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

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

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

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

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

Pat Tillman (11/6/76 – 4/22/04)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Tillman died in the line of duty.

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

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

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

Captain America and the Mask of Patriotism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

College Athletes’ Academic Cheating a Harbinger of a Failed System

Margaret Atwood’s narrator, June/Offred, characterizes her situation in the dystopian speculative world of The Handmaid’s Tale:

Apart from the details, this could be a college guest room, for the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. This is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances….

In reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in the ether, that sort of junk. I never used to….

In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects. I would like a pet: a bird, say, or a cat. A familiar. Anything at all familiar. A rat would do, in a pinch, but there’s no chance of that. (pp. 8, 105, 111)

In her reduced circumstances as a handmaid—her entire existence focusing on becoming pregnant by a Commander to whom she is assigned, potentially a series of three before she is cast aside as infertile, thus useless—June/Offred’s fantasies about her Commander turn murderous:

I think about how I could take the back of the toilet apart, the toilet in my own bathroom, on a bath night, quickly and quietly, so Cora outside on the chair would not hear me. I could get the sharp lever out and hide it in my sleeve, and smuggle it into the Commander’s study, the next time, because after a request like that there’s always a next time, whether you say yes or no. I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hand. (pp. 139-140)

The novel reveals no evidence that June in her life in “former times” has been anything other than a relatively typical young woman with a family and a normal life. Atwood asks readers to consider her reduced circumstances (ones she does not create, ones she has no power to change alone) and how they shape the individuals in this disturbing Brave New World.

Atwood’s “reduced circumstances” are a narrative and fictional examination through a novelist’s perspective—a thought experiment replicated in the graphic novels and TV series The Walking Dead, as the comic book creator Robert Kirkman explains: “I want to explore how people deal with the extreme situations and how these events change [emphasis in original] them. I’m in this for the long haul.”

Research on human behavior has revealed, as well, that the same human behaves differently as the situations around change, what Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much define as “scarcity” and “slack.” The “reduced circumstances” of The Handmaid’s Tale, then, is a state of “scarcity,” and poverty is one of the most common types of scarcity:

One cannot take a vacation from poverty [emphasis added]. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….

Still, one prevailing view explains the strong correlation between poverty and failure by saying failure causes poverty.

Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction [emphasis added]: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure.(pp. 148, 155)

Given that we hold highly negative stereotypes about the poor, essentially defined by a failure (they are poor!), it is natural to attribute personal failure to them….Accidents of birth—such as what continent you are born on—have a large effect on your chance of being poor….The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed. (pp. 154, 155, 161)

We are faced with a perplexing problem that sets up a clash between a powerful cultural ideal (the rugged individual and the allure of individual accountability) against a compelling research base that, as Mullainathan and Shafir offer, suggests individual behavior is at least as likely to represent systemic conditions, and not individual qualities (either those that are fixed or those can be learned, such as “grit”).

Although they may seem unrelated narrowly, two academic cheating phenomena are ideal examples of this perplexing problem—attempting to tease out individual culpability from systemic forces.

One consequence of the high-stakes era of accountability in public education has been the seemingly endless accounts of cheating on high-stakes testing; the most notorious being the DC eraser-gate under the reign of Michelle Rhee but also scandals such as the one in Georgia.

Academic cheating by college athletes has also been exposed recently, notably associated with the University of North Carolina. But college athletes cheating to remain eligible is not anything new; for example, Florida State University has received similar criticism for ignoring or covering up the academic deficiencies of athletes in the past.

It is at this point—the academic cheating and dodging of college athletes—that I want to focus on the concept of “reduced circumstances” and “scarcity” in order to consider where the source of these outcomes lie.

A few additional points inform this consideration.

First, college athletes at Northwestern University are seeking to form a union so that they can gain some degree of autonomy over their circumstances as college athletes—circumstances dictated by the NCAA. This move by athletes themselves appears to match a call by Andre Perry, his being specifically about graduation rates:

Black athletes have no choice but to play a major role in their own success. They must take full advantage of the scholarships afforded to them in spite of the climate. But some athletes have to pay a political price to force institutions to cater to black males’ academic talents. Graduation is a team effort, but black athletes must flex their political muscle to pave a way from the stadiums in January to the graduation stages in May.

Perry’s argument is one that focuses on individual agency and the athletes’ ability to rise above “the climate.”

However, David Zirin, discussing a Meet the Press examination of the NCAA and the circumstances of college athletes, seeks a systemic focus:

Yet far more glaring than the content of the discussion was what the discussion was missing. This is not surprising given the parties sitting around the table, but there was zero discussion about how institutionalized racism animates the amassed wealth of the NCAA, the top college coaches and the power conferences. It does not take Cornel West to point out that the revenue producing sports of basketball and football are overwhelmingly populated by African-American athletes. The population of the United States that is most desperate for an escape out of poverty is the population that has gotten the rawest possible deal from an NCAA, which is actively benefiting from this state of affairs….

The issue of the NCAA is a racial justice issue.

The public and the media, I believe, have already sided with blaming the athletes as well as blaming a failure of leadership and accountability among coaches and university administration, including presidents.

For example, the media has rushed to identify a student paper (a bare paragraph) as an example of the cheating at UNC, a claim now refuted by the whistleblower in the scandal, Mary Willingham. That rush and misrepresentation highlight, however, where the accusatory gaze is likely to remain—on the student athlete as culpable, on the coaches, professors, and universities.

As Zirin asks, what will be missing?

Few will consider that the academic scandal among student athletes at UNC—like the cheating scandals on high-stakes tests in public schools—is powerful evidence of a flawed system, one that places young people in “reduced circumstances” and then their behavior is changed.

As I have argued before [*see the entire post included below] (from a position of my own experiences as a teacher and scholastic coach and as someone who advocates for student athletes), school-based athletics in the U.S. corrupts both sport and academics. The entire scholastic sports dynamic is the essential problem.

There simply is no natural relationship between athletics and academics, and by creating a context in which young people are coerced into academics by linking their participation in athletics to their classroom achievement, we are devaluing both athletics and academics.

So I see a solution to the tension between Perry’s call for athlete agency and Zirin’s call for confronting systemic racism: We must address the conditions first so that we can clearly see to what extent individuals can and should be held accountable.

It seems simple enough, but if student athletes were not required to achieve certain academic outcomes (attendance, grades, graduation), then there would be no need to cheat. Hold athletes accountable for that which is athletic, and then hold students accountable for that which is academic. But don’t continue to conflate the two artificially because we want to create the appearance that we believe academics matter more than athletics (we don’t and they aren’t).

