Standards May Achieve Equality, But Not Equity

Michelle Morrissey makes a case for Common Core in By ‘Common,’ We Mean Equity:

When the Common Core State Standards emerged, it was both a shock and a revelation — for the first time, the dominant model said that my students, who live in low-income neighborhoods and are predominately Hispanic or African American, would have some guarantee of the same kinds of educational experiences that students at high-performing schools across the country have. All students would be asked to do the hard stuff—and reap the benefits of those high expectations.

Setting aside the inaccurate hyperbole (“for the first time”) and that every single round of standards embraced in the U.S. since the 1890s has come with the exact same set of claims (and then has always failed, thus a new round of “better” standards), the fundamental problem with chasing better standards is that standards may achieve equality, but not equity.

Standards and equality are both about sameness; equity is about fairness and justice:

Equity vs. Equality

If seeking that all students learn and do the same things is actually a valuable goal (and I doubt that is), we must first insure equity. In other words, we are implementing the wrong policies and failing to first address the lingering racial and social inequities facing children.

Standards, as I have discussed before, are not correlated in any way with increasing student achievement or with equity, as Mathis reports:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced tests core advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum. …

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

In the U.S., we have a blind spot to the inequity of privilege, but often have knee-jerk reactions that misinterpret efforts to achieve equity with “giving things away” to the disadvantaged.

Not unrelated is the political and public rejection of affirmative action, specifically race-based college admission policies.

But as privileged leaders and the public champion ending race-based college admission policies as a win for equality (everyone judged the same), virtually no one raises a peep about wealthy and connected teenagers entering colleges as legacy because we fail to see the inequity of privilege (see Justice Sotomayor’s dissent).

Common Core, or any set of standards, may achieve equality, but never equity, and as long as standards remain linked directly to high-stakes testing—which remains deeply biased by race, class, and gender—all standards movements will in fact perpetuate inequity.

No Country for Young Children of Color

While I have argued that we basically do not like children in the U.S., there is considerable evidence that being born a child of color puts those children at a disadvantage relative to white children.

Based on the Kids Count report, Race for Results, Smriti Sinha has declared:

Black families pondering a move to the Midwest might want to read this, especially if they have young children. According to a national report, Wisconsin has been ranked the worst state in the country when it comes to racial disparities for children.

But the entire U.S. does not fare well in terms of addressing the needs faced by children of color.

“Opportunity has been a constant theme in our country’s narrative, beginning with the waves of immigrants who arrived from across the globe in search of a better life,” the report begins, adding, “Last year, for the first time, more children of color were born in the United States than white children” (p. 1).

Opportunity, then, in the future of the U.S. will be increasingly multi-racial, but access to opportunity does not have to remain a race, a competition among those races.

Yet, children who happen to be born white in the U.S., and especially if they are born affluent, start well ahead in the so-called race of life.

Social inequity remains grounded significantly in race and class, as measured in 12 indicators in The Race for Results Index (see p. 6):

12 indicators of The Race for Results Index

[click to enlarge]

Broadly, the report finds:

As the national data show, no one group has all children meeting all milestones. African-American, American Indian and Latino children face some of the biggest obstacles on the pathway to opportunity. As Figure 2 illustrates, Asian and Pacific Islander children have the highest index score at 776, followed by white children at 704. Scores for Latino (404), American Indian (387) and African-American (345) children are considerably lower. (p. 8)

Index scores by race

[click to enlarge]

While the overall inequity for African American and Latino/a children [1] is nation-wide, many states—often high-poverty and high-minority states (such as my home state of SC)—rank low in childhood opportunity for children of color:

state by state Afican American

[click to enlarge]

state by state Latino/a

[click to enlarge]

The report concludes with four recommendations:


Gather and analyze racial and ethnic data to inform all phases of programs, policies and decision making….


Use data and impact assessment tools to target investments to yield the greatest impact for children of color….


Develop and implement promising and evidence-based programs and practices focused on improving outcomes for children and youth of color….


Integrate economic inclusion strategies within economic and workforce development efforts….(pp. 22-28)

Ultimately, the report argues:

As profound demographic shifts, technological advances and changes in global competition race toward us, no individual can afford to ignore the fact that regardless of our own racial background or socioeconomic position, we are inextricably interconnected as a society. We must view all children in America as our own — and as key contributors to our nation’s future. (p. 28)

As I have stated about the paradox of race, the U.S. is neither a post-racial country, nor should that be our goal. Along with genuinely acting as if “they’re all our children,” we must see race as a part of an equitable society and set aside reducing life to a race to the top that must sacrifice some for the good of a few.

