James Baldwin at 90: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”

January 1, 2000, exposed a truly baffling phenomenon about most humans: A silly fascination with numbers that end in zero that completely renders those humans irrational. In the land of the arbitrary where people fear that arbitrary dates can spawn the Apocalypse, the irrational can’t even manage those arbitrary dates as January 1, 2001 (not 2000), was the turning point of the millennium.

And so we now witness a flurry of articles about James Baldwin, mostly ignored over the past few decades, because August 2, 2014, would have been Baldwin’s 90th birthday—somehow signifying he is more important now than when he would have turned 89.

As someone who has come to cherish Baldwin the essayist and Baldwin the public intellectual, I welcome this sudden burst of sunlight on one of the most daring and perceptive voices ever among writers in the U.S. I cannot stress enough in print that I find Baldwin as valuable today as ever, and often feel deeply inadequate as a writer and would-be public intellectual against the power of Baldwin.

To join in with this celebration, I want to recommend primarily that Baldwin’s voice be read and viewed/heard—that we do not allow all being said and written about him to suffice. And on August 2, 2014, we have so much of Baldwin before us, so much that we have failed to embrace, to consider carefully, to allow these words to complete their unmasking:

My journey with Baldwin has resulted in an edited volume (co-edited with Furman colleague Scott Henderson), James Baldwin: Challenging Authors. So here I want to share the introduction I wrote for that collection of essays.

Introduction

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.[i]

Trayvon Martin was killed February 26, 2012, in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie. In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless. But, as Arundhati Roy (2004) has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” (n.p.).

In this introduction to a volume on the work of James Baldwin, I, like Roy, am compelled to speak beyond Trayvon about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—about those Others: African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the U.S. was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders. Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males too often result in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration (Thomas, 2013) over the past thirty-plus years. While Wright’s and Ellison’s novels continue to capture the African American male experience—including the entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing—Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—the plight of African American males continue to send an ominous and powerful message today  (see Chapter 9 for a fuller discussion).

In 1963, Ellison (2003) spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble. (p. 546)

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized because of non-standard language skills). But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much ‘culturally deprived’ as products of a different cultural complex” (p. 549). Ultimately, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored.

Baldwin (1998) addressed teachers in that same year, 1963:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. (p. 678)

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children. Education, for Baldwin, must be revolutionary, an act of social justice. In Baldwin’s words, I hear a refrain: No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However, if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook school shooting (December 14, 2012) has beneath the George Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love

When teacher and blogger Jose Vilson[ii] posts a blog, I read carefully and don’t multitask. Why? I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire life in the South where racism clings to the region like the stench of a house razed by fire.

And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white. So when Vilson (2013) posted “An Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters],” I listened, and I recognized:

Anger isn’t a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it’s the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest….

However, for anyone to say that racial insults are “no big deal” speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, “You can’t build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.” I’d take it one step further and say that we can’t build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people’s terms. I refuse to believe that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.

How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?…

Adults, on the other hand, don’t get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront. (n.p.)

I have learned to read and listen to Jose as I do with New York Times columnist Charles Blow and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, as I do with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and now more than ever, James Baldwin, who is the focus of this volume.

I have learned daily—I continue to learn today—that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people, specifically African American males. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most hateful people I have encountered have been white men—yet, daily brown and black faces smile at me (even or especially when we are strangers) and speak with kindness and joy when we approach each other on the street, in restaurants, and where we all work and live. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most beautiful humans—and the greatest reason to live on this planet—are children of every possible shade. They laugh and sing and dance and run with the beauty of life that has nothing at all to do with race or the supreme and inexcusable failures of the adults in whose care they reside.

America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as anybody else. America the Beautiful has also created a criminal class out of African American men, building a new Jim Crow system (Alexander, 2012) with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs. America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero-tolerance schools imprisoning urban communities (Nolan, 2011).

These are not angry and hyperbolic claims about the soot-stained American past; these are claims about the roots that continue to thrive and bear bitter fruit. Baldwin (1998), in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (originally published in The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” (p. 737) and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed”:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them…. (pp. 737-738)

These realities of racism from 1966 linger today—the scar of racism cloaked, as Baldwin recognized, with claims of justice:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect. (p. 734)

And thus, Baldwin’s conclusion about the Harlem Six rings true still:

One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society. (p. 738)

Today, racism is thinly masked, and many refuse to see it.

In 1853, Frederick Douglass recognized what would 100 years later be portrayed as invisibility by Ralph Ellison:

Fellow-citizens, we have had, and still have, great wrongs of which to complain. A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.

As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious of our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. (qtd. in Alexander, 2012, p. 140)

Douglass’s charges are echoed in Baldwin’s (1998) “No Name in the Street,” which points a finger at the entrenched American problem with race:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (pp. 432-433)

America doesn’t know what to do, but it is startlingly clear that we should know what not to do: Don’t suspend and expel young black men without just cause, don’t incarcerate young black men without just cause, don’t lure and then send young black men to war, and without a doubt, don’t allow anyone to demonize anyone else with racial slurs.

Maybe, in the end, racism remains a cancer on America the Beautiful because we will not face it or unmask it—and because we have become so cynical that the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and as James (“Jimmy”) Baldwin demanded, the solution is love. Love everyone, but be vigilant about loving the least among us—children, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, the elderly—and do so color-blind.

As stated above, I offer these words because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Vilson (2013), refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background” (n.p.). Or, as Baldwin (1998) himself said: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’” (p. 738)—and we all must hear what everyone else says—especially the words they choose—never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

In 2004, poet Adrienne Rich (2009) wrote about a postage stamp bearing the face of American ex-patriot writer James Baldwin: “the stamp commemorates Baldwin’s birthday, August 2: he would have been eighty that year” (p. 49). This volume appears in 2014, the year that Baldwin would have turned ninety.

Rich’s essay reads as the journey of one writer’s experience embracing the other, but Rich also highlights what this volume seeks to address as well—the lack of attention that Baldwin receives in the twenty-first century U.S. Why, Rich asks, does a country still laboring under the same issues of race continue to ignore a powerful voice, as Americans certainly did when Baldwin spoke of racism?

Quoting from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” Rich (2009) includes the following:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Baldwin’s challenge here should haunt us because it remains the challenge before us—“[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

The following chapters—based on both scholarly and experiential perspectives—make significant contributions to the astonishingly slim amount of research and discussion that exists on one of the twentieth century’s most important public intellectuals. They provide key insights into Baldwin’s literary skills, his political views, and the impact his life and work had on historic, as well as ongoing, policy debates. They reveal a complicated, often tormented, and always provocative individual who confronted racism, imperialism, and homophobia as a black, gay pacifist. It should therefore come as little surprise that his work maintains its relevance as American society continues to grapple with racial, social, and political challenges.

