Tag Archives: Race

THE CRUEL IRONY OF OBAMA’S SECOND INAUGURAL

Obama takes the Oath of Office for the second time. Upholding the Constitution hasn't been the only thing to which he has sworn.

Obama takes the Oath of Office for the second time. Upholding the Constitution hasn’t been the only thing to which he has sworn.

Glen Ford nailed the devil out of Obama’s Second Inaugural Address. Credits to Susan Nunes for turning me on to this article from the Black Agenda Report:

Much of what passes for the Left, and for traditional African American leadership, agreed with the New York Times’ assessment that Barack Obama’s second inaugural address represented a firm embrace of “a progressive agenda centered on equality and opportunity.” Significantly, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell echoed the sentiment: ”The era of liberalism is back…the speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party in ages past.

It is in the mutual interest of corporate media and rightwing Republicans to move the bar of “progressive” politics ever rightward. However, for African Americans and white progressives, it amounts to erasing their own political legacies from history.

If we look at the last two Democratic presidents (you know, the ones who have held office since the start of the Reagan Revolution) we essentially see two mid-20th century conservatives. The “bar of ‘progressive’ politics” has indeed moved “ever rightward.”

Can we imagine Lyndon Johnson, on the eve of the 1964 election, ending “welfare as we know it” like Clinton did in 1996? Instead, LBJ laid the full Johnson Treatment on Congress to get them to pass the first meaningful civil rights law since the Reconstruction Era. Clinton tacked to the right because he knew that was where the votes were. LBJ tacked to the left even though he knew it would cost him the “solid south” that helped deliver the White House to every Democratic president since Andrew Jackson, which is to say every Democratic president ever.

In contrast, how have black Americans fared under the first Obama Administration?

An economic recovery has begun,” said Obama. Not for Blacks, whose official 14 percent unemployment rate is more than twice that of whites (6.9 percent), and whose median household wealth has fallen to one-twentieth that of white families – a catastrophe of historical proportions.

It took the Old Democratic policies of LBJ to help foster the growth of a black middle class. It took the New Democrat policies of Barack Obama to destroy it.

Yet Obama does have something in common with LBJ: the ability to skirt Congressional oversight to pursue long, bloody wars:

According to his unique doctrine, the U.S. cannot be in a state of war, or even “hostilities” with another people or country, unless Americans are killed in the process. Thus, Obama refused to report to the U.S. Congress under the War Powers Act following eight months of bombardment of Libya, claiming no state of war had existed since no Americans had died. By this logic, the U.S. is empowered to bomb anyone, anywhere on the planet at will, without the constraints of national or international law, as long as care is taken to protect the lives of U.S. personnel.

We are still fighting Vietnam. The only difference is that the modern-day version of Vietnam is diffused across the globe in a bunch of limited wars rather than being concentrated in one massive conflict.

Ford goes on to describe a litany of regressive Obama policies. In Obama’s defense, he did promise “change” back in 2008 and delivered in spades. Obama served the same purpose as Clinton in that they both solidified and extended the gains of the Reagan Revolution. No Republican could have ever destroyed welfare and get rewarded for it the way Clinton did. No Republican could have ever seriously put Medicaid or Social Security on the bargaining table the way Obama did and still save face.

The New Democrats are handmaidens of the Reagan Revolution.

Obama has earned one truly progressive stripe according to Ford:

It is true: Obama is the most gay-friendly president to date. I don’t think U.S. imperialism and Wall Street hegemons have a fundamental problem with that, either

Apparently, being gay-friendly is all it takes to be considered a champion of a “progressive agenda” in 2013.

I am all for the rights of gay people to get married, to be free from employment discrimination, to be protected from hate crime (and from Mitt Romney), to join the military and to generally have access to the same opportunities and respect as anyone else. However, as Ford points out here, it seems as if that is all one has to do in this day and age to earn the “progressive” label. This is dangerous because, as Ford again points out, it merely tinkers around the edges of progress without addressing the fundamental problems within our society that make all types of inequality possible.

The political climate of 2013 is conservative at its core with a progressive husk. The core has names like Reagan, Bush, Gingrich and Buchanan. The husk has names like Clinton, Obama, Schumer and Cuomo.

