; they don’t have any interest in accidentally garnering empathy.

The Yonkers scandal took place 30 years ago. As I was watching, 30 years ago seemed incredibly recent — these angry white people with signs and torches looked like they belonged in the mid-1950s, not the late 1980s. I felt that maybe David Simon had taken some executive license and to make the white people look less civil than they had actually been. Surely that many people hadn’t stormed City Hall, screaming for hours on end. Surely there had been plenty of people for the desegregation — right? I mean, it’s desegregation. Did that many people in America really want to be on the anti-desegregation side of history?

Then I heard the episode of This American Life that aired two weeks before “Show Me A Hero.” The title of the episode was “The Problem We All Live With,” and the subject, just in time for the beginning of school, was school integration. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who reported the story, said that the only thing she had seen actually close the achievement gap between white students and minority students was “old fashioned,  Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 technology, load kids on buses” desegregation. Hannah’s data show that, during the height of desegregation in 1988, the achievement gap between white students and black students was cut in half in just 17 years.

I worked in public schools in New Orleans for the better part of a decade, and I was overjoyed to hear this openly discussed on public radio. When I moved to New Orleans, I didn’t really understand that desegregation was still an issue. But then I got a job working at a school that was described as having students who qualified “100 percent for free and reduced lunch.” This meant, I learned, that the school was made up, almost entirely, of African American children from low-income families. (The teachers, on the other hand, mostly looked like me — more on that later.)

I remember reading a book to a class of second graders in May to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to attend an all-white school in Louisiana, lives and regularly gives speeches in New Orleans; she was visiting our school later that day. The book was about how awful it had been for African American kids in the ‘50s to try to go to a school where people didn’t want them. At the end of the book, there was a watercolor picture of a bunch of kids from a healthy spectrum of racial backgrounds, sitting on a carpet together. The message was that children like Ruby Bridges fought for the kind of integrated classroom we see in education today. As I closed the book, one of the girls in my class raised her hand.

“But wait, I don’t understand,” she said. “Black kids and white kids aren’t allowed to go to school together.”

Another girl interrupted her and shot across the carpet, “That’s because this book is FICTION. Duh.”

The fiction comment seemed like it should have been a joke, but the second girl was sure she’d cracked the code: We’d been learning about the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and I was reading something to the class that was obviously made up. After all, that hippie-rainbow classroom on the last page was impossible. Everyone knew that.

My students were bright, interesting, and funny; per the cliché, I learned a lot more from them than they ever learned from me. Throughout my years in the classroom, I kept thinking how much we all had to learn from each other, and how great it would be if everyone could just “be integrated.” I was very naïve and Kumbaya about all of it: I assumed that the kind of racially motivated anger I saw in “Show Me A Hero” was a thing of the past.

But in Hannah’s reporting, she did more than find the statistics that supported widespread school integration; she also found a city that was “accidentally” integrated for one year. The Missouri State Board of Education pulled the accreditation of a failing school district — the Normandy school district — which triggered a “transfer law,” giving students in unaccredited districts the right to transfer to a nearby accredited one. The result was that 1,000 students from the Normandy school district – predominantly African American — decided to move to the Francis Howell district (one of the best in the state) — which was predominantly white. Although it meant traveling 30 miles down the highway by bus every day to get to school, students and their families were overjoyed. This was their opportunity for something better.

All of this sounded really good. And then, Hannah began to play some of the tape from the town hall meeting held in the Francis Howell School District following the announcement of the enactment of the transfer law.

Just as in “Show Me A Hero,” there’s yelling. There’s yelling, and there’s applause, and there’s booing. A woman says, “We don’t want the different areas — I’m going to be very kind — coming across on our side of the bridge, bringing with it everything that we’re fighting today against.” The crowd cheers.

Another woman says, “This is what I want to know from you. In one month, I send my three small children to you. And I want to know, is there any metal detectors?” The crowd cheers. This meeting was not held in 1953. It was not held on a television show set in 1989. It was held in real-world Missouri in 2013.

I grew up while the Yonkers desegregation case was making national news. My parents, who lived in Portland, Oregon, were disgusted with the angry mobs and protest groups. We were white, and everyone on our block was white, but my parents — like a lot of my peers’ parents — were very careful to teach us that racism was a major problem in this country, and that all colors and creeds were equal. The way they talked about it, this all seemed very simple. My parents had come of age during the Civil Rights Era. The racism they knew about was straightforward and ugly. They preached love and equality, and that seemed easy enough to abide by.