In conditions of scarcity—demanding of anyone outcomes over which that person has no control or no hope of accomplishing without a change in systemic conditions (such as academic outcomes an athlete is not prepared or able to accomplish or closing an achievement gap between populations of students)—the same person behaves differently than if that person were in a condition of abundance or privilege, “slack” as Mullainathan and Shafir call it.

Let’s turn to The Walking Dead, a world created by Kirkman, as he explains, in which “extreme situations…change” people.

In season 4 episode 14, “Look at the Flowers,” Carol, who has already demonstrated her ability to take extreme measures in “reduced circumstances” (season 4 episode 2, “Under My Skin”), offers another example paralleling June/Offred, as Dalton Ross explains:

If you thought Carol had a zero-tolerance attitude when she killed and burned two bodies back at the prison to stop the spread of a deadly virus, tonight she went truly sub-zero. The insanity began when little Lizzie stabbed and killed her sister Mika to prove that she would come back to life, leaving Carol to knife Mika’s brain to stop her from coming back as a zombie. She and Tyreese then had to decide what to do with Lizzie, with Carol saying that, “We can’t sleep with her and Judith under the same roof. She can’t be around other people.” And with that, Carol walked Lizzie outside, told her to “look at the flowers,” and then put a bullet in her brain.

Two children die, one at the hands of Carol, and that scene reminded me immediately of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, when George shoots his best friend Lenny.

After Lenny has killed Curley’s wife and run away to the hiding spot he and George have already designated, George finds Lenny:

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. “Look acrost the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.” (p. 103)

George and Lenny are hired hands, workers, pursuing their own American Dream. That pursuit has been difficult, including George trying to overcome Lenny having the mind of a child guiding the powerful and large body of a man. And it is in this final scene that George, like Carol, finds himself in “reduced circumstances.” While Lenny gazes across the river, George tells the same story he’s told hundreds of times, about the farm they will buy and the rabbits Lenny will tend as his own, and then:

And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering. (p. 105)

Cultural assumptions are powerful lenses for judging outcomes.

If we assume the “dumb jock” stereotype to be true, we point our fingers at the student athletes as cheaters and allow our gaze never to consider that the entire system is failing those student athletes.

If we assume people in poverty are lazy (and use that as a mask for lingering racist stereotypes of African American and Latino/a students and people), we point our fingers and say they simply aren’t trying hard enough; they need “grit.” And we fail to recognize and confront the pervasive racism, classism, and sexism that constitute the “reduced circumstances” of their lives.

Of course, college athletes should not be cheating to maintain their access to participating in sports, but it may be important to consider who is responsible for putting them in that situation to begin with—and who benefits most from maintaining that system.


*An Honest Proposal: End Scholastic Sport in the U.S. (originally posted at Daily Kos 14 August 2011)

While teaching the introductory education course at my university, I have taught many of our athletes, and they often immediately make an extra effort to engage with me once I explain to them that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years, including many years as the head soccer coach for the boys and girls teams. I also tell them that my wife is a P.E. teacher as well as a varsity/junior varsity volleyball coach and varsity assistant/junior varsity head soccer coach.

My daughter was an elite high school and club soccer player throughout her academic life as well.

One semester, a young man from England sat in my class as a member of the university’s soccer team. He was a popular and thoughtful young man whose British accent garnered him a good deal of attention, but I was most struck by his willingness to discuss how the U.S. and his native England approached education and sport differently.

Soccer is an interesting sport through which to view those differences since, as this young man personified, many soccer athletes come to the U.S. for their education after they have come to terms with their not attaining the professional career they had been striving to achieve.

Yes, this young man was older than his peers and viewed sport in the U.S. as a ticket to education, but he was quick to note that he thought the direct connection between education and sport in the U.S. is ridiculous; no such connection exists in many countries outside the U.S. where sport is a club, not scholastic, activity.

And when I saw a recent story at Education Week titled “NCAA Approves Higher Academic Standards for Athletes,” I immediately thought about my soccer student from England, and I have been mulling this for some time: It is time we stop not only the charade that is “higher standards for student-athletes,” but also the corrosive connection between education and team sport.

The education reform we should address and never even mention is ending scholastic sports entirely in the U.S.

First, at the philosophical level, by creating an artificial relationship between academics and athletics (consider the unique leverage we use athletics for to coerce children to engage in their academics), we are devaluing both.

If academics truly matter, then why are we spending so much energy bribing and manipulating students to take their studies seriously?

And if athletics are truly less important than academics (along with band, chorus, art, drama, etc.), then why are so many professional lives spent in fields connected to athletics?

The truth is that academics and athletics are valuable in and of themselves, and that no real relationship exists between the two. Children and adults should be allowed and encouraged to engage in either without being held hostage to artificial guidelines—such as grade and graduation requirements for student-athletes in K-12 or college athletics.

In my life and career as an educator, I have witnessed hundreds of young people with gifts and passions that are daily trivialized and dampened because the adult world has fabricated coercive and dishonest mechanisms to shape children in ways that conform to false cultural narratives (high school algebra matters more than basketball, for example).

I have taught students gifted in art, who suffered in real ways taking required math courses; I have taught gifted athletes who were banished from sport teams due to grades, withering in classes and filled with resentment instead of being inspired to turn to their books because their sport was taken away; and I could make a list like this that goes on for pages.

It is both dehumanizing and dishonest to use sport to coerce children and young adults to suffer through the academics that we have deemed essential for them.

Now, on a practical level, athletic teams associated with schools and colleges are at the heart of the culture in the U.S.—parallel to the love and affection for local soccer clubs in England, for example.

I think that cultural aspect of scholastic sport matters and can and should be preserved, but that this is also corrupted by the dishonest and manipulative political game of claiming to have high standards for student-athletes when we know that at all levels these claims are little more than wink-wink, nod-nod.

My solution, then, is to end all scholastic sport in education throughout the U.S. and replace that with a club system that includes schools and colleges fielding club teams.

At the K-12 levels, club teams could be sponsored by any school that wishes to sponsor a team, and these teams would be delineated by age groups—common in club sport—but the schools would not be required to monitor their athletes’ grades or anything related to their schooling (just as we do not require any businesses to monitor their teen employees). In fact, the club associated with the schools would not have to include only students from that school.

K-12 schools would likely focus on community athletes, many of which will be in their schools, but the removal of the false connection between any student’s ability and desire for either schooling or sport would eliminate huge and tedious bureaucracy; corrosive tension among students, coaches, and educators; and superficial and erroneous cultural messages about “what matters.”

Here is also another important and practical matter related to scholastic sport—the inordinate amount of funding and time spent on managing athletics and athletic facilities at the school level. When we alleviate schools of scholastic sport, we also shift facilities to the club level, where public and private entities who wish to preserve sport can step in and assume these responsibilities.

At the college levels, colleges and universities would also field club teams—which could continue to be monitored by the NCAA—but their players would be drawn into those clubs for athletic purposes only, likely as a stepping stone to professional teams. Colleges and universities would be free to offer scholarships to those athletes wishing to attend college, but this would be purely within the purview of the colleges/universities and the athletes who wish to gain an education.

The end of scholastic sport is an end to hypocrisy, it is an acknowledgement that sport and academics both matter, and it is an education reform we never mention but could implement immediately with positive outcomes for everyone involved.

So-called high academic standards for student-athletes are not about students, athletes, or any sort of respect for the academic life. So-called high academic standards for student-athletes are more political pontificating and, worst of all, more of the tremendous coercion practices at the heart of a misguided American culture that claims one thing—the pursuit of individual freedom and democracy—while instituting another—the codifying of indoctrinating and manipulating the country’s children through our foundational institutions.

Ending scholastic sport is the first step toward honoring sport, academics, and the humanity of the youth of our free society.

The Self-Defeating South, Words Not Spoken: Racism as a Scar and Cancer

Born and raised in a very small rural town in upstate South Carolina, I have lived my entire 53 years in the South. Most of that life has been spent teaching, and a large span of that career was in the high school I attended, among children mostly just like me, where we explored literature.

A key text for me each year was William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and if you are not from the South, and you want to come close to understanding the South, read the story carefully. The shocking revelation at the end of the story—behind the locked door, the pillow and the bed, the “iron-gray hair”—is as close as you can come to understanding the South if you are not from here. (If you want to make a unit of this project to examine the South, read also Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”)

We are a self-defeating people, we Southerners, a sort of ignorant pride, a blind faith in tradition and a steely determination to do as we damn well please. We’d rather cling to our ignorance (a long-standing tradition) than do the right thing—especially if someone else is telling us to do the right thing. The South, you see, is stuck in a perpetual arrested development, a fixed childhood/adolescence: We’re going to smoke, drink, and make out in our own car and there is nothing you can say or do to stop us.

That “we,” however, is the white South (both literally and its controlling psyche), and that is the problem. (One element of “A Rose for Emily” that is important here is the “we” narration of the town. “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral,” it begins.)

So if you think 8 disturbing trends that reveal the South’s battered psyche—which asks, “So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South?”—helps you understand the South, you need to consider carefully what is absent in the 8 trends:

1. Southern states have the most poor people….

2. Deep South states have no minimum wage….

3. Deep South has lowest economic mobility….

4. South has lowest per capita spending [b]y state government….

5. Forget about decent preventative healthcare….

6. One result: people self-medicate in response….

7. Forget the lottery, just pray to Jesus….

8. And hold onto that gun!

What is essentially absent in this piece, an examination of trends that confuses markers for root causes?

Race, and more directly, racism.

Notably, the piece mentions race in only one place, and then only “white,” with blacks reduced to a negation, not white:

As you would expect, the vast majority of people falling under the poverty line in the poorest states do not have white faces—although there are poor whites. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation compiles state poverty rates by race. In the poorest states, whites account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the poor.

Yes, the piece is examining poverty, but that may be the problem.

“Poverty” is the convenient term in the U.S. that can be uttered as a device for ignoring poverty and denying racism.

Mention the disturbing racial imbalance of drug arrests (whites and blacks use marijuana at the same rates, but blacks suffer the brunt of arrests) or mass incarceration (white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 in society, but black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons), and the response will invariably turn to the suggestion that poverty is the cause, not racism.

Of course, if mass incarceration were a function of poverty and not racism, since twice as many whites as blacks are in poverty, the prison populations would be two white males to every black male.

So in order to answer why the 8 trends noted above exist, why they are tolerated, we must name and then confront the reason: racism. Racism as a historical scar. Racism as a contemporary and undiagnosed, untreated cancer.

The self-defeating South is the function of right-wing political leadership that campaigns with coded language and images (the infamous Jesse Helms “hands” commercial in his run against Harvey Gantt, for example) and then implements policy along racial lines—even when the consequences of that policy also negatively impacts the large white poverty populations in the South: right-to-work laws, limited social program funding, shrinking funding for public institutions, resisting universal healthcare, lingering calls for breaking the wall between church and state, supporting school choice, ignoring the re-segregation of schools (public, charter, and private), and doubling down on gun access and ownership.

If we are seeking root causes to answer “So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South?,” we must acknowledge the lingering power of racism and then we must also confront how rurality in the South allows that racism to remain powerful, even though it now is mostly coded (although blatant expressions of racism remain common in the South).

In 2014, we must not discuss inequity and poverty, especially in the context of the South, without also naming the historical and contemporary racism driving many of the consequences of social dynamics and public policy.

“The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust”—Faulkner’s collective narration of “A Rose for Emily” describes the climax of an entire community finally facing the truth.

For the U.S., I would argue, the South is our Emily and we remain unwilling, possibly unable, to break down the door, look at the hair on the pillow and admit that we have skeletons in our closet—racism, both a scar and a cancer we refuse to treat.

Recommended Documentaries

The Loving Story

Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later

Beyond “Doubly Disadvantaged”: Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Schools and Society

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) established the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing program in the mid-1990:

MTO recruited more than 4,600 families with children living in severely distressed public housing projects in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City). HUD offered some MTO families the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move into private-market housing in lower poverty neighborhoods and did not make the same offer to others.

“The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes” (2012) reveals the following from that program:

These patterns [school dropout, low test scores, and delinquency] have led to a longstanding concern that neighborhood environments may exert an independent causal effect on the life chances of young people. Because low-income individuals comprise nearly one-half of the 8.7 million people living in census tracts with poverty levels of 40 percent or higher (Kneebone, Nadeau, and Berube, 2011), poor children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty may be “doubly disadvantaged”—they face potential risks from growing up in a low-income household and in an economically poor neighborhood. (See a full discussion HERE)

The disadvantages of being born poor and then attending public schools in impoverished neighborhoods are far greater than doubled, however. The disadvantages are exponential and involve race, class, and gender.

NPR has presented two brief looks at new analyses from MTO—one directly about Study: Boys Report PTSD When Moved Out Of Poverty, and the other a related story, ‘Prep School Negro’ Shows Struggle Between Poverty And Plenty.

David Green reports on the MTO research:

Now a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that boys from these families did not thrive. They found that the move took a toll on their emotional well being, a toll not experienced by girls….

Professor at Harvard Medical School, Ronald Kessler explains about the research findings:

Well, the hope was originally that the educational opportunities for the kids would increase because of better schools, that the opportunities for the parents finding jobs would increase because they moved to places where there were higher employment rates so that in the long run the kids, as they moved out, would have better socioeconomic achievement than they would have otherwise….

Well, we found something that we hadn’t expected, which was the effect of the intervention was quite positive for girls, but boys had the opposite effect. Boys were more depressed. They were more likely to have post traumatic stress disorder. They were more likely to have conduct problems if they were in families that were offered vouchers than in the control group that wasn’t involved in any kind of move.

Although not part of the WTO experimental group, Andre Robert Lee represents that alienation felt by African American and poor males and identified by Kessler and his team:

I kind of feel like when you’re black, sometimes you have to be twice as good. I was kind of, you know, sad by it, you know. I’m a people person and to go to a school where you can’t be yourself – I was being myself, but people not to embrace you is just – it kind of sucked.

This research and personal experience must be placed in several social and educational contexts.

First, the unique and negative experiences of impoverished males, including impoverished African American males, are complicated by the research on how people view African American children:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, aimed at figuring out the extent to which black children were likely to be treated differently than their white peers solely based on race. More specifically, the authors wanted to figure out the extent to which black kids were dehumanized. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” author Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA told the American Psychological Association. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

Second, the more specific context of how society sees and treats African American young men is captured in the controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman (and the coded use of “thug”) and Marcus Smart.

Third, the Office for Civil Rights (USDOE) has detailed that in-school discipline policies and retention are disproportional by gender and race, and that access to high-quality courses and experienced teachers is also inequitable. “No excuses” practices and zero tolerance policies tend to target high-poverty and racial minority students as well:

There is abundant evidence that zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect youth of color. Nationally, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students. Among middle school students, black youth are suspended nearly four times more often than white youth, and Latino youth are roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white youth. And because boys are twice as likely as girls to receive these punishments, the proportion of black and Latino boys who are suspended or expelled is especially large.  Nationally, nearly a third (31 percent) of black boys in middle school were suspended at least once during the 2009–10 school year. Part of this dynamic is that under-resourced urban schools with higher populations of black and Latino students are generally more likely to respond harshly to misbehavior. (p. 3)

Fourth, the race, class, and gender inequity found in school discipline is replicated and intensified in the mass incarceration of African American males in the U.S.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, the historical context must be addressed. Consider first James Baldwin speaking in 1963, Take This Hammer:

And also, consider Baldwin writing in 1966, A Report from Occupied Territory:

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.

How much different, then, is our world when we listen carefully to Lee:

Yeah, it’s hard. And when a kid walks in and they’re immediately seen as a delinquent, that perception and notion is thrust upon a person immediately. Despite the fact that I’m quote-unquote successful and have a career and have a graduate degree, you know, I still have a darn hard time getting a cab, and this is even if I’m in a suit or not.

If you’re not a really strong person, it can destroy you ’cause it’s constant chipping away at your psyche, you know, and I realized this in 9th grade. I thought there’s inequity in the world and it’s not going to change. What am I going to do?

The conclusions about impoverished males drawn from the WTO experiment and Lee’s personal story suggest that Baldwin’s warnings remain disturbingly true:

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. (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’”; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

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 disadvantage of being impoverished, African American, and male remains powerfully staggering, far beyond “doubly” and something we seem unable to confront much less address.

American Hustle: Ignoring Poverty in U.S. Needs More than 50-Year Anniversary

It is 2014, and publications such as Education Week are offering 50th-year anniversary looks at the War on Poverty.

It is 2014, and race and racism remain words that shall not be spoken, lingering scars on the American character [1] that are routinely concealed beneath a heavy foundation (something in a Caucasian, please) and a bold but not too flashy shade of red lipstick.

It is 2014, and almost everyone will say poverty, but the great irony is that this American Hustle is achieved through constantly mentioning poverty in order to ignore it.

The trick is to keep the public gaze in the U.S. transfixed on people trapped in poverty, to reinforce the myth that poverty is the result of individual weaknesses (a lack of “grit,” for example), and to perpetuate the idea that the wealthy and privileged have earned that wealth and privilege.

This American Hustle allows politicians, the media, and the public to wash their collective hands of actually doing anything except demanding that the lazy poor step up to the American Dream home plate and take their swings like everyone else.

And our literature, for example, has ample evidence that being poor in the U.S. is above all other things embarrassing—see works from The Great Gatsby to eleanor & park.

Finger pointing, ignoring systemic inequity, and embarrassment—these are the crucibles in which inequity and privilege thrive, and these are the crucibles that must be confronted in ways that rise above 50th anniversaries.

Since education, privilege, poverty, and race are inextricably interrelated, we must confront some real lessons gained during the 50 years we now associate with a War on Poverty [2]:

  • Poverty/affluence and race remain nearly indistinguishable factors at a system level driving the opportunity gaps for people in the U.S. However, poverty and race can and must be addressed both as related markers for inequity/privilege as well as separately. Gender adds another axis of complexity, and thus must be viewed in conjunction with socioeconomic status and race as well as separately.
  • Affluence is the U.S. is gained primarily through privilege and slack—not through the superior personal characteristics of those experiencing wealth. Poverty is the result primarily of scarcity [3].
  • The two evidence-based failures of K-12 public schools in the U.S. include (1) that schools often reflect the inequities found in the communities those schools serve and (2) that schools often perpetuate the inequities found in the communities those schools serve [4].
  • Calls for in-school-only education reform as the sole mechanism for overcoming social inequity have never worked and cannot work. The evidence is clear that the accountability paradigm built on standards and high-stakes testing hasn’t address inequity (closing the so-called and misleading “achievement gap”) and cannot address inequity [5].

As each of us considers this American Hustle, let me recommend a series of readings that I think help reframe how we view poverty and how we view the role education plays against poverty:

But there is another step beyond dialogue, reading, thinking, and writing about the War on Poverty as the American Hustle.

We must act, we must do something directly about inequity while naming poverty, racism, and sexism as very real and not merely as token political discourse in order to mask those realities.

As Haberman implores: “Before we can make workers, we must first make people. But people are not made—they are conserved and grown” (p. 294).

[1] Please see Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem and The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism.

[2] Please see Ending Poverty Requires Community, Not War.

[3] Please see Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure.