One thing that Ford did not mention in his otherwise brilliant analysis is Obama’s education policy. It is ironic (or is it tragic?) that our first black president gave his inaugural speech on Martin Luther King Day 50 years after that great man stood on the very same spot and exclaimed I Have A Dream and yet did not once mention education in any meaningful way nor address the resegregation of our school system at all.

Resegregation predates the first Obama Administration. It is one of the many vicious outgrowths of the Reagan Revolution. Yet, Obama has faithfully played his New Democrat role by solidifying and exacerbating this regression. He has done this by pushing the very same education policies that originated in right-wing think tanks. He has pushed them further than any other president before him.

The most recent nationwide study on the issue of resegregation was done by the Civil Rights Project whose findings were a scathing indictment of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative:

In spite of declining residential segregation for black families and large-scale movement to the suburbs in most parts of the country, school segregation remains very high for black students.  It is also double segregation by both race and poverty.  Nationwide, the typical black student is now in a school where almost two out of every three classmates (64%) are low-income, nearly double the level in schools of the typical white or Asian student (37% and 39%, respectively).  New York, Illinois, and Michigan consistently top the list of the most segregated states for black students.  Among the states with significant black enrollments, blacks are least likely to attend intensely segregated schools in Washington, Nebraska, and Kansas…..

The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration, has taken no significant action to increase school integration or to help stabilize diverse schools as racial change occurs in urban and suburban housing markets and schools. Small positive steps in civil rights enforcement have been undermined by the Obama Administration’s strong pressure on states to expand charter schools – the most segregated sector of schools for black students. Though segregation is powerfully related to many dimensions of unequal education, neither candidate has discussed it in the current presidential race.

These findings should be alarming to anyone who considers themselves a friend of justice and democracy. Yet Obama has never acknowledged these disturbing trends. Not even standing on the spot where Dr. King articulated his vision for a truly inclusive society 50 years ago inspired our president to at least grant it a passing mention. It is safe to say then that Obama has no intention of ever mentioning it.

The type of school segregation that exists now is more insidious, more dangerous, more sinister than the type of segregation that defined the Jim Crow era. Jim Crow segregation was implemented and supported by traditional snarling racists who firmly believed the black race was inferior and should be treated as such. Today people like Orval Faubus, George Wallace and Bull Connor are seen as almost pitiable creatures because they ignorantly and hatefully clung to Jim Crow when it was clear the rest of the country would stand for it no longer. Those segregationists of yesteryear made no bones about who they were and what they believed. It was easy to spot them and fight them head-on.

The segregationists of today perversely wrap themselves in the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement to push for policies that have turned back the civil rights clock five decades. They smile, they bite their lower lip, they bemoan the “achievement gap” and speak of expanding opportunity. They are not the easily identifiable snarling white racists of the 20th century.  Not only are they not snarling, many of them are not even white. President Obama and Al Sharpton (who would like to claim Martin Luther King’s mantle) lend their legitimacy, influence and skin color to education “reform” programs that have led to the hyper-segregation of today. As the Civil Rights Project study points out, it is a segregation of both race and class. It is a double-betrayal of everything for which Martin Luther King stood.

It is hard to accuse reformers of racism when the most prominent black leaders in the country have signed on to their programs. It is hard to make people believe that reformers who only wish to “close the achievement gap” are elitists of a very similar stripe to Orval Faubus, probably even sharing some of his condescending racial views. It is hard to accuse people who brandish their “liberal” credentials at every turn of being some of the most retrograde entities in the nation today.

And yet the damage done by both the snarling racists of the 20th century and the darling racists of the 21st century is essentially the same. Segregation has been making its comeback with a vengeance. Minorities are mired in poverty now to a degree not seen since the pre-Reagan era. The type of education provided by the charter schools so highly esteemed by today’s darling racists betray a white paternalism that reminds one of slavery.