Happy birthday, Jimmy, and let me offer this as what feels to me to be a fitting birthday song:

See Also

A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (revised ed.). New York, NY: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Ellison, R. (2003). The collected essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. J.F. Callahan. New York, NY: The Modern Library.

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Roy, A. (2004, November 8). The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture. Real Voice.

Thomas, P. L. (2013, May 17). Education reform in the New Jim Crow era. Truthout.

Vilson, J. (2013, April 8). An open letter from the trenches [to education activists, friends, and haters] [Web log]. The Jose Vilson.

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

[i] Portions of this chapter are adapted from two blog posts: “The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard,” (2013, July 25), http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-deliberately-silenced-or-the-preferably-unheard/ and To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism (2013, April 9), http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/to-jimmy-and-jose-with-love-i-walk-freely-among-racism/

[ii] Vilson offers about himself at his blog, The Jose Vilson (http://thejosevilson.com/): “José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father. He co-authored the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Public Schools … Now and In The Future with Dr. Barnett Berry and 11 other accomplished teachers. He currently serves as the president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality, and has been a part of the Acentos Foundation, LATinos In Social Media (LATISM), the Capicu Poetry Group, BlogCritics, and the AfroSpear.”

Dream Deferred, MLK Day 2014: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves”

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Langston Hughes in “Harlem.”

As a poem of social consciousness, “Harlem” may often be reduced to literary analysis or an artifact of the Harlem Renaissance; as schools become more and more focused on the Common Core and raising scores on the related next-generation tests, the poem is likely to be (if at all) just one more text for close reading practice.

But on MLK Day in 2014, “Harlem” remains a powerful and necessary question—and a disturbing harbinger, as Hughes answers his opening question with more questions:

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In her “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich explores a personal and social wreck, confronting “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth.” She concludes with a recognition that echoes a recurring theme found in Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and countless artists aware of otherness, invisibility:

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The history students have been and are currently taught remains a controlled, if not contrived, story; where once many “names [did] not appear”—names of African Americans, names of women, names of anyone from the “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—now students are presented with a version of names that serves to keep Hughes’s question in “Harlem” relevant, not only as a dream deferred, but also as a dream ignored.

Students will certainly discuss King in these days around his birthday and holiday; and students will likely, as noted above, be lead through “I Have a Dream” as a text ripe for close reading, possibly also analyzing “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” for its technical precision but not its call for civil disobedience in the face of inequity.

Few students will be asked to look behind the official view of King as the passive radical, a masking narrative used to control whose name is allowed into the “book of myths” as well as how students are allowed to see those names—a pattern repeated in the life and death of Nelson Mandela:

Chris Harris captures the moment Nelson Mandela is released after serving 27 years in prison. Times photographer, Chris Harris

Education, in this era in which the dream is ignored, you see, is about rigor, “no excuses,” and (above all else) raising test scores—as our leaders chastise us about why the U.S. pales in comparison to the rest of the world: “We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.”

Education is not about raising fists:

If education were about raising fists—a social contract with a people’s children that every person matters, that every voice has equal volume, that equity of opportunity is the essential element of human dignity—MLK Day would include the King of The Triumph of Conscience, read for his messages and calls to action and not as a close reading activity.

If education were about raising fists, names would be added to the “book of myths,” no longer ignoring the echo of James Baldwin‘s power during the Civil Rights movement that tends to be reduced to repeatedly published images of King walking arm in arm with white men to his left and right:

But education in the U.S. is not about raising fists, and the great disturbing irony is that political leaders who are shaming the people of this country for talking the talk, but not walking the walk are themselves masters of only talking the talk.

On this MLK Day 2014, then, there remains much of King unexplored, and the days and weeks around his birthday and holiday are ideal for reading and listening to King with both reverence for his sacrifices and seeking ways in which to fulfill the dream.

But we must move beyond the ceremonial, and we must expand the “book of myths.”

And we must raise Hughes’s existential questions along with asking the truly hard questions about mass incarceration and in-school academic and discipline policies that are destroying the dreams of hundreds of thousands of young African American men week after week after week.

Where are the voices and where is the political will, we must ask, that will confront that white males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but that African American males outnumber white males about 5 to 1 in our prison system—an incarceration machine that dwarfs prison systems in countries against which political leaders use to shame the U.S. public.

In 2004, Rich called for including Baldwin in the “book of myths,” highlighting his words from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'”:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Let’s place before our students, then, King metaphorically arm in arm with Baldwin—the King of The Triumph of Conscience, decrying the tragedy of Vietnam and the failure of enormous wealth turning a blind eye to inexcusable poverty, and the confrontational Baldwin, like Hughes, offering words that remain relevant today:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (No Name in the Street; Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433)

“The truth is” what will set you free.

“The truth is,” we can’t handle the truth, and “[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”

References

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

The Triumph of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Triumph of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Triumph of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

Our freedom was not won a century ago, it is not won today; but some small part of it is in our hands, and we are marching no longer by ones and twos but in legions of thousands, convinced now it cannot be denied by any human force. (p. 4)

 

Ending Poverty Requires Community, Not War

Many, if not most, wars have failed to salvage victory from the inherent destruction war brings.

All wars leave collateral damage in their wake.

A big picture message offered in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is that the war on drugs, a key part of the larger era of mass incarceration, has devastated the lives and futures of African American males in ways that are nearly incomprehensible. That collateral damage, as well, has been disproportional—accentuated by the fact that AA and whites use illegal drugs in the same percentages but AA shoulder the burden of punishment.

The era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs are evidence of the nightmare of codifying behavior as illegal as a context for punishment. Is it possible that the legalizing of marijuana in Colorado represents a move away from the “war” approach to recreational drugs—a recognition, again, almost a century after the failure of prohibition?

Laws and wars, then, define the lines between combatants and the conditions of criminality; those lines and conditions, easily shifted, determine who matters, and who does not.

As the public discourse rises about the 50th anniversary on the war on poverty, we are being asked if the war on poverty worked and if we need a new war on poverty. These are the wrong questions, especially the latter.

In my work on ignoring poverty in the U.S., I raise the possibility that contemporary political strategies surrounding poverty include the paradox of constantly mentioning and highlighting poverty in order to ignore it. Over the past decades, “poverty” is repeatedly on the lips of political leaders and in the pronouncements of the mainstream and “new” media.

Yet, childhood poverty in the U.S. continues to rise, that childhood rate remains at the bottom of international comparisons, and the gap between the top 1% and everyone else in the U.S. grows.

Has the war on poverty worked? No.

But the problem with that one-word answer is that despite abundant evidence that some social programs do alleviate poverty (prompting many to say the war on poverty has worked as an argument for more and direct social intervention), the failure is that we have been conducting a war.

Ending poverty in the U.S. requires community, not war.

If we as a people genuinely wish to end poverty, genuinely believe in equity for every human regardless of her/his coincidences of birth, we must first set aside the war approach (as we must with the war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration).

That first step must then create a spirit of community that ends what truly was occurring during the war on poverty—a war on the people trapped in poverty.

Behind the political rhetoric of the war on poverty lies a cultural myth in the U.S. that individuals are to blame for their lot—that somehow those people with the least (and sometimes no) political capital are causing the exact forces that trap them.

A commitment to community over war acknowledges, as Kristof does, basic political facts:

The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That’s because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs like Social Security and Medicare.

In contrast, children are voiceless, so they are the age group most likely to be poor today. That’s a practical and moral failure.

I don’t want anybody to be poor, but, if I have to choose, I’d say it’s more of a priority to help kids than seniors. In part, that’s because when kids are deprived of opportunities, the consequences can include a lifetime of educational failure, crime and underemployment.

The war on poverty fails as long as it remains a war, and not a moral imperative among a community of people.

Ending poverty must no longer be trivialized, then, as political expediency—the consequences of creating through state and federal policy a war on poverty. That approach can become only a running tally of manufactured winners and losers.

While any are in poverty, everyone is a loser.

As we end the war on poverty as our primary approach, as we end the war on people trapped in poverty by no longer blaming them for their situations or for the broader facts of poverty and inequity, and as we commit instead to community and the moral imperative of ending poverty, we must also end the empty claim that schools primarily or alone can eradicate poverty—a jumbled message advocated within a larger commitment to “big business.”

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to acknowledge the collateral damage—the stereotype of the welfare queen, that misrepresents people living in poverty but reflects the classism and racism tarnishing our democracy, shredding the fabric of human kindness and dignity.

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to name and see the very real consequences of addressing poverty mainly as it impacts those with political, cultural, and economic capital; ending childhood poverty through direct social commitments, then, is an announcement that poverty and inequity are inexcusable in a free society, and not merely a partisan political talking point.

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must admit that mass incarceration and accountability-based education reform contribute to and do not address the plight of poverty. An end to the punitive war on poverty must be joined with ending equally flawed approaches to punitive legal and educational policies.

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must push aside the passive radical mask we use to honor a Martin Luther King Jr. facade allowing that war on poverty to exist; instead, we must champion the radical anti-war King, whose messages near the end of his life called for a direct end to poverty:

In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

  • lack of education restricting job opportunities;
  • poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative;
  • fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development.

  • Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.
  • Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions.
  • Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies.

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income….

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

A war on poverty is an indirect and piecemeal approach to poverty. As King implored, we need a direct plan to end poverty, requiring a new commitment to community and an end to social policies as war.

Mandela: Dishonored by Passive Radical Myth

Early in February 1990, my daughter, born March 11, 1989, spent an entire night vomiting. My wife and I were new parents, and we called our pediatrician multiple times, always urged to be patient and wait it out. By the morning, we were in the emergency room, followed by our tiny child, a month shy of a year old, being admitted to the hospital.

After a few sleepless days for my wife and me, my daughter was released from the hospital on February 11, 1990, the day she was eleven months old and the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison:

Chris Harris captures the moment Nelson Mandela is released after serving 27 years in prison. Times photographer, Chris Harris

I think that I will never forget the moment that remains in my memory when I stood in the hospital room holding  my frail, beautiful child, watching on the TV the news coverage of Mandela’s release. There were personal and political promises of relief and hope in that coincidence, that intersection of history and my own life that filled my heart in a way that is beyond words.

Mandela’s death now overlaps with my daughter in that she is carrying her first child and has begun to live a life that offers challenges and hope in ways than Mandela’s legacy speaks to for me, but I also must pause my hope because, as Mike Klonsky (@mikeklonsky) posted to Twitter: “They’re turning Mandela into a harmless icon.”

NBC reports, Nelson Mandela’s death: World mourns ‘hero,’ ‘icon,’ ‘father’—with a reductive paragraph near the end:

Mandela spent 27 years in prison and led his country to democracy. Though he was in power for only five years as his country’s first black president, his moral influence earned him the praise and respect of people all over the world.

And as Klonsky anticipates, an annual ritual will now follow, reducing Mandela like Martin Luther King Jr. to the passive radical myth.

Passive Radicals: The Manufactured Myth [1]

With the annual and somewhat functional recognition of certain versions of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. behind us in 2013, let me ask this: What do Jesus, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and King have in common?

I admit the answers could be many: Significant historical voices and lives, shared messages of peace and harmony, tragic assassinations, and more.

And while these are all credible answers, I suggest the most important commonality among Jesus, Gandhi, and King is how their legacies have been manipulated by the privileged in order to create a mythology of the passive radical.

Consider Jose Vilson’s framing of how King serves other people’s purposes:

For some revisionists, MLK Jr. was either one of two things: a staunch conservative who lived patriotically, owned guns, and worked towards self-help, or he was a such a commercial pacifist whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment. Then, there are those who, after having recognized MLK’s full history, still want to use his name for things he would never entertain, like breaking unions and limiting opportunity to a full education to only the “good” kids, whatever that means.

It is at Vilson’s second point—framing radicals as “commercial pacifist[s] whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment”—I want to pause for a moment.

Passive Radicals?

My journey to critical consciousness may very well be anchored in my confrontation as a child and teen with the Hollywood portrayals of Jesus common at mid-twentieth century. I shared a revelation found in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in a letter from Nettie, in Africa, to Celie:

All the Ethiopians in the bible were colored. It had never occurred to me, though when you read the bible it is perfectly plain if you pay attention only to the words. It is the pictures in the bible that fool you. The pictures that illustrate the words. All of the people are white and so you just think all the people from the bible were white too. But really white white people lived somewhere else during those times. That’s why the bible says that Jesus Christ had hair like lamb’s wool. Lamb’s wool is not straight, Celie. It isn’t even curly. (pp. 140-141)

Just as the church and Western culture created a mythology of Jesus as white, the Hollywood versions of my youth clearly established Jesus as passive, meek, exactly as Vilson characterizes one version of King—”no real threat to the establishment.”Many years later, I included the film Gandhi in a unit that explored Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, King (about whom all students know only “I Have a Dream”), and Malcolm X (a figure students had either never examined or had been taught he was a negative figure in history). That film portrayal of Gandhi perpetuated the passive radical myth in Gandhi through a British actor, able only to mask the whiteness but not abandon it entirely.

The life and work of activist and historian Howard Zinn has catalogued and confronted what Nettie learns in Africa: Those in power who control the images and the narrative use those images and narratives to feed their privilege.

