Many people have commented on the rise of Trump as the leader in the Republican quest for president—noting it is like a bad reality show or some life-imitates-art version of Idiocracy.
However, the truth of what Trump represents is much, much uglier than any of those speculations because Trump represents almost perfectly exactly who the U.S. is, and essentially always has been.
The U.S. has always bloviated on sweeping and grand ideologies about Freedom, Liberty, and so much horse manure, but the very beginnings of that were while white males owned human slaves and white females were human only in relationship to some white man.
The U.S. has always been about someone’s freedom at the expense of other people’s human dignity; and that fact remains today in 2016.
And when people say the the U.S. is a conservative nation, mostly right of center (especially in relationship to Europe and Canada), the reality of that is “conservative” is a code for a blind and nearly rabid commitment to consumerism—a consumerism grounded in Social Darwinism that breeds a lust for financial wealth regardless of the consequences to others.
Sure, Trump is profoundly unqualified to be a national leader and is spewing vile and inexcusable hatred, but the space between Trump and mainstream Republicans and Democrats is minuscule once you set aside the rhetoric.
From Trump to Cruz, a slight step back and to the side; from Cruz to Hillary, yet another slight step back and to the side. Republicans bark a hard commitment and Democrats skirt a soft commitment to the ravages of consumerism, but the consequences are the same.
Except for Sanders in the 2016 election cycle, team politics between Republicans and Democrats is splitting hairs and turning a blind eye to your candidate while eviscerating the other side’s candidate for the same behavior.
Mainstream politics in the U.S. creates the delusion of choice and keeps the public frantic so that no one notices there really is no difference because everything is about the winners maintaining their edge.
Never-ending war, mass incarceration, staggering income and wealth inequity, underfunded public institutions, refusals to acknowledge lingering racism—these are the qualities among every candidate on both sides of the so-called aisle.
The Nixon/Reagan contributions to mass incarceration of black and brown populations are nearly indistinguishable from the Clinton era gutting of the social safety net devastating the same people.
And all the while, the only thing that matters is the economy. The sacred economy doomed George W. Bush’s presidency and ushered in Obama—not any ethical matters of war or failures to secure human dignity or the lip service we give Democracy.
There could be few indignities worse than electing Trump as president of the U.S., but to be perfectly honest, Trump is in the course of the history of the country, the most perfect representative of who we are and have always been: A cartoon character spewing bromides to hide our dark and soulless greed.
And then, nearly as bad, if we elect someone from the remaining mainstream candidates, that indignity will be only slightly less than choosing Trump because what she or he represents is so close to being the same that it really doesn’t matter.
A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.
Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:
What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.
Throughout 2015, I have been cataloguing the overwhelming evidence of white privilege and racism, but I am discouraged about both the abundance of that evidence and the ineffectiveness of presenting it to those clinging fervently to their white denial.
Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.
This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.
And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.
We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.
Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:
The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.
I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”
Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:
Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]
White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.
“I came to explore the wreck,” explains the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:
Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.
Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.
Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.
This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.
We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”
What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny
On Nerd Entitlement, Laurie Penny
Hello from the same side, Robin James
In the early 1990s after we had moved into our first stand-alone home (having lived in an owned townhouse a few years), my wife and I bought a Honda Accord—a typically American milestone of having finally risen above our station as Honda Civic owners.
As I was dong the paperwork for this car, I realized that the sale price was the same as what my parents had paid for their house in 1971 (a house, by the way, that still is more square footage than any house I have ever owned): $22,500.
I am one generation removed from the white working-class idealists who are my parents, both having been raised in the South during the 1950s—my mother the daughter of a mill worker and my father the son of a gas station owner.
Buying that Honda Accord, however, did not at that moment fill me with pride or a sense accomplishment. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I even called my father and told him about the coincidence of the prices of a car for me and the house my parents had worked themselves nearly to death to own.
My parents’ house sits on the largest lot of a local golf course, their having bought it as the course was being built and then scraped and clawed until they had the $1000 downpayment. Their monthly mortgage payment was also less than many of my car payments.
And while most people—especially my parents—would hold me up as proof of all that is Right with the U.S., I have to raise a hand of caution.
Yes, I have worked hard, but most of my success has come in academic settings—being a top student, and then working my way through undergraduate and graduate degrees while also having two careers, first as a high school teacher and now as a professor. To be perfectly blunt and honest, my success has been built on tremendous privilege—being white and male—and what appears to be hard work to many has in fact not been that hard for me at all.
Success in education depends a great deal on reading and writing—two behaviors that are for me both a joy and mostly easy to do.
