WHILE THE NATION is all abuzz about Barack Obama, I have been reflecting on the old lines (race, class and geography) that divide our Island community. They are complicated, entrenched and deserve consideration far more than my allotted 625 words. But I will try.
Here's an example. Some months ago, I spent an hour or so discussing Island politics with an old-time East Ender. We talked about crime (he thought raising the bridges to Oakland at night would not be a bad idea) and commerce (he felt too much money had gone into improving Webster Street). We also talked about the Island's schools. At one point, he halted the conversation as if to confide in me and posed this question: "Do you know why East End schools are better than West End schools?"
"No," I replied, shocked by the premise of his query, because there are, of course, good schools and good students, teachers, administrators all across the Island. I was surprised, too, by his blanket-across-the-island judgment. "West" in Alameda is sometimes code for 'not white' or 'not affluent.'
He answered his own question: "East End parents care more about their children."
I was triply shocked. How could anyone seriously assert that one whole group cares more about their children than another? All parents care about their children, I thought. To suggest otherwise is just plain crazy.
As a relatively new Island resident (my family moved here in 2000) I've heard the rumblings of East Enders looking down their collective noses on West Enders, but I'd never actually heard someone say anything so bigoted out loud and so forthrightly.
It would be hard to deny that an East/West split persists in our town, especially with respect to schools. But like all patterns of thought based on prejudice and stereotypes, such divisions are not reality-based. There is, for example, plenty of affluence to the west, plenty of diversity to the east.
Island overgeneralizations run many ways. One of the most perplexing — all tangled up as it is in class and racial and geographical stereotypes — is the tendency of some affluent, educated West End parents to disparage East End parents as selfish and/or small-minded. My best guess is that those views come in reaction to feelings of superiority that have sometimes come from the east, but I could be wrong.
Nonetheless, they exist. Recently, for example, I was talking to a West Alamedan about the possibility of chartering Chipman Middle School. The discussion turned to speculation about whether children in the Chipman zone would have first priority for attending the school or not. "Oh, it doesn't matter," said the longtime West End resident. "East End parents wouldn't want to come to a West End school."
Again, I was shocked. Especially because the speaker felt comfortable making such a generalization to me, a real-live East End parent. What good does it do to make such broad negative assessments of whole neighborhoods?
As a community, we need to challenge our knee-jerk generalizations about one another. We sell ourselves short intellectually, morally and philosophically when we fall back on the old Island stereotypes that people from one area are this way or that, or that this school is "bad" or "good."
So now, with change afoot on the national level, perhaps each of us can take a bit of time to review and revise some of those unproductive ways of thinking about other Islanders. They do none of us any good. Perhaps we can learn, too, to talk about the schools our children attend (and those that they do not) without resorting to those old dividing lines and prejudices. As the USA matures, so too can Alameda.
Eve Pearlman has two children in Alameda public schools. She is an active school volunteer and formerly served on the board of the Alameda Education Foundation. She also writes the Alameda Journal Blog. Look for news, impressions and opinion at www.ibabuzz.com/alamedajournal.