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.

The Paradox of Race in the U.S.

The paradox of race in the U.S.: In order to become a culture in which race does not matter, race must always matter.

Due this coming June, my first granddaughter will be born into this world a bi-racial child during the second term of the first bi-racial president of the U.S.

The symbolic power of that coincidence is, I think, significant, but the realities of the U.S.—I regret to add—far outweigh that symbolism (consider that Obama is popularly referred to as “Black,” and not bi-racial, and how that designation reflects not race, but racism).

It is 2014, and the U.S. suffers from a cultural blindness to the lingering scars of racism, sexism, and classism. U.S. mass incarceration disproportionately destroys the lives of African American males: White males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, yet prisons hold African American males at a 6 to 1 ratio over White males. African Americans and Whites use recreational drugs at about the same rates, as well, but African Americans are overwhelmingly and disproportionately targeted, arrested, and imprisoned for that drug use.

The realities of inequity for women in the U.S. are disturbingly parallel.

However, Zak Cheney-Rice’s National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful details that the U.S. my granddaughter will experience is, in fact, increasingly multi-racial:

The Wall Street Journal reported a few years back that 15% of new marriages in 2010 were between individuals of different races. It’s unclear whether they’ve included same-sex unions in the count, but as currently stated, this number is more than double what it was 25 years ago. The proportion of intermarriages also varied by race, with “9% of whites, 17% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics and 28% of Asians [marrying] outside their ethnic or racial group.” Interracial unions now account for 8.4% of all marriages in the U.S. (please see the images and charts)

As the number of bi-racial and multi-racial children increase in the U.S., we may find that the pervasive blindness to the -isms that deform our culture is replaced by a will to confront as well as end those -isms.

But, what keeps those -isms alive, I think, is the wrong goal—a call for a post-racial U.S.

Humans will always necessarily be, individually and collectively, defined by the coincidences of race, gender, and sexuality—those qualities that we do not choose. And children (as well as adults) will always be defined by the class each is born into through no decision or action of that individual.

What we should be seeking, then, is a post-racism society, not a post-racial society; a post-sexism society, a post-classism society, a post-homophobic, post-heteronormative society.

Much of literature is the artist’s effort to remove blinders from a people.

In American literature, a recurring theme is that the American Dream is a lie (or at best, far from being realized)—even though many in the U.S. remain capable of reading, celebrating, and then completely missing that point with key works such as The Great Gatsby.

Aging and quite likely crumbling under the weight of something like Alzheimer’s, Willy Loman becomes convinced that he literally is worth more dead than alive—because he loses his ability to earn a living but holds a life insurance policy.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a damning work of drama and even more directly challenging the American Dream than Fitzgerald’s modern classic.

But for all the critical insight found in both Salesman and Gatsby, the two works also leave out a great deal—a great deal about the interplay among race, class, gender, and that American Dream as a lie.

However, Lorraine Hansberry returns to the American Dream in A Raisin in the Sun in order to hold up to the U.S. and the world what Salesman and Gatsby mostly ignore.

Walter Younger, like Willy Loman, faces the weight of a “dream deferred,” personifying Langston Hughes’s questions in “Harlem.”

Few if any works of literature surpass Hansberry’s masterful dramatization of race, class, gender, and the “heavy load” that is not just a “dream deferred” but a dream that is reserved for only some (white) people.

Both Willy Loman and Walter Younger are tragic figures in the modernist sense; and these two men share a burden of reaching for and believing in a dream promised that turns out to be a mirage.

But Walter suffers exponentially, not because of his race, but because of racism—how the people with power respond to his race.

In a post-racial world, Walter being African American would be erased, and with that, part of his Being would be erased. The quest for a post-racial world maintains a racialized gaze on Walter, and not the agents of racism.

Walter does not suffer oppression because of his race; he suffers oppression because of racism.

