John Roach: Taking a look at UW’s role in the achievement gap

John Roach: Taking a look at UW’s role in the achievement gap

By John Roach

The most interesting thing about the public trial of America’s Racist of the Month, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, is the organization to which he once belonged.

The National Basketball Association is by far the most integrated and diverse major corporation and entertainment brand in the country, if not the world.

How on earth could a man who has garnered inestimable wealth renting apartments to African Americans while refering to them as “vermin” be such a powerful player in a league dominated by talented black men and forged by racial tolerance? How could Sterling and his warped notions of race be part of an organization that gave us such great racial pathfinders as Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Dave Bing and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Further, how could Sterling, or any Jew, refer to another race with the exact word Hitler and his Nazi executioners used as they were marching millions of Jewish men, women and children into gas chambers scattered all across Europe?

How is it that a person can hold and espouse these ideas and commit these actions, while the institution to which he belonged looked the other way?

Easy. We humans are absolute masters of denial.

We can see violence, injustice and all sorts of awful things, and yet go on with our merry lives as if they don’t exist because we are talented at convincing ourselves we are faultless. We are utterly brilliant at convincing ourselves that someone else is the perpetrator and that someone somewhere else has the responsibility to solve the problem. That is surely the sentiment held by the town folk who lived near Auschwitz as they watched the ash fall from the sky.

Madison’s own struggle with denial has become public in a big way of late thanks to the Race to Equity report. Now the whole nation knows that Madison, Milwaukee and Wisconsin have the wonderful distinction of owning America’s greatest racial academic and incarceration gaps.

We have become our own private Birmingham.

The problem has become so real that Madison’s progressive newspaper has finally acknowledged it to the point that they have taken the bold act of holding listening sessions.

It is a truly good thing undeserving of cynicism that these sessions are happening. But to some in the community, the chats smack of the last fire truck pulling up to the conflagration.

But a local news outlet can only do so much. If we are to look at the Sterling case as a model of how overt or covert racism can exist within large institutions, Madison has to examine the most powerful and, ostensibly, most progressive organization in the state. And, no, it’s not our local school district or state government. It’s our proud, bold, beautiful University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Lost in all of our wrestling with the achievement gap is the question of what role and responsibility the School of Education and the greater university itself hold. They turn out most of our state’s teachers and administrators.

For America’s worst racial achievement gap to exist within the very shadow of UW should be seen as appalling. Imagine how the American Family Children’s Hospital would feel if Madison had the highest rate of childhood leukemia deaths? You can be sure there would be hell to pay.

Yet that is the case in Madison and Wisconsin schools. But just as the NBA was able to look the other way with Donald Sterling, so too has UW failed to act as aggressively as it could in addressing the racial achievement gap.

No other institution in our state could be as effective in galvanizing the forces required to close the gap as UW–Madison and the UW System schools. They have premier sociology, economics, political science, education and curriculum professors galore. UW–Madison and UW System schools are a bastion of truly awesome intellectual power. These are the very same schools that cured the world of rickets, created the national model for Social Security and opened the door to stem cell research that promises new wonders for mankind.

And yet, our racial chasm is the worst in the nation.

Maybe it’s time we did a little sifting and winnowing about our own backyard.

And we could start by issuing a lifetime ban on failing poor kids of color.

On Wisconsin.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

Find more of his columns here.