For charter schools only seem to be necessary in poor and/or minority neighborhoods. Much like the segregated black schools in the south during Jim Crow, teachers at these charters get paid a fraction of what other teachers pull in. These teachers have been trained to believe that they are doing charity work. Their job seems not so much to educate or enlighten or challenge as it is to civilize. The most important lessons for their students seem to involve sitting quietly, walking in straight lines and deferring to the enlightened wisdom of their elders. Instead of requiring their students to take stock of the world around them, charters prepare their children to be taken stock of by a ruling class that demands unquestioning obedience. One can’t help but be reminded of some of the more clever justifications for slavery in the antebellum era. Back then it was argued that the African race benefited from slavery since it “taught” them habits of industriousness, obedience, honesty and, of course, Christianity. Much like charter schools, slave owners believed a little corporal punishment was necessary from time to time to instill these good morals. 

At the head of it all is the nation’s first black president. A brilliant man to be sure but a man whose moral compass points due opposite of Martin Luther King’s. The fact that he stood on the same spot 50 years after King’s I Have A Dream speech, the one speech in American history that repudiated the worst injustices this nation has ever visited on its most vulnerable people, is one of the most sinister ironies I have ever witnessed.

Rather than a tribute to what the great Reverend stood for Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech, a speech which failed to even acknowledge the erosion of many gains of the Civil Rights Movement, let alone the president’s role in it, was a mockery.

The fact that Obama couched his rhetoric in progressive platitudes was tantamount to whistling through the graveyard, a graveyard that expands with the help of the president himself. As the graveyard continues to expand over the next four years, we should expect the whistling to get progressively louder.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Racism and Reform: A Professional View

Few topics of discussion generate as much acrimony as racism in education. A recent book review in Education Next illustrates this point.

Mark Bauerlein reviewed the book “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. A book review usually starts by describing the central arguments of the book in as neutral a way as possible, then ends with a critique of those arguments. That way, both sides get a fair hearing and the readers can weigh the arguments for themselves. This was not the format Bauerlein followed.

From the opening paragraph, he was all over Delpit. Turgidly, Delpit’s argument is that the classroom is a middle-class white space. Black students do not succeed in this space because their behaviors either do not conform to, or are constantly being misinterpreted by, the white middle-class educators in this space. This causes black children to internalize the negative view of them held by their educators. They end up becoming either “invisible” or “hypervisible” as a result. A possible antidote to this is for the white middle-class classroom to become more sensitive to the values of black children by being more “collaborative”. Another possible antidote is for the curriculum to be more “afrocentric”.

There is nothing new under the sun, it seems, as far as Delpit’s arguments go. They are the well-worn critiques of cultural insensitivity in public education to which anyone who has been through a college teaching program has been exposed.

At the same time, Bauerlein parades out some familiar tropes himself. He explains that making schools more culturally sensitive will not improve the college or work readiness of black students. He criticizes Delpit’s approach that focuses on educational inputs and ignores “outcomes”. He suggests, although does not outright claim, that we would be better served with following a model of school accountability where we export what the best schools do to every other school. Throughout his review, Bauerlein is confident that Bill Gates, Teach for America and other familiar figures of education reform are genuinely committed to closing the achievement gap. He cannot figure out why Lisa Delpit questions their motives or believes that Gates and his rich pals are using poor black children as convenient vehicles for tax write-offs.

Joanne Jacobs steps in to buttress Bauerlein’s ravaging of Lisa Delpit by citing what she calls the “no excuses” schools that tell their students to leave street culture on the street.

While I do not agree with much of what Delpit says, I cannot sympathize much with Bauerlein or Jacobs either. Taken together, Bauerlein and Jacobs demonstrate a neat, simplistic way of thinking about schools that is downright scary. To say that street culture can be left on the street is unrealistic. Culture is a way of life, not a location. One does not merely shed it when stepping into another place, whether it is the schoolhouse or the work environment.

Indeed, the way Bauerlein and Jacobs respond to Delpit’s book only serves to lend credence to Delpit’s thesis. While white students get a nice, humanistic education, black students get “no excuses”, a philosophy that usually demands that black students act in a manner agreeable to their wealthy and overwhelmingly white school masters. There is a white paternalism, almost an inverted and domestic imperialism, underlying the philosophy behind charter schools and Teach for America. The thinking seems to be that all black students need is to be taught to walk in a straight line, to march quietly through the hallways and to sit with hands folded as their young, white, privileged (and non-union) teachers model for them how to act properly. Is this a new incarnation of the White Man’s Burden? Are these the ghosts of white paternalism that salved the conscience of many a God-fearing slave owner during the antebellum era? Was it not popular for slave owners to believe that enveloping the savage African under the wing of the benevolent, Christian southern gentleman would bring the black race along towards civilization?