And that, I think, is one of the many nuanced messages of a surprisingly optimistic play (much like Alice Walker’s A Color Purple) that asks audiences to see and even recognize—not ignore—race, class, and gender in the context of social realities that are themselves what must be changed. Not the people who are the consequences of their race, gender, and class.

Having just co-edited a volume on James Baldwin, I cannot imagine Baldwin calling for a post-racial U.S., one in which we pretend race doesn’t exist. I can imagine Baldwin informing anyone willing to listen that the problem remaining in the U.S. is not anyone’s race, but the eye of the beholder.

In the recently published Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by Baldwin, the opening poem, “Staggerlee wonders,” begins:

I always wonder
what they think the niggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,
are containing
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,
from blowing up that earth
which they have already
blasphemed into dung

And I hear Baldwin, and I imagine him saying we must see each other fully in order to be no longer blinded by our -isms.

My granddaughter will be born a bi-racial child in the U.S. where the half of her which is African American will be the default for calling her “Black” and where women still earn about 3/4s what men do for the same labor.

She is likely to feel the dehumanizing realities about her own worth that send Willy to suicide. She is likely to share the frustrations Beneatha and Ruth Younger personify.

Those realities give me pause, sadden me. And I share with Walter a good deal of anger.

In another modern classic of American drama, Thornton Wilder’s Our TownEmily grows from childhood to falling in love to marriage and to her own too-early death. In the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

My hope lies in our ability to “look at everything hard enough.”

To pay attention—not to ignore, not to pretend in the way that calling for a post-racial U.S. is pretending.

The paradox of race in the U.S.: In order to become a culture in which race does not matter, race must always matter.

Devaluing Teachers in the Age of Value-Added

We teach the children of the middle class, the wealthy and the poor,” explains Anthony Cody, continuing:

We teach the damaged and disabled, the whole and the gifted. We teach the immigrants and the dispossessed natives, the transients and even the incarcerated.

In years past we formed unions and professional organizations to get fair pay, so women would get the same pay as men. We got due process so we could not be fired at an administrator’s whim. We got pensions so we could retire after many years of service.

But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more. We cost too much. We expect our hard-won expertise to be recognized with respect and autonomy. We talk back at staff meetings, and object when we are told we must follow mindless scripts, and prepare for tests that have little value to our students.

During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public schools and the students they serve felt the weight of standards- and test-based accountability—a bureaucratic process that has wasted huge amounts of tax-payers’ money and incalculable time and energy assigning labels, rankings, and blame. The Reagan-era launching of accountability has lulled the U.S. into a sort of complacency that rests on maintaining a gaze on schools, students, and test data so that no one must look at the true source of educational failure: poverty and social inequity, including the lingering corrosive influences of racism, classism, and sexism.

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama eras—resting on intensified commitments to accountability such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT)—have continued that misguided gaze and battering, but during the past decade-plus, teachers have been added to the agenda.

As Cody notes above, however, simultaneously political leaders, the media, and the public claim that teachers are the most valuable part of any student’s learning (a factually untrue claim), but that high-poverty and minority students can be taught by those without any degree or experience in education (Teach for America) and that career teachers no longer deserve their profession—no tenure, no professional wages, no autonomy, no voice in what or how they teach.

And while the media and political leaders maintain these contradictory narratives and support these contradictory policies, value-added methods (VAM) of evaluating and compensating U.S. public teachers are being adopted, again simultaneously, as the research base repeatedly reveals that VAM is yet another flawed use of high-stake accountability and testing.

When Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff released (and re-released) reports claiming that teacher quality equates to significant earning power for students, the media and political leaders tripped over themselves to cite (and cite) those reports.

What do we know about the Chetty, et al., assertions?