In his Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, Paul C. Gorski notes “that many of us were raised to believe that the United States and its schools represent a meritocracy, wherein people achieve what they achieve based solely on their merit, so that all achievement is deserved rather than rendered” (pp. 14-15).
Historically, this American success story has been “tied to the Horatio Alger myth (Pascale, 2005) and the notions of rugged individualism and an ethic of self-sacrifice,” Gorski explains—what we often reduce to as “pulling ones self up by the bootstraps.”
However, this myth is nothing more than a twisted fairy tale—one that normalizes outliers and depends on a very ugly and false characterization of people in poverty: The impoverished, the subtext goes, create their poverty through their laziness.
The mostly false American success story keeps the accusatory gaze always on people in poverty so that little attention is paid to the larger forces of inequity in the U.S.
Gorski warns, “[M]ost of what poor people have in common has nothing to do with their culture or dispositions [ie., charges of laziness]. Instead, it has to do with what they experience, such as the bias and lack of access to basic needs” (p. 26).
Social forces—many of which are created and then perpetuated by privilege—drive conditions of scarcity (poverty) and slack (privilege) that are then reflected in the conditions surrounding and behaviors by individual people (see Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much).
Therefore, we must confront the real American success story, the one that is typical of life in the U.S. and not one that misrepresents outliers as the expectations for everyone.
In the U.S., the floors of the penthouse of the wealthy are incredibly secure and stable, the few cracks are nearly as tight as they are rare. The best road to success in the U.S. is to be born wealthy.
As well, the ceilings on the basement of poverty are incredibly secure, allowing only a rare fortunate few through by superhuman efforts.
Instead of Horatio Alger, then, we must look to our own former president George W. Bush, who regularly joked about his C-student status, and whose SAT score both reflected a score higher than his GPA and fell below most of his peers accepted in Ivy League educations (an ironic two-fer that exposes the SAT as mostly a measure of wealth and privilege as well as showing how connectedness, being a legacy, is a privileged version of affirmative action).
George W. Bush has been very open as well about his struggle with alcoholism and his relatively unimpressive efforts at adulthood until he was nearly 40. Despite those hurdles and signs of laziness, he acquired part-ownership of the Texas Rangers and then became governor of Texas and president of the U.S.
I must, then, conclude that in the U.S., we have two Americas, and the one George W. Bush represents is the real American success story that exposes the key to achievement—not the content of ones character, but the coincidence of ones birth.
Writing in the New York Times, Susan Dynarski reports:
Rich and poor students don’t merely enroll in college at different rates; they also complete it at different rates. The graduation gap is even wider than the enrollment gap.
Further, Dynarski continues, and then concludes:
Academic skills in high school, at least as measured by a standardized math test, explain only a small part of the socioeconomic gap in educational attainment.
Here’s another startling comparison: A poor teenager with top scores and a rich teenager with mediocre scores are equally likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In both groups, 41 percent receive a degree by their late 20s.
And even among the affluent students with the lowest scores, 21 percent managed to receive a bachelor’s degree, compared with just 5 percent of the poorest students. Put bluntly, class trumps ability when it comes to college graduation.
Poor students are increasingly falling behind well-off children in their test scores, as recent research by Sean Reardon at Stanford University shows.
That is, any poor children who manage to score at the top of the class are increasingly beating the odds. Yet even when they beat the odds in high school, they still must fight a new set of tough odds when it comes to completing college.
Steph Curry has gained a well-deserved high level of recognition as the NBA League MYV in the 2014-2015 season. Like Grant Hill, Curry is the black son of a successful and wealthy professional athlete.
Curry is recognized as a hard worker—practicing at rates and amounts that most people cannot comprehend.
An ideal role model for black males in the U.S.?
Not according to high school English teacher Matt Amaral, who recently posted Dear Steph Curry, Now That You Are MVP Please Don’t Come Visit My High School and asked of Curry: “But I have to ask you to do me a solid and make sure you don’t ever come visit my high school.”
Amaral is making a concession I have argued above.
Curry is an outlier, and the personification of a potentially corrosive promise: You can be anything if you just work hard enough.
Well, no, that isn’t true.
So those of us who are parents and educators are put in a truly ugly position.
I love to inspire and encourage young people. I dearly and deeply love young people.
But I also cringe at the adult proclivity to lie in order not to face themselves the ugly truths they create and perpetuate—often by refusing to face them.
There is tremendous value in hard work and effort for the sake of hard work and effort.