The parallels are indeed scary.

On the other hand, my issue with Delpit is her tendency to descend into “culture talk”. I encountered “culture talk” in college when I was required to read The Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook. This is the book that portrays people as functions of their cultures. Asians are passive and respectful. Whites are industrious and individualistic. Blacks are celebratory and collaborative. The book boils the characteristics of billions of individuals down to one or two behavioral stereotypes, then recommends that schools gear themselves to be “sensitive” to these stereotypes.

It is a world view where individuals do not exist. People’s character traits are determined by their race or culture. They can be segregated into neat categories and educated accordingly. Rather than train teachers to hone in on what makes each individual child tick in order to enable them to communicate with each child effectively, the CLAD Handbook seeks to train teachers to hone in on race in the belief that to know a child’s race is to know the child.

Here is where Delpit and the culture talkers have something in common with the education reformers. Both of them seek to simplify teaching. They lay down very broad prescriptions. “Do this, and achieve this outcome”. It is as easy as heating up frozen pizza. All one has to know is how high to preheat the oven.

In my experience, teaching children is a matter of human interaction. It is a matter of finding that basic place of human decency that all people have and then acting upon it. It is a matter of showing children through actions that you are “for them”, you are on their side and have their best interests at heart. It is a matter of communicating clearly in a way that melts cultural barriers, instead of going around cultural barriers because they are so impenetrable.

How does a teacher do this? Is there an “outcome-based way” that can be statistically “quantified” and “exported” around the country to ensure “success”, as the education reformers seek to do? Can a teacher merely take “no excuses” and tell them to leave their street selves “on the street”? This would be real easy for me as a teacher. I would not have to go through the messy process of knowing about my students as human beings. Instead, I can merely demand that they act the way I want them to act, since I know best as their white, educated teacher.

In her book, Lisa Delpit tells the story of a white teacher whose students labeled him “black” because he made his curriculum “afrocentric”. It was a show of respect, an acknowledgment by his students that he understood them. I told a similar story in a recent blog post where a few of my black students said that I was black. I too took it as a compliment. Yet, I was not black because I was “afrocentric”. I believe I was “black” because I tried to respect my students, no matter their race, as individuals. In short, I was black because I did not see black and did not preoccupy myself with factoring in a student’s race when communicating with them. This has everything to do with me growing up as a poor city kid where the students I teach now could have easily been my friends and neighbors when I was in school.

What this tells me is that the culture talkers and education reformers both speak from ivory towers, laying down pronouncements and solutions applicable everywhere at anytime. Teachers, on the other hand, have to learn how to communicate with their students as people. One cannot read a book or do a study on how to communicate. One must merely learn by doing. This is what makes teaching an art, a craft, a skill, a profession. There are no easy answers and no handbook solutions. We must all find our own ways through struggle and experience.

It is not what either side wants to hear. The education reformers especially would like to reduce teaching to the Taylorist motions of automatons. We, as professionals, must stake our claim to teaching as an art. Outsiders can give their critiques, but they should not be allowed to dictate policy. Once that happens, we can watch as all of the useless prescriptions of educrats fizzle away into irrelevance.

Additionally, teachers communicate with their students easier when they come from the communities in which they serve. One of the most ominous impacts of the education reform movement has been the disappearance of the black educator. Many veteran teachers, including a healthy proportion of minorities, have been hounded out of the system in order to make way for cheaper and whiter teachers. It has happened in NYC and Chicago especially. This does not strictly mean that black teachers teach black students best. But it does mean that teachers who come from the same communities as their students have an easier time of reaching them. Me being raised in a poor urban community helps me communicate with my poor urban students. Today, it is a sad fact that outsiders are preferred over community members to not only educate poor students, but to run the school systems of poor students as well. (See the abolition of democratically-elected boards of education in favor of mayoral control in major urban areas.) Again, this reflects the paternalistic mindset that underlies much of modern education reform.

