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Politics Mondays: Omaha’s School Debacle: A Southerner’s Perspective by Eric Spann


“Are there any black people in Omaha?” was my mother’s question when I told her, almost 2 summers ago, that I had landed a job here and was considering relocating. Being born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama and having lived in Macon, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee, my decision to move to Omaha, Nebraska was met with similar questions from both family and friends. Having little knowledge of the Midwest, my elderly grandparents still get Omaha confused with Oklahoma; as to them, I moved out to the “middle of nowhere” so the fact that one is a city and one is a state is quite relative to them. I thought all of the questions were silly as I was sure that the birthplace of Malcolm X had a strong contingent of Black Americans.

I was wrong.

I arrived in Omaha for the first time on a holiday weekend. It was a Friday two days before the July 4th celebration. The plane was full of people landing at Omaha’s Eppley airport, but it was odd to me that I was one of only two blacks exiting the plane. I was in Omaha for the weekend to secure housing for my wife and I, and my goal was to find a nice apartment within reasonable proximity of my new job. Being new to the city, I had no pretensions about any part of the city, but on each turn I would be warned to “stay away” from North Omaha. I knew what that meant. I have learned that when white people collectively say stay away from a particular part of town, they are telling you that it is the part of town that they have abandoned and is now inhabited by Blacks or Hispanics – being from the “black part” of Birmingham, I know the code words. I spent the greater part of two days looking for an apartment and in that time I met maybe 10 black people. This is no exaggeration. It is possible to come to Omaha and count on one hand the number of blacks you will encounter if you stay away from the North part of town. Geographically, the airport is located on the eastern most part of town, not far from North Omaha, and the city seems to grow and become more developed the farther one travels west. The term Manifest Destiny comes to mind as you leave the airport and its neighboring, but neatly tucked away, black community in your rearview mirror.

In Omaha, unabashed segregation is normal.

The racial divisions in Omaha are very pronounced and it was this way long before Nebraska’s single black legislator, Senator Ernie Chambers, proposed his plan for restructuring the school system. It is no secret that North Omaha is Black, South Omaha is Hispanic, and West Omaha is White. As such, the children in these communities attend the schools that are in their neighborhoods. Legislative Bill 1024, the bill that many say threatens to reintroduce segregation to Omaha’s public schools by dividing it into three racially distinct entities, has recently been passed and signed. I, a native southerner, find laughable the claims that fault this bill for promoting segregation in Omaha. Omaha and the rest of Nebraska are in serious states of denial as they try to portray to the rest of America that there is such harmony - economically, socially and otherwise - between the races here. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In Omaha, blacks are tolerated at best, as long as they don’t disturb the status quo. As far as I can tell, in my 2 years in Omaha, segregation is alive and well.

Turf battles.

A year ago, before the world’s attention was brought to Omaha, a resolution entitled One City, One School District was introduced by the Omaha Public School (OPS) system to annex many suburban schools that lay within Omaha city limits. According to OPS, this would be in accordance with an 1891 Nebraska law requiring the suburban schools to be part of one school district. The OPS resolution met with vicious opposition by school leaders and parents in the suburban areas as most moved to the suburbs to get their children away from the Omaha school system. In Omaha, though Blacks make up only about 7% of the city’s population, they make up 31.5% of the city’s schools and for some Omahans this is far too many. So they moved to communities like Millard and Ralston where black students make up 2 and 4% of the school population. To put these percentages into perspective, last school year Omaha had 15,000 black students while the suburbs of Millard and Ralston had 474 and 124 respectively. One can see why the suburban schools don’t want to be annexed.

Senator Ernie Chambers – the spoiler.

As neither OPS nor the suburban school districts could arrive at a happy medium, state senators Ernie Chambers and Ron Raikes devised a plan that would create three distinct “learning communities” that would give a largely neglected Black and Hispanic Omaha what the parents of the smaller, suburban school districts already have, and that is a voice and greater control over how their children are educated. At the same time, it will also bring back to OPS some of the tax dollars that left the district as a result of white flight. This spoils the plans of OPS because instead of enlarging OPS’ boundaries, it now forces OPS to relinquish a bit of control. So now OPS is crying foul and has brought in some of Omaha’s wealthiest businessmen, including billionaire Warren Buffett to call the Chambers plan racist and divisive. Far from exasperating Omaha’s existing racial divisions, the Chambers plan actually fosters diversity and equality by pooling the financial resources of the city and the suburban areas to improve the education of all students in Omaha. As the plan contains no language forcing any student to attend any particular school, students are free, as they have been, to attend any school in any of the districts. Interestingly, as Buffett and his wealthy cohorts met to discuss their interest in the “diversity” and “inclusiveness” of Omaha, not one person of color was found at their discussion.

If opponents of the plan, and this includes the local NAACP, would simply ponder one thing and that is, why would a black man go daily to Nebraska's all white capitol on behalf of blacks, and live in the very same community that would allegedly be negatively impacted, propose a plan that would be detrimental to that community? The senator has been accused by the local head of the NAACP as having ulterior motives, but Senator Chambers, the Black voice of Nebraska for over 30 years, stands to gain nothing from his proposal save a quality education for his grandchildren and all of the children who are enrolled in Omaha Public Schools. Unlike Warren Buffett and the rest of Omaha’s business elite, Sen. Chambers, the sole black member of Nebraska’s legislature, lives in the heart of Omaha’s black community and has a vested interest in the future of Omaha Public Schools - Mr. Buffett does not.

To say that segregation is returning to Omaha is a hyperbole; it never left.

Eric Spann is a healthcare IT professional in Omaha, NE and is not a Cornhusker fan. He can be reached at egspn@hotmail.com.


Eric Spann

Monday, April 24, 2006

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