The Wilds of Africa

"If you could teach there, you could teach in the wilds of Africa I bet." This is a sentiment I've heard in various forms, and verbatim this Saturday. As I'm wont to do, I read a bit deeper into the statement, and found it a bit troublesome.

What is it that mystifies people about the Bronx? The wilds of Africa? What an unfortunate choice of words, loaded with encoded racism. More tragic, is the deep psychological separation we have made as society between our inner cities and our suburbs. Or even the "good" neighborhoods and the "bad."

Allow me a tangent: Why didn't we stop genocide in Rwanda? Why does it continue in Darfur? To oversimplify it, one might say it is, because Africa is an expansive, untamed continent inhabited by dark skinned people. Perhaps a more complex, or apologist argument goes to say that there is a endemic problem of corruption started by colonialism, now perpetuated by dictators. There's nothing we can do, we tell ourselves.

It's wrongheaded enough to think this way about other human beings anywhere. But it strikes me as even more profoundly wrong to think this way about fellow citizens in our own country, and in our own cities. The equivalence between the Bronx and the wilds of Africa (or any subsection of the Third World) speaks to a disturbing moral ambivalence.

In the same way we turned our backs on poverty in Africa, we are turning our backs on poverty in America. Perhaps we don't want to believe that poverty exists in our own backyards. But more likely we don't want to believe that it's our responsibility.

The Bronx is not a foreign land. It's not a war zone. It's not some uncharted territory, filled with dangerous, uncivilized natives. And yet in attempt to compliment me for my commitment to teaching in a high-need school, someone essentially admitted they view the Bronx in such a way. If we're ever going to solve the very difficult challenges facing this country's cities (and rural areas) we have to look at these problems realistically. That starts by including such places within our own reality.


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