Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

School Rankings as Racist, Classist Propaganda

On 20 May 2019, the Charleston Post and Courier offered this: Here’s what it takes for a SC school to be the No. 1 public high school in the US. And here is what is newsworthy:

The news was out before the sound of the school announcement system crackled through the halls: Academic Magnet High, long regarded as the top-performing high school in South Carolina, had climbed to No. 1 in a national ranking of public high schools.

Just three days later, The State (Columbia, SC) reported: Richland 1’s elite elementary school is also its whitest and least impoverished. This coverage explains:

Like all parents, Sara McBride just wanted her son to get the best possible education.

That’s why she tried to get her son into Richland 1’s highest-ranked school: Brockman Elementary. A school where class sizes are small and teachers’ advanced degrees and experience nets them a higher average salary.

The South Carolina Department of Education provides for 1270 public schools in the state a Poverty Index; for 2018, Academic Magnet High is the #1 least impoverished school in the entire state, and Brockman Elementary is #57, placing these two celebrated schools in the top 4.5% of all schools in the state in terms of extremely low poverty as well as disproportionate racial imbalances (Brockman is 75% white and AMH has only 3.5% black enrollment).

SC as a state ranks in the bottom ten of high-poverty states (about an 18% poverty rate) and has a relatively high percentage of black citizens (28%) as well as about 5-6% Hispanic/Latinx.

Across the U.S., there are some harsh facts about measurable student outcomes and demographics of students being served. Race, socioeconomic status, first language, and special needs are all highly correlated with those measurable outcomes.

High poverty, majority-minority schools with high percentages of ELL and special needs students have historically low test scores.

Therefore, these rankings and labels such as “elite” are gross misrepresentations of school quality.

Imagine if we had some hospitals that admitted only well patients and then ranked those against the hospitals serving curably sick patients as well as hospitals only admitting the terminally ill.

Can you guess how they would rank if we used health of the patients as the data for ranking?

This is more than just a problem of semantics, but to be blunt, these schools are not elite; they are selective—one overtly (AMHS) and one indirectly (BE).

These rankings and then the media coverage that perpetuates the rankings mask some powerful and essential facts that if confronted could help drive substantial social and educational reform that would serve students in SC much more directly.

First, public schools are primarily a reflection of the communities they serve; high-poverty communities have high-poverty schools, and both the communities and those schools suffer under enormous burdens related to a wide array of inequities linked to racism and poverty.

Second, schools almost never change the burdens of those communities. In fact, formal schooling has structures that tend to perpetuate and even intensify the inequities of high-poverty and racial minority communities—inequitable discipline policies, tracking, inequitable teacher assignment, inability to attract and retain experienced and certified teachers.

Magnet (AMHS) and choice (BE) mechanisms work to increase inequity because affluent and privileged students are over-served while poor students, racial minorities, ELL, and special needs students are systematically excluded through direct and invisible structures (choice, for example, often requires parents who can provide transportation and the time needed for transportation).

Conversely, poor students and racial minorities are over-identified as having special needs while also being under-identified in other sorting structures such as gifted and talented.

In-school inequities also include that wealthy and white student are more often served by experienced and certified teachers while sitting in classes with lower student/teacher ratios (typically correlated with being in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tracks). High-poverty students and racial minority students experience just the opposite—inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers and high student/teacher ratios as well as more remedial and test-prep courses.

Continuing to rank schools while also maintaining a disproportionate concern for narrow data (test scores) serves only to misrepresent how well students are learning, how well schools are serving their students, and how our policies and practices are in fact guaranteeing success and failure for children born into privilege or disadvantage through no effort or fault of their own.

The real news in the two articles above is that SC has a long history of political malfeasance—a lack of political will—and a compliant media that simply refuse to label racism and classism for what they are.

U.S. Education a Scam and a Rigged Game

iceberg on water

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Many years ago while I was a high school English teacher, I began to advocate strongly against the influence of the SAT, and all standardized testing. One of the few sources for that criticism was work by Alfie Kohn, whose publications received pretty harsh resistance from the testing industry.

