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Lessons—Two Cities, Two Elections and Two Different Worlds

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON MAY 8, 2002]

Two Cities, Two Elections and Two Different Worlds

By Richard Rothstein

Newark – After studying the riots that erupted in 1967 here and in other urban centers, a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson warned that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Today young people still inhabit vastly different worlds, even if that difference is not defined solely by race. Consider two cities—Tulsa, Okla., and Newark—that are among several participating in an effort by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania to involve high school students in municipal elections. The idea is that if the program can whet their appetites now, these students are more likely to be involved in the civic process once they become adults.

In both Tulsa and Newark, high school classes have toured neighborhoods to define what they think the campaign issues should be. Students have posed questions to mayoral candidates on the Internet (at www.student-voices.org), and the candidates have responded.

In Tulsa, students are roughly half white and half black, and mostly middle class. During the campaign for the city’s mayoral election, held in March, their main concerns were potholes and a lower-income area that they wanted beautified. The city’s budget shortfall was also an issue. But the Tulsa youths expressed little personal fear of violence from gangs or drug dealers.

In Newark, where a mayor will be elected next week, students live in a much poorer and more violent community. Here young people tell a very different story. At Technology High School, for example, Tariq Raheem teaches history to seniors who have concluded that the chief election issues should be gang violence, police corruption and the presence of drug dealers on the street.

In a walk around the city, Mr. Raheem’s students observed strewn crack vials. In class discussions, they complained of living in fear that they would be shot if they wore clothing that by chance matched a gang’s color, or if they merely went outside in the evening. Those fears were palpable during a student panel’s recent interviewing of the candidates, to be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow by NJN, New Jersey’s public television service. (A student discussion of the issues will be broadcast on WBGO-FM [88.3], Newark public radio, at 8 p.m. on Monday.)

One of Mr. Raheem’s students, Tiffany Williams, said she would support a candidate who favored creating more jobs and raising the minimum wage, now $5.15 an hour. Ms. Williams reasoned that if young people could live on their earnings, they would be less drawn to gangs and crime. Although the minimum wage is beyond the mayor’s power to set, she argued that a mayor should be expected to advocate a higher one to other officials.

Some students disagreed with Ms. Williams. Toaine Johnson said that once youths joined gangs, they could not be induced to leave simply by providing them regular employment and slightly higher wages.

Mr. Raheem’s students debated other election issues, but most of those topics also concerned, directly or indirectly, the effects of crime and gangs. Mr. Raheem described how community policing might work, and asked if students thought it would help. Some deemed it reasonable, but one young woman objected to having police officers live in neighborhoods they patrol; she said a policeman who lived in her community was its biggest drug dealer.

In a city with an exceptionally high dropout rate—40 percent is a good estimate—that Mr. Raheem’s students have reached senior year defines them as among those with the most perseverance and talent. Even so, he has had to spend one class period a week, all year, trying to convince them their future would brighten if they attended college; most never before considered the idea.

Mr. Raheem says roughly half his students are going on to college in the fall. Still, attrition rates there are high among students who come from communities characterized by violence, unemployment and poverty.

In a number of cities, the Annenberg Center’s two-year-old project, Student Voices, has improved teenagers’ civic awareness and attitudes toward political involvement, and sharpened the desire of many to participate in public affairs as adults. These are hopeful signs, though there is no hard evidence that such student attitudes actually lead to political participation later in life.

In any event, it will take more than civic awareness, of course, to make those two societies one.

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