[4] Please see Studies Suggest Economic Inequity Is Built Into, and Worsened by, School SystemsSchools Can’t Do It Alone: Why ‘Doubly Disadvantaged’ Kids Continue to Struggle Academically, and Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era.

[5] Please see What We Know (and Ignore) about Standards, Achievement, and Equity.

Understanding Privilege (Slack) and Poverty (Scarcity) in a Snow Storm

The snow started in South Carolina on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, and when I woke up Thursday, February 13, the snow continued, laying down a powdery blanket on the ice crust formed with several intervening hours of heavy sleet Wednesday afternoon and evening.

This is unusual for the South. The whiteness hides where yards end and the road begins. It is a bit of an unfair characterization—everyone likes to laugh about how wintery weather paralyzes the South—but we are now pretty much frozen in time like the weather outside.

Recently I offered my flat tire story to explain how the conditions of privilege (slack) and poverty (scarcity) are powerful forces that drive human behavior—rejecting the cultural stereotype of poverty being the result of personal laziness.

If you don’t understand the nuance and weight of privilege and poverty, this snow storm should help.

For the salaried class in the U.S.—mostly people in privilege (slack)—when businesses close and the world of work comes to a halt, the response is “paid vacation.”

For the hourly class in the U.S.—mostly people confronted with scarcity or the possibility of scarcity—when businesses close and the world of work comes to a halt, the falling snow is sand in the hour glass of not getting paid. For the working poor and the working class, time is money.

The privileged are allowed to relax, sip coffee, read that book, and post witty stuff on Facebook.

People living in poverty, in scarcity, or on the very edge of scarcity watch the snow and feel their anxieties rise, the stress of knowing money is not being made, the fear that the snow and ice will cause something unexpected and expensive to happen (beyond their control).

So when those of us in privilege feel that electric shock of realization of something needed while we sit trapped in our homes, a realization pressed up against the reality that we cannot leave the house and will simply have to do without, we are being exposed briefly to the condition of living experienced by people in poverty, the working poor, and the working class every minute of their lives.

We have the privilege of imagining what that must be like.

People living in poverty don’t.

“What These Children Are Like”: Rejecting Deficit Views of Poverty and Language

“I am an invisible man,” begins Ralph Ellison‘s enduring modern classic Invisible Man, which transforms a science fiction standard into a metaphor for the African American condition in the U.S.

Less recognized, however, is Ellison’s extensive non-fiction work, including a lecture from 1963 at a seminar for teachers—“What These Children Are Like.”

More than 50 years ago, Ellison was asked to speak about “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent,” the disproportionate challenges facing African American children in U.S. schools. Ellison’s discussion of language among African Americans, especially in the South, offers a powerful rejection of enduring cultural and racial stereotypes:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

What Ellison is rejecting is a deficit view of language as well as a deficit view of people living in poverty that blurs with racial prejudices. This deficit view is not some remnant of history, however; in fact, a deficit view of language and impoverished people is one of the most resilient and often repeated claims among a wide range of political and educational ideologies [1].

For example, Robert Pondiscio notes in a post for Bridging Differences:

We know that low-SES kids tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies and less ‘schema’ than affluent kids, and both of these are correlated with (and probably caused by) poverty. Low-SES kids have heard far fewer words and enjoyed few to no opportunities for enrichment.

When I posted a challenge to this deficit view, Labor Lawyer added this comment:

How about the seminal research outlined in Hart & Risley’s “Meaningful Differences”? Their research showed that there were significant differences in how low-SES parents and high-SES parents verbally interacted with their children + that the low-SES parents’ interactions were generically inferior, not just reflective of different vocabularies. The low-SES parents spoke less often to their children, used fewer words, used fewer different words, initiated fewer interactions, responded less frequently to the child’s attempt to initiate an interaction, used fewer encouraging words, and used more prohibitive words.

Two important points must be addressed about deficit views of language among impoverished people: (1) Ellison’s argument against a deficit view from 1963 is strongly supported by linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists, but (2) the flawed Hart and Risley study remains compelling, not because the research is credible (it isn’t), but because their claims match cultural assumptions about race and class, assumptions that are rooted in prejudices and stereotypes.

One powerful example of the popularity of a deficit view of language and poverty is the success of Ruby Payne’s framework of poverty books and teacher training workshops—despite a strong body of research refuting her claims and despite her entire framework lacking any credible research [2].

To understand the problems associated with deficit views of language and poverty, the Hart and Risley study from 1995 must be examined critically, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas published in 2009 [3].

Hart and Risley: Six African American Families on Welfare in Kansas City

Dudley-Marling and Lucas reject the deficit view of poverty and language, calling instead for an asset view. They note that deficit views place an accusatory gaze on impoverished parents, and thus, blaming those parents reinforces stereotypes of people in poverty and allows more credible sources of disproportionate failure by students in poverty and minority students to be ignored.

Since the political, social, and educational embracing of deficit views is commonly justified by citing Hart and Risley (1995) [4], Dudley-Marling and Lucas carefully detail what the study entails and how the claims made by Hart and Risley lack credibility.

First, Hart and Risley

studied the language interactions of parents and children in the homes of 13 upper-SES (1 Black, 12 White), 10 middle-SES (3 Black, 7 White), 13 lower-SES (7 Black, 6 White), and 6 welfare (all Black) families, all from Kansas City. Families were observed for one hour each month over a period of 2 1/2 years, beginning when children were 7–9 months old. (p. 363)

Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

What is particularly striking about Hart and Risley’s data analysis is their willingness to make strong, evaluative claims about the quality of the language parents directed to their children….

Many educational researchers and policy makers have generalized the findings about the language and culture of the 6 welfare families in Hart and Risley’s study to all poor families. Yet, Hart and Risley offer no compelling reason to believe that the poor families they studied have much in common with poor families in other communities, or even in Kansas City for that matter. The primary selection criterion for participation in this study was socioeconomic status; therefore, all the 6 welfare families had in common was income, a willingness to participate in the study, race (all the welfare families were Black), and geography (all lived in the Kansas City area). (pp. 363, 364)

In other words, Hart and Risley make causational claims based on a very limited sample, and those claims are widely embraced because they speak to the dominant culture’s assumptions about race and class, but not because the study’s data or claims are valid. Dudley-Marling and Lucas explain:

Conflating correlation with causation in this way illustrates the “magical thinking” that emerges when researchers separate theory from method (Bloome et al., 2005). Hart and Risley make causal claims based on the co-occurrence of linguistic and academic variables, but what’s missing is an interpretive (theoretical) framework for articulating the relationship between their data and their claims….

The discourse of “scientifically based research,” which equates the scientific method with technique, has led to a body of research that is resistant to meaningful (theoretical) critique. Hart and Risley’s conclusions about the language practices of families living in poverty, for example, are emblematic of a discourse of language deprivation that “seems impervious to counter evidence, stubbornly aligning itself with powerful negative stereotypes of poor and working-class families. It remains the dominant discourse in many arenas, both academic and popular, making it very difficult to see working-class language for what it is . . . or to be heard to be offering a different perspective.” (Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005b, p. 153)…

[T]hey are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

The accusatory blame, then, focusing on impoverished parents is a powerful and detrimental consequence of deficit views of poverty and language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas add:

Blaming the poor for their poverty in this way leaves no reason to consider alternative, systemic explanations for poverty or school failure. There is, for example, no reason to wonder how impoverished curricula (Gee, 2004; Kozol, 2005; Oakes, 2006), under-resourced schools (Kozol, 1992), and an insufficiency of “high-quality” teachers in high-poverty schools (Olson, 2006) limit the academic performance of many poor students. Nor is there any reason to consider how the conditions of poverty affect children’s physical, emotional, and neurological development and day-to-day performance in school (Books, 2004; Rothstein, 2004). Recent research in neuroscience, for example, indicates that the stresses of living in poverty can impair children’s brain development (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007). But most Americans do not easily embrace systemic explanations for academic failure. In our highly individualistic, meritocratic society, it is generally assumed that academic underachievement is evidence of personal failure (Mills, 1959). (p. 367)

That deficit views of language and poverty remain compelling is yet another example of a research base being discounted because cultural beliefs offer pacifying blinders:

Rolstad (2004) laments that “linguistically baseless language prejudices often underlie [even] well-designed, well-conducted studies” (p. 5). Linguistic research conducted within theoretical and anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics that demonstrates the language strengths of children from non-dominant groups “has had virtually no impact on language-related research elsewhere” (Rolstad, 2004, p. 5). The deficit-based research of Hart and Risley, with all of its methodological and theoretical shortcomings, has been more persuasive than linguistic research that considers the language of poor families on its own terms (e.g., Labov, 1970; Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981; Gee; 1996; see also Michaels, 2005), perhaps because Hart and Risley’s findings comport with long-standing prejudices about the language of people living in poverty (Nunberg, 2002). (pp. 367-368)

Continuing, then, to cherry-pick one significantly flawed study in order to confirm cultural stereotypes reveals far more about society and education in the U.S. than it does about children living and learning in poverty.

Despite many well-meaning educators embracing this deficit view as well as Hart and Risley’s flawed study, seeking to help students from impoverished backgrounds acquire the cultural capital associated with the dominant grammar, usage, and vocabulary is actually inhibited by that deficit view:

Finally, Hart and Risley draw attention to a real problem that teachers encounter every day in their classrooms: children enter school with more or less of the linguistic, social, and cultural capital required for school success. However, we take exception to the characterization of this situation in terms of linguistic or cultural deficiencies. Through the lens of deficit thinking, linguistic differences among poor parents and children are transformed into deficiencies that are the cause of high levels of academic failure among poor children. In this formulation, the ultimate responsibility for this failure lies with parents who pass on to their children inadequate language and flawed culture. But, in our view, the language differences Hart and Risley reported are just that—differences. All children come to school with extraordinary linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources, just not the same resources. (p. 369)

A larger point we must confront as well is that all efforts to describe and address any social class as monolithic is flawed: Neither all affluent nor all impoverished children are easily described by what they have and don’t have. In fact, social classifications and claims about a culture of poverty are equally problematic as deficit views of poverty and language [5].

Just as Ellison confronted, U.S. society and schools remain places where minority and impoverished children too often fail. Much is left to be done to correct those inequities—both in society and in our schools—but blaming impoverished and minority parents as well as seeing impoverished and minority children (no longer invisible) as deficient stereotypes behind a false justification of research has never been and is not now the path we should take.

“I don’t know what intelligence is,” concludes Ellison in his lecture:

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.

Continuing to embrace a deficit view of poverty and language is to embrace a desert that will never bear fruit.

[1] The source of this blog post is a comment on a post at Education Week, but deficit views of language by social class, notably the standard claim that children in poverty speak fewer words than children in middle-class and affluent homes, are common and not unique to the blog post identified here.

[2] Please see this bibliography of scholarship discrediting Payne’s framework. See also:

Thomas, P.L. (2010, July). The Payne of addressing race and poverty in public education: Utopian accountability and deficit assumptions of middle class AmericaSouls, 12(3), 262-283.

[3] See Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009, May).Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children.Language Arts, 86(5), 362-370.

[4] Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

[5] Please consider the following works in order to confront a wide range of problems associated with class and poverty:

Return of the Deficit, Curt Dudley-Marling

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul Gorski

Poor Teaching for Poor Children … in the Name of Reform, Alfie Kohn

The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman

Teflon, Fatalism, and Accountability

One legacy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency is his being tagged the Teflon president, as Patricia Schroeder explained:

As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the “Teflon president” while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.

Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him — “The Great Communicator.”

Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.

Teflon is, I believe, an apt metaphor for the protective veneer of privilege and power. As Mullainathan  and Shafir detail, individual behavior tends to reflect powerful contexts such as abundance and slack or scarcity, and thus, those living in abundance and experiencing slack live much as Reagan lead since nothing sticks to the Teflon of privilege and power.

Let me offer a brief example.

Since I hold a salaried position as a tenure professor (all of which have been attained from effort built on statuses of privilege), if I drive down the highway to work one morning and hit something in the road, resulting in a ruined tire, I simply call in, cancel class, buy a new tire with my credit card, and then go on with my day. As well, my next paycheck will not reflect that morning in any way.

If I were an hourly employee driving a car on its last leg and having no credit card (or more likely, one that is maxed out with little hope of paying more than the minimum next month), that same morning would be quite different, and once I missed work, my paycheck would be reduced as well—as my ability to get to work for days may be in jeopardy if I cannot somehow acquire a new tire.

The slack that comes with privilege and power (whether or not the person earns or deserves either) is a Teflon coating that allows many conditions that constitute the burdens of poverty to slip right off the privileged and powerful.

I want to transpose the Teflon metaphor onto another context, as well, related to the key figures leading the education reform movement built on an accountability/standards/testing model.

Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a wide assortment of political leaders (notably governors and superintendents of education) have some important characteristics in common: most have no background in education, many grew up and were educated in privileged lives and settings (such as private schools with conditions unlike the reforms they promote), many with children send those children to schools unlike the reforms they promote, and few, if any, suffer any real consequences for their misguided claims or policies. This crop of education reformers are Teflon reformers.