From 2012:

[T]hose using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings. (Di Carlo)

These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate  the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.) (Baker)

And now, a thorough review concludes:

Can the quality of teachers be measured the way that a person’s weight or height is measured? Some economists have tried, but the “value-added” they have attempted to measure has proven elusive. The results have not been consistent over tests or over time. Nevertheless, a two-part report by Raj Chetty and his colleagues claims that higher value-added scores for teachers lead to greater economic success for their students later in life. This review of the methods of Chetty et al. focuses on their most important result: that teacher value-added affects income in adulthood. Five key problems with the research emerge. First, their own results show that the calculation of teacher value-added is unreliable. Second, their own research also generated a result that contradicts their main claim—but the report pushed that inconvenient result aside. Third, the trumpeted result is based on an erroneous calculation. Fourth, the report incorrectly assumes that the (miscalculated) result holds across students’ lifetimes despite the authors’ own research indicating otherwise. Fifth, the report cites studies as support for the authors’ methodology, even though they don’t provide that support. Despite widespread references to this study in policy circles, the shortcomings and shaky extrapolations make this report misleading and unreliable for determining educational policy.

Similar to the findings in Edward H. Haertel’s analysis of VAM, Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), the American Statistical Association has issued ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment, emphasizing:

Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers. This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.

The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling. Combining VAMs across multiple years decreases the standard error of VAM scores. Multiple years of data, however, do not help problems caused when a model systematically undervalues teachers who work in specific contexts or with specific types of students, since that systematic undervaluation would be present in every year of data.

Among DiCarlo, Baker, Haertel and the ASA, several key patterns emerge regarding VAM: (1) VAM remains an experimental statistical model, (2) VAM is unstable and significantly impacted by factors beyond a teacher’s control and beyond the scope of that statistical model to control, and (3) implementing VAM in high-stakes policies exaggerates the flaws of VAM.

The rhetoric about valuing teachers rings hollow more and more as teaching continues to be dismantled and teachers continue to be devalued by misguided commitments to VAM and other efforts to reduce teaching to a service industry.

VAM as reform policy, like NCLB, is sham-science being used to serve a corporate need for cheap and interchangeable labor. VAM, ironically, proves that evidence does not matter in education policy.

Like all workers in the U.S., we simply do not value teachers.

Political leaders, the media, and the public call for more tests for schools, teachers, and students, but they continue to fail themselves to acknowledge the mounting evidence against test-based accountability.

And thus, we don’t need numbers to prove what Cody states directly: “But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more.”

In Defense of Poetry: “Oh My Heart”

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.”

Paul Proteus to his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano

“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” is, essentially, a grammatical sentence in the English language. While the syntax is somewhat out of the norm, the diction is accessible to small children—the hardest word likely being “depends.” But “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is much more than a sentence; it is a poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

A relatively simple English language sentence shaped into purposeful lines and stanzas becomes poetry. And like Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” it sparks in me a profoundly important response each time I read these poems: [Expletive], I wish I had written that.

It is the same awe and wonder that I felt as a shy and deeply self-conscious teenager when I bought, collected, and read comic books, marveling at the artwork I wish I had drawn.

Will we soon wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

That question, especially during National Poetry Month, now haunts me more every day, notably because of the double-impending doom augured by the Common Core: the rise of nonfiction (and the concurrent erasing of poetry and fiction) from the ELA curriculum and the mantra-of-the-moment, “close reading” (the sheep’s clothing for that familiar old wolf New Criticism):

It seems we have come to a moment in the history of the US when we no longer even pretend to care about that which is the result of the human heart: Art.

And poetry, I contend, is the most human of the arts because—although it is quite challenging often to distinguish humans from other mammals—we have two attributes that do set us apart: our too-big brains and our faculty for language.

Poetry is the very human effort to utter order out of chaos, meaning out of the meaningless: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”).

The course was Speech, taught by Mr. Brannon. I was a freshman at a junior college just 15-20 miles from my home, the college my parents had attended when they first fell in love and married secretly.

Despite the college’s close proximity to my home, my father insisted that I live on campus. But that class and those first two years of college were more than living on campus; they were the essential beginning of my life.

