The Slowly Approaching Rumble of the “White Noise” of Privilege

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

Meditation XVII, John Donne

although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

For my first-year writing students, Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” serves as a powerful mentor text and an effective entry point into a difficult topic, privilege.

“Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor,” Gay explains, adding:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t.

While her essay demonstrates the effectiveness of grounding an argument in personal narrative—her own Haitian heritage and trips to Haiti that confronted her with that country in contrast to the US—Gay also acknowledges the inherent struggle to address privilege in meaningful ways:

The problem is, we talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning. When people wield the word privilege it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much the word it has become white noise.

From #BlackLIvesMatter to #MeToo, I have begun to wonder if a growing rumble approaches, a rising toll that will someday no longer be only “white noise.”

Many in the US strongly resist discussions of or acknowledging privilege, as Gay notes, and part of that resistance is grounded, I think, in the cultural narrative created and perpetuated by the power elites—mostly white men: Political and economic status in the US has been earned through merit, and not privilege.

That cultural narrative is mostly a lie since the original power grabs were almost all at the expense of others (slavery and denying women equal status with men, for examples) and then those advantages—privilege—have been accumulated over many, many generations. That historical expanse has helped reduce privilege to “white noise,” it seems.

The recently stalled appointment of Brett Kavanaugh represents both the entrenched refusal of privilege and the potential eroding of the merit-cloak shrouding the truly disturbing underbelly of life-long privilege.

Kavanaugh’s interview to defend himself and proclaim both his innocence and determination to continue the appointment process has some telling features:

“I’ve always treated women with dignity and respect,” Kavanaugh insisted. “Listen to the people who’ve known me best my whole life.” Did he commit sexual assault? He “never saw any such thing.” Did he engage in lurid sexual encounters? He “never participated in any such thing.” Rather, he was focused on “trying to be No. 1 in my class” and “captain of the varsity basketball team” while working on “service projects” and “going to church.” Also, he did not have “anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter.”

The denial extends beyond claiming not to have committed sexual assault to never hearing of misconduct at his school or by classmates, punctuated with his own choir-boy self-description.

This picture is the merit-veneer narrative common among the privileged who have created and maintained a network of privilege. Kavanaugh’s appointment is a blueprint for circling the wagons among the connected to protect each other regardless of who or why.

Kavanaugh’s assertions stretch credibility, however, not just for those attending elite private school but for anyone who has ever attended any high school in the US. Teens drinking and sexual misbehavior are all too common parts of adolescence, but even more damning are artifacts from Kavanaugh’s own high school experience and published accounts by his peers and friends, notably Mark Judge:

Judge, 54, has chronicled the debauchery of his 1980s high school years as a student at Georgetown Prep, where he and Kavanaugh were self-proclaimed members of the “100 Kegs or Bust” club.

In his 1997 memoir, “Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk,” he wrote of high school “masturbation class,” said he “lusted after girls” at Catholic schools and referenced a passed-out “Bart O’Kavanaugh,” who drank too much and once threw up in a car.

This Kavanaugh debacle is a slightly more polished but perfectly aligned part of the larger Trump phenomenon grounded in lies and denying evidence. While Trump plays the cartoonish buffoon, Kavanaugh is sprung from the refined elites who, as this unmasking is exposing, have very ugly lives under the cover of privilege—the ruling vampire class of the US.

As the perverse and contradictory claims reveal about the cavalry forming to defend Kavanaugh—including women—somehow Kavanaugh is both innocent of sexual assault (because he was a virgin and attended church) and the poster boy for “all boys have sexual assault in their pasts” and “we cannot allow boyhood indiscretions to ruin the promising futures of some men.”

And beyond the specific Kavanaugh controversy and the subsequent defenses, even more disturbing is the rise of concerns about all men now being afraid of #MeToo consequences joined by garbled memes about mothers fretting over their sons’ futures (see this Twitter thread dismantling that narrative).

Ultimately, the US is now poised to make an important decision about continuing to ignore the white noise of privilege or hearing the rising rumble that tolls for the abusive and corrupt privileged elites.

