How a high school basketball controversy in Charlotte encapsulates inequality in North Carolina schools

How a high school basketball controversy in Charlotte encapsulates inequality in North Carolina schools

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When a West Charlotte High basketball player excoriated the “B.S.” that grifted a home court playoff game from his school this week, his palpable anger made sense on many levels, just one of them actually involving sports.

The school’s gym – capacity 400 – wasn’t big enough to house West Charlotte’s hotly-anticipated match-up Tuesday with cross-town rival, Ardrey Kell High, The Charlotte Observer reported this week. So his team’s well-earned spoils, a home date in the “Lion’s den” – as locals call it – decamped and moved eight miles northeast to a neutral high school with 650 more seats.

Put aside the slight to West Charlotte’s basketball team, for a moment. Snatching home court advantage in a playoff game stings – though West Charlotte won the game anyway – but, in this week’s report, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake saw the controversy absent the fog of competition.

In a very limited sense, it’s a sports story. But in a broader sense, it’s a microcosm, a symptom of an illness in North Carolina. It’s a weary story, a story about haves and have-nots, Leake explained, writ small in high school basketball melodrama.

“We are more segregated today than we’ve ever been,” Leake sagely told The Observer reporter. “There’s a white system and a Black system.”

There’s a sour irony to the West Charlotte story too. State Superintendent Mark Johnson, in his two years in the Teach for America program, taught at West Charlotte, even if North Carolina’s disparate public school resource crisis – call it what it is — seems to rank curiously low on his agenda.

All the old players are here, race and class and geography and history. Almost 85 percent of West Charlotte’s students are Black; about 60 percent of Ardrey Kell enrollment is white. Nearly 98 percent of West Charlotte’s students receive free or reduced price lunch, perhaps our clearest indicator of socioeconomic status, while just 10 percent of Ardrey Kell pupils qualify.

Would that the disparity ended there. As The Observer noted, West Charlotte ranks 415th out of 469 high schools in North Carolina, according to School Digger’s rankings, and Ardrey Kell places ninth.

And the racial tensions in these Charlotte schools – one erected in a clamoring suburban enclave, the other in a historically Black neighborhood “fragmented by urban renewal and highway construction,” according to Charlotte activist and West Charlotte expert Pam Grundy – melt at a glacial pace, if at all.

Indeed, officials suspended an Ardrey Kell star this week because the student, who was white, used a racial slur to refer to West Charlotte on a social media platform.

Grundy, author of “Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality,” wrote this week that West Charlotte’s gym is the tip of that iceberg.

“It was astonishing to see what they had,” one West Charlotte parent told Grundy after visiting Ardrey Kell’s football facilities. “Just the basic stuff, the condition of the field, the condition of the parking lot. The concessions. It was a clear distinction. So when we talk about separate but equal, not at all.”

It’s not fair to give Ardrey Kell the movie villain treatment – players from different backgrounds labored on and off the court at Ardrey Kell for their spot in the playoffs too – but we can’t dismiss the student’s bigoted dispatch as simply youthful buffoonery, a callow indiscretion.

If sports is life, it’s life in all of its ugliness. The student’s words mean something, and they say a tremendous amount – intended or not – about what we’ve wrought in North Carolina schools.

We, the adults of North Carolina, the leaders of North Carolina, owed it to students at both schools to play a basketball game without the spit and vile of centuries of American racial malady, without the demarcations and pregnant reminders of brackish, educational inequality, the sort of inequality that animates a lifetime of inequality.

When Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit, the N.C. Justice Center, issued a report this week on public school facilitiesamidst a roiling debate over North Carolina’s $8 billion school infrastructure tab – its authors wrote plainly what many North Carolinians have known for years:

In North Carolina, there’s strong evidence that Black students are more likely to attend dilapidated schools than white students. The average Black student in North Carolina attends a school district with $2,548 of school refurbishment and equipment needs per student, compared to white students where the refurbishment and equipment needs are $2,440 per student.

Students in counties with low tax bases face per-student refurbishment and equipment needs of $4,646, compared to just $2,382 in high-wealth counties.”

Some schools in North Carolina have better facilities than other schools; some schools have more resources than other schools; some schools have bigger, better gyms than other schools; and more often than not, it’s poorer students and students of color who attend the latter.

If you’re comfortable with that reality, there’s the door. North Carolina could do better without you.

Officials with the high school athletic association didn’t cause the problem. Similar stories wait in dozens of North Carolina counties, left behind by eroding tax bases and a lethargic General Assembly that balks at the prospect of a statewide school bond for school infrastructure, even if officials estimate the tab for needed refurbishments, not counting new school construction, at more than $3 billion.

A school district in eastern North Carolina fought a bruising legal battle last year over their own corroded facilities, offering retch-inducing details of sewage draining down hallways, students hopscotching over filth to make their next class.

Gov. Roy Cooper, at least, acknowledges our failures, calling this week for a $3.9 billion bond in his budget proposal, one sure to meet a blender in legislative appropriations committees in the coming weeks.

North Carolina requires a reckoning, not in an abstract way, not in a labored recognition of life’s callous unfairness. It requires a fundamental commitment to our schools, not the sort of indecently disguised factual contortions GOP lawmakers condone to mask the bad news, that since the 2008 recession, North Carolina has failed its students one budget cycle after another.

This week’s tortured debate about race and basketball centered on identity, the identity of West Charlotte and Ardrey Kell kids, but our decisions about how we mete out dollars to our all-too-separate and all-too-unequal schools says a lot more about our own identity.

Basketball games may be important this week, and matter precious little next week. But North Carolina’s educational inequalities are enduring, if we allow them to be.