How does our community harness the historic intensity of the Black Lives Matter protests to make structural changes that improve the real world life experience for Black citizens and for all citizens?
As a Lakeland citizen and Polk County School Board member, I see two unfair and harmful local realities that lay within government’s power to address quickly. And I’m committing to do so with both of them.
Single-member voting districts
In the City of Lakeland, White people, including me, choose who represents predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. That’s because all of Lakeland’s City Commission districts are elected citywide. Two commissioners and the mayor are elected at-large, meaning they do not have to live in any area to run for office. The other four commissioners must live in one of four city districts to run.
Here’s a look at the map. Click to enlarge.
Lakeland’s population is 72 percent White and 20 percent Black; but in the northwest part of town, the district colored red on the map, the Black population is much much higher. (Identifying Hispanic population percentage is more difficult because official numbers sometimes count Hispanic people in their own category and sometimes assign them to a black/white race dichotomy. Most of Lakeland’s Hispanic population is found within that 72 percent White number here.)
City founders and charter writers clearly recognized the importance of geographical variety in representation; but they did not give the different Lakeland geographies the power to choose their own voices. They gave White people an ongoing veto over anyone in the northwest deemed unsuitable to White people.
They gave White people a veto over any meaningful political competition among Lakeland’s Black residents to wield power on behalf of Lakeland’s Black residents. This is stifling to young leaders; and it’s the reason we see the same people over and over again speaking on behalf of “the Black community.” White people have chosen these “leaders” to do that; and I think Black people should make that choice instead.
This stifling of political competition for power seems untenable moving ahead — and very easy to fix. The City Commission should simply vote to place a charter revision on the ballot in November that does this: convert the four geographic districts to single-member voting districts, meaning that only the voters within those districts choose who represents them.
[By the way, all four Lakeland districts are culturally and demographically distinct from each other. Single member districts would broaden our total range of voices and reduce the influence of big money. Thus, actions taken to be fair to Black citizens help all of us, as they often do.]
This change is neither complicated nor radical. But it does require Lakeland’s White people, including me, to surrender a tiny bit of power over Black people’s lives. One way to make sure Black Lives Matter in Lakeland is to make sure their votes matter too. I support that now and would vote for that tomorrow. Will the City Commission and Lakeland as a whole?
Geographical choice for schools
You child should be able to attend the school you live closest to. But you cannot choose that option because Florida lies about school “choice.”
Florida doesn’t care about choice; it never has. It cares about labeling neighborhoods and kids as “failing” with fraudulent test “accountability” and then marketing “choice” as an escape. This takes on deeply deeply racist and classist and ableist overtones if you look closely at all. I would urge everyone to read this deep analysis of fraudulent school grades and “choice” in Polk County that I wrote last year. It’s worth your time.
Indeed, Florida particularly and cynically markets grifter voucher schools like Kingdom Prep and A’Kelynn’s Angels to Black children. It does this because those “schools” are cheap and largely out of sight; they allow state government to easily and cheaply outsource children it doesn’t care about to grifters and predators with no oversight. Read this story about Kingdom Prep and read this story about A’Kellyn’s Angels if you doubt me.
As a result of Florida’s dishonest and cruel approach to “choice,” every day in Lakeland and Polk County, children are bused miles and miles away from neighborhood schools they can see because those schools are “choice” schools — magnet or charter schools. I have written about this over and over again and pushed the School Board and staff to address it. And we have taken some small steps.
Lakeland’s Lincoln Academy was mentioned by name as an example of this phenomenon at Monday night’s “Call to Consciousness” event hosted by Allyson Lewis, one of those young leaders I mentioned before. Lincoln has increased its Black enrollment to 25 percent in recent years; and the School District continues to take steps to bring more of the neighborhood into Lincoln. But the surrounding neighborhood is almost 100 percent Black. Lincoln, which was made into a magnet school years ago to desegregate, has become a shorthand way of talking about schools that Black neighborhoods lost to White people.
And this gets into the fundamental question about segregation that an ardent integrationist like me has to grapple with: how do you balance the imperative of integration with the benefit of having a neighborhood school? There is no easy answer. I’ve never been in a crowd of any race that could clearly agree on the right balance of neighborhood school versus integration.
Geographic choice seems a no-brainer if we’re serious about that balance and about choice. If you want your child to attend the school closest to you, you should be able to pick that option in the choice enrollment period.
Indeed, in Brown vs. Board, the Brown family was attending a school that was quite nice in Topeka, Kansas. I’ve visited it. But they were forced to travel unnecessarily far to get there. They wanted to attend a school closer to their home and neighborhood and were forbidden by law to do that.
For many kids, that same reality exists today in Polk. I have raised this specific issue at the Polk School Board; and we’re supposed to have a work session on it at some point. But neither a majority of the the School Board nor the unelected staff leadership have shown much interest. That should change.
I hope these two ideas generate real discussion; they certainly give people of power, who are mostly White in Lakeland, a chance to match words with action.