When Gates poured money and his influence into small school projects and then pulled the plug (a project that proves more about misunderstanding research than education reform), all the schools and stakeholders were left holding the bag, but Gates just shifted into “blame the teachers” mode and is investing his money and influence with the same gusto as before [1]. Education is his hobby, and nothing sticks to Gates while he is playing the game because of the Teflon coating provided by his enormous wealth (built on his privileged background).

The narratives around Duncan and Rhee are little different; they thrive on serial political appointments (often irrespective of the quality of their performance at any position [2]) and that their “leadership” skills (which they argue trumps experience and expertise in the filed that are leading [3]) are transportable from venture to new venture. But neither suffers any real career consequences as Teflon reformers.

Who does suffer the consequences of narratives, claims, and policies coming from Teflon reformers?

Students and teachers—who also represent two levels of relative powerlessness, sharing, however, a state of scarcity created by the high-stakes elements of the reform movement built on accountability.

Students and teachers also share a similar response to that scarcity combined with their powerlessness, fatalism [4].

For teachers, the self-defeating characteristics of that fatalism are captured in the current implementation of Common Core, which, as with all the preceding waves of new standards and tests, are imposed on teachers, not called for, designed by, or directed by teachers.

SC represents how caustic Teflon reform and teacher fatalism are for effective implementation of policy and practices. As is typical across the U.S., administrators, teachers, professional organizations, and unions nearly universally and without criticism accepted CC as a matter of course (an example of professional fatalism).

The standard line was that no one in any of those groups could stop or change CC from happening, thus they all felt compelled to implement CC as best as possible—including professional organizations explicitly saying they could not challenge CC as they had a duty to help teachers implement CC, again because no one could stop the implementation.

Now that many teachers have been given a great deal of training and a tremendous amount of CC-related materials have been purchased, SC is taking a predictable Tea Party turn against CC. Governor Nikki Haley has identified dumping CC as part of her re-election campaign and Tea Party motivated parents have begun to challenge directly schools for implementing CC.

While some states are also seeking to drop CC, others are simply renaming the standards. But in SC, the consequences of this churn created by Teflon reform policies and partisan backlashes against CC impact primarily teachers—trapped within demands for them to implement CC—and students who are bridging the years between their being taught and tested under one set of standards and soon to be taught (although some may have to mask that the lessons are CC-based) and tested under yet another.

For teachers, their own fatalism against the power of Teflon reform has resulted in low morale and scattered CC implementation (directly contradicting a central call for CC as a way to standardize what is taught across the U.S.).

Both Teflon reform and teacher fatalism doom any reform efforts in our schools. Teflon reformers continue to prosper despite the credibility of their claims or the outcomes of their policies.

And at the bottom of this power chain are students, themselves fatalistic.

Rick VanDeWeghe, expanding on the work of Rick Wormeli, in 2007 confronted how the flawed accountability paradigm remains uncontested, but at the center of Teflon reform’s greatest failure:

This research is based on a basic and controversial assumption about accountability. Quoting from Wikipedia, Wormeli states that accountability “implies a concern for the welfare of those with whom one works” (“Accountability” 16 [5]). This definition carries the message that “I’m here to help you along, to help you grow.” It implies that teachers are learner advocates and have a responsibility to help students grow as learners, just as students have a responsibility to demonstrate their growth as learners: It’s mutual accountability. This form of mutual accountability focuses on achievement—that is, we practice accountability when we focus on actual achievement and not on nonacademic factors, and we teach accountability when we demand that students show their real learning and growth. It sounds simple, but it gets complicated.

In contrast to mutual accountability, Wormeli notes, an alternative and more familiar definition of accountability values threat over concern (i.e., advocacy) for others….This is the ‘caughtya’ and ‘gotcha’ mentality,” and grading “is one of the default tools teachers use to play the ‘gotcha’ game.” When we play the gotcha game, according to Wormeli, “There is no growth in accountability within the student that will carry over to the next situation” (“Accountability” 16). Students learn to do whatever it takes to get the grade. (pp. 74-75)

Teflon reform along with with teacher and student fatalism have combined to create the exact failed accountability exposed by VanDeWeghe and Wormeli.

The current accountability paradigm embraced and perpetuated by Teflon reformers ignores the importance of mutual accountability as well as investment by all stakeholders in both the policies and the consequences of those policies.

When Teflon reformers are neither mutually accountable nor personally invested, their policies create fatalistic, and thus, ineffective teachers—in the same way that students become fatalistic (and learn less or simply check out of the learning opportunities) when teachers are above the accountability and thus not mutually invested in learning with students.

For education reform to work, we need to reject Teflon reformers for the sort of leadership accountability highlighted by Wormeli:

There is an old story about ancient Roman engineers and accountability. It says that whenever they were constructing an arch, the engineer who designed it stood directly underneath the center of the arch as the capstone was hoisted into position. He had worked hard, took responsibility, and knew his competence was true. It was the ultimate accountability if his design failed. (p. 25)

And thus, Wormeli concludes:

Accountability by its nature requires the interaction of others in our work. Individually, we are not, but together we are, accountable. (p. 26)

Together must include those leaders who rise above the Teflon veneer of authority and stand beside us, investing and risking in collaboration.

[1] For those unfamiliar with the history of Gates’s small schools focus and then shift to teacher quality (and if you jump to the assumption that my comments above are mere ad hominem), I offer the following reader (and suggest this exact pattern will occur again after teacher quality and Common Core fall as flat as small schools appeared to do to Gates):

[2] Rhee has suffered little if any career fail-out from “eraser-gate,” and Duncan attained in part his appointment as Secretary of Education on a mirage, the Chicago “miracle” (replicating the same misleading rise of Rod Paige to Secretary based on the debunked Texas “miracle”).

[3] This is the inherent problem with Teach for America, which is primarily a leadership organization, not an education organization.

[4] See Freire.

[5] See Rick Wormeli’s Accountability: Teaching through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading

The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind

The answer to Grant Lichtman’s Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion? appears to be an unequivocal yes—based on the exchange in the blog post comments, the Twitter conversations, and comments at my blogs on “grit.”

Those conversations have been illuminating for me; therefore, I want here to address several excellent ideas that have been generated.

First, I want to make a distinction that I think I have failed to make so far: We need to distinguish between the “grit” narrative and “grit” research. My concerns and most of my writing rejecting “grit” are addressing the “grit” narrative—one that is embedded in and co-opted by the larger “no excuses” ideology.