The trouble with that is, those of us who learned racism as a simple and obvious problem believe that there must be a simple and obvious solution. I believed, for example, that if I moved to low-income neighborhood and integrated myself (yes, I thought of it that way) into a community of African American people, I would be doing my part to eradicate segregation in this country. And, furthermore, if I took a teaching job at a school where African American children made up most of the student body, I would be pretty much changing the world. I would end up on the right side of history, and I’d ride off into the sunset, a hero in a white hat and red cape.

The trouble with the story I told myself before I moved to New Orleans was that my version of “integration” was just as dehumanizing as the protests to desegregation I’d seen on television. I did not ask anyone in the community I was moving into how they felt about having a middle-class white person move into their neighborhood. I didn’t check with the parents at the school I worked at to see how they felt about all the fresh-faced college grads from all over the country who had come in with little to no experience to teach their children. I just assumed that the problem was that white people hated black people, and I could show that I was not a white person who hated black people.

Here is what happened after I moved into my neighborhood in New Orleans: I watched my rent steadily increase. I watched people around me, who had lived in the neighborhood for generations, be forced to leave because they couldn’t keep up with their monthly payments. I watched more people who looked like me move in, often buying their houses — and with them, I watched bagel shops and coffeehouses and bookstores move in, too. This is partially what is meant when people say “gentrification” — a word that’s as ubiquitous these days as the problems that come with it.

And here is what I learned after I took my first job in a New Orleans charter school: It turns out that the students in New Orleans public schools didn’t have a shortage of teachers (as I had believed they must). The state used Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to wrongfully fire all 7,000 teachers who worked in the school system. Before the storm, the vast majority of educators in New Orleans were African American people; now, that demographic has shifted to just over 50 percent. Not only that, but according to Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, the teachers who work in New Orleans now (like me) are not as experienced as they were ten years ago: In 2014, only 30 percent of teachers had more than 10 years experience in the classroom, compared to more than half in 2005. The students in the New Orleans public school system, however, are 85 percent black. Very suddenly, fewer of their teachers look like they do.

Herein lies the trouble with teaching people — especially white people — that racism is simple: It isn’t. When we hear people say, “This isn’t a race issue,” and then spout off us/them statements that are inherently racist (“We just don’t want these people coming into our hard-earned communities and lowering our property values”), the problem is this: People who say stuff like that really don’t think that the issue is a race issue. It is easier to believe that we live in a post-racial society, and a lot of people honestly believe that we do. A lot of what we experience around race is much more complicated than we learned about when we were growing up.

In Brooklyn, for example, city officials recently decided to desegregate two public schools by changing the zoning lines in the city. The upper-middle-class, majority-white Public School 8 is overcrowded and over-extended; meanwhile, Public School 307, which is underperforming and majority African American, has too few students. Rezoning the area would fix the class size problem, and desegregate the schools all in one fell swoop. It is the obvious and logical solution.

But this “obvious” solution has infuriated parents at both schools. In a conversation with RawStory about the rezoning, a spokesman for Church of the Open Door (which has congregants in the community) said, “We know some white people don’t want to go to PS 307 because it’s predominantly black. And some of the black people don’t want this influx of white people coming in.” No one is happy with the rezoning, as cut-and-dry as the issue might seem.

It is easier for us to draw conclusions around what we perceive to be patterns; we talk about entire groups of people as though they are statistics and data points, which allows us to dehumanize them. This is why it’s relatively easy to ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are struggling to find a place to live, but significantly more difficult to ignore a single image of a drowned little boy washed up on the beach. Individuals have stories. Often, those stories look similar to our own.

illustration by Sophie Lucido Johnson

illustration by Sophie Lucido Johnson

David Simon knows that, which is why he is famously careful to develop so many kinds of characters. The biggest triumph of “Show Me A Hero,” though, is not that Simon shines a light on traditionally untold narratives; it is that his central character, Nick Wasicsko, is not much of a hero at all. Unlike the white savior protagonists in movies like “Dangerous Minds” or “The Blind Side,” Wasicsko is shown as the conflicted, occasionally well-meaning, always self-oriented human being he is. He doesn’t save anyone. He isn’t terribly beloved. He is just a guy who thinks he knows what is right and what is wrong, and whose hubris lands him in a world of trouble.