The Kavanaugh accusations sit against the merit-veneer narrative orchestrated by Kavanaugh (and echoed by Trump and his ilk) as well as the often-ignored weight of evidence:

“Sexual assault is likely the most under-reported crime in the United States. About two-thirds of female sexual assault victims do not report to the police, and many victims do not tell anyone. Sexual assault is a terrifying and humiliating experience. Women choose not to report for a variety of reasons — fear for their safety, being in shock, fear of not being believed, feeling embarrassed or ashamed, or expecting to be blamed.

“A lack of reporting does not mean an assault or attempted assault did not happen or is exaggerated. Research demonstrates that false claims of sexual assault are very low — between 2 and 7 percent. This tells us that far more women are assaulted and don’t report than women who make false claims.” (Statement of APA President Regarding the Science Behind Why Women May Not Report Sexual Assault)

A people disgusted by the sordid underbelly of privilege must reject the merit-veneer narrative and choose the greater path to not only truth but also equity.

#MeToo is a reckoning about sexual assault and the silencing of women.

Everything about the Kavanaugh narrative rings false, and we are far past time to silence the lies of privilege.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “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.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Recommended

Who Me?

Does Your Academic Institution Value Diversity, Equity? (Probably Not)

Several years ago, my university was forced to acknowledge it has a gender problem. As a selective liberal arts university, the institution had already begun addressing its race and diversity problems among students admitted and faculty hired.

Two gender concerns could not be ignored: Women were paid less than men at the same ranks, and faculty attrition was overwhelmingly among women professors, who constitute only about 30% of the faculty.

A gender equity study was commissioned, but when the report was issued, a group of male faculty circulated an open letter challenging the methodology of the report, raising concerns about a lack of empirical data and expressing the need for quantitative versus qualitative methods.

This response certainly had an image problem—white male faculty calling into question a gender equity study—and the concerned faculty did eventually withdraw the letter in deference to the good of the university community.

However, this study and the response illustrate a serious problem in academia, the pervasive power of traditional structures (expectations about what data matter, what types of research matter, and a lingering argument that objectivity can be achieved) to serve as a veneer for entrenched, and thus rendered invisible, sexism, racism, and classism.

A parallel example is when my university seeks to increase the diversity of the faculty, that effort is always contested with “Let’s just hire the best candidate,” again often voiced by white male faculty [1].

“Best,” of course, like quantitative methods and empirical data is a veneer for the embedded biases that have been normalized (and thus seemingly invisible to the power structure itself and those who benefit from the bias).

White and male privilege, then, are institutionalized in higher education (see here and here for ways those privileges exist, again, invisibly to white men). Despite the popular claim that higher education is some liberal indoctrination factory, higher education is incredibly traditional and conservative at its core; only the edges appear liberal.

But, I can feel many wanting to interject, how can calling for high-quality research to address gender equity on campus and expecting candidates for open faculty positions to be the best constitute flawed practices in academia?

Let me often another example, one that calls into question the grounding of those arguments themselves, the claims of fidelity to high standards.

Another traditional practice in higher education is the use of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET), feedback gathered from students and then used in various ways to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion.

Notably, a significant body of research [2] has revealed that SET lack validity and negatively impact women, faculty of color, and international faculty (in the U.S.).

Concurrently, the use of SET positively impact the existing and skewed white male faculty at most universities, who disproportionately dominate higher ranks and salaries.

Guess what happens when concerns are raised about SET based on high-quality empirical data and quantitative studies? The same faculty crying foul over gender equity reports and hiring practices toss up their hands and say, “O, well, we have to have something.”

As Colleen Flaherty explains:

While some institutions have acknowledged the biases inherent in SETs, many cling to them as a primary teaching evaluation tool because they’re easy — almost irresistibly so. That is, it takes a few minutes to look at professors’ student ratings on, say, a 1-5 scale, and label them strong or weak teachers. It takes hours to visit their classrooms and read over their syllabi to get a more nuanced, and ultimately more accurate, picture.

