Proposal: Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

Below is a draft proposal for an edited volume. I am seeking possible co-editor(s) as well as potential contributors. Please contact me at paul.thomas@furman.edu if you are interested in either co-editing or contributing. Once I have interest and a revised proposal, I will seek a publisher and then post a formal call for chapter proposals.

Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

P.L. Thomas, editor

Publisher: TBD

With his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s narrator announced on the first page: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ellison was soon embraced by the mainstream world of literary fiction at mid-twentieth century, but he also created tensions among those identifying with left-leaning African American arts and civil rights movements—especially among the radicals.

Now at one hundred years since Ellison’s birth and more than fifty years since Invisible Man was published, the rich paradox of the invisible black man in the U.S. at mid-twentieth century must be viewed through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations—and the more recent controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon MartinJordan Davis, and Michael Brown as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart.

Ellison’s invisible man recognized that mainstream (and white) America refused to see him, but African American males in the second decade of the twenty-first century are now faced with another reality of being mis-seen as “thugs”—criminals by their very existence.

African American males know this reality of being mis-seen as soon as they enter school or walk the streets. In his 1966 “A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin confronted the African American experience for young men—a confrontation that echoes across the U.S. today:

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. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. 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.

In these historical and contemporary contexts, this volume seeks to gather a wide range of voices addressing the following:

  • Racial inequity in formal education disproportionately impacting African American males—expulsion and suspension, teacher quality access, course access.
  • African American males and the allure of sports as a “way out.”
  • Mass incarceration and the African American male.
  • Additional?

References

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

Baldwin, J. (1966, July 11). A report from occupied territory. The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/159618/report-occupied-territory

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

Carr, S. (2013). Hope against hope: Three schools, one city, and the struggle to educate America’s children. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies. (2013, January). A summary of new research. Closing the school discipline gap: Research to policy. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/events/2013/summary-of-new-research-closing-the-school-discipline-gap-research-to-policy/

Christensen, L. (2011/2012 Winter). The classroom-to-prison pipeline. Rethinking Schools, 26(2). Retrieved from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/restrict.asp?path=archive/26_02/26_02_christensen.shtml

Criminalizing children at school. (2013, April 18). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/criminalizing-children-at-school.html

Deleuze, G. (1992, Winter). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59, pp. 3-7. Retrieved from https://files.nyu.edu/dnm232/public/deleuze_postcript.pdf

Delpit, L. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible man. New York, NY: Vintage International.

Foucault, M. (1995). III. Discipline. 3. Panopticism. Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. A Sheridan. Vintage, 2nd ed. Retrieved fromhttp://foucault.info/documents/disciplineAndPunish/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism.html

Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Gilliam, W. S. (2005, May 4). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. Yale University Child Study Center. Retrieved from http://www.hartfordinfo.org/issues/wsd/education/NationalPreKExpulsionPaper.pdf

Jones, S., & Maurer, M. (2013, April 29). Ronald Reagan made the war on drugs a race to incarceration. Truthout. Retrieved from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16065-ronald-reagan-made-the-war-on-drugs-a-race-to-incarcerate

Kaba, M., & Edwards, F. (2012, January). Policing Chicago public schools: A gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline. Project NIA. Retrieved fromhttp://policeinschools.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/policing-chicago-public-schools-final2.pdf

Lewin, T. (2012, March 6). Black students face more discipline, data suggests. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/education/black-students-face-more-harsh-discipline-data-shows.html

Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education management organizations, charter schools and the demographic stratification of the American school system. Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/schools-without-diversity

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

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/TQReportJune2006.pdf

Siegel-Hawley, G., & Frankenber, E. (2012, September). Southern slippage: Growing school segregation in the most desegregated region of the country. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/mlk-national/southern-slippage-growing-school-segregation-in-the-most-desegregated-region-of-the-country/hawley-MLK-South-2012.pdf

Thomas, P. L. (2014). Invisible young men: African American males, academics, and athletics English Journal, 104(1), 75-78.

Wagner, P. (2012, August 28). Incarceration if not an equal opportunity punishment. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/articles/notequal.html

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

“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

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.”

Segregation not about Proximity, but Equity

For several years, I have been showing Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later in both my introductory education course and an interim educational documentaries course at the selective private university where I teach.

Two scenes address the contemporary realities of lingering segregation within the walls of historic Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas: the school principal announcing mix-up day over the intercom and Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, speaking to a class of students and asking them to identify why the room upsets her.

These moments from the documentary lead to my students discussing the segregated dynamics of our university, attended disproportionately by affluent and white students (also overwhelmingly female). The dining hall is the most stark example of the segregation on campus with tables of mostly African American athletes and then an assortment of less overt self-segregation by a number of characteristics easily identified by the students themselves.

Race, social class, and the inherent overlap of race with social class all still shuffle the university into distinct and separate groups that are the result of far more than simple shared interests or the seemingly natural human habit of forming cliques.

Throughout May of 2014, numerous media events and publications have been exploring where we stand as a people in the U.S. 60 years after the court-ordered end to racial segregation in public schools. The messages have consisted of somewhat idealized celebrations of the 1954 Brown vs the Board of Education Supreme Court judgement and confrontations of the current state of segregation in schools and communities throughout the U.S.—notably that segregation is not only a lingering scar in the South, but a reality of the entire country.

When I published Racial segregation returns to US schools, 60 years after the Supreme Court banned it at The Conversation (UK) and then AlterNet reposted the piece, I noticed several trends in the responses that warrant some clarification.

First, it appears that many who are confronted with the facts of segregation misunderstand that large phenomenon in ways similar to how we misread poverty.

Segregation and poverty are, in fact, manageable terms for extremely complex and unwieldy conditions—terms that comprise a number of interrelated but smaller conditions that may exist in an unpredictable array of combinations.

Segregation presents several complicating factors for understanding the phenomenon. One is that racial segregation is overt, relatively easy to identify. Social class segregation is less overt, but racial and class segregation are so closely interrelated that confronting one often allows the other to be ignored or marginalized.

This first trend—misreading and misunderstanding the condition of segregation—leads to a second: Many who acknowledge the fact of segregation immediately express something between skepticism and cynicism about the ability of a people or the government to do anything about it.

Since segregation is a complex condition and an abstraction of many shifting but related conditions, the sheer enormity of doing something about segregation does appear overwhelming. But fatalism seems to spring from both a blindness to how laws, policies, and grassroots activism have created change and a lack of individual and community agency among the public in the U.S.

A third and important trend is almost as enormous to confront as eradicating segregation itself: the profound misunderstanding of just why we continue to seek integration.

A typical misunderstanding of acknowledging a need to end segregation is couched in this comment from the AlterNet posting: “Will a black child develop better reading skills or be more proficient at math because he sat next to a white child.”

If we focus for a moment on racial segregation among schools or within schools, this comment provides a powerful entrance into addressing all three trends noted above.

To answer the question, then, is to begin to see how we might address segregation in ways that can eradicate the root causes of segregation.

The answer involves recognizing that race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. Thus, African American children may in fact learn better if sitting beside a white child, but not because of the proximity of one child to another but because that African American child would then likely be afforded proximity to the opportunity that white child enjoys as a result of that child’s privilege.

In other words, segregation is result of racism, the momentum of poverty and privilege, sexism, classism, and public policy. If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice but the consequence of mostly harmless human socialization.

To put a sharp point on what we are supposed to do about segregation, let’s focus on just education.

Segregation among schools and within schools represents a measurable inequity of opportunity by race and class among students.

Currently, African American, Latino/a, and impoverished students experience both segregation in the schools they attend as well as within schools that are racially balanced (schools-within-schools created by selective tracks such as Advanced Placement [AP] and International Baccalaureate [IB]; again, see Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later for students confronting that reality). These examples of segregation are markers for seminal problems: Inequitable school funding, inequitable teacher assignments, school facilities in disrepair, lower access to technology and materials, teacher churn, higher rates of suspension and expulsion, etc.

So we are now faced in 2014 with the opportunity to reconsider how we have exposed and then addressed segregation for 60 years.

Yes, some policies and practices have proven futile—especially those that created tensions, bussing to force integration, and ultimately targeted the consequences without addressing root causes.

It seems that we need now to make a better case that seeking integration is a commitment to equity for all. The problem is not segregation itself because segregation is the large phenomenon that serves as a marker for the facts of systemic and institutional inequity correlated with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and native language (for examples).

Sixty years from now if we look up to see our communities and schools are still often segregated by race, we may be able to declare success if we can also show the conditions among those segregated communities and schools are no longer inequitable in terms of anyone’s or any child’s access to opportunities.

Ending segregation, then, is not about forcing African American children to sit beside white children, is not about forcing African American families to live beside white families—as if racial proximity is what ultimately matters.

Ending segregation is about African American children enjoying the same opportunities white children have, about African American adults enjoying the same opportunities white adults have.

Doing something about segregation—whether we mean public policy or public activism—must be doing something about equity, and not continuing the mistake of reading segregation as a problem of simple proximity.

For Further Reading

“So That’s Just One Of My Losses,” Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last year, I went to visit the home of Clyde Ross in North Lawndale. I was there to research an argument for reparations. Clyde Ross had just turned 90. I asked Mr. Ross why he’d come from Mississippi to Chicago. He told me he came because he was seeking “the protection of the law.” I didn’t understand what he meant. He told me there were no black judges, no black police, no black prosecutors in his hometown of Clarksdale. For a black man living in that town it effectively meant that there was “no law.”

This was a particularly illustrative example of why it is always important to report. Talking to Ross clarified something I’d been thinking about–specifically that being black was not a matter of white people thinking you had cooties. It was something deeper and more mature. It was the branding of black people as outside of American society, outside of American law, and outside of the American social contract. And this branding was done even as black people pledged fealty to the state, paid taxes to the state, and died for the state. This was high tech robbery, plunder at the systemic level. White Supremacy was not about getting black and white people to sit at the same lunch table, it was about getting white people to stop stealing shit from black people–labor, bodies, children, taxes, lives.

Segregation and Charter Schools: A Reader

In The link between charter school expansion and increasing segregation, Iris C. Rotberg highlights that problems exist in both re-segregation of schools in the U.S. and the rise of charter schools as separate and interrelated forces.

Schools in the U.S. are re-segregating, regardless of type—public, private, and charter.

And charter schools are not creating the education reform charter advocates claim, with one failure of the charter movement being segregating students by race and class.

Thus, it is important to focus on the evidence that shows the need to reconsider how to address segregation and the flawed support continuing for expanding charter schools.

Let me offer below a reader for such evidence:

Some key points from Rotberg include the following:

#1. There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income….

#2. The risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program….

#3. Even beyond race, ethnicity, and income, school choice programs result in increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture….

I am not under the illusion that by modifying federal policy on charter schools we would solve the basic problem of segregation. But we could at least eliminate one factor exacerbating it: the federal pressure on states and school districts to proliferate charter schools, even in situations that might lend themselves to increased segregation. Instead of serving as a cheerleader for charter schools, the federal government might instead support diversity in schools and, at the same time, publicize the risks of increased student stratification.

Even apart from the negative effect of increased segregation, justifying federal advocacy of charter school expansion is difficult when there’s no evidence that charter schools, on average, are academically superior to traditional public schools or even that they can be more innovative given the Common Core State Standards and the testing associated with them.

The U.S. Formula for Children and the Choices We Refuse to Make

The formula for children in the U.S. can be summed up in one word, I think: “harsh.” And the response we should have to this formula is “inexcusable.”

Let’s consider the U.S. formula for children:

If children in the U.S. can survive the gauntlet that is the national formula for children, as young adults they can look forward to crushing debt to attend college so that they can enter a nearly non-existent workforce.

But there is a caveat to this formula: The U.S. formula for children above is for “other people’s children,” that new majority in U.S. public schools and those children living in homes of the working poor, the working class, and the dwindling middle class.

Children of the privileged are exempt.

And what are the choices we refuse to make?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (UK) has released “Does money affect children’s outcomes?”—based in part on “many studies…from the US.” The key points include:

  • This review identified 34 studies with strong evidence about whether money affects children’s outcomes. Children in lower-income families have worse cognitive, social-behavioural and health outcomes in part because they are poorer, not just because low income is correlated with other household and parental characteristics.
  • The evidence was strongest for cognitive development and school achievement, followed by social-behavioural development. Income also affects outcomes indirectly impacting on children, including maternal mental health, parenting and home environment.
  • The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.
  • A given sum of money makes significantly more difference to children in low-income than better-off households (but still helps better-off children).
  • Money in early childhood makes most difference to cognitive outcomes, while in later childhood and adolescence it makes more difference to social and behavioural outcomes.
  • Longer-term poverty affects children’s outcomes more severely than short-term poverty. Although many studies were from the US, the mechanisms through which money appears to affect children’s outcomes, including parental stress, anxiety and material deprivation, are equally relevant in the UK.

The third bullet point should not be ignored: The key to eradicating poverty and the negative consequences of poverty for children is to address poverty directly in the lives of children—money—and to address inequity directly in the education of children.

There is no either/or, then, in the education reform debate. It is imperative that we do both.

Ultimately, the U.S. formula for children is based on flawed assumptions. Before we can change that formula, we must change our views of poverty as well as people and children trapped in poverty.

Scarcity and abundance are powerful forces; in the U.S., both are allowed to exist as an ugly game of chance.

The choice of abundance for all is there to be embraced, however, if compassion and community are genuinely a part of the American character.