Several seemingly unrelated policies being instituted in New York City illustrate the same cycle: the elimination of “color blind” testing for elite schools, the restricting of charter schools, and the restricting of smartphone ride-sharing. Their commonality? They are adaptations to the underperforming status quo. But it’s not the failed systems, it’s the alternatives that Mayor De Blasio is driven to change. Bet you won’t see any new legislation pointed at the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) or the Board of Education (BOE), however.

In the Caribbean, they have a nice aphorism for this: “Crab Antics.” In a bucket of caught crabs, a scrabble to get out seethes. The ones that are closest to the top are dragged back in by the others, helping nothing.

It’s the poorest who most need the basic school and transportation options to perform. Poverty always means a lack of options. Always and everywhere, privilege gets its way. Even in starving North Korea, elites have the options to eat well and work around the failures of the systems over which they preside. The difference is in how many hold the power to have their way over their circumstances, the few or the many. And starving the elite who eat, won’t in and of itself, feed a soul.

Yet the city fights tooth and nail any plans to “give,” or “allow” the poor a way out of the bucket with its opposition to education alternatives (the reality is that it is not for the BOE to give or allow anything, they are civil servants. It’s the public who pays). Crabbing down the escapees does nothing to improve those in the bucket. Increasing the number of students uneducated is the only result.

In the restructuring of the “color blind” admissions tests of the specialized schools that are Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant, the mayor defines the tutor services needed to overcome school failures, to get into the elite schools as a “privilege.” He sees Stuyvesant’s over-representation by Asian students as an affront to his goal of ethnic diversity. His solution is to take the top 5% of the class of all schools, and give them a guarantee to the special schools. Here is the dictionary definition of privilege: “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Only the members of the BOE enjoy any privilege here, since only their trade is set aside for monopoly (near monopoly) legal protections, “specially, advantageously, and by right” (our namesake, George Orwell, still teaches us about the manipulation of language to leverage authoritarian power).

Logic dictates that if tutor services are needed in preparation for the elite schools, underprivileged students’ inability to access them would still keep them from succeeding. The Mayor’s solution will only hurt the tutored (and the tutors, incidentally), and will do nothing for the untutored. This is mistaking the symptom (the workaround) with the disease (system failure that needs a workaround). You can purge every Asian student from the public school system tomorrow, shutter every tutor business, and you won’t have risen neglected poor black-students up by one jot, while also defeating the purpose of blowing up the system workarounds. Those legislating against the workaround never mention their own back door escapes from the other crabs. THAT’S privilege. While also adding the dysfunction of removing those with the power to change the failed system, from the need to.

Asian quiescence in this should end when they ask (and politically drive) the question of why some diversity counts as diversity and not others. That it takes an Asian more points to get into an Ivy League school would be deja vu of rank race bigotry against Jews of a Century ago. Racism disappears in its effect because the motivations for it are improved? Ask the Asians you know if they agree with this (I have, they don’t).

Same with ride-share. What’s a workaround is seen as stealing revenue from the failed system that refuses to adapt. Ride-share has even adapted the transport industry to car pooling. Years ago, Greens tried to reform yellow taxis regulations to allow for carrying several passengers at a time, say, people who are all headed downtown. Yet they oppose an organic, evolutionary stable idea that does the same thing? With the added bonus of transferring the risk of failure from the taxpayers, to the ride share owners.

People ride-share for a reason. The reason is the poor performance of the MTA. The MTA has had a century to adapt its system, yet it fails, and the target for new laws becomes…ride share? Now the State will impose a whole new taxation regime built around congestion pricing, before it’d just step aside for ride-share car pooling? The new restrictions will just serve to make commuters with the fewest options lives worse, their commutes longer, their time less valuable, which compounds what it means to be poor. Politicians have been promising to fix the MTA since the time I was too little to juggle an open New York Times newspaper.

Is it right that a cab medallion holder loses his value? Or that teachers in the Board of Education should have to change their contracts? Is it right that those with the least options should have to accept still less? Is it right that those with the fewest options should be denied by law an alternatives? Progressives have failed to do this basic math: one teacher gets what he wants, but classrooms full of poor students of color left down in the bucket scrabble? Not as much. An MTA employee gets a salary and pensions far beyond what the millions of poor riders will ever get, and it’s the poor riders who must adapt? The really important ethical question though: Is it right that any people who want the product of a successful evolution should have their choices blocked by the power of law?

Bringing down has never been the same as bringing up. In microcosm, this is the failure of all authoritarian, bureaucratic systems: immunity from the consequences of its incompetence, the power of aggression against alternatives. Authoritarians will create a problem, then control the fix according to what suits those who did the ruining. But the source of a problem rarely is its successful solution.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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