One of my best friends and colleagues while teaching high school left for higher education before I did, and as I would several years later, found himself teaching at a selective liberal arts college. He taught education foundations, where he included some of my work and Kohn’s confronting the failures of testing and the SAT specifically.

What my friend and former colleague discovered is that students at a selective liberal arts college did not receive well his message or the evidence about the inequity in high-stakes standardized testing and college admission exams.

As the recent college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues, is gradually unmasking, people with privilege are powerfully invested in proving their merit—even if that veneer has to be manufactured at great expense.

I have been very successful at every level of formal education, attaining what is ominously called a “terminal degree.” Along that journey, I worked very hard, and simultaneously, the journey was nearly effortless because it required skills that I have mostly been quite adept at completing.

As well, I have been a professional educator for 35-plus years, at both the K-12 and higher education levels, including public and private schools.

In those experiences, I have been afforded incredible privilege because I am white and male. But I also have been often at arm’s length from that privilege in some ways because of my working-class background and my ideological alienation from my personal and professional communities.

Most difficult has been that despite my educational accomplishments and career as an educator, I have witnessed and then argued that while formal education is often framed as powerful in terms of how it shapes society and people (the “great equalizer” and “game changer” mantras), the reality of K-12 and higher education in the U.S. is that they mostly reflect and reinforce our inequities along racial, economic, and gender lines.

With the so-called college admissions scandal before us, I hope we can have larger discussions of what the purpose of education is and how access to education must be as sacred as what happens once students enter school.

The scandal exposes that education is not a game changer, but a marker for privilege. The wealthy are always branding, always seeking ways to be associated with the aura of quality.

Wealthy celebrities needed a daughter to attend USC for the prestige that attending Arizona State did not offer. This is no outlier, but an extreme example of how the wealthy perpetuate and are drawn to “elite” institutions, whether it be selective pre-schools, private K-12 academies, or the Ivey League.

Some experiences I have noticed throughout my teaching career include a misunderstanding of teaching and learning compounded at selective (mislabeled as “elite”) colleges by a wish among faculty to take credit for the existing so-called excellence in students admitted.

Let me explain with some historical context first.

The concept of universal public education in the U.S. is expressed very well as an ideal by the deeply flawed elitist Thomas Jefferson in the following passages:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

I… [proposed] three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life and such as should be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally and in their highest degree… The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor. (p. 791)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Door, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

The recent college admissions scandal is but the tip of the iceberg of privilege that has already sunk the Titanic plan detailed above by Jefferson, himself an original elitist unable to make his ideal real.

So, since these lofty claims established formal education in the U.S., we have instead embraced a deficit ideology—framing students needing to learn as a flaw of the student and a burden on the teacher (misunderstanding teaching and learning)—and creating formal education as a mechanism of enculturation (institutions that either label and shame those deemed deficient or label and praise those deemed elite).

If we pull back from the scandal and how this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the wealthy gaming everything along a spectrum from inequitable and unethical to outright criminal, we must also interrogate that we have failed the ideals of not only universal public education (K-16), but also the potential of education to revolutionize society and individuals.

Many students who need that ideal education the most are disenfranchised from or disillusioned by formal schooling while many privileged students are deeply invested in the game of formal schooling even as the education itself mostly washing over and by them.

In both cases, education is a scam and a rigged game.

While we are hand wringing over the college admissions scam, my home state of South Carolina has rejected provisions in a new education bill calling to lower some student/teacher ratios, claiming such mandates are too expensive.

However, in public schools across the state, mostly white and affluent students sit daily in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes with incredibly low student/teacher ratios, classes often next door to so-called regular classes at and above state maximums for student/teacher loads.

Inequity serving the wealthy and white and mis-serving everyone else—this is a feature of our systems and institutions, including schools, not a glitch—as some seem to suggest about the admissions scandal.

Today, in 2019, formal education in the U.S. is mostly a disturbing snapshot of how we are a people mostly using rhetoric to hide the power and momentum of privilege.

There is really nothing shocking about the admissions scandal, unless you want to pretend it is something other than the tip of a very old and very large iceberg of privilege that defines the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

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?

Tiny Houses, Poverty Appropriation, and Stepping Back as a Critical Move

Once you cross that line into critical consciousness, nothing else is ever the same—professionally or personally. While I doubt this was Jeff VanderMeer’s intent, his Area X of the Southern Reach Trilogy provides a perfect metaphor for this critical “you can’t go home again.”

Maybe the most pressing aspect of being critical is the loneliness, the isolation you recognize when you are no more at home among traditional/conservative environments or progressive/liberal ones.

A close second is the exhaustion felt once you realize being critical is not something you can simply turn off in order to function at the so-called normal level—just to be one of the crowd among friends.

I was reminded of this while grabbing lunch and falling into a conversation with a very smart and very critical friend who was reading about tiny houses.

Here’s the great critical mistake: I had already worked through tiny houses (the problem with poverty appropriation) and just shut the door (hint: if you ever shut the door, you ain’t being critical).

So when my friend spoke positively about tiny houses and the movement, we did what we do: Launching into a fairly passionate conversation that certainly sounded to anyone nearby like an argument.

My first response to this exchange is to confess that I was guilty of not doing the critical move that everyone should make: No matter where you stand on an issue, no matter how much you have unpacked and teased through all the complications, you must always be willing to step back and look again, to listen once more.

Further, as I made my claims, I recognized that my argument about most issues being way more complicated than people realize is incredibly relevant to how we should respond to the tiny house movement—which does smack of poverty appropriation but also promotes a critical investigation of what it means to create a space for living as well as what it means to be a consumer trapped in the allure of gathering ever-more stuff.

The discussion unfolded along a clear line—my skepticism about the majority of those embracing the tiny house movement versus my friend’s appreciation for the possibilities of tiny house ideologies.

We also were wrestling with to what degree do intentions matter, the good intentions problem.

Ultimately, the tiny house movement does present a real concern about poverty appropriation, but the movement itself also forces anyone who is critical to return to an important aspect of being critical, the need to step back and recognize that no issue is as simple as most people think.

So what do we do once we see the poverty appropriation in the tiny house movement, once our critical consciousness is triggered?

Resist a blanket discounting seems a wise caution.

Continue to study, to listen, seems a necessary step as well so here are some ways I found to continue thinking critically about the tiny house movement:

Navigating the tiny house movement may seem too academic, too removed from our every day lives (since some of our discussion was strongly grounded in how being privileged allows someone to make decisions that can easily trivialize many people’s lives that are without such choices). But I think how we manage this issue is a powerful example of all of our living once we have critical consciousness.

To be critical, Paulo Freire argued, is to resist fatalism, and thus, if our critical sensibility erases hope, unpacks anything and everything so finely that we are left paralyzed, then we are not being critical.

To be critical is to recognize that being human is a political act; we are always securing the status quo or affecting change. No other option exists.

Being critical must not be reduced to mere academic dismantling—the state of fatalism—if it is to remain critical, and thus revolutionary.

Being critical is not mere cynicism, not the calloused dismissing of a hand waved.

And that leads me to a final thought on being critical: Surround yourself with smart friends, and then be always ready to listen.

To return to my opening nod, Vandermeer’s Area X, we must add to our critical consciousness that interrogating tiny houses, for example, is a subset of investigating the larger systems within which any movement or behavior exists (my friend uses an analogy to veganism, trying to unpack its ethics versus the ethics of meat eating).

Area X is expanding, seemingly unstoppable, and it changes everything, including people (maybe replacing them with copies) and anyone’s perception of reality.

There is always another level if we are willing to step back far enough, but as soon as we do, we often see ourselves in the mirror of criticism, and then, another layer of discomfort awaits us.

I certainly need to keep stepping back. I certainly need to face myself in that mirror.