In one of the earliest classes, Mr. Brannon read aloud and gave us a copy of “[in Just-]“ by e. e. cummings. I imagine that moment was, for me, what many people describe as a religious experience.

That was more than thirty years ago, but I have two precious books still that followed from that day in class: cummings’s Complete Poems and Selected Poems:


Several years later, Emily Dickinson‘s Complete Poems would join my commitment to reading every poem by those poets who made me respond over and over: [Expletive], I wish I had written that.

But that introduction to cummings was more than a young and insecure man finding the poets he wanted to read; it was when I realized I am a poet.

Now, when the words “j was young&happy” come to me, I know there is work to do—I recognize the gift of poetry.

As a high school English teacher, I divided my academic year into quarters by genre/form: nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels/ plays. The poetry quarter, when announced to students, initially received moans and even direct complaints: “I hate poetry.”

To be honest, that always broke my heart, crushed my soul. Life and school had already taken something very precious from these young people:

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew (“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

Gradually and then always, I taught poetry in conjunction with popular songs. Although my students in rural South Carolina were overwhelmingly country music fans, I focused my nine weeks of poetry on the songs of alternative group R.E.M.

For the record, that too elicited moans from students in those early days of exploring poetry (see that unit now on the blog “There’s time to teach”).

Concurrently, throughout my high school teaching career, students always gathered in my room during our long mid-morning break and lunch (much to the chagrin of administration). And almost always, we played music.

The epitome of that unspoken norm of my classroom was two students who, after I introduced them to The Violent Femmes, would close my door in order to dance and sing along with their songs.

Many of those students are in their 30s and 40s, but it is common for them to contact me—often on Facebook—and recall fondly R.E.M. and our poetry unit. Those days and years meant something to them that lingers, that matters in ways that cannot be measured.

I can still see and hear those two students dancing, singing, and laughing. It was an oasis of happiness in their days at school, an oasis of happiness in their lives.

e.e. cummings begins “since feeling is first,” and then adds:

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter….

And each year when my students and I examined this poem, we would discuss that cummings—in Andrew Marvell fashion—offers an argument that is profoundly unlike what parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians claim.

So I often paired this poem with Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” focusing on:

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

Especially for teenagers, this question, this tension between heart and mind, mattered. Just as it recurs in the words of poets and musicians over decades, centuries.

Poetry, as with all art, is the expressed heart—that human quest to rise above our corporeal humanness:

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

I have loved a few people intensely. So deeply that my love, I believe, resides permanently in my bones. If you read my poetry, you will recognize that motif, I am sure.

One such love is my daughter, and she now carries the next human who will add to that ache of being fully human—loving another beyond words.

And that, I contend, is poetry.

Poetry is not identifying iambic pentameter on a poetry test or discussing the nuances of enjambment in an analysis of a Dickinson poem.

Poems are not fodder for close reading.

Poetry is the ineluctable “Oh my heart” that comes from living fully in the moment of being human, the moment that draws us to words as well as inspires us toward words.

We read a poem, we listen to a song, and our hearts rise out of our eyes as tears.

That is poetry.

And like the picture books of our childhood, poetry must be a part of our learning, essential to our school days—each poem an oasis of happiness that “machines will never be able to measure.”

Will we soon wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

Maybe the doomsayers are wrong, and maybe, just maybe, poetry will not be erased from our classrooms.

School with less poetry is school with less heart. School with no poetry is school with no heart.

Both are tragic mistakes because if school needs anything, it is more heart. And poetry? Oh my heart.

NOTE: This post was drafted in the wake of driving to work while listening to Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head. Or to be perfectly honest, while singing loudly along with each song and occasionally crying. There. So keep that in mind.

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

In-Press from Routledge

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

Foreword: Education and the Epochal Crisis Peter McLaren

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity

1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst

2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds

3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover

4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen

Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity

5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger

6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey

7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora

Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity

8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas

9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep

10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen

11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris Leahey

Conclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas