Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

Words matter, and thus, I must apologize by opening here with a mundane but essential clarification of terms.

As I have written over and over, everything involving humans is necessarily political, even and especially teaching and learning. Therefore, no teacher at any level can truly be apolitical, objective. Taking a neutral or objective pose is a political choice, and an endorsement of the status quo.

Key to that claim is recognizing the difference between political and partisan. Partisan politics involves allegiance to and advocacy for organized political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats.

A partisan feels compelled to place party loyalty above ideology or ethics. To be political can be and should be a moral imperative.

We can avoid being partisan, even as that is political. And when many people call for education and educators to avoid being political, what they really are seeking is that education and educators not be partisan—a position that is achievable and one I endorse.

This distinction matters in public education and public education reform because all public institutions in the U.S. are by their tax-supported status at the mercy of partisan politics.

From around 1980, in fact, politicians at the local, state, and national levels have discovered that public education is a powerful and effective political football. The standard politician’s refrain is “Schools are horrible, and I can make them better!”

The current rise of the inexpert ruling class at the presidential level has been foreshadowed for more than three decades by the partisan politics around education reform—politicians and political appointees with no experience or expertise in education imposing pet reform initiatives onto public schools because these policies appeal to an equally mis-informed public.

Even with large failed crucibles such as New Orleans post-Katrina, political leaders remain committed to finding themselves in a hole and continuing to dig.

In my home state of South Carolina, infamous for our Corridor of Shame, Charleston, on the east coast and part of that corridor, continues to represent the savage inequalities that result from a combination of an inexpert ruling class and an absence of political courage.

Charleston schools reflect the most stark facts about and problems with K-12 education across the U.S.: private and gate-keeping public schools (such as academies, magnet schools, and some charter schools) that provide outstanding opportunities for some students in contrast to grossly ignored high-poverty, majority-minority public schools that mis-serve “other people’s children.”

As a result of these inequities and dramatically different student outcomes exposed by the accountability era obsession with test scores, Charleston has played the education reform game, committing to provably failed policies over and over: school choice, school closures and takeovers, school turnaround scams, overstating charter schools as “miracles,” and investing in Teach For America.

Why do all these policies fail and what ultimately is wrong with inexpert leadership? The absence of political courage to address directly the blunt causes of inequitable student outcomes in both the lives and education of students.

Currently in Charleston, the closing of Lincoln High and transferring those students to Wando High (see here and here) highlight that the gap between commitments to failed edureform and political courage to do something different persists.

The debates and controversy over how former Lincoln students are now performing at Wando offer some important lessons, such as the following:

  • The media and the public should be aware of partisan political code. A garbled reach for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has been used to explain why Lincoln students’ grades have dropped while at Wando. The “soft bigotry” mantra is a conservative slur triggering the public’s belief in “bleeding heart liberals,” who coddle minorities. But the more damning part of the code is that it focuses blame on the administration and teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority schools and thus away from political leadership.
  • And thus, the public needs to distinguish between blaming educators at Lincoln for low expectations (again, garbled as “low standards”) and the expected consequences of high-poverty, majority-minority schools suffering with high teacher turnover, annual under-staffing, and persistent teacher workforces that are new and/or un-/under-certified. Additionally, the accountability era has unrealistic demands of these schools when compared to low-poverty, low-minority schools that have much greater percentages of experienced and certified teachers.
  • The apparent drop in student grades and test scores from Lincoln to Wando is extremely important data that deserve close scrutiny, but so far, that scrutiny has been reduced to partisan politics and deflecting blame. Dozens of reasons could explain the grade differences, including the transfer as well as the staffing differences between the two schools (neither of which is the simplistic “soft bigotry” argument used primarily to justify closing a community school).

The partisan political approaches to schools and education reform are tarnished by both willful ignorance and a confrontational blame game.

The willful ignorance of politicians and the public refuses to acknowledge huge social inequity driven by racism and white privilege; the blame game seeks ways to blame the victims of those inequities instead of confronting systemic forces.

What should political leaders be doing and what should the public be demanding that is different from the patterns identified above, than the policies already proven as failures?

  • Recognize that in-school only reform creates two serious problems: (1) unrealistic demands with high-stakes consequences produce unethical behavior among otherwise good people (see the Atlanta cheating scandal), and (2) since out-of-school factors overwhelmingly influence measurable student achievement, even the right in-school only reform is unlikely to result in measurable improvement.
  • Interrogate the proclaimed cause of low student achievement—”low expectations”—and instead seek to understand the complex reasons behind that low achievement by poor and black/brown students based on available evidence that includes carefully interviewing the administrators, teachers, and students involved.
  • Advocate for public policy that addresses serious inequity in the lives of children—policy impacting access to health care, a stable workforce, access to safe and stable housing, and high-quality food security.
  • Refuse to ignore needed in-school reform, but reject accountability-based reform for equity-based reform focusing on equitable teacher assignment for all students, articulated school funding that increases funding for schools serving struggling communities, guaranteeing the same high-quality facilities and materials for all children regardless of socioeconomic status of the communities served, and eliminating gate-keeping policies that track high-needs students into test-prep while advantaged students gain access to challenging courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Ultimately, the absence of political courage in SC and across the U.S. is where the real blame lies for inequitable student achievement along race and class lines.

Many students, the evidence shows, are doubly and triply disadvantaged by the consequences of their lives and their schools.

Trite and misleading political rhetoric, along with “soft bigotry of low expectations,” includes soaring claims that a child’s ZIP code is not destiny.

Well, in fact, ZIP code is destiny in SC and the U.S.; it shouldn’t be, but that fact will remain as long as political leadership chooses to ignore the expertise within the field of education and continues to lead without political courage.

Political courage requires direct action, even when it isn’t popular, and refuses to deflect blame, refuses to wait for what market forces might accomplish by taking the right action now.

Political courage, as James Baldwin expressed, embraces that “[t]he challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”


For More on Political Courage

Support Betsy Devos Shoot Yourself In The Foot, Andre Perry

Black Activists Don’t Want White Allies’ Conditional Solidarity!, Stacey Patton

The Bootstrap Lie and the Politics of Privilege

This is going to be difficult and uncomfortable.

I invite you, then, to be patient while I start with something slightly less uncomfortable but just as difficult.

The tragic but real story of Pat Tillman is many things—one of which is a complete unmasking of how powerful and dangerous cultural mythologies are and how often our cultural mythologies prove to be both false and serving the interests of privilege (primarily white, male, and wealth privilege).

Tillman believed in the sacred duty of a person to serve his country, and then, in that service, Tillman not only lost his life, but also had his death story fabricated to perpetuate the very false myth that failed him.

Those with power sullied Tillman’s legacy to reinforce that the false myth of patriotism could be preserved in the service of their power — and were willing to sacrifice anyone buying the myth.

Again, that is a very hard discussion, a nearly impossible reality to recognize and digest.

But this is even more difficult because it entails race and racism as well as the very ugly stereotypes the U.S. perpetuates and embraces about people in poverty.

And as a very privileged and successful white man, I am walking onto very thin ice by confronting and naming black leaders who, as I will outline, represent a tragedy similar to Tillman’s.

Next, before I become more pointed, my caveat here is that I offer this as a witness in the tradition of James Baldwin, to whom I will return at the end. These are critical views of the world that I have learned by listening carefully, by setting aside my own urge to mansplain, whitesplain—to be the authority.

I am not the authority, but I am a diligent student.

To be considered:

Lawyer Michelle Alexander has detailed a disturbing dynamic: many black communities have advocated against their own best interests by embracing the “get tough on crime” myth perpetuated in the service of privilege. Alexander’s best example, I think, is that police often sweep black neighborhoods (are often invited to do so by blacks themselves), but choose not to do similar sweeps in white and affluent areas such as college campuses—although both are likely to have recreational drugs being used and sold.

Critical educator Chris Emdin, writing on his Instagram page, confronts a parallel paradox in education: “Black teachers with white supremacist ideologies [are] just as dangerous as white folks who don’t understand culture.” From Geoffrey Canada to Steve Perry to Joe Clark—many black educators have embraced the essentially racist “no excuses” ideologies that target black, brown, and poor children while perpetuating that the problems with educating these children lies in deficits of the children, and not any systemic forces. Education designed to correct, “fix,” fundamentally broken children (racial minorities, impoverished children) is inherently racist and classist.