Delpit is correct to point out the racism in today’s schooling. Her detractors in this piece are her best pieces of evidence.

It’s the Economy, Stupid, Especially Now

The Times has run yet another piece on the issue of racial segregation in public schools. The author, David Kirp, comes down squarely on the side of desegregation as the best way to close the achievement gap:

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

This seems like a quaint point to make in a post-racial society. By post-racial I do not mean that we have overcome racism, quite the opposite, but that the racial makeup of the country is very different now than it was in 1954 (the year of Brown v. Board of Education), or even 1974.

The New York Times ran an article last week saying that whites made up less than 50% of all births last year. To put it another way, the population is undergoing considerable browning. The Brown case took place in an America where racial lines were much more clearly drawn. The word “integration” back then had a hard-and-fast meaning. In 2012, the term “desegregation” is more nebulous, perhaps even meaningless.

Kirp claims later in the article that “integration is as successful an educational strategy as we’ve hit upon.” Yet, it is not clear to me that integration was an educational strategy at all. School integration was the leading edge of a wider social experiment that sought to end the Jim Crow regime of the south. It was easier for the court to mandate that children lead the way on integration than it was to mandate the adults do so. Essentially, children were guaranteed to put up less of a fight.

It was assumed, of course, that black children would benefit from going to white schools. Whites in the south had the better part of everything: schools, movie theatres, restaurants and transportation. School integration was just the first part of a wider mission to allow blacks to partake in American public life on the same footing as whites.

Kirp’s article, while making some interesting points, is flawed in that it ascribes to the Horace Mann idea of schools being the balance wheel of society:

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

This might be true, but this does not necessarily mean these black youths did better because they had spent at least five years in desegregated schools.

The big question I have is: who were these black students that did not get to attend integrated schools in the supposedly halcyon days of desegregation? In the south, it would seem to be the children of sharecroppers. In the north, it would seem to be the children who lived in the most isolated urban ghettoes. In other words, it would stand to reason that the poorest of the poor black students never got a chance to attend integrated schools.

It does not seem as if the study cited by Kirp controlled for income levels in any meaningful way. In fact, the only acknowledgement he gives to this question comes later when he claims “many of the poor black children who attended desegregated schools in the 1970s escaped from poverty, and their offspring have maintained that advantage.” It is interesting to note that “many” is not “most” or even a “significant proportion”.

Yet, Kirp seems to think that integration was a successful educational program:

Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on  African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.

It is tough to sift through this reasoning. Part of this paragraph echoes an age-old trope floated by slave-owners in the antebellum era: that whites can teach blacks the proper way to live in society. This is the prototype of the White Man’s Burden philosophy that would later justify imperialism and, today, lurks behind well-worn education reformer apologies for charter schools and the Teach for America program.

There is no reason to assume that a good number of the black students Kirp discusses did not already come to school with high expectations. One only needs to read the accounts of what the Little Rock Nine had to overcome in the pursuit of an education to understand their drive to succeed. Many of them went on to attain advanced degrees and they all, in one way or another, lived successful lives. Was it attending Central High School that did this for them, or did they already come from families that stressed education and who belonged to a black middle class that was taking shape around that time?

Then there is the matter of the type of economy graduates are entering. During the 60s and even somewhat in the 70s, it was still possible to make a decent living straight out of high school. Wages were relatively higher and worker protections were much more robust. Now, it is tough to make a living straight out of high school and not much easier to make one out of college. It is tough to make a living in general if you come from a poor background. The wealth gap has widened tremendously since the 70s and 80s. Are we to believe that integrating schools will help overcome this wealth gap?

Kirp proposes a racial solution to a problem that is not strictly about race, but is strictly about class. In New York City, nearly 80% of the students who attend public schools are minority. This is obviously not because 80% of the city is minority. It is because parents with the means to do so send their children to private schools. This is because, despite many wealthy New Yorkers’ liberal leanings, they will not allow their children to attend supposedly “failing” schools with mostly minority students. The only way to integrate NYC schools is to force all NYC parents to send their children to public school.