[1] This post focuses on the racial dynamic of white, African American, and Latino/a since my work primarily addresses SC, where that dynamic is dominant. Not addressing the remaining ethnic groups in the report is not intended to marginalize those children or the significance of any racial minority.

REVIEW: Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

For many, James Baldwin is associated with novels, fiction. But my greatest affinity for Baldwin lies with his nonfiction and his role as a public intellectual.

In the volume I co-edited, James Baldwin: Challenging Authors, chapter authors examine Baldwin as a powerful voice across genre and form. Concurrent with that volume is the publication of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Baldwin is rarely examined as a poet so this collection is significant for those new to Baldwin as well as those who have studied and treasure his complete canon.

The slim book of poetry is inviting as a paperback—the cover an electric blue to complement the rich use of “blues” in the title—color, music, mood:

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

“Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin,” the introduction by Nikky Finney, opens the collection passionately and parallels Baldwin’s own challenging persona: “Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide,” Finney warns (p. ix).

Finney introduces readers to Baldwin as well as his poetry—his sexuality and frankness central to both:

Uninviting Baldwin was often the excuse for the whitewashing of his urgent and necessary 
brilliance from both the conservative black community and from whites who had never heard such a dark genius display such rich and sensory antagonism for them. Into the microphone of the world Baldwin leaned — never afraid to say it. (p. x)

Finney emphasizes that Baldwin always remained true to himself: “They could listen in or they could ignore him, but he was never their boy, writing something they wanted to hear” (p. xiii). Baldwin always sought Truth, compelled to speak the Truth:

In his work he remained devoted to exposing more and more the ravages of poverty and invisibility on black and poor people….

Baldwin was never afraid to say it in his novels, in his essays, and in his poetry — because Baldwin saw us long before we saw ourselves. (pp. xix, xxi)

For me, as someone drawn to Baldwin’s nonfiction and videos of his speaking, these poems fits into those contexts in ways that give his poetry a vibrancy beyond the grave.

Baldwin’s poetry is Baldwin’s voice.

“Staggerlee wonders”

A 16-page poem in four sections, this opening piece sparks, for me, Baldwin’s “Who Is the Nigger?” from Take This Hammer:

Simultaneously, “Staggerlee wonders” is deeply steeped in the U.S. of Baldwin’s lifetime and disturbingly relevant to 2014. The speaker mentions Russia, China, the Panama Canal, and Vietnam along with “Mad Charlie,” Patty Hearst, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Mohammad Ali. But the historical, political, and pop culture references do not date the poem since Baldwin uses them as vehicles for his truth-telling.

The poem rarely strays too far from colors, or more accurately skin pigmentation. And Baldwin deftly blends slurs and dialects in the voice of the speaker who appears both of the situation as well as above the situation: the racial and social inequities of being Black in the U.S.:

I wonder how they think
the niggers made, make it,
how come the niggers are still here.
But, then, again, I don’t think they dare
to think of that: no:
I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all. (3.1-6)

As an opening poem, “Staggerlee wonders” represents Baldwin’s complexity and richness, as well as his tensions—notably his use of Biblical references bracketed with “though theology has absolutely nothing to do/ with what I am trying to say” and “But we are not talking about belief.”

This poem reveals Baldwin’s craft, his ability to be deeply personal and bound by his moments of history while speaking against and to the great questions of being human when humans fail their humanity.

David L. Ulin poses James Baldwin, poet? But of course. in his review of this new collection from Baldwin, concluding,

This new version of “Jimmy’s Blues” features six poems that until now have only been available in a limited edition chapbook published after Baldwin’s death. Not all of this material is equally resonant, but when he’s on, Baldwin has the rare ability to contain contradictions — and not only to contain them, but also to evoke them on the page.

As National Poetry Month 2014 comes to a close and as we move toward Baldwin’s 90th birthday in August, now appears to be right for exploring Baldwin the poet.

Legalizing Marijuana Offers Lesson for Changing Course in Education Reform

The role of causality in educational research needs to be questioned on the basis that education is not the same as medicine. As Biesta says: “Being a student is not an illness, just as teaching is not a cure.” (2007, p8) We should never assume that education is a “push and pull” process of simply linear causal relationships.

Tait Coles, Take no heroes; only inspiration.

“Batman has officially been kicking the ass of Gotham’s villains for 75 years,” explains Ryan Kristobak, “and so to honor the Dark Knight, the Warner Bros. panel unveiled the ‘Batman Beyond’ animated short at this year’s WonderCon.”

For long-time and recent fans of Batman, however, the legends of the Dark Knight are complicated by the many versions that exist among the DC comic book and graphic novel universe, films, TV, animated series, and video games.