Scholar Stacey Patton advocates against corporal punishment, specifically addressing how many blacks have internalized racist demands that the black body be punished, reaching back to U.S. slavery. As Patton explains:

Dr. Stacey Patton: People think that hitting a child is a form of teaching. We think it will protect them.  And people grow up to invert the violence they experience as children as something that was good, particularly in African-American culture.  As a people, we attribute our success to having had our bodies processed through violence and quite frankly what it does is confirm a long-standing racist narrative about Black bodies. The only way to control us, the only way to make us “good,” law-abiding, moral people is with a good whupping. It seems that we unconsciously agree with that narrative.

Alexander, Emdin, and Patton represent a much larger body of work that recognizes how often privilege recruits outliers of marginalized groups in order to distort those outliers as proof of false myths, specifically pointing to any successful black person as proof that the bootstrap myth is real, that we have achieved a meritocracy.

Popular culture is filled with examples—O.J. Simpson, Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, just to name a few who have become spokespersons in the service of privilege, who, as Emdin notes, are “just as dangerous.”

So here is the very hardest and most uncomfortable part, forced by the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, an ideologue billionaire hell-bent on perpetuating the choice myth that serves only people like her at the expense of marginalized people, especially children who should not have to wait for the Invisible Hand and who should be served immediately by leaders of the wealthiest country in human history.

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) has eagerly supported DeVos within his own unwavering advocacy for choice, often invoking that poor and minority families and children deserve the same choices as white and wealthy families and children.

Scott has sold his political soul (much like Clarence Thomas) to an ugly and harmful bootstrap myth, as expressed on his biography page:

An unbridled optimist, Senator Scott believes that despite our current challenges, our nation’s brightest days are ahead of us. As a teenager, Tim had the fortune of meeting a strong, conservative mentor, John Moniz. Moniz helped instill in Tim the notion that you can think your way out of poverty, and that the golden opportunity is always right around the corner. The American Dream is alive and well, and Tim’s story is a concrete example of that.

Scott is an outlier, and his story of success is commendable—except it is an ugly thing to hang one’s success over the heads of others, demanding that their not reaching a similar success is simply due to not “think[ing] [their] way out of poverty.”

No, the American Dream is not alive and well:

access-to-good-jobs-race-gender

At the same levels of effort, women and racial minorities remain disadvantaged by systemic forces that work against them; these inequities are not the result of the ugly “laziness” myth about black, brown, and poor people that lies underneath the bootstrap myth, the rugged individual myth, the meritocracy myth.

The free market and all sorts of choice are crap shoots, and they are in no way mechanisms for equity, for justice.

Scott’s “notion that you can think your way out of poverty” is a slap in the face of adults and children who are already working and trying as hard as they can, and worst of all, this bootstrap mantra maintains the very systemic forces it refuses to recognize.

Billionaires from Trump to DeVos are spreading cultural lies, and they depend along the way on recruits into these narratives, recruits—as Alexander, Emdin, and Patton reveal—who may even look just like the people being cheated.

And so I will end by coming back to Baldwin, whose legacy is being renewed, and whose message still resonates as Rich Blint concludes:

As the latest entry of the brilliance of James Baldwin on film, I Am Not Your Negro (along with Baldwin’s scathing account of American film-making, The Devil Finds Work) lays bare the rhetorical and imagistic sleight of hand that enables the fiction and terror of race in American life to persist with such a renewed and deadly power. As he suggests, the extent to which we truly wrestle with our psychic need for the myth of the “nigger,” will determine the future of the country. It is still the only song left to sing.

Dear New York Times

It is the end of the month, and as I click on what appear to be important articles in my social media feed, you, The New York Times, alert me that I have exhausted my free access to your news and commentary, including options for subscribing to your publication.

For a long time now, those messages have, frankly, irritated me because I have been blogging extensively as an educator about how your publication as a leader in mainstream media as well as other highly regarded outlets such as NPR and Education Week has been using my field of education as toilet paper.

Mainstream media consistently misrepresent the quality and problems with public education and teachers; routinely honor reform advocates, politicians, and organizations/think tanks with essentially no credibility; and remain trapped in vapid “both sides,” so-called objective, and press-release journalism.

Since I am just a blogger, only an 18-year veteran of public school teaching, and a current college professor and scholar of education, race, and poverty, I realize you really do not care about my informed positions, but since you are soliciting my money and my support, let me simply remind you here of some of my work highlighting your truly careless and harmful reporting:

However, I am not addressing this open letter to you, The New York Times, to rail yet again about your failures as a major aspect of the free press in the U.S.

For the first time, when you blocked access to an article and waved your subscription options before me, I paused because unlike NPR, you have done something that many are calling “bold,” but is actually what you should have always been doing: In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and ‘Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie, Dan Barry.

If I may be so bold, let me counter your solicitation of my patronage with a request of my own.

The New York Times, as major voice in a fading field, could you please acknowledge the failure of mainstream media, a failure far more damaging than fake news, and along with your commitment to name lies as “lies,” could you please take a foundational stand for moving mainstream media in the U.S. toward rejecting “fair and balanced” and then embrace the tenets of being a critical free press?

Again, as a lowly blogger/educator/scholar, I know my voice really doesn’t matter, but I have laid out this problem often:

I am very cautiously willing to crack open the door I have long ago closed about the failures of mainstream media, beholden to our consumer society, because of your willingness to do something that any ethical person would do—confront lies, especially from the highest levels of our society.

But as I detail above in a recent blog, about the same time you made your stance about lies, you published a truly awful and harmful article about people living in poverty and depending on government assistance.

It was a hate piece that feeds the very lowest stereotypes (hint: lies) about poor people as well as triggering racism; others as I link in my piece have shown that the article was both filled with gross stereotypes and factually misrepresented the study it cited.

So, thank you for pointing out Trump’s lies, but as I was admonished as a child, when you point a finger at someone, three are pointing back at you.

Will you simultaneously clean your own house, become a leader for your field in the pursuit of a critical free press, as you challenge the current administration?

If yes, I will eagerly open the door, and subscribe with glee.

See Also

Sam Waterston: The danger of Trump’s constant lying

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

Some in the public thinking business have posited that Donald Trump is not a half-cocked loon, but a brilliant manipulator of the media, and thus the entire U.S., over which he now presides.

Their basis for these claims is showing how he has artfully shot out Tweets perfectly timed to overshadow, these pundits argue, more substantive issues that the media should be addressing.

While I am not sure if I buy these pronouncements about Trump, I am certain about the power of distraction.

While the same punditry setting out to deconstruct Trumplandia claims that fake news is itself the distraction, as Sarah Kendzior confronts, the histrionics about fake news are distracting us from a very real and very ugly truth: having crossed the Bigfoot line, mainstream media, not fake news, spawned Trumplandia.

Let me illustrate.

Consider the lede from Woman A Leading Authority On What Shouldn’t Be In Poor People’s Grocery Carts:

With her remarkable ability to determine exactly how others should be allocating their limited resources for food, local woman Carol Gaither is considered to be one of the foremost authorities on what poor people should and should not have in their grocery carts, sources said Thursday.

From 2014, this is satire from The Onion, a publication in the broad family of fake news (although satire has not the malicious intent of the more recently purposefully placed fake news designed to be click-bait and make money).

What this satirizes, however, is incredibly important since it challenges the mostly misguided and nasty stereotypes that many if not most Americans believe about people who are poor: it is the fault of the poor, laziness, that they are impoverished, and thus, they do not deserve the same things hard working people do deserve (as in luxuries such as sweets).

We might argue that no reasonable person would believe a story from The Onion to be true, but it happens, and well before all the hand-wringing about fake news and presidential politics.

Yet, what is far more disturbing is that despite concurrent charges the sky is falling because the expert is dead, the U.S. still functions with an expert class of media, the primary cable news networks such as Fox and CNN as well as the last surviving newspapers, notably The New York Times.

While many may cast aspersions on the “liberal media,” most people remain solidly faithful that the NYT is reporting credibly.

And here is the irony: the NYT and mainstream media are overwhelmingly meeting the standards of mainstream media, and those standards of “both sides” and objective journalism are far more harmful and dangerous than fake news.

Just one week before Trump’s inauguration, the NYT published In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda, which in only a few days prompted this from state government:

A lawmaker in Tennessee wants to ban people from using food stamps to buy items that have no nutritional value. The bill was proposed by Republican Rep. Sheila Butt [1]….

House Bill 43 would prohibit people from using food stamps to purchase items high in calories, sugar or fat, according to the Tennessean. That would include soda, ice cream, candy, cookies and cake.

However, there is more indirect truth in the satirical The Onion article than in the NYT article, as Joe Soss reports:

In a New York Times story over the weekend, Anahad O’Connor massages and misreports a USDA study to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about food stamps. For his trouble, the editors placed it on the front page. Readers of the newspaper of record learn that the end result of tax dollars spent on food assistance is a grocery cart full of soda. No exaggeration. The inside headline for the story is “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” and the front-page illustration shows a shopping cart containing almost nothing but two-liter pop bottles.

Yes, the key words above are “misreports” and “stereotypes.”

Soss explains:

Let’s be clear here: this is nonsense. It’s a political hack job against a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the New York Times has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page.

There are two major problems here. First, O’Connor misrepresents the findings of the USDA report. Second, O’Connor’s article is a case study in the dark arts of making biased reporting appear even-handed. Let’s start with the facts.

Not as sexy, and not what the general public believes, the USDA report actually has a much different message:

A November 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the food shopping patterns of American households who currently receive nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) compared with those not receiving aid. Its central finding? “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.”

Vallas and Robins note as well that the NYT/O’Connor misreporting is about more than feeding misguided stereotypes about people in poverty:

Beyond the article’s inaccuracies, there is a broader problem with this kind of reporting. It reinforces an “us versus them” narrative—as though “the poor” are a stagnant class of Americans permanently dependent on aid programs. The New York Times’ own past reporting has shown that this simply isn’t the case. Research by Mark Rank, which the paper featured in 2013, shows that four in five Americans will face at least a year of significant economic insecurity during their working years. And analysis by the White House Council on Economic Advisers finds that 70 percent of Americans will turn to a means-tested safety net program such as nutrition assistance at some point during their lives.

Now if we return to our current gnashing of teeth about the rise of fake news and the death of the expert, we should be confronting a couple far more pressing facts:

  • Mainstream media are mostly conducting press-release journalism; are often bending to the market and not reaching for truth, justice, and the American way; and fail our democracy because of traditional norms of objectivity and “both sides” journalism.
  • The public in the U.S. is not anti-expert, but seeking the appearance of expertise [2] that confirms what they already believe—even when what they believe is total hogwash, and worse (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.).

Maybe we have a really ugly paradox here also: publications like The Onion and satirical programming such as work by John Oliver and Saturday Night Live are serving the American public and the ideal of democracy and freedom far better as fake news than even the so-called best mainstream media are doing.

Satirists are not bound to simplistic conventions of objectivity (ironically, to be neutral is to endorse the status quo), and are critical instead. Journalists refuse to embrace the power of a critical free press, and thus, are eager to blame fake news, to use it as a distraction.

Finally, then, we must wonder with the recent revelations about plagiarism by Monica Crowley, a popular rightwing expert, if O’Connor merely cribbed his NYT expose from The Onion, where three years ago they fabricated:

“All that junk she’s buying is just loaded with sugar, too,” said Gaither, identifying with uncanny speed another critical flaw in her fellow shopper’s grocery selection. “No wonder her kids are acting out like that.”…

“The other day, I saw a woman who bought a box of name-brand Frosted Flakes because, apparently, the generic kind wasn’t fancy enough for her,” said Gaither, swiftly and decisively calculating that bagged cereal would have cost half as much. “And guess who’s going to be paying the difference in the end?”

A speculation that does make sense because reading The Onion is far more entertaining and informative than plowing through a government report.


[1] I know this appears to read like a piece from The Onion, but Republican Rep. Butt is real; The Onion would have used Ophelia Butt.

[2] Consider that the century-old debate between Creationism and evolution has morphed into the rise of Intelligent Design (replacing creationism) as pseudo-science to battle with traditional science, evolution.

Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.

Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.

From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.

My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”

Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.

I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:

This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.

I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.

I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).

The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.

But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.

As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:

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

But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain [1]:

Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….

Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.

Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.

From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.

There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:

Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….

My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.

But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.

Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.

But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.

Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.

We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.

But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.

And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.

Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.

When Range writes about “our kind/of people,” I hear and see from my lived experience in an often self-defeating South.

It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.

I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.


[1] See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

In an effort to understand post-truth Trumplandia, this is one explanation:

However, this fails to confront that the rise of Trumplandia is but an extreme and logical extension of a mainstream media and political elite existing almost entirely on false narratives—the denial of basic reality.

The bootstrap and rising boat narratives, black-on-black crime, the pervasive threat of terrorism, the lazy poor, the welfare queen, and the relentless “kids today” mantra—these are all powerful as well as enduring claims but also provably false.

With Trump’s election, the post-truth reality now focuses on lamenting the plight of the white working class (also provably false) and masking racism and white supremacy as “alt-right.”

The media simply report that Source X makes Claim A—but never venture into the harder story that Source X is making a false Claim A—especially when false Claim A rings true within the Great American Myths that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie powerfully warns about:

I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.”…

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.

Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Adichie artfully shares more examples in her talk, but her message from 2009 rings much more horrifying today in post-truth Trumplandia, where the elected leader of the free world can say damn near anything one minute, deny it the next, and remain safely cloaked in the lies that endure as the “one story” many in the U.S. believe despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The one story of black men as criminals that allows police to disproportionately execute those black men in the streets.

The one story of the lazy poor that allows political leaders to avoid their moral obligations to provide social services, including health care even for children.

The one story of objectified women that allows rape culture and the democratically elected leader of the free world to boast about his own cavalier behavior as a sexual predator.

And so: “Stories matter. Many stories matter,” Adichie concludes:

Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

For Adichie, “now is the time” to confront post-truth Trumplandia, and the media are on notice:

Yet a day after the election, people spoke of the vitriol between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. No, the vitriol was Trump’s. Now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever. Pretending that both sides of an issue are equal when they are not is not “balanced” journalism; it is a fairy tale—and, unlike most fairy tales, a disingenuous one.

Post-truth Trumplandia is creeping toward yet another of the very ugliest stories of a people claiming to embrace life and liberty but denying basic reality instead.

The question before us is whether or not we have the capacity for changing that arc of history toward, as Adichie expresses, the possibility to “regain a kind of paradise.”

See Also

Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Political Will: A Meditation

In my introductory foundations course in education, we have been watching Corridor of Shame and discussing the historical negligence of some schools, some students, and some communities in South Carolina for generations; in this case, “some” means “black” and “poor.”

The maudlin and melodramatic documentary is grounded in a court case that has taken the state two decades to settle—and then to proceed to do exactly nothing.

As we waded into a class discussion of this political negligence, I stressed a refrain I am moving toward more and more often: political will.

The godawful Truth of the matter is that public schools in high-poverty black communities—notably those along the I-95 corridor—are underfunded, marginalized, and essentially left to chance exactly because this is what we want in the state.

Nowhere in the U.S. at the state or federal level is there a lack of money, resources, or expertise to do anything we wish to do. What we choose to do and what we choose to ignore are exactly what we want.

In 2014, I wrote this poem:

It is a poem about political will, about the tyranny of the privileged and the consequences of that tyranny for marginalized groups; I highlight women and children, but this is also about black and brown people, people in poverty, religious minorities, foreign nationals, transgender people, gay people—anyone not of the centered community that is white, male, straight, and a certain kind of superficial Christian.

A former student of mine, Lucas Patterson, posted a Nikki Giovanni poem on Facebook, “Allowables,” and I felt my heart sink:

allowables

In fact, I felt sick physically and in my soul because of this:

Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby, identified as the officer who shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Friday night, has offered her side of the story in the fatal encounter.

In dashcam and helicopter video released by police, Crutcher appears to have his hands up moments before he is shot by Shelby. Shelby’s attorney, Scott Wood, maintains that Crutcher refused to follow more than two dozen commands and that he reached into the open window of the car before Shelby perceived a threat and shot him….

Shelby believed that when Crutcher attempted to reach into the car, he was retrieving a weapon, Wood said. In her interview with homicide detectives, she said, “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then,” according to Wood.

Just as people who call themselves Christian and patriots will without a thought crush a spider under the soles of their shoes, those people will and have created this world and allow it to be exactly as they want it to be.

A world where black men’s names become hash tags as inconsequential as court cases being settled.

A world of unwarranted privilege at the expense of the Other.

The world was exactly as they expected, exactly as they knew it to be.

And mostly not as it could have been, or should have been.