For the second straight week, the New York Times has made a class issue into a race issue. The more we speak about race, the further away we are from any real solution to the economic caste system that defines the United States.

The New White Man’s Burden, Revisited

Photo of me from my youth.

I am a white man, but I do not feel burdened.

My article yesterday, The New White Man’s Burden, might be construed as an argument for the black teacher. It is no secret that one of the biggest issues in New York City is the lack of black teachers, especially black male teachers. The disappearing black educator has been a consequence of not only Bloomberg’s education reform philosophy, but of Bloomberg’s mayoral policy overall.

The black population of NYC has declined under Bloomberg’s reign. It would stand to reason that the number of black educators has declined as well.

But I am not from the school of thought that holds that black teachers should teach black students and white teachers should teach white students. We tried this philosophy earlier in American history. It was called segregation.

My idea is simply that students are best served by teachers who come from the communities in which they live. Sure, seeing as how the city is largely segregated along racial lines, this might mean the same thing as having racially segregated classes. It also might not mean this.

My own experience is a testament to this idea. I grew up poor in a single-parent household. My mother was on and off welfare throughout my childhood. I ran around housing projects in my youth, listened to hip-hop music and kept friends who were mostly black and Hispanic. As a senior in high school, my best friend was shot and sliced in front of my eyes due to some street nonsense.

I did not realize how my upbringing shaped the way I viewed race until I got older. The teachers highlighted in the New York Times article seemed to all be so very conscious of their race and how they were different from their students. It was an entire issue to them. Yet, to someone like me, race was never an issue at all.  I never thought of my students as “black” or “Hispanic” students. I thought of them as people. They could very well have been my friends growing up, or my neighbors, or my classmates.

One of the most common bits of feedback I get from students past and present is that I speak to them like human beings. They appreciate the fact that I do not condescend them, insult their intelligence or treat them like inferior creatures in need of correction. This does not mean that I am the easy or the pushover teacher. Quite the opposite, I have one of the more strict reputations at my school.

There is a way to run a classroom that does not include a bunch of carrots and sticks all of the time. I do not say to my students, “if you don’t do this, then you get/won’t get this”. When my classes get out of hand, which is never, my reaction is “it’s ok, it’s not my education” in a sarcastic way. If I tell a student to pick their pants up, I tell them to stop doing what everyone else is doing. “Oh, I guess you’re cool because the TV told you to wear a studded belt and sag your pants.” I have no interest in threatening them or telling them that, if they don’t cut out the street talk, they will never be the next Bill Gates. When I was their age, what did I care about being the next Bill Gates? That was not on my agenda. It is not on most of theirs either. I encourage them to find their own paths and not do things simply because everyone around them is doing them.

So, I try to communicate to my students that they do things in my classroom because it is good for them to do, not because there is a penalty attached if they do not do it. They are encouraged to see the intrinsic value of learning history.

This requires connecting history to what is going on around them. Even if we are learning about ancient China, I try to find a way to connect it to something they can relate to, a connection that seems organic and not forced. This requires cutting out all threats. This means being fair. Most of all, it means communicating on a level that is natural.

When people observe me teach, the first question they always ask is “how do you get them all to listen and work like that?” and my answer is that I talk to them like people. I don’t call them “scholars” or feed them a bunch of clichés. Those things are insulting to their intelligence. They see right through them.

It is my upbringing that allows me to communicate this way. A few weeks ago we had “culture day” at our school. A few of my students asked me, “how come you’re not representing your culture? You know, shouldn’t you be wearing a du-rag and sagging your pants?” The implication was that my culture was “black”. I smiled and told them I don’t consider that black culture. I understood what they were saying all the same.

This is why it is tough for me to understand this entire obsession with race. It shocked me to learn from that NY Times article that there are a group of white teachers who have created an organization just so they can talk about how to talk about race with black kids. It was not surprising to learn that they came up with ideas like “diversity flowers”. It is disingenuous.

I never needed a class or a seminar in how to talk to people. I talk to people like people and keep it at that. If I want to bring up the topic of race in my class, I bring it up. My students know that they can be honest about race with me and they are comfortable with the fact that I will do the same. I do not mince my words.