The “grit” narrative is central to work by Paul Tough as well as a wide range of media coverage of education, education reform, and specifically “no excuses” charter schools such as KIPP. In other words, the “grit” narrative is how we talk about what qualities lead to success (in life and school), what qualities children have and need, and how schools and teachers can and should inculcate those qualities.

In order to understand my cautions about the term “grit” as a narrative, I recommend that you consider carefully the responses to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews—responses that included calling Sherman a “thug” and racial slurs.

As Sherman has confronted himself, “thug” is “the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.”

In other words, “thug” and GPA, as I have examined, are codes that blind because they are socially acceptable words and metrics that mask racial and class biases and prejudices.

The “grit” narrative is also a code that blinds since it perpetuates and is nested in a cultural myth of the hard-working and white ideal against the lazy and African American (and Latino/a) stereotype.

We must acknowledge that the “grit” narrative is primarily directed at—and the “no excuses” ideologies and practices are almost exclusively implemented with—high-poverty African American and Latino/a populations of students. And we must also acknowledge that the popular and misguided assumption is that relatively affluent and mostly white students and schools with relatively high academic achievement data are distinguishable from relatively impoverished and mostly African American and Latino/a students because of the effort among those populations (as well as stereotypes that white/affluent parents care about education and AA/Latino/a parents do not care about education)—instead of the pervasive fact that achievement data are more strongly correlated with socioeconomic status than effort and commitment.

Whether consciously or not, “grit” narratives and “no excuses” polices are classist and racist—again demonstrably so because neither are associated with white students in middle-class and affluent communities and schools.

The “grit” narrative states and implies that schools need to inculcate in impoverished African American and Latino/a students that same “grit” at the root of affluent and white student excellence (see the same stereotyping of teaching impoverished children the middle-class code in the flawed and discredited work of Ruby Payne)—misreading the actual sources of both the achievement and the lack of achievement (see below about scarcity and slack).

In fact, part of the “grit” narrative includes the assumption that successful students and people (read “white”) are successful primarily because they work hard; they earn their success. The flip side of this “grit” narrative is that unsuccessful students and people (read “African American” and “Latino/a”) are unsuccessful because they simply do not try hard enough. At its worst, the “grit” narrative is a socially acceptable way of expressing the lazy African American stereotype, just as Sherman exposed about “thug” as a socially acceptable racial slur.

The “grit” narrative is a racialized (and racist) cousin of the rugged individual myth that remains powerful in the U.S. The factual problem with the “grit” narrative and the rugged individual myth can be found in some powerful evidence that success is more strongly connected to systemic conditions than to the content of any individual’s character. Please consider the following:

  • Using data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, Matt Bruenig exposes the reality that ones privilege of birth trumps educational achievement (effort and attainment):

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.

  • In ScarcityMullainathan and Shafir present a compelling case that the same individual behaves differently in conditions of scarcity and slack. Scarcity occurs in impoverished lives and accounts for behaviors often misread by society as lazy, careless, or self-defeating. Slack is the space afforded by privilege and wealth, providing the context within which many people thrive and, ironically, within which behaviors described a “grit” can be valuable. In the “grit” narrative as well as in “no excuses” and high-stakes environments, scarcity is both ignored and intensified, creating contexts within which demanding “grit” is harmful and likely unproductive. Then seeking and creating slack for students (in their lives and in their schooling) instead of or preceding focusing on “grit” must occur if we genuinely support the component behaviors classified as “grit” (in the “grit” research).
  • Both the “grit” narrative and the rugged individualism myth focus an accusatory and evaluative gaze on the individual, leaving systemic forces that control individual behavior unexamined. The consequences of this misplaced attention—individuals and not system—are that students will learn not to try.

The above better characterizes why I reject the term “grit” as part of the “grit” narrative, but this now leaves us with the “grit” research, about many people reading the “grit” debate Lichtman’s blog have offered impassioned defenses.

Is it possible that the “grit” research has valuable and non-biased applications in classrooms for all types of students? Yes.

However, I believe our first step in rescuing the “grit” research is dropping the term. In my view, “grit” must go.

Next, we must shift when we privilege the component behaviors called “grit” and insure that our practices do not inadvertently teach students to avoid making deep and powerful efforts that are likely to fail.

As noted above, once students are afforded slack, and the playing field is leveled, “grit” may be a suitable focus for young people. This pursuit of slack requires that social policies address directly poverty and inequity in the lives of children.

This pursuit also means that high-stakes environments must end. Increasing pressure and raising demands in learning are counter to the slack necessary for any child to perform at high levels of engagement with the necessary risk and experimentation for deep learning to occur. Children must be physically and psychologically safe, and children need expert and loving encouragement that acknowledges the inherent value in effort (not linked to prescribed outcomes) in challenging and rich experiences.

The harsh and dehumanizing environments and policies in “no excuses” schools, then, as well as the high-stakes environments occurring in almost all K-12 public schooling are self-defeating (because they create scarcity and eliminate slack) for both raising student achievement and fostering the very “grit” many claim they are seeking in children.

Let me offer a brief anecdote from my years teaching high school in the 1980s and 1990s, well before anyone uttered the word “grit” (adding that I grew up in a home with a stereotypical 1950s father who was a hardass, no-excuses parent).

One day I heard students talking about failing a pop quiz in the class before mine. One student said he had read and even studied the night before, but failed the pop quiz. He then announced what he had learned from the experience: If he was going to fail any way, he declared, he wasn’t going to waste his time reading the assignment next time.

And here is where the “grit” narrative and “grit” research collide.

As long as the “grit” narrative is perpetuated and thus effort and engagement are idealized as key to certain outcomes and then as long as the real world proves to children and young adults that achievement is not the result of their effort, but linked to conditions beyond their control, the “grit” research creates a counterproductive dynamic in the classroom, one that frustrates and dehumanizes students and their teachers.

The real world in the U.S. today is no meritocracy. Confronting the rugged individual myth, instead of perpetuating it, then, allows teachers and students to feel purpose and agency in the need to continue seeking that meritocracy.

Further, once we decouple effort and the related behaviors associated with “grit” from predetermined outcomes, we can offer in school opportunities for students to discover the inherent value in effort itself, the inherent value in taking risks and committing ones self to an activity even though the outcome may be a failure.

The great irony is that we must slay the “grit” narrative (and discontinue the term) in order to honor a pursuit of equity and slack for all children so that what we know from the “grit” research can inform positively how we teach all children every day.

Until this happens, however, “grit” as a narrative within the “no excuses” ideology remains a code that blinds—masking the racialized and racist assumptions that “grit” implies about who is successful and why.


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