Tag Archives: racism

“Well I Think You Should…” Contemplating Racial Justice in 2015

Today I had a refreshing conversation with my old friend Jared Childress, who happens to be my first ever true Black friend (“Dang, I must not be racist now! …Or something”). We met 6 years ago in one of UC Irvine’s on-campus housing complexes. I remember how he originally struck me as lucid, exceptionally well-dressed, and handsome.

Our friendship wasn’t ever really steady; we only saw each other once in a while and didn’t get too many opportunities to get to know each other. I recall that in those days, I was just scratching the surface of race relations in the U.S. I didn’t understand structural and institutional racism as the root causes of racial injustice in the United States. I didn’t have a very deep grasp on the plight of Black America. And my understanding of my own whiteness and white privilege was pretty weak.

But man are times a-changin’. Having gone through a day-long racial justice training through Race Forward, several anti-oppression workshops, and now a course about whiteness & racism by and for white people, you could say I’m neck-deep in personal racial reconstruction (“Racial rehab?” She thought, though.). And damn, is it an arduous process: identifying and uprooting subconscious prejudices, coming to terms with ugly shit I’ve thought in the past, unlearning latent racism, and putting together a new set of lenses through which to see this truly beleaguered country. Since as white people we’re taught from birth that we’re normal, good, race-less individuals, the point at which we finally see ourselves as having a race – especially one with a history of violently oppressing, enslaving, and destroying other cultures (not to mention ecosystems) – can be, well (Hella easy to deal with! Not a bother! A cakewalk!) fucking painful to bear at times.

The course, not coincidentally titled Beyond the Culture of Separation, is made up of white people exclusively, from participants to facilitators. (The rationale: it’s not the job of people of color (POC) to educate white people on their shit. It’s our job to do our homework. An all-white space gives learners the opportunity to keep it totally real and honest without worrying about causing anymore anguish for POC with our confessions, etc.) A sort of racial justice-oriented group psychotherapy session, it’s been dynamic, thoroughly awkward and uncomfortable at times (as any course wherein white folks attempt to explore the terrifying history of white supremacy, domination and racism must be), and fulfilling. For me, there’s no better way to re-humanize white folx than to undergo such a course…

***

Fast forwarding several years, Jared and I have somehow resurrected our friendship after a long life-induced hiatus. I hold that as an accomplishment for a few reasons. First, we have a lot of potential as friends, and secondly as political allies. That much is for sure.

Among the many notable things about Jared, he is a highly educated Black man with a history of political engagement, from serving as Co-Chair of the Black Student Union at UC Irvine to majoring in African-American Studies. It’s cool because we’ve always had frank conversations about race; none more involved than the recent ones.

DangerEducatedBlackMan

But anyhow, back to Jared and I. The candidness with which we speak about race gives me energy. It reminds me of what I’ve been reading recently, which is that interracial friendships are essential to healing this country. Even better are interracial friendships in which the white person listens to her/his/their friend of color with unconditional compassion, genuinely understands the issues, is unafraid to feel the inevitable discomfort of screwing up in conversations about race, and earnestly owns up to her/his/their mistakes.

I wanted to let you know, y’all, that I in fact made a race-related mistake tonight. Yes indeed.

I caught myself in the act of whitesplaining! Now, mind you: so much of the racist shit that white people say may not be intended to harm people of color, but by virtue of its impact does do harm. This is the difference between intent and impact. I can think of many times I’ve said or done something without intending to hurt someone, but hurt them anyway. In any case, the principle of intent and impact, I’m learning, goes for all situations in life, not just race relations. In any case, back to the whitesplaining part.

Jared was telling me about his trials and tribulations, and of course as his friend the natural impulse arose to offer some advice on his situation. But wait, the way I had worded it was thus: “Well I think you should do x.” Before I even finished the sentence, I stopped myself in disbelief – WHITE BOY FAIL! It turns out that POC are tired as hell of white people offering advice, trying to “help,” and generally meddling in their affairs. So, I retracted my comment, and gave way for Jared to continue telling his part of the story.