The passive radical myth allows the privileged in the U.S. to wield the mask of praise to hide their self-interests.

Jesus, Gandhi, and King are reduced to cartoons, single-dimensioned, almost entirely upon a middle-class and white norm of “articulate.”

In school (including Sunday school in churches), children are led in close analysis of the rhetorical power of their words, keeping the gaze almost entirely on the mechanics and notthe reasons why those words were needed, the consequences of what those words did and could incite.

As Nettie discovers, however, if anyone looks carefully, even at the words that the passive radical myth uses to honor rhetoric over action, the truth is right there before us.

Even in the reductive film, Gandhi challenges the term “passive resistance” and prefers “civil disobedience.” And many Jesus scholars note Jesus overturning the tax collectors’ tables may best reflect the radical Jesus.

For America, the mythology of King, the distorted mythology of King as passive radical, must be confronted and dismantled if any of the promises King envisioned can become reality. As Zinn notes,

Martin Luther King himself became more and more concerned about problems untouched by civil rights laws—problems coming out of poverty. In the spring of 1968, he began speaking out, against the advice of some Negro leaders who feared losing friends in Washington, against the war in Vietnam. He connected war and poverty….King was turning his attention to troublesome questions….And so, nonviolence, he said, “must be militant, massive nonviolence.” (pp. 205-206)

Like Nettie, we must look carefully at the words, and not be distracted by the fabricated images, the narratives creating the manufactured myth of the passive radical. King, especially in his last days, offered words that refute that myth:

These are revolutionary times; all over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression….We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of Communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch-antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. (“Conscience and the Vietnam War,” in The Trumpet of Conscience)

These words of a genuine radical ring true today, but are unlikely to be read in a classroom or quoted from a political stump, or echoed in the pulpits of any church. Nettie’s revelation about Jesus leads to her own blossoming self-awareness: “We are not white. We are not Europeans. We are black like the Africans themselves. And that we and the Africans will be working for a common goal: the uplift of black people everywhere” (p. 143).

Knowledge is the fuel of the liberatory impulse, and thus, it is in the interests of the privileged to manufacture characters and narratives of the passive radical in order to maintain the imbalance of equity that enslaves the promise of democracy in “proneness to adjust to injustice.”

King’s embracing unionization, direct eradication of poverty, minimum salaries, the eradication of permanent war, and the insidious racism maintaining the historical divisions between impoverished whites and blacks will not be allowed in that myth since the voice of a true radical is also the voice raised to lead to action.

[1] Originally posted January 22, 2013, at Daily Kos.

Ali: “You must listen to me”

1972

James Baldwin declared in his No Name in the Street:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433) [1]

George Carlin opened one of his best routines singing Muhammad Ali’s name as part of his album Class Clown (“Muhammad Ali – America the Beautiful”), explaining about Ali’s exile for refusing to fight in Vietnam:

He said, “No, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat ‘em up, but I don’t want to kill ‘em.” And the government said, “Well, if you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat ‘em up.”

1967-1970

From March 1967 to October 1970, Muhammad Ali lived in America the Beautiful, not as a free man, but as the embodiment of Baldwin’s declaration in 1972. Ali as African American and Black Muslim was trapped between the rule of law and his own code of ethics—which he explained as alternatives:

I have two alternatives: either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative: and that alternative is justice.

This Ali in a suit and tie behind a microphone, glancing down to read from his prepared statement, stood in stark contrast to the Ali draped in a towel and swarmed in the boxing ring where he declared, “I shook up the world!”

1968

John Carlos and Tommy Smith stood, fists raised at the Summer Olympics:

black-power-salute-ap6810160546-ga

Ali sat for an interview:

Black people actually’ve been in jail for 400 years, we’ve been here in America….They can’t believe that I’m this strong. They thought they would weaken me and put fear in me by threatening to go to jail and taking my earning power. And they won’t let me work in America…

2013

My colleague, Scott Henderson, and I are currently editing a volume on James Baldwin, and during the review of the draft chapters for the collection, I began to see ads for a film about Muhammad Ali produced by HBO, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. The ads called to me in the same way I am always moved when I hear Carlin singing Ali’s name: “Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, it’s a nice musical name, Muhammad Ali.”

So I found myself watching the HBO film, at first not yet clear if it was a documentary (my hope) or a fictional film; I was certain I wasn’t interested in watching someone portray Ali. I wanted Ali.

And there he was, Muhammad Ali, archival footage to open the film, and then, despite the film focusing on the Supreme Court and the all-white crew of young men working at the Court, Ali appears throughout the story again and again. The real Ali—each time I could not stop myself from smiling at his bravado and his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee outside the boxing ring.

But there is a subtext to this film focusing on the Supreme Court dominated by old white men. There is a subtext in 2013 about why now—why now is Ali’s fight with the government about his refusal to fight in Vietnam being recognized and validated?

Ali, once again, is pushed to the background in the HBO film, a work that becomes in many ways a layered narrative of privilegewhite privilege and male privilege.

Some of those layers can be found in the book that provides the basis for HBO’s film.

Some of those layers can be found in the documentary that doesn’t appear to share the privileged status of an HBO production: The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

ali_v01_11x17

Privilege is a closed space.

That space is behind a wall that provides the privileged their perch of authority as well as a walling out those Others.

Ali, Carlos, Smith, and Malcolm X lived outside the wall, and still remain under the gaze of privilege—to be acknowledged and explained when the time is right, when those with privilege see fit.

Ali remains mostly cartoon in America, reduced to his athletic bravado (“I am the Greatest!”) in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. is tolerated as a passive radical, but not as the voice of protest and action that complimented Ali’s anti-war convictions:

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

1933

Carter Godwin Woodson confronted The Mis-education of the Negro:

[T]he educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America [is] an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself….The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker people….The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race. (pp. 4-5) [2]

1963

Baldwin asked, “Who is the nigger?”:

1966

And then Baldwin wrote in The Nation:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it.

Privilege is a spider’s web.

Where is the space for Ali to speak for Ali? When will that space exist, and how?

I agree with Carlin that there is music in Ali’s name, but the song remains bittersweet—too hard to swallow in 2013.

I cannot disentangle the web of history that remains attached to all of us, regardless of how hard we try to pull the invisible strings from our faces, our clothes, and our skin.

That web we cannot free ourselves from is privilege—and privilege demands only two alternatives.

But as Ali explained, there is a third alternative and “that alternative is justice.”

It is time, we must listen to Ali.

[1] Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America. Originally published in 1972, No Name in the Street.

[2] Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

—–

For Further Viewing and Reading

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism

James Baldwin (Aug. 2, 1924 – Dec. 1, 1987)

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

What Would James Baldwin Do (Say, Write)?