And, yes, the world should be a meritocracy, the world should be fair.
Pretending it is while it isn’t, wrapping our young in shallow feel-good slogans and stories—these are sure ways never to achieve the equity we say we love in the U.S.
If we do not want to tell students the real American success story—the one about winning the birth lottery—we damn well better do something to create a better story instead of continuing to lie to children and ourselves.
Because, as you know, it is entirely within your power to make things different, right?
The U.S. has a powerful addiction to a false myth, the myth of meritocracy—that success comes from hard work and that failure comes from laziness. Against that myth consider the following:
- Matt O’Brien reports: “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves.”
- Matt Bruenig concludes, based on data from the Pew’s Economic Mobility Project: “So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated….Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”
- Drawing on the report Young Invincibles, Susan Adams explains: “African-Americans college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.”
- Bruenig also notes: “Black families with college degrees have a mean wealth of $162.8k, which is effectively the same as the mean wealth of white families with less than a high school education.”
The evidence refutes the myth, then, since race and the economic status of any child’s home are far more powerful influences on success than effort. As long as we cling to the false myth and fail to dismantle privilege, however, meritocracy will never become a reality.
As I have highlighted several times about how often education journalism fails the democratic goals of both the free press and universal public education, this Tweet from Juana Summers at NPR represents the power of the neutral pose among journalists:
@plthomasEdD I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the study is credible, but we both note the significant criticism of the methods.
— Juana Summers (@jmsummers) June 18, 2014
Let me stress here, that this claim is not unique to Summers of NPR, but pervasive throughout media and journalism as the hallmark of “professionalism.” I have been mulling the breezy NPR approach to all topics for some time now, and thus was not surprised to find this piece from 1982, The Tedium Twins, which skewers the exact issue I have confronted over and over:
Trudging back through the “MacNeil/Lehrer” scripts, the hardy reader will soon observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day. The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators, barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to say.
As we confront the inherent danger in honoring civility and balance over accuracy and taking evidence-based stances on credibility, we must also admit that the neutral pose is little more than a mask for something pretty insidious: the influence of the powerful and wealthy over what the media covers (and does not cover) and how those topics are framed. To that I invite you to read Mercedes Schneider’s Gates, Other “Philanthropy,” and the Purchase of a Success Narrative, including:
Billionaire Bill Gates funds the media.
This is no surprise to me.
What did surprise me is the discovery that he meets with the media he funds (and others) regularly behind closed doors.
[See also Adam Bessie and Dan Carino’s The Gates Foundation Education Reform Hype Machine and Bizarre Inequality Theory.]
So we are faced with our media and our educators trapped inside demands that they remain neutral, dispassionate, not political. And this is what that has gotten us (despite claims that our free press and public schools are essential to our democracy built on claims of equity and meritocracy), as detailed by Matt Bruenig:
The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it. The families squished in between those two groups own 24.6% of the national wealth.
The present wealth distribution is more unequal than it was in 2010, the last year this survey was conducted. Specifically, the top 10% increased their share of the national wealth by 0.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2013. The bottom half and middle 40% saw their share of the national wealth fall by 0.1 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.
Bruenig also highlights that economic inequity in the U.S. is race-based (whites own the U.S.) and that within that white imbalance, there exists another layer of class imbalance:
This means that the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation. The bottom half of white families own just 2% of the national wealth. And the white families in the 50th-90th percentile of white families own 22.9% of the national wealth.
Along the media spectrum from the breezy NPR dispassion (the so-called “Liberal Media”) and the faux “fair and balance” of Fox News (the so-called “Right-wing Media”), we must admit there is little difference in the consequences of any of our media since, as Paulo Freire has warned, all that neutrality is ironically not neutral at all:
As poet Adrienne Rich  has confronted:
Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)
That second and wrong direction is the result of the neutral pose.
For Further Reading
 Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.
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.”
Many of us are compelled by idealism, and I certainly entered education as a career over 30 years ago because of my faith in the power of learning (specifically literacy), especially as it has enriched my own life.
But evidence must trump idealism, or we are destined to remain trapped in the corrosive patterns of inequity that keep us from achieving the American Dream.
I’m sorry, but these are the realities as we have them in the U.S. as of 2014.
Before you shoot the messenger, however, let me encourage you to spend some time with the following:
- What’s more important: a college degree or being born rich? — Matt Bruenig
- Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much — Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
- The New Jim Crow — Michelle Alexander
Once we face what the evidence shows, then we become equipped with the foundation upon which we can work to build toward those ideals that must matter among a free people.