So there, I think by catching myself mid-sentence and owning up to my mistake to Jared, that I did the right thing. Just another day in “post-racial” ‘Murica… ha!

Post-racial, my ass.

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Black Lives Matter

For didactic purposes, I use the word “American” below to refer to the United States and its people. I do so in recognition that (1) the original land, more appropriately known as Turtle Island, is under indefinite occupation; and (2) Latin Americans refer to North, Central and South Americas jointly as “America.”

Two weeks ago, I heard that the Ferguson grand jury had decided not to indict the white policeman Darren Wilson for shooting the unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. I was immediately filled with a seething rage. Eleven shots, including one to the head; the boy’s body left in the street for 4 1/2 hours. Racism and its injustice, if they could be conceived of as a hidden network of mycelial fibers penetrating every last square meter of American society, had produced a poisonous, oozy mushroom cap that night. That cap was the #FergusonDecision.

I had to do something to challenge this <<poisonous mushroom cap.>> 

One thing led to another, and I found myself among the demonstrators in downtown Oakland. We marched through the City, throngs and loads and heaps and a plethora and lots of us – many visibly privileged, but fairly diverse – continuing along the deserted Grand Avenue. I witnessed trash cans being lit on fire.  “No Justice, No Peace! No Racist Police!” I saw broken windows in corporate and local businesses. “Peaceful Protest! Peaceful Protest!” I saw other protesters’ facial expressions, often necessarily cold. For in that kind of social setting, it’s not always evident who’s on your side, who’s not, and worse, who’s deliberately trying to sabotage the action (although the latter typically dress to mask their identities).

The following two points must be said in regards to the burgeoning social movement’s activities:

  1. although there is no excuse for property damage to local businesses, unless I suppose they’re owned by racists, media hype about protester “violence” is almost always misleading because it often conflates peaceful protesters, who usually form the majority of the protest, with the destructive minority responsible for causing damage to city and other property. Moreover, such coverage slanders the movement as ‘rioting,’ as if it isn’t rational for extremely oppressed, socially excluded people with no other recourse to express themselves in such ways. This brings me to another point:
  2. Co-optation of this movement, especially by whites, is probably a grave threat, most of all in predominantly non-white communities. Although we need to be creating as broad-based, multicultural movement as possible, we must not lose sight of reality: the past two weeks have been about about Black people; the emerged movement a challenge to the white supremacist American system that promotes state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people. Therefore, the time is now for white people to steer clear from leadership positions, listen, and ask how we can support leaders of color in this fight. Here’s a good place to start.
  3. attempts to invalidate the struggle as violent are patently absurd. Why? Because the capitalist, patriarchal, racist, white supremacist, ecocidal system we’re challenging – you know, the one responsible for enslaving millions of Africans and annihilating millions of Indigenous peoples;  the one whose police forces kill hundreds of people per year, far surpassing the death toll from the 9/11 attacks; the one that’s killing off dozens of species every single day; the one that has ignored public opinion to allow 1% of Americans to possess 40% of the country’s $54 trillion in wealth; the one that is literally destroying the biosphere‘s ability to sustain human life – is the global Elephant in the Room, the real culprit at play here.
  4. The take-home message here: The system we oppose commits violence on global scales at orders of magnitude greater than any damage, whether collateral or intended, that social movements commit against the aforementioned system. Do I think we need to remain non-violent? Yes! That said, it’s important to keep the above perspective when reading about reports of protester violence/rioting. Violence against police officers should not be condoned, except, as always, in self-defense. In the end, though, I would probably defer to the ethical judgments of Black leaders on organizing matters since this movement is about them.

That said, let us return to Ferguson Decision Day One.

We were on route to the intersection of Lake Shore and Lake Park Avenues. Down Grand Avenue, the trafficless streets became prettier, the orange streetlights imbuing old buildings with a sepia-like glow. No people? No problem! my shameless internal introvert remarked. I appreciated this new aesthetic, the architecture on Grand newly accentuated. It felt old again.

We were headed for the 580 freeway.

*                *               *

A trait linked to immense patience, my tendency not to get angry easily is something I take modest pride in. It takes a lot to anger me, but this night was just too much. My eyes widened, bulging with intensity; my jaw clenched, adrenaline coursing through… the organs do that when I’m hungry, anxious, alert, or otherwise anticipating belligerent law enforcement. Beyond the initial reaction in my head, I felt a deep sense of foreboding. This country is so incredibly fucked up, I couldn’t help but admit to myself.

It was a conclusion I had made already, before I brought my distraught corn-fed self to leave on a leprechaun-laced Hiatus from Life in the Belly of Empire (to – you guessed it! – post-colonial Ireland, no less) some 3.5 years ago.

It was a conclusion whose bitter, strange fruit – a cruel legacy, an aberration – were rearing their rotten skins once again.

*            *             *

Mike Brown and Eric Garner… in that order. Two lives, elided over, curtailed, indignifed, squashed, systemically spat upon, discarded. Racism will stop at nothing to maintain white privilege, snuffing out as many black and brown bodies as it cares too. Power concedes nothing without a demand. American power, still the most sinister, potent type of political poison, will need a hell of a demand to be recalibrated…

To ignore or half-ass this task is to condemn the United States of America to continuing its racist, anti-Black, white supremacist trajectory of stagnation into social oblivion.

The time is now.

#BlackLivesMatter #EricGarner #Ferguson #ShutItDown

Book Review: The Making of Americans by E.D. Hirsch

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The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools

Written in 2009 by education reformer E.D. Hirsch, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools proposes a unilateral curriculum for all students in the US educational system. E.D. Hirsch is credited with inventing the concept of cultural literacy — “the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge.” Hirsch makes the argument that the so-called “anti-curriculum” movement – which in his mind is the same thing as progressive education – in American schooling, which took off in the latter half of the 20th Century mostly in the K-8 grades, has largely failed our country. It should be noted, too, that this man helped to create the Common Core Movement – which proposes the same set of standards for all students in the US – now undergoing adoption by many states all over the country.

Throughout the course of the book, Hirsch makes a few arguments:

1) Coupled with any language is a large body of knowledge that is essential to utilizing the language properly and succeeding in the society at large, the author says. Schools are therefore charged with teaching a large body of coherent “tacit” knowledge that language users draw from, in this case, English language users. For example, Hirsch argues that it is pointless to teach reading comprehension skills for days, weeks, and months at a time, because what use is that if the students don’t understand the content of the passages they are required to analyze? As he articulates on p. 157 of his book, reading comprehension “is not a universal, repeatable skill” as is pronouncing words correctly or kicking a ball into a goal. Rather, “‘reading skills’ is an over-generalized abstraction that obscures what reading really is,” a set of “separate, content-constituted skills” – for example, the ability to read about the Great Plains or the ability to read about Industrialization. Because reading about every subject entails a different set of knowledge, “…proficiency in one reading-comprehension task does not necessarily predict skill in another” (p. 156). As he asserts in this article, which I cite for the purposes of providing a primary source, “A lack of knowledge, both civic and general, is the most significant deficit in most Americans’ education.” In his book, he states that “Commonality of language is commonality of knowledge” (p. 114). Foreign language educators know this, as they’re required to teach about the cultures with which their non-English language is connected.

Hirsch is not without his critics on this point. According to Claire Andre and Manuel Vasquez over at Santa Clara University, “force-feeding bits of information taken out of context (which Hirsch calls ‘culture’) to children who have not yet developed their capacity to critically evaluate information results in cultural indoctrination, not cultural literacy.” Critics allege racism and sexism on Hirsch’s part, argue Vasquez and Andre: “Forcing every student to accept the ‘national culture’ that Hirsch advocates is a subtle form of racism and sexism. It is an attempt to force on all citizens the values implicit in the culture of the dominant social class. As such it is unjust.” This makes sense to me, for wouldn’t it be cultural homogenization if we constructed a single (indubitably Eurocentric) narrative of US/Western culture, and then imposed it unilaterally on this nation of 315,000,000 individuals? I encourage you to give your feedback on this critical question in the comments below.

2) Language is power; the ability to use language properly is empowerment. In the United States, the language of power is Standard American English. Teaching different dialects of North America English (Ebonics, Chicano, New York, Southern, New Orleans, etc.) is therefore unwise, because although it ostensibly honors the histories and backgrounds, it ends up reproducing oppression by failing to teach (especially underprivileged) children how to speak the language of this country’s business and mainstream cultures. This logically leads to disempowerment and economic disenfranchisement, because white-dominated workplaces often look down on and thus disfavor those who do not speak “proper” English. United States schools thus have a critical mandate to ensure all of their students are learning the form of English that will maximize their social upward mobility. I do agree with this contention.

He points out that, ironically, the very same proponents of teaching dialects in our schools make their cases utilizing Standard American English. That is no accident. The proponents thereof know well that the version of the English language they’re using is the only one that the Establishment – academic, scientific, economic, political – takes seriously.

3) The anti-curriculum movement of the 20th Century, focused on “child-centered” and “how-to” methodologies, has failed because students from content-rich, often well-to-do homes, argues Hirsch, succeed much more than those from less well-off homes. This perpetuates injustice because poor students often are receiving in school the kind of background knowledge that wealthier, whiter students receive at home. “Language is not a purely enclosed system. It is a tool we use to name, describe, and understand physical, social, and psychological realities. Advantaged children experience not only richer vocabularies and syntax but more of what that language refers to” (p. 140). Such a situation suggests the need for a content-based curriculum in the early grades in order to build up the base of background knowledge needed by every student to understand each class. Hm.

From p. 160: “…it is far more fruitful to teach children the broad array of domain-specific knowledge to become mature readers than to practice reading strategies such as ‘finding the main idea,’ ‘clarifying’ and ‘summarizing.'” Not only is focusing on such strategies tedious and undynamic, it reinforces the corporate-fueled, test-obsessed culture of education in which we’re embroiled.

“The general knowledge and vocabulary required for effective learning at the high school level are slow-growing fruits of a long process. The way to reform high school is to prepare elementary students to thrive there” (Hirsch, 163).

4) Our three biggest educational problems: “(1) our decline in basic academic achievement, (2) our failure to offer equality of educational opportunity, and (3) our failure to perpetuate… A strong sense of loyalty to the national community and its civic institutions.” (p. 133)

Although I feel that the first and second educational problems he delineates are reasonable enough, the third is specious. Why would the long-oppressed Black, Latino and Indigenous communities of the United States want to cultivate a strong sense of loyalty to a national community and concomitant civic institutions that have oppressed them for centuries? Would doing so lead to their further empowerment or would it be a betrayal to their respective struggles? This illustrates somewhat the situation of oppressed communities in the US: they often have no interest in investing faith or loyalty in certain nationwide institutions, let alone in the imagined national community, that for centuries have put them down, mistreated and abused them. These institutions are usually inherently racist, classist and sometimes white supremacist. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hirsch’s philosophical shortcomings.

Indeed, his work is laced with an unsettling patriotism that evinces at least a few problems with his politics. On page 124, Hirsch casually decries the entirety of one of the most influential political philosophies of all time: “Marxism, another failed system of ideas, is readily blamed for the poor economic performance of the former Soviet Union…” This is a shoddy, curt, unfair treatment of a highly influential system of ideas — sure, it has not succeeded in sustaining any convetional government thus far (the “governments” of the Zapatista-occupied territories in Mexico and the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil seem to be influenced by Marxism), but certainly it has survived and remains very alive among radical, diverse, oppressed groups all over the world. Its intellectual coherence and influence cannot be understated, and therefore, it cannot be deemed a failure so hastily.

The first example comes from the front cover. The subtitle “Democracy and Our Schools” is patently misleading, because in the first place, Hirsch makes the outright antiquated and false claim that the United States is a democracy. A number of excellent arguments exist against the notion that the US is, or ever was for that matter, a democratic country. Here is one from “the most important intellectual alive (1),” MIT Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Noam Chomsky. He asserts that roughly the lowest 70% of the population in terms of income exert almost no influence on policy whatsoever. “As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy.” And if you occupy space at or near the top, you essentially get what you want; that is, they make the policy. The proper term for this, says Chomsky, is a plutocracy, not a democracy. This is due to the fact that a democracy is governed by the people, whereas a plutocracy is governed by a minority.