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin (1966)

Knocked the Hell Out by ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’, David Zirin

The Trials of Muhammad Ali 

Racial Inequity Undeniable in U.S.

About the historical approaches to addressing poverty, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in 1967:

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

We have come to the point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution. Though there have been increases in purchasing power, they have lagged behind increases in production. Those at the lowest economic level, the poor white and Negro, the aged and chronically ill, are traditionally unorganized and therefore have little ability to force the necessary growth in their income. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to the larger society.

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.

In 2013, when poverty is discussed by President Barack Obama, speaking as the leader of the free world and a bi-racial man, the emphasis remains on indirect, and ineffective, strategies:

The stubborn persistence of racial inequality has left policymakers at odds over what to do, and President Obama has resisted targeted efforts to erase racial economic disparities. Instead, he has pushed policies, such as increasing college access and broadening health-care coverage, aimed at lifting the fortunes of all middle- and working-class Americans. He has said that approach will have a disproportionate and positive effect on black Americans….

Obama has said that closing gaps in educational achievement will go a long way toward closing racial inequalities.

Others are not so sure.

“I’d love to run the president’s experiment,” said Darity, the Duke professor. “We really have to face up to the fact that there is a persistence of discrimination that explains a lot about income and employment gaps.”

However, racial inequity persists:

[R]acial economic disparities are mostly unchanged and in some cases are growing. In 1963, blacks families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites. In 2011, blacks earned 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites. The black unemployment rate averaged 11.6 percent between 1963 and 2012, more than double the white jobless rate over that time.

The black poverty rate of 55.1 percent was just over three times the white rate in 1959. It dropped to 32.2 percent in 1972. But since then, progress has been slow. In 2011, 27.6 percent of black households were in poverty — nearly triple the 9.8 percent white rate, according to the Census Bureau….

Darity called the evidence of discrimination irrefutable. He noted that the 12.1 percent jobless rate for blacks with some college education was higher in 2012 than the 11.4 percent rate for white workers who have not finished high school. He also pointed to work by Princeton University researcher Devah Pager, who found that a black job applicant with no criminal history got a callback or job offer about as often as a white applicant with a felony conviction.

With race and class deeply intertwined, the racial inequity in the U.S. both feeds and is intensified by economic inequity, as Matt Bruenig explains about his titular question “What’s more important: a college degree or being born rich?”:

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

The path that leads to the end of racial and economic inequity must be one built on direct strategies to eradicate poverty, as King implored:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

The MLK Imperative in an Era of “No Excuses”

My father was a hard-ass, €”a Southern version of the Red Forman-type made popular in That 70’s Show. I grew up, then, in a “no excuses” environment rooted in the 1950s work ethic my father personified. [1]*

Mine was a working-class background: My paternal grandfather (for whom I was named) ran the small-town gas station where I grew up, and my maternal grandfather worked in the yarn mills in the hills of North Carolina.

Way before the “no excuses” ideology consumed the education reform movement of the 21st century, “no excuses” ruled my childhood and teen years. My behavior at home and school? No excuses. My academic achievement? No excuses.

Two important realizations, however, stem from that childhood and young adulthood of mine.

First, most of my academic, scholarly, and personal success occurred in spite of (not because of) that “no excuses” upbringing.

And second, in retrospect I recognize that the central element in that success, feeding my working-class roots, was enormous privilege driven by the coincidences of my being male, white, and possessing the academic acumen preferred by social and educational norms.

Privilege, Humility, and Community

Nestled somewhat silently and invisibly beneath the “no excuses” atmosphere of my childhood was two wonderfully loving parents €”and a culture of literacy that can clearly be identified as the source of my academic success.

The line from Dr. Seuss to Kurt Vonnegut is being necessarily oversimplified here, but from my earliest recollections, I loved reading and books. And by my late adolescence and young adulthood, I became an avid reader of Kurt Vonnegut, through whom I came to know alternative views of history (Sacco and Vanzetti by way of Jailbird, for example).

The most powerful lesson I have drawn from Vonnegut, however, has been the words, life, and actions of Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

From Debs I have come to understand that anyone’s privilege is the foundation for humility, not arrogance (no “I deserve this unlike others” attitude), and that all people bestowed with privilege should feel compelled to work diligently for the equity of others, with Debs’ works and life serving as models.

The key to that understanding of and praxis drawn from privilege is my embracing critical pedagogy:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 2)

My critical commitment, then, to equity is grounded in my work as an educator and scholar as well as my foundational focus on democracy, equity, and agency.

And it is there that I now turn to examining the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative in an era of “no excuses.”

Claim One: Poverty and Privilege Are Destiny

“No excuses” has a specific meaning and context in 2012, one associated with corporate education reform endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of self-proclaimed reformers who have little or no experience as educators or scholars. Nonetheless, these reformers drive their agendas with slogans such as “poverty is not destiny.”

While this and other slogans are culturally compelling, factually in the U.S., poverty is destiny, and that reality is often as much linked to socioeconomic status as race.

Some acknowledgement exists for the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues poor and minority students; for example, the Justice Department in Mississippi has concluded, as Ferriss reports:

The suit alleges that the state, county and city “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated,” said a Department of Justice press release.  “As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law.”

The school-to-prison pipeline, I fear, is ultimately an inadequate metaphor for the current “no excuses” policies in many high-poverty and high-minority public and charter schools that are better described with schools-as-prisons.To understand the need to change the metaphor, we must first acknowledge that in the U.S. white males outnumber Latino and African American males about 3 to 1, but in U.S. prisons, Latino and African American males outnumber white males about 10 to 1.

The race and class implications of the causes behind these data are captured, I think, in James Baldwin’s assessment in “No Name in the Street” (1972):

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men….It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many….€

The blurring of public institutions used for control instead of their democratic purposes has been questioned by Michel Foucault:

The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? (Discipline & Punish, 1975)

The evidence that poverty is destiny is disturbingly reflected in our schools. Pre-kindergarten expulsions—€”overwhelmingly male and then disproportionately African American males—€”foreshadow our imprisonment inequities; and our “no excuses” school discipline policies, such as zero tolerance, have directly transformed the school-to-prison pipelines into schools-as-prisons:

These findings show that urban youth get subjected to levels of surveillance and repression that are not the same as long-term incarceration, but nonetheless, as the school merges with an ideology of street policing, the courts, and even the prison, a particular culture of penal control becomes an aspect of everyday life at school and beyond….