The Batman Myth has several foundational characteristics and common themes that are nested in the Caped Crusader’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27 in 1940: Batman’s essential nature as a detective and crime fighter, the ambiguous relationship between Batman and the Gotham police department and city officials, and the larger themes about justice that are contrasted by Batman’s vigilante tendencies.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of the film trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale, the opening scene framing the film also highlights a central message reflecting how justice is traditionally characterized in the U.S. The mayor of Gotham and Commissioner Gordon preside over Harvey Dent Day, named for the district attorney who is killed as Two-Face in The Dark Knight:

[the Mayor is giving a speech being at hosted at Wayne Manor]

Mayor: Harvey Dent Day may not be our oldest public holiday, but we’re here tonight because it’s one of the most important. Harvey Dent’s uncompromising stand against organized crime has made Gotham a safer place than it was at the time of his death, eight years ago. This city has seen a historic turn around. No city is without crime, but this city is without organized crime because of Dent’s act gave law enforcement teeth in its fight against the mob. Now people are talking about repealing the Dent Act, and to them I say, not on my watch.

[the audience claps]

Mayor: I wanna thank the Wayne Foundation for hosting this event, and I’m told, Mr. Wayne couldn’t be here tonight. I’m sure he’s with us in spirit….

Mayor: Jim Gordon, can tell you the truth about Harvey Dent. He could…but I’ll let him tell you himself. Commissioner Gordon!

[the audience claps as Gordon makes his way to the stand, Gordon looks down at his prepared speech and says to himself as he remembers the real truth of what happened to Dent]

Commissioner Gordon: The truth…

[he addresses the audience]

Commissioner Gordon: I have a speech telling the truth about Harvey Dent. Maybe the time isn’t right.

[he puts the speech away in his jacket pocket]

Commissioner Gordon: Maybe right now, all you need to know is that there are one thousand inmates in Blackgate Prison as the direct result of the Dent Act. These are violent criminals, essential cogs in the organized crime machine. Maybe, for now, all I should say about the death of Harvey Dent is this; it has not been for nothing. (transcript found here)

Justice in Nolan’s Gotham reflects the central elements of justice found in the U.S.: the right laws, the right people to enforce those laws, and the evidence those laws are working represented by a growing prison population.

Reagan Era Mass Incarceration and Education Accountability

As I have detailed in Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era, the 1980s and the Reagan administration planted the seeds of both an era of mass incarceration, labeled the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and the high-stakes accountability era in public education.

The most troubling aspects of both mass incarceration and high-stakes education accountability are that the policies have created, not ended, the claimed problems they were designed to address.

Over the past thirty years, the criminal justice system in the U.S. has filled prisons with a disproportionate number of African American men as part of our most recent war on drugs—despite whites and African Americans using recreational drugs at the same rates.

The current era of mass incarceration has unintended consequences similar to prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s:

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse – instead, the “drys” had their law, while the “wets” had their liquor.

The recent legalization of marijuana suggests a possible social recognition that traditional views of the right laws enforced by the right people and resulting in the right people sitting in prison is the wrong formula for either justice or a peaceful and equitable society.

Along with a growing number of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana is a concurrent discussion of releasing prior drug offenders from prison, again suggesting a social admission that the laws we establish create criminals, but rarely deter crime.

Seeking justice must not be separated from seeking equity. If the shift in how people in the U.S. view marijuana signals anything, I think, it shows a broader concern for equity: Just as changing inequitable laws surrounding powder cocaine and crack came to represent an inequitable criminal justice system, legalizing marijuana is yet another effort to move the pursuit of justice in the U.S. toward a pursuit of equity.

Legalizing Marijuana: A Lesson for Changing Course in Education Reform

The war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration have proven to be the wrong policies for achieving justice or equity in the U.S. Directly, we know that mass incarceration negatively impacts children (see Holly Yettick and Children of the Prison Boom).

But the parallel era of high-stakes education accountability shares the central flaws now being recognized in mass incarceration: high-stakes accountability creates failure in schools, teachers, and students (see FairTest’s Reports: High Stakes Testing Hurts Education).

Under Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal and state education policies have remained focused on identifying the right standards and the right tests, most recently Common Core standards and so-called “next generation” tests. Unlike the move toward legalizing marijuana, education reform remains trapped and unable to see the Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests, as Duncan proclaimed in 2009:

Until states develop better assessments—which we will support and fund through Race to the Top—we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress—but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.

Debating the quality of Common Core and the related tests, however, are the wrong arguments because high-stakes accountability is the wrong policy paradigm just as the war on drugs and mass incarceration are the wrong policies for justice.