Look at the story of the Pruitt-Igoe houses in St. Louis, one of the first public housing projects in the nation. Pruitt-Igoe, like most housing projects, was designed to be a healthy place to live. They were supposed to be an improvement on the tenements that preceded them, or the shacks from which sharecroppers fled in the south. The first generation of tenets was able to raise families there. Many children from that generation went on to become part of a new black middle class of doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals.

But, because those children had grown up to “make it”, they were no longer poor enough to live in the projects. In an effort to get poor tenants Pruitt-Igoe, as well as most other housing projects, had to accept ex-convicts and people addicted to drugs into their units. The net result was that the next generation of youngsters was deprived of role models. Instead, the convicts and the gangsters were the strongest, most visible and most successful males in the community. In a very short time, Pruitt-Igoe went from a wonderful place to live to a war zone. They eventually tore Pruitt-Igoe down.

Whether it is Pruitt-Igoe, or Cabrini Green or Wagner Houses, the story is the same. Legitimate male role models are nowhere to be found. Instead, boys from single-parent homes learn about manhood from the thugs who dominate the communities.

This is why that there are people who say we need more black educators. I would not necessarily put it like that. I would merely say that we need educators who understand, truly understand, where the students are coming from. That goes a long way towards earning the respect and the ears of your students.

Treat people like people, not a race, not a curiosity, not a problem, not a project, but people. A tough sell in the era of education reform, but an idea that cannot be repeated enough.

The Fault Lines of Education Activism

I will never know what it is like to be black. Despite the fact that I grew up in black neighborhoods, went to mostly black schools, keep black friends, teach black students, listen to black music and, sometimes, use black slang, the truth is that I will never come close to knowing what being black in America is like. Furthermore, I cannot begin to fathom the types of advantages conferred upon me merely for being a white man (a tall one at that). Despite the fact that I grew up poor and my ancestors were Eastern Europeans who never owned slaves, I know on some level that the color of my skin has played a role in where I am today. When approaching the race issue, a healthy amount of deference must be paid to these factors.

Education reform, and the backlash against it, largely turns on issues of race. Elitist reformers try to occupy the moral high ground by implying that their programs are designed to uplift the chocolate parts of urban areas. The results of these reforms, especially in places like Washington, D.C., speak for themselves. The “achievement gap” is as wide as ever. In New York City, the schools that have been closed have been the ones that serve minority students. After 10 years of No Child Left Behind, not to mention the Race to the Top initiative that has accelerated NCLB’s goals, it is safe to say that the elite’s concern with children of color has proven to be disingenuous.

On the other hand, the people who stand against these reforms do have a genuine concern for children of color. Educators, parents, students and concerned citizens that have endured these reforms are under no illusions as to what they have done to inner city schools. The reason why so many veteran teachers like me harbor a deep mistrust of the Teach for America program is because we know the philosophy that gave birth to it. Teaching in the inner city is not charity work. If you are not in it for the long haul, then you should not be in it at all. If your concern with the schooling of brown children is about allaying your own liberal guilt, then your concern is not real.

Ironically, the activists who are genuinely concerned with children of the inner city are divided on the race issue. On the one hand, there are those who point to the persistent achievement gap and segregation in public schools as evidence that race needs to be the starting point for the battle against education reform. The other hand points to the impacts of poverty on schooling and believes class struggle needs to be the centerpiece of public education activism. These types of squabbles over strategy and priority have traditionally torn leftist movements asunder in the past. The one thing both camps have in common, and the thing that distinguishes them from the elitist education reformers, is that they actually believe what they claim to stand for.

Unfortunately, a genuine concern for public education is not enough to take back our schools. At some point, we will need actual victories and concrete plans. I do not know how to reconcile the two camps and I do not know which side has the better strategy. What I do know, however, is a little bit of history.

Historically, movements that have centered on racial issues have had some success. The abolitionist movement, despite initially being reviled by most whites, helped nudge the north and Lincoln over to its cause. The civil rights movement was wildly successful in getting the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed through Congress. During the 1990s, the culture wars led to more sensitive treatment of minority topics in public schools and universities, ushering in the era of “political correctness.” This was on the heels of decades of affirmative action programs that were, albeit, continuously weakened over the years . With the exception of abolition, these victories were limited, but they were victories nonetheless.