Despite the trouble it caused students, there was an important ideological dimension to their refusal to comply with law enforcement. Their contestations during interactions with police and agents contained within them a decisive critique of disciplinary practices. Policing practices, especially the demand to see ID, conflicted with students’ sense of justice and fairness and their imagined ideal of schooling. Kathleen Nolan, Police in the Hallways

While “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) issued a manifesto claiming that a child’s ZIP code does not determine access to educational quality, several recent studies show that ZIP code determines a child’s school [2], and then that school’s policies and quality further entrench that child’s future. For many African American males, ZIP code determines school quality and then that school experience is both like prison and a precursor to prison.These damning facts associated with schools, however, are but microcosms of larger social inequities. The U.S. is no longer a model of social mobility (Sawhill & MortonNorton & Ariely), and the U.S. ranks near the bottom when compared with other industrialized countries in the percentage of childhood poverty, well over 20%.

Public schools in the U.S. fail in two ways that are masked by claims that “poverty is not destiny” and school reform alone will allow schools to reform society: (1) Schools reflect the inequities of the wider society, and (2) schools perpetuate social inequities.

One of the most powerful examples of how schools reflect society is that student achievement is correlated between 60% and over 80% with out-of school factors (BerlinerJoseph Rowntree Foundation, ETS 2007 and 2009).

Yet, the current agenda coming from the NER remains blind to social realities and the inadequacy of their reform agenda, as Berliner explains:

Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality. Our patently false ideas about the origins of success have become drivers of national educational policies. This ensures that our nation spends time and money on improvement programs that do not work consistently enough for most children and their families, while simultaneously wasting the good will of the public (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). In the current policy environment we often end up alienating the youth and families we most want to help, while simultaneously burdening teachers with demands for success that are beyond their capabilities.

Claim Two: “No Excuses” Reform Entrenches Status Quo of Inequity

The discourse of NER has successfully framed a “failed public schools” narrative that receives the shorthand “status quo.” A central part of that narrative is built on the argument that school reform alone can change society, but these claims, in fact, create a logic problem for NER: For schools to change society (and for which there is no evidence this has ever happened), those schools must be unlike the society, yet both public schools and NER mirror and perpetuate social inequities:

Public School Problem
“No Excuses”€ Reform
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-under-certified teachers
Assign poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students Teach for America recruits (inexperienced and uncertified)
Public schools increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Charter schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Three decades of standards-based testing and accountability to close the test-based achievement gap
Common Core State Standards linked to new tests to create a standards-based testing and accountability system
Inequitable school funding that rewards affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and ignores or punishes schools in impoverished schools/neighborhood
Drain public school funding for parental choice policies that reinforce stratification found in those parental choices
State government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Federal government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Rename high-poverty schools “academy”€ or “€œmagnet”€ schools
Close high-poverty public schools and open “€œno excuses” charters named “€œhope”€ or “€œpromise”€ [see above]
Ignore and trivialize teacher professionalism and autonomy
Erase experienced teachers and replace with inexperienced and uncertified TFA recruits [see above]
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately to overcrowded classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned to teachers rewarded for teaching 40-1 student-teacher ratio classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students tracked into test-prep classrooms
Poor and Latino/Black students segregated into test-prep charter schools; special needs and ELL students disregarded [left for public schools to address; €”see column to the left]
Teacher preparation buried under bureaucracy at the expense of content and pedagogy
Teacher preparation rejected at the expense of content and pedagogy
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education misinform and mishandle education
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education [most of whom have no experience as educators] misinform and mishandle education
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above]: Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above and the column to the left]: NER reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society

For example, the opting out of NCLB policy under the Obama administration successfully combines the failures of traditional public schooling with the failures of “no excuses” ideology, notably the senseless consequences of the NCLB waiver in New Jersey:

Demographic Composition of New Jersey’s Priority, Focus and Reward Schools

Classification
# of Schools
Black/Latino
Free/Reduced Lunch
ELL
Student Mobility Rate
Priority
75
97%
81%
7%
24%
Focus
183
72%
63%
10%
15%
Reward
112
20%
15%
2%
5%

NER advocates depend on a narrative maintaining a focus on a fabricated status quo of failed public education in order to continue the same failures of that status quo under the mask of NER.

Claim Three: Social Context Reform Seeks Equity

While often discredited by NER narratives as embracing the status quo or, most inaccurately, suggesting children in poverty cannot learn, Social Context Reformers (SCR) are primarily educators and education scholars who call for a combination of social and education reforms committed to addressing equity: Poverty is destiny, in society and schools, but poverty should not be destiny, argues SCR.

SCR is committed to the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative from 1967:

“As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

Instead of calling again for indirectly addressing inequity and poverty (NER), SCR seeks to reform directly both society and education:

Social Context Reform
Social Commitments to Equity
School-based Commitments to Equity
Universal healthcare (including eye care, dental care) for children and families with children
End high-stakes testing and accountability; implement teacher/school autonomy and transparency (what schools offer and how v. student outcomes)
Childhood family food security
End labeling and sorting students
Stable and well-paying work for families (reform healthcare so jobs and healthcare are not linked); increase worker’s right and empowerment
Insure equitable teacher assignments
Re-commit to fully funding and supporting universal public education
Confront inequitable discipline policies and outcomes related to race, gender, and class
Insure universal public college access for all students
Reject the traditional deficit perspectivedriving public schooling and reflecting cultural deficit view of poverty
Honor and support school, teacher, and student AUTONOMY (current accountability culture is about complianceanti-democratic)

The King imperative, address poverty and inequity directly, must be acknowledged and embraced; the first step to direct action is to unmask the paradoxes of NER.

Ellison and Baldwin Speak to the King Imperative

Ralph Ellison’s address to teachers in 1963 exposes that social and educational failures have been historically intertwined, as he confronted “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again.”

Ellison asserted, “There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid,” concluding:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Embedded in the narratives of Ellison, and James Baldwin (see blow), are the threads that show education is not experiencing a crisis, but a systemic reality of the inequity in the culture and institutions of the U.S. We have no “achievement gap,” but we do have an equity gap that metrics such as the “achievement gap” reflect. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” an allegory of privilege, exposes that privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery. (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

This SF allegory is the story of the U.S., the story of ignoring the oppressed child that our privilege depends on by acknowledging “it,” or simply walking away.

As James Baldwin states in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” (1948): “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are….”

NER in education maintains the idealism that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the rugged individualism myth in order to pursue the King imperative that we seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform that is then wedded to educational reform.

We must no longer justify inequity with our privilege, and taking an objective, apolitical pose is a “walking away” we can no longer afford.

Direct action is the only solution to the problem of inequity.

* This is a reposting from October 27, 2012, in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington.

[1] This blog is a narrative/expository version of a talk I delivered at the University of Arkansas on 18 October 2012; you can view the presentation PP here.