Adopting and implementing Common Core as yet another round of seeking the right standards and the right tests will not work. We have three decades of evidence on that approach revealing that there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement (see Mathis, 2012).

The war on drugs has proven to be finding ourselves in a hole and continuing to dig. Legalizing marijuana is dropping the shovel and choosing instead to acknowledge that failure and to try another approach, one more rightly attuned to equity.

This is a lesson high-stakes accountability advocates need to learn.

Common Core and the related high-stakes tests are the wrong approach to equity and high-quality education; they are finding ourselves in a hole we created and continuing to dig.

As legalizing marijuana signals a possible turn to the end of mass incarceration, we need also to end the era of high-stakes accountability in education.

Let’s choose instead An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform.

Two Americas: George W. Bush and Neil deGrasse Tyson

This country was founded on the idea of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few white men,” Mychal Denzel Smith asserts in “We Built This Country on Inequality,” adding, “That that persists today isn’t a flaw in the design. Everything is working as the founders intended.”

Smith’s claim has two parts that challenge the Great American Myth of meritocracy: those two parts being then and now.

At the turn of the twentieth century, from 1899 until 1908, the buildings that constitute Clemson University in South Carolina were built by convict labor, as explained in Lyn Riddle’s report detailing the research of Clemson assistant professor of English Rhondda Thomas:

So far, [Thomas] has documented the names of 572 men, all but 29 of them African Americans.

They made a million bricks to build Tillman Hall. They built Hardin Hall, the oldest classroom building, and Trustee House, home to the first chemistry professor. They cleared the land and built dikes. The oldest was 67, the youngest 12.

“They made it possible for South Carolina to get back on its feet, to educate young men to make a contribution,” Thomas said.

They were but a step away from the sharecroppers and slaves who preceded them, Thomas said. Some likely were former slaves and most certainly the sons of former slaves.

“Their labor was valued but not their lives,” she said. “It is carrying on the slavery institution.”

In fact, she said, the convicts were legally known as slaves of the state.

Smith’s assertion about then is disturbingly grounded in stories such as this one—an American infrastructure and economy built on the backs of slaves, prisoners, and exploited workers. To deny that past requires ignoring the facts of history, a history not peculiar to the South but certainly prevalent here.

But what of Smith’s argument about inequity now?

It is 2014 and there are two Americas: one America inhabited by George W. Bush and another America inhabited by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In George W. Bush’s America, the birth right of privilege creates a set of circumstances in which being white and wealthy equals a person having to try repeatedly to fail—and even then, the safety net of privilege is likely to work.

Bush himself has joked about his mediocre academic achievement at Yale, but few ever discuss how a C student from Yale eventually went to Harvard graduate school. Bush’s privilege powered him straight through minimal effort as a student (even though he enjoyed a legacy entrance to Yale virtually anyone would covet), his own personal struggle with alcohol, and (again by his own admission) a relatively unimpressive career until he entered politics. The son of a president and a child of an extremely powerful and wealthy family of “old” money suggest his successful runs to be governor of Texas and two-time president of the U.S. were inevitable.

To be blunt, George W. Bush had only to get out of his own way on his journey, one that is now being punctuated by his having an art showing that almost no one else would be afforded. In fact, the George W. Bush art showings are the ideal examples of the America that runs on privilege: It isn’t what you do, but who you are (and money doesn’t hurt). “That gentle, civilised art can wipe away a surprising quantity of blood,” Jonathan Jones muses.

But there is another America, the one in which Neil deGrasse Tyson lives:

I’ve never been female. But I have been black my whole life, and, so, let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as in the community of women, in a white male dominated society, and I’ll be brief, ’cause I want to try to get more questions.

When I look at, throughout my life, I’ve noticed that I’ve wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old, my first visit to the Hayden Planetarium. (I was a little younger than Victor at the time, although he did it before I did.) And so I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions, and all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of nature, the forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, “Oh, don’t you want to be an athlete? Oh, don’t you want to”– I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And so, fortunately my depth of interest was so deep, and so fueled, enriched, that every one of these curveballs that I was thrown, and fences built in front of me, and hills that I had to climb, I just leaped for more fuel and I kept going.

In this America, the momentum of privilege is replaced by the anchors of bias—racism, classism, sexism. Tyson continues:

I walked out of a store one time, and the alarm went off, and, so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate, and that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him. That’s an interesting exploitation of this — what a scam that was! I think people should do that more often….

So my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real, and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we talk about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation.”

And this America remains now, as Smith recognizes:

[T]he architects and gatekeepers of American racism have always worn neckties. They have always been a part of the American political system….

It’s easy to focus on the most vicious and dramatic forms of racist violence faced by past generations as the site of “real” racism. If we do, we can also point out the perpetrators of that violence and rightly condemn them for their actions. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that those individuals alone didn’t write America’s racial codes. It’s much harder to talk about how that violence was only reinforcing the system of political, economic and cultural racism that made America possible. That history indicts far more people, both past and present.

And this America is the world in which Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son live:

On Sunday, I took my son to see two movies at a French film festival that was in town. The local train was out. We walked over to Amsterdam to flag down a cab. The cab rolled right past us and picked up two young-ish white women. It’s sort of amazing how often that happens. It’s sort of amazing how often you think you are going to be permitted to act as Americans do and instead receive the reminder—”Oh that’s right, we are just some niggers. I almost forgot.”…

I think of that cab driver passing me by on Amsterdam. We are not on the block anymore. We are in America, where our absence of virtue is presumed, and we must eat disrespect in sight of our sons. And who can be mad in America? Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is but the rain.

There was a time in the U.S., then, when the criminalization of powder cocaine and crack were distinctly different, an ugly snapshot of the two Americas detailed above. Once that inequity became too much for political leaders to ignore, those same leaders used that inequity to make distracting and mostly symbolic efforts to address the race- and class-based differences in punishment.

But now? Now continues the two Americas because, as Michelle Alexander details in depth, the U.S. remains in an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts African Americans, notably males:

Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. Higher arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities, but rather of a law enforcement focus on urban areas, on lower-income communities and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system. We believe that the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African American men, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s. (Race and the Drug War)

Two Americas exist, but not as one of then and one of now.

Two Americas exist now, and as Thomas concludes about convict labor building Clemson University, “‘History is hidden in plain sight,’” and Riddle adds:

Consider that a building built by convicts is named for Ben Tillman, a former governor who as a U.S. senator in 1900 said in a speech in Congress, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern the white man, and we never will.”

I must add that the history of inequity continues in plain sight as a condition of now, although too many choose instead to gaze at the inadequate portraits of a privileged past president with too much time on his paint-stained hands.

Paternalism, Old or New, Blinds

22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

Ephesians 5:22-24

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Colossians 3:18

The Olinka do not believe that girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why  she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.

Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Ephesians 6:5

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Colossians 3:22

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.
― James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

I spent the last third of my career as a high school English teacher also serving as the soccer coach for the school’s boys and girls soccer programs. The reasons I took the coaching position included my own concerns about how public school coaches often behaved in ways that no one would have tolerated by teachers in the classroom—although most of those coaches were also classroom teachers.

Coaches routinely berated players, including the use of profanity, and in the South, the line between church and state simply did not exist since coaches always led players in prayer, especially just before a game or match started in full view of the fans.

For most of my life and career in my small hometown, the head football coach—who worked as athletic director and assistant principal—blared profanity over the stadium intercom during practices and even swore at students while issuing them demerits for profanity.

That coach won football games, state championships, and thus, essentially not a soul ever uttered a concern—even in those moments when the profanity was joined with racial slurs.

I did complain so when I became a coach, I set out to change the culture of my teams both in my behavior and in the messages I sent.

When I notified my team that I would not lead them in prayer—explaining why—and that before games teammates who wanted to pray needed to organize that and then join the team for a pre-game huddle, that change did prompt complaints. But that change also brought players to me in private who thanked me—players who had never spoken a word about coach-led prayers making them uncomfortable before.

So when I heard about the controversy surrounding Clemson University and whether or not head coach Dabo Swinney is coercing his players with his religious beliefs, I was certain of two things: (1) local public opinion would overwhelming support Swinney, and (2) despite Swinney’s good intentions (I do trust he has only good intentions), the situation is, in fact, inappropriate in the context of Swinney’s power as head coach and Clemson being a state university.

But the Clemson football/religion controversy is much more than the narrow situation because at its source, the controversy is about a recurring human flaw: the allure and failure of paternalism, both on grand and small scales.

Nettie and Celie are sisters who exchange letters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Nettie reveals to Celie throughout the correspondence Nettie’s own awakening to the dangers of missionary zeal during her experience in Africa. Celie, who remains home in the Deep South, confronts her own awakening about the traditional view of women in the South—the subservience of women and wives occurring, however, in both sisters’ worlds.

As a work about racism and sexism, The Color Purple ultimately is a confrontation of paternalism. And paternalism is the driving force behind the justifications for misogyny and slavery: Women were to be protected because of their inherent frailties and slaves were to be taken care of by their owners because of Blacks’ inherent inadequacies.

Subjugating women to the control of men and Blacks to the control of Whites was repeatedly framed as acts of good intentions and then linked to the ultimate paternalism—the Word of God.

When the U.S. came against the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the political response was something that—looking back—seems nearly impossible to believe. Japanese-Americans were subjected to internment:

In 1942, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordered thousands of Japanese Americans to leave their homes behind and take up residence in remote detainment camps. About two thirds of them were U.S. citizens.

The most famous of the camps, located in California’s Owens Valley, was called the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

History reveals this pattern at a stunning rate: At the time, the unjustifiable appears justifiable and the acts are with good intentions, designed to protect everyone involved.

Treating women as second-class humans, U.S. slavery, the Japanese Internment—grand human errors all—are daily matched on smaller scales, however, in the pervasive paternalism that drives people in power to control those within their authority.

To suggest that Swinney and Clemson is a unique or isolated failure of paternalism, or that this crossing of the line between church and state is a lingering failure of the South is to miss the real message of the controversy.

And the controversy isn’t just about sports—although an easy scapegoat.

Consider education broadly. As Whitman notes: “In the narrowest sense, all American schools are paternalistic.” This comment, however, rests in a larger piece serving to endorse “no excuses” schools—a central justification being Whitman’s argument that a new paternalism deserves to be embraced:

Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that “clients already believe,” Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Women must be subservient to men and wives to husbands because women lack certain qualities (that men have). The same with slaves. The same with the poor (who tend to be people of color).

And therein is the problem—a problem not unrelated to the Clemson/Swinney controversy: beware justifications of paternalism on grand and small scales, especially when the person in authority is above reproach.

Parents, teachers, and coaches all face a tremendous paradox: Those roles are by their nature prone to paternalism (and maternalism) by necessity because (unlike stereotypes of females, African Americans, and people in poverty) children in fact lack some qualities that adults (literally as parents or in locos parentis) are obligated to monitor and even control.

The paradox grows from when anyone in authority confronts her/his paternalism, the fact of that authority and the possibility of coercion must check that paternalism against some moral imperatives: (1) Is the paternalistic drive based in a deficit view of those subjected to the authority? (2) Is the paternalistic drive grounded in a moment of crisis? and (3) Is that crisis genuine or fabricated as a circular argument for justifying the acts?

Public education embracing “no excuses” ideologies and Dabo Swinney infusing his football program with Christianity (small scale paternalism) are in no way the Japanese Internment, U.S. slavery, or the historical weight of misogyny (grand scale paternalism), but they fail young people in ways that are just as hard to justify as much larger social scars facing humanity.

Our ability to see in hindsight historically grand failures of paternalism should help sharpen our ability to recognize the failure of paternalism on smaller scales.

People in authority—such as coaches—often get passes they don’t deserve, and acts grounded in assumed positive contexts—such as religion—are often above reproach.

Authority, religion, paternalism, and missionary zeal, combined, are dangerous and likely to fail us all, regardless of anyone’s good intentions. (Allow me to point back to Nettie’s experience in The Color Purple.)

Authority and its necessary paternalistic impulses must always be tempered with humility and the ability to see the world with other people’s eyes—particularly when those other people are likely intimidated and coerced by that authority.

I think it is not ours to cast stones at Swinney because he is us. Every time anyone thinks “what is right for me is right for you,” she/he is falling into the same trap of paternalism that we must recognize and avoid. And although I cannot guarantee a line has been crossed at Clemson, I am deeply suspicious it has because the responses from all involved remain righteous, and I know we all are prone to being trapped in the amber of the moment, the amber of our assumptions.

Let’s not cast stones, but let’s ask some important questions:

  1. Do we want our athletic coaches to also serve as our athletes’ spiritual leaders?
  2. How do we justify Christianity (or any religion) in the context of competitive and violent sport?
  3. If the exact same situation were occurring but Swinney was as devout about being Hindu, not Christian, would public reaction be the same?
  4. And how do we treat as sacred the wall between church and state in our public institutions so that both church and state remain honored?

And let’s be sure to answer these recognizing that paternalism on scales grand and small tends to blind us from the answers we seek.

“There’s a Muslim in America Named Muhammad Ali”

There’s a Muslim in America named Muhammad Ali.

Louis Farrakhan, The Trials of Muhammad Ali

The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens with contrasting responses to Muhammad Ali, highlighted by the awkward ceremony in which George W. Bush awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


The Trials of Muhammad Ali

The documentary follows footage of that ceremony with Louis Farrakan struggling with Ali’s pronouncement that Ali was “still a nigger.”

David Zirin calls The Trials of Muhammad Ali “the best documentary ever made about the most famous draft-resister in human history,” situating the documentary against the Will Smith bio-pic and other documentaries. I felt the same tension between trying to recreate Ali and the historical Ali when I watched HBO’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (see my earlier post, Ali: “You must listen to me”).

To me, that historical and complicated Ali remains out of reach for many in the U.S.:

Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in Fight of the Century, Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, 1971

The documentary ran on PBS and can be viewed streaming online, but I remain uncertain—despite the power of the documentary—about the American character in 2014 and whether or not we can fully connect with a black man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee in a white world.

My reservations, however, do not deter me from recommending that everyone tries by starting with this documentary that forces viewers to confront the uncomfortable.

David Susskind calls Ali a “simplistic fool,” and Jerry Lewis adds that Ali is a “big bag of wind”—just two of numerous scenes in which white men berate and demean Ali.

Ali smiles. Ali jabs with his wit and even with a cool detachment.

Black Nationalism and the Nation of Islam are characters in this documentary, as are Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John Carlos, and Tommy Smith (just to highlight a few)—with Ali always at the center of the tensions this part of U.S. history entails.

The literal trial of Ali was his refusal to serve in Vietnam, but the film also dramatizes in detailed fashion how Ali as a converted Muslim was a trial for Ali and the U.S.

A key scene, for me, is sports writer Robert Lipsyte discussing how the New York Times refused to print Muhammad Ali’s Muslim name, maintaining Cassius Clay, to which Lipsyte states: “Nobody asked John Wayne or Rock Hudson what their names were.”

The history of Ali during the volatile 1960s and into the 1970s, the focus of the documentary, is the history of the U.S. Both are complicated, and both are filled with contradictions.

If you want to come closer to understanding both Ali and the often ignored aspects of U.S. history—the Civil Rights Era that dare not be uttered—then you should view The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

Since viewing the documentary twice, I am left wrestling with Farrakhan smiling as he speaks about Ali battering opponents and taunting them with “What’s my name?”

And now that refrain haunts me as does Ali’s “You must listen to me.”

I am not sure that we must, but I know we should.

For Further Consideration

The Eleven Men Behind Cassius Clay

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Seeking Equity: Not “If,” But “How” and “Why”

Pat Tillman (11/6/76 – 4/22/04): A Decade of Forgetting

On the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, David Zirin highlights a nearly concurrent anniversary:

Two wrenching anniversaries loom in the world of sports. Both are in many respects conjoined by the dominant narratives of the twenty-first century. Both show how the military adventures of the last decade have even breeched the escapist sanctity of the sports page. Both contain elements of tragedy, honor and courage. But you can be sure that one of these anniversaries will get a whole hell of a lot more attention than the other….

April 22 marks ten years since the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Expect the media to take cursory notice and expect a press release from the NFL, but don’t expect much else. That’s because the Pat Tillman narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to swelling music and sonorous sound bites.

Pat Tillman, if his death is acknowledged at all, will likely be portrayed as a man in uniform—but not as the man he was:

Pat Tillman (11/6/76 – 4/22/04)

And despite his tragic death being the result of “friendly fire,” despite the now exposed political manipulation of Tillman’s service and death, despite the lies—Tillman, if his death is acknowledged at all, will be misrepresented once again—waved like a flag to keep the public’s gaze distracted:


The truth, however ugly, is available in The Tillman Story (2010), and ESPN offers an Outside the Lines special, Pat Tillman: 10 Years Later an Enduring Tragedy.

The Tillman story, ultimately, is a story about us, about the U.S., about the myths that deform. On the tenth anniversary of Tillman’s death, I invite you to read below a post (revised) from 2012.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: There’s a Reason Captain America Wears a Mask

With the release of The Tillman Story (2010), Pat Tillman’s brother, Richard, appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time and offered yet another narrative of Pat’s life and death, one the Tillman family is willing to tell, but one the American public and political leaders are unwilling to ask about or retell.

Richard was frank and struggling on Maher’s HBO show, which included a clip from Pat’s memorial where Richard made a blunt and impassioned effort to tell the truth about his brother in the face of the political need to maintain American Mythology—even when those myths are deceptive, even when those myths are at the expense of people.

Pat Tillman was a stellar athlete who succeeded in college and rose to unique status in the NFL, where he did a very un-American thing, stepped away from a multi-million dollar contract, to do a very American thing, enlist in the military after 9/11 in order to serve his country. The news and political stories of Tillman’s decision played down the apparent rejection of materialism in Tillman’s volunteering to serve in the military, but the official stories began to craft a narrative starring Pat Tillman as Captain America.

Apparently, we could mask a not-so-subtle challenge to our materialistic existence and consumer culture as long as that masked hero would justify our wars.

Then Tillman died in the line of duty.

Then the U.S. government was exposed for building a story around Tillman’s death that was untrue: Pat was killed by “friendly fire” (a disarming term for an incomprehensible and gruesome fact of wars) and not at the hands of the enemy as officials initially claimed—to Pat’s brother who was also serving and nearby, to Pat’s family, and to the entire country.

Then Richard Tillman, still boiling with anger, said on Maher’s show that Pat should have retaliated in order to save himself against the “friendly fire.”

Beyond the continuing chasm between the real life and death of Pat Tillman and the narratives created around him, the release of the Tillman documentary presents the American public with a story that isn’t very flattering. The Tillman Story depends on the ambiguous meaning of “story,” as a synonym for “narrative” and “lie,” to offer another layer to the growing truths and distortions connected with why Pat Tillman joined the military, how he died, and the complex human being who he was.

Captain America and the Mask of Patriotism

Now, if we place the Tillman stories against the debate in the military over “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we notice that in this culture we endorse masking reality as a good and even honorable thing. We confront the Great American Myth that never allows us to ask, much less tell.

This military policy based on deception is ironically our central cultural narrative, one political leaders perpetuate since their political success depends upon speaking to our cultural myths instead of to reality. We are a country committed to don’t ask, don’t tell.

Pat Tillman’s life story and the corrupted narrative invented by politicians and the military to hide the truth and propagandize at the expense of a man and his life are tragic and personal myths that we are ignoring still. If political leaders will fabricate preferred stories at the expense of a single person, we can expect the same about the institutions central to our democracy, such as our public education system and teachers.

Such is a disturbing confirmation of the “myths that deform” that Paulo Freire cautioned about in his examination of the failures of “banking” concepts of education.

In this new era of hope and change, the Obama administration, we must be diligent to ask and tell, especially when it comes to our public schools. The false dichotomy of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, is a distraction from the reality of political leaders expressing corporate narratives to ensure the balance of power favoring the status quo. Leaders are often compelled to maintain cultural myths because black-and-white messages are politically effective.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan are now leading a renewed assault on public education, and directly teachers, under the banner of civil rights—just as Pat Tillman’s life and death were buried beneath claims of patriotism raised like Captain America’s shield so no one could see behind it.

The reality that Obama and Duncan cannot ask or tell about is poverty—and its impact on the lives and learning of children. Acknowledging poverty is an affront to the American Dream; confronting poverty is political dynamite. Blaming teachers and schools instead without offering the evidence works because this is a message we are willing to acknowledge and hear.

For example, a group from the ruling elite of schools, self-described as “educators, superintendents, chief executives and chancellors responsible for educating nearly 2 1/2 million students in America,” placed themselves squarely in the context of President Obama’s and Secretary Duncan’s charge against teachers and the status quo; their manifesto states: “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income—it is the quality of their teacher.” [1]

The names of the leaders—Klein, Rhee, Vallas—appear impressive, and their sweeping claims are compelling—except that the substance of their message is false.

Narratives are powerful, and telling those narratives requires diligence, a willingness to say something often enough to make the created story sound more credible than reality—until the truth is masked beneath a web of narratives that makes truth harder to accept than the lies that seem to conform to all the myths that deform us (rugged individualism, pulling oneself up by the bootstrap, a rising tide lifts all boats).

“Let’s stop ignoring basic economic principles of supply and demand” speaks to an American faith in the market. “[U]ntil we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation’s broader economic problems” triggers Americans’ blind willingness to compete and an enduring faith in schools as tools of social reform. They are compelling because Americans have been saying them for a century.

Just as the fabricated story of Pat Tillman and his sacrifice justified war.

“I don’t believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own” (Walt Gardner) sounds weak, fatalistic, in the face of our myths, the words of soft people eager to shift the blame. It is something we dare not tell.

Just as the smoldering facts of Pat Tillman’s death remain too hard to ask about and too hard to tell.

But only the latter are supported by evidence. But only the latter contradict the Great American Myths about which we dare not ask, we dare not tell.

Captain America wears a mask for a reason: The myth is easier to look at, easier to tell about than the truth hidden underneath—whether we are asking about and looking hard at the death of a complex man, Pat Tillman, or the complex influences of poverty on the lives and learning of children across our country.

[1] See recent evidence to the contrary regarding the claim about zip codes: A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; and Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, a report from Brookings.