Perhaps the most telling reality is this: public policy consistently fails to reflect the will of the American people. For decades public polls show that Americans desire one thing, Congress tends to do the opposite. On taxes, the professor argues, the public has been saying it favors higher taxes on corporations, even though corporate taxes have been declining and massive tax loopholes persist (2, 3, 4). Another revelatory conclusion of Chomsky’s? The US is essentially a one-party state: the ruling party is the business party; its two factions the Democrats and the Republicans.

Secondly, on page 76 Hirsch continues to perpetuate the myth that the United States has been a success with the following passage: “Students need to leave school with a good understanding of the civic principles under which the US operates and with an emotional commitment to making this political experiment continue to work.” To claim that this country’s political experiment is “working” not only sustains the denial that the US was founded on anything but injustice, including the participation in two holocausts: the first of Indigenous American peoples, and the second of blacks (4.5, 4.75).

Furthermore, Hirsch fails to explain for whom this experiment is working. Indeed, it certainly isn’t working for the 46,000,000 US citizens living in poverty – that’s approximately one sixth of the population (5). It isn’t working for the working class, which since 1978, has seen stagnating wages just as executive wages have skyrocketed (6).  It isn’t working for our infrastructure, long defunded by Congress at the cost of billions per year (6.5), which the American Society of Civil Engineers rated a “D+” last year (7). To assert that this “great” political experiment has succeeded is to forget the atrocities, genocide, and annihilation committed by the US government against people of color for centuries, most notoriously, against the Indigenous peoples here. Ever since the US federal government relocated Indigenous peoples to remote reservations – for better or worse – it has abused in myriad ways. It has long failed (8, 9) to empower, let alone acknowledge the dignity of, Indigenous (also known as Native, American Indian) peoples.

There are many questions about Hirsch’s politics. Does he really believe that by imparting sufficient content knowledge and a foundation in Standard American English to all US citizens, we will achieve social justice? Somehow I believe he’s more intelligent than that. Racism and inequality of opportunity can’t be eliminated that way. Structural and systemic racism, patriarchy, white supremacy and the resultant oppression cannot be undone through a stronger elementary school curriculum. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that a mastery of Standard American English and extensive background knowledge are empowering tools for anyone (not just in the US). The happy-go-lucky patriotism that infuses the book is unconvincing. Indeed, it is alarming, because it illuminates Hirsch’s contradictory stance: yes, America is a glorious thing – a success – and the Founding Fathers were rather benevolent demigods who had the best interests of everyone in mind (let’s just forget about the fact that they were mostly wealthy slave-possessing landowners who had set out to write a Constitution that maintained their considerable power). Let’s just forget the inconvenient truths – that the United States is an illegitimate country in the first place; it should never have existed because without a land-grabbing genocide of Indigenous Americans, it could never have existed. Without capitalism and its initial dirt-cheap labor force, slaves, the US probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve the kind of power it now has, at least not as quickly. 

In light of those realities, I will rescind my evaluation of Hirsch as a patriotic man. Indeed, by omitting mention of the US as a country founded on serious atrocities, power inequities, inequality, and oppression, and by leaving out concepts such as structural inequality/oppression, racism, patriarchy, and other systemic problems, he fails to put forth an academic solution for elementary schools that is either comprehensive enough or fully informed from a social justice perspective. This makes his few mentions of the desire (perhaps not his own) to produce social justice through his proposed reforms as, at best, dubious. Finally, the cursory mentions of social justice come off more as placating statements to the politically progressive readers of his book, such as myself.

For other critiques of E.D. Hirsch’s educational philosophy, see below.

Grant Wiggins

Thomas R. McCambridge

Santa Clara University

Many thanks for the read! I warmly welcome your constructive criticism and other comments below; in fact I can hardly improve as a writer without them!