For example, my university’s self-evaluation form and the connected chair evaluation directly instructs in the teaching evaluation section: “Give particular emphasis to evidence of teaching quality, which could include numerical results from student opinion survey forms, written comments from student opinion survey forms, and comments from faculty or other consultants visiting your classes.”

“Evidence” is bolded and then the first example is “numerical results from student opinion survey forms.” There are clear biases here that privilege an instrument invalidated by a body of high-quality research—exactly what some faculty deemed missing in our gender equity study.

Junior faculty explain, often in private, that they are aware numerical data from the SET are the most important element of their case for tenure and promotion. As well, our Faculty Status Committee has provided workshops directly detailing which data from those forms are most influential, providing, as the committee claims, ways to distinguish faculty from each other.

Virtually every college and university has a diversity and equity statement and a perpetual formation and reformation of diversity and equity committees.

No statement or committee can make existing institutional sexism, racism, and classism disappear—especially if those words and that work are forced to work within existing biased structures.

“Research is reviewed in a rigorous manner, by expert peers,” writes Flaherty. “Yet teaching is often reviewed only or mostly by pedagogical non-experts: students. There’s also mounting evidence of bias in student evaluations of teaching, or SETs — against female and minority instructors in particular. And teacher ratings aren’t necessarily correlated with learning outcomes.

As long as calls for “high-quality” and “best” to guide policies and practices remain selective—and clearly in the service of the existing inequities and lack of diversity—we must admit the real commitment is not to”high-quality” or “best,” but to the status quo.

While not the only litmus test, a powerful way to determine if your academic institution values diversity and equity is if it continues to implement SET. Almost all do, so the answer remains, probably not.

See Also

Is Your University Racist? Bedelia Nicola Richards


[1] See how “merit” can work in the service of privilege in this reconsideration on Jordan Peterson:

I met Jordan Peterson when he came to the University of Toronto to be interviewed for an assistant professorship in the department of psychology. His CV was impeccable, with terrific references and a pedigree that included a PhD from McGill and a five-year stint at Harvard as an assistant professor.

We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.

[2] See:

They Were Born for This Moment: How the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High demonstrate the power of privilege.

Dahlia Lithwick’s take on the impact of teenagers from Parkland, Florida after yet another mass school shooting is a flawed Bob Dole read on the power of education. The most telling moment that this misreading of why America seems to embrace these teenagers comes here:

Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.

Political analysis of Dole’s last failed run for president often includes that Dole’s narrative focused on going back to an idealized and whitewashed past, while Bill Clinton focused on the future.

To suggest a “1950s-style public education” is a major element of the good ol’ days is an incomplete and ultimately offensive view of history.

Public schools reflected and perpetuated in mid-twentieth century all of the very worst aspects of American society, including segregation and corrosive inequity along race, social class, and gender lines.

The disturbing irony of the flawed central thesis of this argument is that the student activists from Stoneman Douglas High do in fact represent the realities of 1950s-style public education: Privileged children in the U.S. also benefit from privileged schooling—a fact of the 1950s and of the 2010s.

There are, however, two lessons from the activism of these Parkland, Florida teens:

  1. It provides another entry point into debunking that education is the great equalizer, and
  2. it represents in contrast to how America has responded to #BlackLivesMatter activism the lingering racial divide about whose voices, and thus lives, matter.

To the first lesson, consider the following:

And as a powerful visual for understanding that educational attainment does not level racial inequity, consider this (as well as a wealth of research contradicting education as the great equalizer):

Yet, Lithwick maintains:

Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.”

The mistake here is that educational opportunities are a marker for the accident of birth most children enjoy or suffer; highlighting the rich schooling experiences of the Parkland, Florida students receive is a veneer for confronting that they mostly are the beneficiaries of privilege, first in their homes and communities, and then in their schools, which reflect and perpetuate their privilege.

To be clear, this is no condemnation of these teen activists, but their access to widespread national recognition is driven mostly by their privilege in many of the same ways that the Bush family and the Trumps have parlayed generational wealth into more (often ill-got) power, regardless of their merit.