On the other hand, movements that have centered on issues of class have largely failed. The Populist Party of the late 1800s took form after uniting white and black farmers in the west. Indeed, many of their early victories on the local level were due to the combined voting power of black and white men. But with the advent of women’s suffrage in western states, the co-opting of the Populists by the racist Democratic Party and the institution of Jim Crow in the south, ruling elites were effectively able to drive a wedge between the races of the lower classes. The communist protests of the early 1920s were viciously suppressed by the Palmer Raids. The Black Panther Party, which really was a movement that attempted to fold all oppressed people under the umbrella of communism, was hounded and eventually destroyed by the FBI. (You can read my treatment of the Black Panthers here). Martin Luther King himself was assassinated when he started concentrating on the rights of poor workers. Something seems to scare the ruling elites about overtly class conscious movements, causing them to work overtime for their destruction.

In a book that I often cite on this blog, “Downsizing Democracy”, the authors dedicate some time to modern civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. They point to their fights for fairer hiring and promotion practices in corporate America, as well as their battles over use of the “N” word, as bread and butter issues of middle class blacks. It is unlikely that the poor minorities of the inner cities cared much about these things. Perhaps they have learned from history to keep issues of poverty and issues of race separate.

In the end, I do not know the best route to take for public school activists. As a white man, it is easy for me to lump race in with issues of class and tell black leaders that they should hitch their wagons to the star of economic equality. What I do know for a fact is that whether we stand against education reform because it is racist or because it is classist, our convictions are genuine and born out of first-hand experience with what has been happening to our schools. Perhaps this should be our starting point. Perhaps instead of trying to push our individual agendas to the forefront, we should unite over the issues that promise victories against education reform. I have no answers to provide in this regard. But perhaps education activists can unite behind the practical question of from what direction is our next victory likely to come?

The State of the Union Conference

Earlier today, I attended the State of the Union Conference in downtown Manhattan, not far from where I teach. It was organized by the progressive edcuators at the Grassroots Education Movement. As the name of the conference would indicate, a large part of the day was spent assessing the United Federation of Teacher’s complicity in the destruction of public education. I was heartened by the large turnout of teachers and parents. The auditorium was brimming with people, as were all of the individual seminars. I also got to meet many of you, the gentle readers of this blog, and really was taken aback by the support and kind words you had for this little website. All around it was a great day.

The first person I met was Norm Scott. Norm has been a public school activist for a long time, sort of the dean of progressive educators, and it was an honor to meet him. (Check out Norm’s blogs at Ed Notes Online and Norm’s Notes).

After a short introduction in the auditorium, we were allowed to choose from a list of seminars. All of the seminars sounded good and it took me a while to choose to attend the one about the history of the teacher unions. It was conducted by GEM members Michael Fiorillo and Peter Lamphere. I took notes on this here laptop and picked up some very good tidbits on the role of the teacher unions throughout history. Given my history background, it has become impossible for me to wrap my mind around an issue without knowing the history behind it.

The discussion that took place on the heels of seminar was fascinating. There were so many teachers in that room, including old veterans who remember the strike of 1968 and what things were like before the strike. It was no surprise to hear the same themes from back then recapitulated today. I contributed my two cents about the age of corporate fascism in which we currently live. I could have sworn I heard some groans when I started dissing Obama and Clinton.

The second seminar was conducted by Brian Jones on the history of school segregation in NYC. Much of the ensuing discussion revolved around fighting for local control of school boards and bringing in more minority educators. Underneath the surface of this discussion was a tension, really as old as education activism itself, between those who want to focus on the race issue and those that want to focus on socioeconomic class. To me, this is a rift that threatens to divide public education activism. It will be the subject of my next blog entry.

I was not able to stick around for the third seminar. My one regret was not getting more contact information for the people I met. For those interested in staying in contact and keeping the good feeling of today’s conference going, I put my email address in the sidebar of this website. It is theassailedteacher@gmail.com.

Thank you to everyone who organized the State of the Union conference. I am sure this is the first step in a new stage of the battle to retake our public schools.