[2] See (a) “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City” from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; (b) The Brookings report, “Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools”; and (c) “Is Demography Still Destiny?” from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

“A Separate and Unequal Education System” 2013

The Education Trust-West has released At a Crossroads: A Comprehensive Picture of How African-American Youth Fare in Los Angeles County Schools (February 2013), highlighting:

Nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, too many of California’s African-American students languish in a separate and unequal education system. If current trends continue, only 1 in 20 of today’s African-American kindergartners will go on to graduate from high school and complete a degree at a four-year California university. Indeed, on nearly every measure of educational opportunity, the dream of equal access to a high-quality education is not a reality for African-American students and their families in California. (p. 1)

Despite almost 60 years since desegregation of schools and almost 50 years since the Civil Rights Era in the U.S., the racial and socioeconomic inequities confronted by Malcolm XJames Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr. remain persistent in our society and schools in 2013. While educational outcomes such as test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and college completion present often cited achievement gaps that must not be ignored, much less attention is paid to the powerful and corrosive inequity of opportunity that still exists between African-American children and children of other races, as detailed in the ET-W report on Los Angeles.

African Americans have experienced a decline in their relative status as a minority race, as well as continued to experience socioeconomic inequity, but African-American students also disproportionately find themselves in either inequitable public school settings or charter schools, which also tend to segregate students:

African-American students used to be the third largest subgroup in L.A. County, making up about 12 percent of the student population in 1994. During the past two decades (from 1994 to 2011), however, the African-American population has been on the decline and is now only slightly larger than the Asian student population. Currently, 9 percent of students are African Americans and nearly three-quarters of these students are socioeconomically disadvantaged…. Of the African-American students enrolled in the public school system in L.A. County, the vast majority attend traditional public K-12 schools (94 percent), with the remaining 6 percent attending alternative schools of choice or continuation schools. Nearly 1 out of 6 (15 percent) attends one of L.A. County’s more than 300 charter schools, almost twice the rate of students overall. (p. 2)

One failure of the current education reform movement is focusing almost exclusively on in-school variables as well as school-related outcomes. For African-American students specifically, access to opportunities are a better place to look. Schools tend to mirror and replicate the inequity of the neighborhoods they serve; thus, “doubly disadvantaged” students from high-poverty homes and communities produce outcomes that represent the inequity of opportunity they face in the lives and schools—more so than their quality as students:

At the middle and high school levels, rates of participation and proficiency in math courses provide signals about college eligibility and readiness. Algebra I is a “gatekeeper” course for higher level math classes that students need to become eligible for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. Yet Algebra I is effectively closed to many African-American middle school students in L.A. County. Only 60 percent of African-American students took Algebra I in the eighth grade in 2011-12. (p. 3)

For African-American students, separate-but-unequal persists, manifested in tracking and school-within-schools whereby race and class determine whether or not students enter Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses as opposed to test-prep courses focusing on remediation and high-stakes accountability tests:

Unfortunately, African-American students in L.A. County graduate from high school at lower rates, are less likely to complete rigorous coursework while in high school, and are less ready for college-level coursework than their white peers. For every 100 African-American students who walk into a ninth-grade classroom in L.A. County, only 63 students leave high school four years later with a diploma in hand, and just 20 of them have completed the A-G course sequence that makes them eligible to attend a four-year public university in California. The outcomes are even worse for African-American male students: for every 100 African-American male students who enter ninth grade, just 58 graduate on time, and only 15 complete the A-G course sequence…. L.A. County high schools continue their practice of systematic tracking, whereby low-income students and students of color receive less rigorous coursework. For example, although African-American students make up 9 percent of L.A. County’s population, only 6 percent of students taking one or more Advanced Placement (AP) courses are African American….On the other hand, 22 percent of students taking at least one AP course are white, though they make up a smaller share of the overall student population. (p. 5)

If college readiness and college attendance/completion are genuine goals for all U.S. students regardless of background or race, then the gaps that remain in these goals must be traced back to the cumulative effect of access gaps existing in African-American children’s lives from birth and throughout their schooling:

The latest results reveal that the vast majority of African-American 11th-graders in L.A. County lack the skills necessary for college-level English and math work. In contrast, white students in L.A. County are three times more likely to be “ready for college-level work” in English and math…. 2 out of 5 African-American ninth-graders go to college five years later, lagging behind the rates of their white and Asian peers by 20 percentage points to more than 30 percentage points. (p. 6)

Inequity of educational opportunities for African-American students is paralleled by inequitable discipline policies and outcomes, including race-based inequities of the criminal justice system beyond the walls of schools. As Kathleen Nolan and Sarah Carr have shown, zero tolerance and no-excuses policies feed the school-to-prison pipeline and create schools-as-prisons:

Across California, nearly 1 out of every 5 African-American students (18 percent) was suspended at least one time, compared with 1 in 17 white students (6 percent). Suspension rates are slightly lower in L.A. County than the state average, but large gaps still exist: 15 percent of African-American students were suspended at least once, compared with 4 percent of white students…. The California Department of Justice reports that in L.A. County a much larger share of African-American students are arrested for felony charges than white students. Specifically, for every 1,000 youth ages 10-17, 38 African-American juveniles are arrested for felonies, as compared with 7 white youth. (p. 7)

While the education reform movement has argued that teacher quality drives student outcomes—an inaccurate claim—almost no attention has been paid to the inequitable distribution of teacher assignments that disadvantage students of color, ELL students, and special needs students:

These inequitable and often dismal outcomes are the result of many factors. In fact, this educational inequity is set in motion prior to elementary school. African-American children are more likely to grow up in poverty and enter school with critical educational disadvantages…. African-American children are less likely to access preschool than white children; and when they do, they are less likely to be taught by well-prepared teachers. In L.A. County, 59 percent of African-American three and four-year olds attend preschool, compared with 69 percent of white children. Across the state, just 13 percent of African-American children are estimated to be in preschool classrooms in which the lead teacher has at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education, compared with 41 percent for white and 42 percent for Asian children. (p. 8)

These inequities remain embedded in the rise of segregated schools in both traditional public schools and charter schools:

Although African Americans comprise a small percentage of the student population in L.A. County, they often attend schools where they are substantially overrepresented and that are intensely segregated (defined as schools where more than 90 percent of students come from underrepresented minority backgrounds)…. Research demonstrates that African-American students in high-poverty, high-minority schools receive less of everything we know matters most in education—from effective teachers and resources to sufficient interventions and supports. Students in intensely segregated schools are almost three times as likely to have a teacher lacking full qualifications than students attending majority white and Asian schools. And our own research finds that African-American students in LAUSD are less likely to be taught by highly effective teachers than their white or Asian peers. Such segregated schools often suffer from overcrowding, which creates unsafe and ineffective learning environments. (pp. 8-9)