This misreading of the reasons why the Parkland, Florida teens are being heard provides cover for the more damning and problematic second lesson, as Sarah Ruiz-Grossman confronts:

For some black activists who have long been mobilizing around gun violence, the current wave of public attention and outrage over the issue is welcome. But it also invites the question of why there’s been comparatively little attention and outrage focused on the even more common reality of routine gun homicides in the country, which disproportionately affect communities of color, and specifically black Americans.

Prominent black organizers and public figures have also noted the largely positive public response to the student activists from Parkland ― most of whom are not black and who attended school in a largely white, relatively affluent Florida suburb ― compared to the frequent vilification of young black activists protesting gun violence, particularly police shootings.

The Stoneman Douglas High teens are no more credible in their activism than the many black teen activists who have responded to the equally disturbing normal of police shootings that disproportionately kill blacks.

When affluent and a certain kind of articulate young people confront mass gun violence, their privilege sparks responses that are distinct from the responses to a differently racialized and classed protest against gun violence perpetually killing one person at a time.

Kurt Vonnegut, who died of lung cancer, confessed in the preface to a collection of short stories: “The public health authorities never mention the main reason many Americans have for smoking heavily, which is that smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.”

Beyond the macabre humor and stark reality of Vonnegut’s admission, we must see that he is deconstructing the power of normal; once something become normal, it projects the impression that is also right.

In the U.S., the messengers and the messaging are more powerful than the message. And this is the large scale lesson of the Parkland, Florida activism: Privileged voices and lives matter.

Public schools in the U.S. are not game changers, not great equalizers. Further, as the Parkland, Florida teens argue, no public school should be tasked with defending children against a negligent political class bought and owned by the NRA.

1950s nostalgia also ignores the celebrity class, often movie stars, doing the dirty work for Big Tobacco, ruining the health of America’s youth for the sake of commerce, and this too fits in an ironic and ugly way with misreading why privileged Stoneman Douglas High teens are now waging a battle with the NRA controlling negligent political leaders.

Simply saying something is true doesn’t make it true, and just because it is normal doesn’t mean it is right.

The Stoneman Douglas High teen activists were born for this moment. They demonstrate the power of privilege.


Please see these Twitter exchanges as well:

 

Margins

Although I am sure more people have blocked me on social media, I remain aware of and concerned about two of those—both women, one black and one white.

The reason for my concern is that I would count them both members of the communities I support, ideologically and practically. Also, since I am blocked, I remain mostly uncertain of why, although with one I did have an exchange on an email forum about her perceptions of me (what I view as unwarranted assumptions).

Being blocked, I recognize however, was the result of both these women functioning in much narrower margins than I do because of my privileges of gender, race, and economics. In other words, regardless of my good intentions, regardless of whether or not I behaved in any way that warranted being blocked, these women do not have the margins to risk examining whether I am part of the toxic masculinity, toxic whiteness, or toxic affluence that threatens them moment by moment.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much label the margins of economic privilege and disadvantage as “slack” (privilege and thus huge margins) and “scarcity” (disadvantage and thus very thin margins). I think those terms apply equally as well to gender and race.

In retrospect, I am reminded of a moment from my teaching high school English when a white boy brushed a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” from his desk when I handed them out, announcing that he wasn’t reading that “[racial slur].” The student was adamant that King was an adulterer, having a pamphlet that excoriated King; the pamphlet, if one bothered to look carefully, had been created by the KKK, which had a vibrant following in the small town just south of the high school.

The margins (scarcity) for MLK—using “adultery” as a veneer for racism—must be placed against, for example, the social slack afforded John F. Kennedy, who is allowed his claimed accomplishments despite his personal indiscretions, unlike how any small failure by MLK is used to discredit all of his work.

More recently, the US has witnessed eight years of unrelenting discrediting of Barack Obama as president through unfounded claims about his birthplace; Obama as the first black president had to be perfect or completely discredited.

Immediately succeeding Obama is Donald Trump, who survived video/audio evidence of language and attitudes toward women most people would not tolerate in children; in other words, Trump’s gender, race, and economic privilege (slack) is so powerful, he appears nearly capable of doing anything with impunity.

Trump himself declared this himself during his campaign:

This is the most vivid and gross example of the power of slack grounded in race, gender, and economic privilege.

Black Film/ White Film: More on Slack and Scarcity

Since I am a comic book advocate, having collected Marvel comics throughout the 1970s and more recently published scholarship on the intersections of race and gender in superhero comics, I have watched and listened carefully to the public responses to Black Panther, the most recent Marvel Universe film.

While I have not yet seen the film, I have followed the sputtering path of the character Black Panther since he was introduced in the 1960s; as a teenager collecting comics, I was a fan of Black Panther as well as The Falcon, who was cover-billed along with Captain America throughout much of the 1970s.

Black_Panther_Vol_1_1  Captain_America_Vol_1_117

I lacked critical discernment as a teen, but can recognize that these two characters laid a foundation for my discovering black authors and thinkers in college as I struggled to cast off the worst aspects of my upbringing in the racist and intolerant South.

Most have responded to Black Panther the film with enthusiasm and even glee, and the box office has reflected some powerfully positive messages about black films and actors. But a few have begun to unpack problems with nationalism and the white savior trope in the narrative.

Here we may be inclined to argue that the highest form of equity, the absence of racism, would require that the film receive something akin to objective analyses—not unduly criticized (veneers for racism) and not sheltered from criticism as a sort of inverse racism.

There, however, this claim is not as simple as it may seem—especially if we ground how we respond to the film in terms of slack and scarcity, in terms of the King/Kennedy inequity.

Certainly, the film cannot be above credible criticism, but in that pursuit, we must guard against the perfection bar often manifested as scarcity when applied to disadvantages associated with race, class, and gender.

White films, for example, are not called “white,” but simply films. Adam Sandler and Kevin James, for example, have long resumes of films that certainly have been allowed an incredible amount of slack—forgiven the nearly unforgivable (think Trump) for hopes of some glimmer of humor nestled among the truly cliche, offensive, and just plain lazy.

Black Panther, even in the praise, is rendered into scarcity as a black film, and by implication must carry the weight of all black films, all black actors, all black writers (although the character was spawned by white creators in a very white, often racist industry).

Since Kevin James was allowed Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, just how close to perfect does Black Panther need to be?

The truest test of equity may be that all films have the same degree of slack.

School Safety: Slack and Scarcity as a Matter of Life and Death

While many in the US are reveling in the pop culture frenzy around Black Panther, the ugliest aspects of American culture once again expose how our on-screen violences pale against our gun culture and the ever-present threat of mass shootings, especially at the expense of students in school.

Although most mass shooters are white men, gun violence tends to prompt concerns about gangs and black-on-black crime, yet another demonstration of inequitable margins: White male mass shooters never prompt outcries about all white men (since the shooters are often framed as mentally ill) even though simply the threat of terrorism evokes blanket narratives and even policies about Muslims.

The paradox of gun violence and mass shootings in the US is that Americans have experienced increasingly less crime over the past four or so decades, even as the rate of mass shootings and gun violence remains disturbingly high when compared to other countries.

Debates about gun violence become yet more evidence of slack and scarcity linked to race.

Why has the country responded so positively to the teens speaking out after the shooting in Parkland, Florida but tended to reject or ignore the outcries from teens surrounding the all-to-frequent police shootings of young blacks, the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

Simply stated, when anything appears to encroach on the huge slack whites perceive (safety in this case), mainstream responses flair, but the margins for safety are so thin for blacks, for example, that to live in danger as a black person has become normalized beneath the implication that blacks themselves are the ones perpetuating violence.*

Whites as victims (slack), and blacks as violent (scarcity).

Taking care about whether or not we criticize Black Panther holds some important symbolic value, but in terms of how we respond to a school shootings, we are now making decisions that are life and death.

Responses to the Parkland, Florida shooting have focused on how to make schools safer—in part, to avoid the larger gun control debate that is muted by the NRA.

Arming teachers is one extreme, but in an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), Will Britt argues:

My recommendations are all achievable and avoid the most controversial ideas, so that they have a chance of happening. Still, they will require unified and emphatic parental endorsement: Install metal detectors, restrict campus and building access and connect 360-degree interior and exterior video monitoring for every public school.

This is a compelling argument to those living in the slack of race privilege, but is a red flag to those living in slack, in very thin margins.

First, Britt’s argument is solidly refuted by evidence:

Impact of Security Measures on Violence

  • There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, 8,9,10,11 and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.12
  • There has not been sufficient research to determine if the presence of metal detectors in schools reduces the risk of violent behavior among students. 13
  • Some researchers have expressed concern about the widespread use of guards, cameras, and other security technologies, given that so little is known about their effectiveness. 14,15
  • Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students16 and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption17 and higher levels of disorder in schools. 18
  • Evidence from a school–police partnership implemented in New York City reveals that students in these schools continue to experience higher than average problems linked directly to future criminality, compared to students in other New York City schools not involved in the partnership. 19
  • Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.20
  • Research suggests that the presence of security guards and metal detectors in schools may actually increase levels of violence in schools by strengthening the influence of youth “street” culture with its emphasis on self-protection.21

If these measures do not work, why are they compelling?

Calls for more security, research shows, in fact is more veneer for racism since extreme measures such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras are more common in high-minority schools even when discipline issues are not more pronounced.

White slack dictates that white safety must be protected at all costs; black/brown scarcity dictates that there is no margin of error for protecting against black/brown violence.

American culture is today awash in a triumphant celebration of Black Panther jammed against a national scramble to confront our daily violences in the form of guns.

Turning our schools into fortresses if not prisons, and even arming teachers, presents those with race, gender, and economic slack a much different picture (more safety) than those with race, gender, and economic scarcity (more violence).

Margins still define us, and margins left unchecked are apt to destroy us in the end.


* The mainstream media and political focus on black-on-black crime allows whites to ignore that all crime is mostly same-race since white-on-white crime rates are nearly identical to black-on-black crime rates.

Research excerpt sources:

8 Garcia, C. A. (2003). School safety technology in America: Current use and perceived effectiveness. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 14, 30-54.

9 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

10 Borum, R., Cornell, D. G., Modzeleski, W., & Jimerson, S. R. (2010). What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher, 39, 27-37.

11 Casella, R. (2006). Selling us the fortress: The promotion of techno-security equipment in schools. New York: Routledge.

12 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

13 Hankin, A., Hertz, M., & Simon, T. (2011). Impacts of metal detector use in schools: Insights from 15 years of research. Journal of School Health, 81, 100-106.

14 Birkland, T. A., & Lawrence, R. G. (2009). Media framing and policy change after Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1405-1425.

15 Green, M. B. (2005). Reducing violence and aggression in schools. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 6, 236-253.

16 Schreck, C. J., & Miller, J. M., & Gibson, C. L. (2003). Trouble in the school yard: A study of the risk factors of victimization at school. Crime & Delinquency, 49, 460-484.

17 Nickerson, A. B., & Martens, M. R. (2008). School violence: Associations with control, security/enforcement, educational/therapeutic approaches, and demographic factors. School Psychology Review, 37, 228-243.

18 Mayer, M. J., & Leaone, P. E. (1999). A structural analysis of school violence and disruption: Implications for creating safer schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 333-356.

19 Brady, K. P., Balmer, S., & Phenix, D. (2007). School-police partnership effectiveness in urban schools: An analysis of New York City’s Impact Schools Initiative. Education and Urban Society, 39, 455-478.

20 Warnick, B. R. (2007). Surveillance cameras in schools: An ethical analysis. Harvard Educational Review, 77, 317- 343.

21 Phaneuf, S. W. (2009). Security in schools: Its effect on students. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.