There’s a telling scene early on in “Show Me A Hero,” where the narrative had the opportunity to take a more expected turn. We are introduced to Michael Sussman, a civil rights attorney who represents the NAACP. Sussman is the perfect candidate for the kind of white savior story so many of us have grown comfortable with: He is stubbornly on the side of desegregation; he gets batted around and spat on by the racist protestors in Yonkers; he believes in doing the right thing, no matter what. But he’s not the hero of this story, and Simon shows us why with a conversation between Sussman and NAACP President Benjamin Hooks.

After a tense meeting about housing arrangements, Sussman comes up to Hooks, confused about why the members of the NAACP couldn’t be more happy about the ruling to desegregate housing in Yonkers. He says, incredulously, “This is a big win for the movement.”

Hooks fires back: “Ten years ago, I’d have agreed. I’d have seen this case as the answer to a problem — most of us would have, but we’ve been at this game a long time, Mike. Longer than you. And a lot of us are at this point where, if they don’t want to live with us, why should we want to live with them?” It’s a deeply honest exchange that gets at the heart of the issue: Desegregation isn’t simple, and people dislike change almost as much as they dislike empathizing with those outside their inner circle. Sussman is no hero, either, but it might have been easier to paint him as one, so we don’t see much of him in this series. The picture we get instead is much more heartbreaking, but also more humanizing.

The most heartbreaking moment in “The Problem We All Live With” is when a young woman, Mah’Ria Martin, who had been so excited to finally attend Francis Howell high school, goes to the open board meeting where the transfer law is being discussed. She listens to parents openly disparage the students at her school — herself included — and she starts to feel sad. She decides to go up to the microphone to tell the parents that she is just a human being, trying to get a good education — surely that would change peoples’ minds. But she falters.

“I didn’t even get halfway to the microphone because of what the parents were saying. I stopped the second to the last row because I did not want to say anything anymore,” Martin says. It’s understandable why she can’t go on stage. It shouldn’t be one young woman’s responsibility to show a whole room full of angry, shortsighted adults with blood in their voices that they are being hateful, uncivil, and embarrassing. And still, you wish someone would shake these people and ask them to consider the humanity of the people they are talking about.

People generally operate from principles they believe to be just and right; fear turns to anger, and anger turns to hatred and violence with terrifying speed. This is not to excuse any of it. It is only to say that simple solutions are rarely enough.

Integrating schools over the long term would be great. But even in a “perfect” system, where integration is implemented with fidelity over a span of decades, it is not a perfect solution to the problem of the American achievement gap. This is still a system in which children would be forced to wake up at ungodly hours to be bussed across a city just to go to school with a bunch of kids who don’t necessarily want them to be there. The achievement gap rests on a deep legacy of racism, and we have done a terrible job of acknowledging it thus far. For those of us who have not yet done so, it is time to really listen to the people who have shouldered that burden the most.

And throughout, it would behoove us to acknowledge that perhaps there will be no heroes — at least, not in the way that we learned about them. The title for “Show Me A Hero” is the beginning of an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote. It is from one of his notebooks and altogether reads, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” We are all in this business of being human together. It is time we started to act like it.

Sophie Lucido Johnson is the editorial advisor for F, and has written for The Guardian, VICE, Jezebel, The Nation, and others. She makes a ton of pie.
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One Response to There Will Be No Heroes

  1. LAhillbillie says:

    Amazingly thoughtful and insightful article. And now I know David Simon has a new project(?!) – so charged! The problem is amazingly complex, and also shockingly simple: why would the “haves” willingly give away their advantages? Such a saintly, selfless act would require deep human compassion, so rarely taught and less often practiced.

    I was recently at a meeting in a private, bilingual school in New Orleans (one of my children attends a public bilingual school, the other a private – it’s an age thing). At the meeting they were congratulating the parents on their school choice, expounding on the benefits of the school. “Don’t you wish every child could have this (bilingualism)?” the speaker said. “Well, they can’t. But _your_ child can!” Applause from the parents. Chills down my spine. Not giving up that high ground any time soon.

    Again, great article. Good on you for your service, and even better that you’ve brought the torch into a different occupation. Thank you!

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