Claims of a post-racial America, a meritocracy whereby each person’s success is the result of her or his “grit” are both factually untrue and terribly misleading as a message for children. The ET-W report ends with a sobering message:

More than 135,000 African-American students go to school in Los Angeles County, and far too many of these children and youth are underserved. Even before starting kindergarten, they are often disadvantaged by poverty, access to quality preschool, and a host of other factors. When they do enter the education system, they too frequently face school segregation, low academic expectations, insufficient resources, minimal educational and socioemotional supports that fail to leverage the assets they bring, and—dare we say it—racism that manifests itself in the form of over-identification for special education and more frequent suspension and expulsion, particularly among African-American male students. (p. 13)

Along with the ET-W report, I recommend some related reading:

“The Real Reason More Low-Income Students Don’t Go to College,” Sarah Carr

“The Fight for Accountability Continues for Trayvon Martin’s Family”

“Parents reflect: Trayvon Martin’s death is ‘lodged deep in our psyches'”

“School Police and Principals Forced to Undergo Trainings in Implicit Racism”

“Handcuffing and Interrogating a 7-Year-Old? The Police State Crashes Into America’s Schools”

“Black students’ learning gaps start early, report says”

Howard Zinn and the Failure of Standards Movements in Education

The Zinn Education Project notes, “Howard Zinn passed away three years ago, on January 27, 2010. At the time, writer and activist Naomi Klein spoke for many of us: ‘We just lost our favorite teacher.'”*

The life and work of Zinn represents the personification of confronting the world from roles of authority that have historically been positioned as neutral—historian, teacher. But as Zinn came to understand and then to confront and embody, neutral is not an option:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement, as well as the concurrent new and expanded battery of high-stakes tests, seem inevitable (as some continue to debate), Zinn’s radical stance as a historian and teacher offers a powerful window into why any standards movement is a failed process in education, particularly in universal public education designed to serve democracy and individual freedom.

Standards as Acquiring Some Authority’s Mandates

Zinn as historian and teacher personified the act of challenging content. For Zinn, our obligation as teachers and students is to ask questions—notably questions about the sources of power—about not only the world around us but also the narratives of the world around, narratives cast about the past, narratives being cast about the present, and narratives envisioning the future.

Who was Christopher Columbus—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by centuries of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of Columbus, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by decades of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of King, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Narratives, whether they be history or mandated curriculum in the form of CCSS, are manufactured myths, and ultimately, manufactured myths are created by some authority to suit some goal, some goal that benefits the designer of the myth.

And therein lies the ultimately failure of all standards movements.

A standards paradigm masks the locus of power (some authority some where decides what knowledge matters and then creates the accountability structure that makes that knowledge the goal of passive implementation [teachers] and compliant acquisition [students]) and creates a teaching and learning environment that can assume a neutral pose while in fact replacing education with indoctrination.

Authentic education for democracy and individual freedom is a continual asking: What knowledge matters and why? It is a journey, an adventure, a perpetual gathering to confront, to challenge, to debate, and to serve the teacher and learner in their joint re-reading and re-writing of the world.

CCSS, just as the dozens of standards movements before them, discount the need to confront, to ask, to re-imagine because standards are an act of authoritarian mandates. “Who decides” is rendered unnecessary, and the curriculum becomes a faux-neutral set of content that teachers must implement and students must acquire so that the ultimate faux-neutral device can be implemented—high-stakes testing.

Like the “‘remarkable apparatus'” in Franza Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” high-stakes testing ultimately becomes all that matters, “a mechanism of objectification” (Foucault, 1984), the inevitable abdication of authority and autonomy to a mechanism—”what is tested is what is taught” superseding any possibility of asking “why?” or examining who decides and by what authority they made the decisions.

Kafka’s nightmare allegory has been and will be replayed time and again as adopting and implementing CCSS along with the high-stakes tests uncritically, passively, and with a pose of neutrality (“I am simply doing as I have been mandated as well as I can”) feed the machine that consumes all who come near it, just as the Officer who implements the apparatus of punishment eventually acquiesces to it himself:

The Traveller, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles. The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.

The American Character, Inscribed: “A Monopoly on the Truth”

While the education establishment, both progressives and conservatives, race to see who can implement CCSS the fastest, concurrent education reform initiatives such as charter schools and Teach for America help reinforce the worst elements of the standards and accountability movement.

Embedded in the charter school commitment is a parallel pursuit of standards: Character education.

In the “no excuses” model (made popular in the Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charter chain), the standard for character and “good behavior,” again, is not something teachers and students explore, discover, and debate, but rules that must be implemented and followed.

For example, consider the “National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its approach to character and citizenship education,” highlighted by Rick Hess at Education Week; Hess, by the way, notes, “I think I’m wholly behind what NHA is doing.” What does a standardized approach to character and civic education look like?:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And to the Republic for which it stands . . .”

In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: “I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .”

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue….

Students troop out of the gym to start their day. (“Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education,” Joanne Jacobs)

“Chant,” “recite,” “ubiquitous,” “relentless,” “troop”—these are the bedrocks of a standards-driven school environment, but this is indoctrination, not education—whether the standard is character or curriculum.

And what sort of history curriculum does a character-driven model embrace? The work of E. D. Hirsch:

The patriotic spirit of Hirsch’s US history and civics curriculum fit NHA’s philosophy. ‘The ideals that created the United States were glorious,’ writes Hirsch in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. ‘Patriotic glorifications are very much to be encouraged in the early grades, so long as they retain a firm connection with truth.’ While US history and civics are not wrapped in the flag, says Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for the charter management company, “the basic idea is that America is a great country that learns from its mistakes. We need to embrace our country’s history.”

No, let’s not confront the histories of the U.S., not here at NHA, because that may lead to the sorts of questions Zinn would ask: Who decides and why, and then who benefits from these narratives of character and history? [Hint: "National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter management company, runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states, making it the second largest charter network in the country."]

Further into Jacobs’ description of NHA “America-centric” core curriculum, Martin Luther King Jr. is highlighted as an example for students of character. King as martyr for Hirsch’s glorious U.S.A.? Consider “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint” by Peter Dreier:

In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system.  He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement.  He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike.  He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam.

Do you suppose this is the King NHA students study and are encouraged to emulate?

And it is here I will end with the ultimate caution about being neutral in regards to CCSS, charter schools, character education, and a whole host of education reform mandates and commitments that seem inevitable: The powerful control the narratives and those narratives control the rest of us—all for the profit of the powerful.

“I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, R.(adical) I.(n) P.(eace)

*Updated in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington and Howard Zinn’s birth date, August 24. Please visit and read:

howardzinn.org

Zinn Education Project

Remembering Howard Zinn by Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure?