The Never-Ending Allure of Scientific Racism

Who in their right mind would argue with a Harvard geneticist?

I mean Harvard. And geneticist.

And then, who in their right mind would argue with a Harvard geneticist published in the New York Times.

I mean New York Times.

And therein lies the essential problem with the NYT publishing David Reich’s How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race,’ followed up, of course, by the eager “Hey, look! A Harvard geneticist said this thing we have been saying! A Harvard geneticist!” (The short version of Andrew Sullivan’s Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It.)

Not to belabor, but to make a case, possibly that most people can grasp in a way that isn’t oversimplified and misleading (see Reich’s mess as I will detail below), I want to focus on the argument at the core of Reich’s piece that both misrepresents and conveniently ignores how we should best understand race and then racism.

Here’s the key part from Reich:

It is true that race is a social construct. It is also true, as Dr. Lewontin wrote, that human populations “are remarkably similar to each other” from a genetic point of view.

But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy maintains that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.

Reich suffers from what many so-called elite experts struggle to resist; he feels quite qualified to hold forth on everything just because some people look to him as an expert in one thing.

That he has framed this “orthodoxy” as “average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial” and “those differences can be ignored” serves two disturbing purposes: first, it sets him up to explain that science argues these differences are, in fact, not trivial, and second, it provides him cover for never confronting the actual orthodoxy about race (how it becomes a blunt tool of racism) in the U.S. and much of the Western world.

So let me now offer a counter-argument, although I am but a lowly education professor.

To be frank, I don’t know a damned person of any intelligence who thinks there are not easily identifiable differences among humans along a wide spectrum of characteristics to classify people. There is no blasphemy to stating that men and women are different, that our social identification of people by skin color (most common use of “race”) also can be used to recognize differences.

But Reich completely misses the boat on the consequences of identifiable differences among humans, and here is the most important point, how identifiable differences become substantial in the hands of the powerful.

You see, the thing Reich and scientific racism refuse to confront is the issue of power.

Here is how human structures have mostly worked: Any group that gains power becomes to some degree insular (tribal) and then idealizes those distinct qualities of the tribe in order to create structures that honor those features while using identifiable differences in the weak to keep them subjugated.

In other words, while Reich seems to think there is some sort of “I don’t see race” orthodoxy in the U.S. and West, he fails to see himself that this isn’t the case, and that “not seeing race [or differences]” isn’t even the goal.

The problem, then, is not if we can isolate, quantify, and thus emphasize something called “intelligence,” and it isn’t even that when we have done and do that now, that we can then also identify differences.

The problem is two-fold: The markers for intelligence are determined by those in power (thus, they are arbitrary) and tend to represent well those in power while marginalizing those who are powerless, and then, that process invariably uses the allure of “scientific” to entrench power deeper for the powerful and disadvantage further the weak.

The reading of “scientific” as “objective” in the pursuit of highlighting and labeling differences is where Reich and others completely fail this debate; this, in fact, is the primary province of scientific racism.

So humans are confronted with the ever-growing body of knowledge about our genetics, what makes us human as well as what makes us unique among and even within our tribes, and we cannot simply take off our socially constructed races like we are discarding an old suit.

The pursuit of quantifying intelligence, the purview of scientific racism, is at its core about proving that the winners deserved to win, about proving that the losers deserved to lose, about denying the power of privilege and inequity.

I am deeply skeptical of Reich’s hand wringing since it remains trapped in the codes of “scientific” and absent any real confrontation of not that humans have differences but how power shapes what happens to those differences.

I am skeptical because that track record on science and racism is quite ugly, and it isn’t one that is tucked away in our dark past.

The daily use of measurement in education and how that makes differences fatalistic (the wealthy are nearly guaranteed their privileges and the disadvantaged are bound to their lives of inequity) is how we do the science of intelligence now.

That is an orthodoxy that should be exposed, unpacked, and dismembered.

Recommended

Populations are not races

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American Emperor: The Harrison Bergeron Presidency

When The New Yorker published a cover presenting Donald Trump nude in front of reporters, some mainstream and social media commentary accused the publication of body shaming:

I had two different responses. First, the cover reminded me of Trump’s own repeated body shaming of Alicia Machado, Miss Universe, and then doubling down on that shaming when the issue was raised during the presidential debates. And second, my literary mind assumed the image was an allusion to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In the first case, the rush to defend Trump against behavior he himself has demonstrated fits into a disturbing pattern concerning Trump and the women he abuses. Every time Stormy Daniels is mentioned in the press related to Trump, she is slut shamed, while his many and varied transgression remain unmentioned—accusations of sexually violating his first wife (initially framed as “rape”), on-the-record boasting about being a sexual predator, and a series of marriages that ended after adultery (including Daniels and Karen McDougal admitting to affairs with Trump in the early years of his current marriage).

Trump has taken the Ronald Reagan Teflon presidency to an entirely new level.

The allusion to Anderson’s tale that has spawned “the emperor has no clothes” is particularly important in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting and the rise of teens protesting for gun control.

Yes, Anderson’s parable points a finger at the delusional emperor—no stretch seeing how this speaks volumes today about Trump—but also key is that the only person in the empire willing to say the truth is a child: “‘But he hasn’t got anything on,’ a little child said.”

As I have discussed before, the rise of Trump can be seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a story often misread but that captures perfectly how a people’s irrational fear of totalitarianism, a militarized state, can lead to idealizing an equally dangerous option, the megalomaniac rugged individual.

In Vonnegut’s dark satire, the latter is Bergeron:

“Clanking, clownish, and huge” as well as “wear[ing] at all times a red rubber ball for a nose,” Harrison bursts into the story with “‘I am the Emperor!’”

In the U.S. currently, the latter is Trump, our American emperor.

However, as my premise for Trumplandia argues, Trump himself, the bombastic and hollow clown, is not the problem; all those so willing to defend and support him, that is the ultimate problem, possibly one that is unsurmountable.

Like those defending guns who are immune to facts, clutching their weapons almost entirely out of irrational fear and for symbolic effect, Trump supporters simply revel in lies.

Parkland, Florida student David Hogg, like the child in Anderson’s parable, has been one of many teens to speak truth to power, notably the NRA and Trump, since the most recent mass shooting at his school. As a result, these teens have been attacked, almost always through fake news and baseless slurs.

Hogg was, for example, accused of not being on campus during the shooting, a fake news story that someone posted on Facebook. I immediately posted a link explaining that not only was the story fake news, but also that the original post had already admitted such.

The response I received was a blunt “I don’t care” this is false, and then the poster called Hogg a series of slurs, none of which have any foundation in facts. Anyone viewed as a partisan political, ideology enemy is fair game to savage; anyone viewed as a partisan political, ideological ally is above any criticism.

This pattern, again witnessed in the gun control debate, occurs daily, fed by right-wing media, not just trolls. Laura Ingraham also attacked Hogg, and Meghan McCain launched into the Parkland protesters for profanity, although her Twitter feed has been exposed for the same language (her Twitter bio includes, for example, #FuckCancer).

And not inconsequential is the occasional hand wringing in the media about why Evangelical Christians, typically identified without the key element of “white,” continue to support Trump, pathological liar and serial adulterer.

In this time of the American emperor, it may be relevant to note that Easter in a few days falls on April Fool’s Day.

Delusion is a powerful thing, deluding others as well as self-delusion.

Religious dogma in the service of power, and not in the service of Good, has a long history, and therefore, when Easter and April Fool’s Day overlap on 1 April 2018, we may have come to the real national holiday of Trumplandia.

Trumplandia is a people who love their lies even when they know they are lies.

Even a child can see that.

The Rational and Irrational of Protection and Guns

Few issues expose the ineffectiveness of evidence and research on people’s beliefs and fears than the gun debate.

Social media prove to be terrible avenues for such exchanges as well, but one recurring argument about gun control is that some gun advocates who fear gun control are driven by a mostly rational urge to protect themselves, their families, and their possessions.

As a subset of the larger debate about the possibility of using gun control to curb mass and school shootings as well as all types of gun violence—all of which are far more common in the U.S. than other democracies across Europe and Scandinavia—arguments for in-home gun ownership for protection often fail the evidence test. In fact, those who cling to guns and oppose gun control because of concerns about protection tend to offer “what if” arguments and depend on anecdote.

This exposes a fundamental lack of awareness among many, if not most, people that significant bodies of research on guns, gun control, and gun violence have been conducted, and while we do not know everything definitively, we know quite a lot—and we do not have to speculate, and we do not need to depend on fear or irrational scenarios.

Evidence, in fact, suggests that even if gun ownership can contribute to protection and self-defense, the negative consequences of guns in the home far outweigh that possibility—suicides, accidental shootings, and domestic violence.

Research also shows that other strategies often prove better for protection and safety than returning or using gun fire.

But, since social media are a hot mess for this reason, no one should accept the claims above simply because I make them here in this post. Therefore, here is what I can find accessible online:

Statistics on the Dangers of Gun Use for Self-Defense (Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence)

Though guns may be successfully used in self-defense even when they are not fired, the evidence shows that their presence in the home makes a person more vulnerable, not less.  Instead of keeping owners safer from harm, objective studies confirm that firearms in the home place owners and their families at greater risk.  Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that living in a home where guns are kept increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by between 40 and 170%.2  Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology similarly found that “persons with guns in the home were at greater risk of dying from a homicide in the home than those without guns in the home.”  This study determined that the presence of guns in the home increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by 90%.3

Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study | American Journal of Epidemiology

Abstract

Data from a US mortality follow-back survey were analyzed to determine whether having a firearm in the home increases the risk of a violent death in the home and whether risk varies by storage practice, type of gun, or number of guns in the home. Those persons with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 1.9, 95% confidence interval: 1.1, 3.4). They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide, but risk varied by age and whether the person was living with others at the time of death. The risk of dying from a suicide in the home was greater for males in homes with guns than for males without guns in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 10.4, 95% confidence interval: 5.8, 18.9). Persons with guns in the home were also more likely to have died from suicide committed with a firearm than from one committed by using a different method (adjusted odds ratio = 31.1, 95% confidence interval: 19.5, 49.6). Results show that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.

Injuries and deaths due to firearms in the home

Abstract
OBJECTIVE:
Determine the relative frequency with which guns in the home are used to injure or kill in self-defense, compared with the number of times these weapons are involved in an unintentional injury, suicide attempt, or criminal assault or homicide.

METHODS:
We reviewed the police, medical examiner, emergency medical service, emergency department, and hospital records of all fatal and nonfatal shootings in three U.S. cities: Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; and Galveston, Texas.

RESULTS:
During the study interval (12 months in Memphis, 18 months in Seattle, and Galveston) 626 shootings occurred in or around a residence. This total included 54 unintentional shootings, 118 attempted or completed suicides, and 438 assaults/homicides. Thirteen shootings were legally justifiable or an act of self-defense, including three that involved law enforcement officers acting in the line of duty. For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.

CONCLUSIONS:
Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.

Gun owners say they buy for protection, but harm is more likely

Meanwhile, there are at least four distinct risks from having a gun in the home:

  • Legal liability, as illustrated by the Springport case. Law enforcement officials warn using a gun in self defense can put a gun owner in legal jeopardy if they injure or kill someone and a prosecutor decides the shooting doesn’t fit Michigan’s fairly narrow allowable uses of deadly force.
  • Risk of an accidental shooting. In 2016, Michigan had at least 73 accidental shootings that resulted in death or injury, including 15 events that involved children under age 12, according to Gun Violence Archive, a website that tracks self-defense shootings from a variety of sources.
  • Risk of a gun being used against a family member, friend or acquaintance during an argument. Four out of five gun homicide victims in Michigan are killed by someone they know, based on an MLive analysis of cases where the relationship between shooter and victim was reported.
  • Increased risk of suicide, since guns provide a particularly convenient and lethal means of self-harm. A majority of Michigan gun deaths are suicides, not homicides, and counties with high rates of gun suicides also have higher rates of suicides overall.

Firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths

Abstract
BACKGROUND:
Between 1979 and 1997, almost 30,000 Americans died from unintentional firearm injuries, half of whom were under 25 years of age and 4,600 of whom were less than 15 years old.

PURPOSE:
To explore the association between state firearm levels and rates of unintentional firearm deaths by age group, accounting for several potential confounders.

METHODS:
The study used a proxy for firearm availability and pooled cross-sectional time-series data on unintentional firearm deaths for the 50 United States from 1979 to 1997. Negative binomial models were used to estimate the association between firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths.

RESULTS:
A statistically significant and robust association exists between gun availability and unintentional firearm deaths for the US as a whole and within each age group. Multivariate analysis found that, compared to states with the lowest gun levels, states with the highest gun levels had, on average, 9 times the rate of unintentional firearm deaths. These results hold among men and women, for Whites and African Americans.

CONCLUSION:
Of the almost 30,000 people who died in unintentional firearm deaths over the 19-year study period, a disproportionately high number died in states where guns are more prevalent. The results suggest that the increased risk of unintentional violent death among all age groups is not entirely explained by a state’s level of poverty, urbanization, or regional location.

Myth vs. Fact: Debunking the Gun Lobby’s Favorite Talking Points – Center for American Progress

Myth: Owning a gun makes you safer

Fact: Owning a gun puts you at heightened risk for gun violence

The NRA often argues that the United States is a dangerous place and that owning and carrying a gun is the only way to protect both oneself and one’s family. While gun ownership is certainly one option for home defense, a growing body of data and research shows that owning a gun also increases the risk of a gun-related tragedy occurring in the home.

  • Numerous studies have found that gun ownership increases the risk of both gun-related homicides and suicides.1
  • Guns in the home are particularly dangerous for victims of domestic violence. The presence of a gun in a home with a history of domestic violence increases the risk that a woman will be killed by 500 percent.2
  • Guns intended for self-defense are commonly involved in fatal accidents. Studies have shown that across states, higher levels of gun ownership are linked to higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths.3

Guns are used far more often in criminal homicides than in justifiable acts of self-defense. In 2014, for every self-defense gun homicide in the United States, guns were used in 34 criminal homicides.4

Seeking safety is a rational urge for anyone, but associating guns and gun ownership with greater safety is irrational, guaranteeing more violence and death in fact.

Beware Adversity Porn

With the current high-profile coverage of Stormy Daniels in mainstream media, the public is bombarded with subtle (“adult-film star”) and not-so-subtle (“porn-star client”) attempts to slut-shame Daniels through her profession in the porn industry.

This obsession with Daniels, reducing her always to porn star in order to keep our eyes on here and not Trump, reveals much about the inherent sexism and Puritanical love-hate relationship with sex that characterize Americans.

While the evidence is not as clear as many think about the dangers of pornography, something else insidious confronts the U.S. in our media and pop culture—adversity porn.

ESPN’s E:60 episode, “Letterman,” offers but one example of what I mean by adversity porn:

As TJ Cotterill reported when the episode premiered in 2015:

The first-year Lincoln coach said the inner-city schools – one in Tacoma, the other Los Angeles – share similar issues with drug abuse, poor grades, low incomes and single-family homes. Only Lincoln has a support system that didn’t exit at Bernstein.

But his endeavor to change Bernstein’s culture – symbolized though emotional letters of love he asked parents to write to his team’s players that they were surprised with and read on their own before the team’s practice – will be featured at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday on ESPN’s “E:60.”

Viewers meet and come to empathize with several boys and men of color who all share some highlighted characteristics—the absent father, socio-economic hardship, struggles to succeed in traditional settings such as school.

In one moment, a featured boy at half-time of a football game implores his teammates to play like inner-city players; he is shouting, much as the coach, who the episode stresses has a similar background to his players, does throughout footage of his coaching.

This is adversity porn, the romanticizing of people who find themselves in adversity and then demonstrate the nearly super-human will to scream at and fight their way above that adversity.

The Coach plays the role of “I have overcome” and proceeds to be the savior for the boys and their parents, who are framed as passively negligent or unaware until the coach asks them to write letters to their sons.

Designed to be inspiring, adversity porn such as this (and examples can be found almost daily across the U.S.) depends on and perpetuates some ugly messages about people of color and people trapped in poverty; they are flawed people who need to be changed, and that problem is cloaked in code (“culture”).

Adversity porn accomplishes what much of mainstream media and pop culture sell constantly by keeping the public gaze on individuals, those who bend to adversity and those who somehow rise above adversity.

But isn’t this just a feel-good story about these boys, their coach, and their families?

The “feel-good” part is the problem because it is the soma, the Novocaine that numbs us to the real problem that adversity porn helps avoid—the adversity itself.

Adversity porn is about flawed people, and it normalizes the outliers who seem to overcome adversity. Adversity porn matches well the urge to turn our schools into fortresses instead of addressing the larger gun culture that threatens our students’ safety.

This is our rugged individualism myth that is both a lie and a distraction.

Of course, heroic and exceptional people are compelling. We love the gods of our mythologies and the superheroes of our Marvel and DC universes.

But those expectations imposed onto all humans serves only to erase any recognition of our shared and individual humanity. To live in adversity is shamed, and then to fail at rising above that adversity is more shame.

Adversity porn’s focus on the individuals and not the adversity is its ultimate corrosive influence.

New stories that acknowledge and unmask the adversity and then create hero narratives about the people in privilege who use their privilege to end the adversity, not to shame and “fix” the people who are victims of adversity—this is what we need.

No white saviors or white-savior stand-ins, no finger wagging at parents who labor under the weight of poverty, no romanticizing abusive behavior (screaming, berating) and toxic masculinity masked as “tough love.”

“Porn,” broadly, represents that which we are in some compelling and possibly even obsessive way drawn to, attracted to. The porn content itself may not be the problem, but the obsession and the distorting impact that obsession produces are likely the real problems.

Adversity porn creates overly simplistic pictures of the people trapped in adversity; then it callously ignores the adversity itself, sending a deformed message about the fatalism of adversity and the lottery that is surviving or thriving.

Ultimately, adversity porn argues that we need to instill in people trapped in adversity the grit and tenacity to overcome, but a more humane goal would be to seek ways to end the adversity itself, a goal that may be less sexy because it would require the sort of grit we demand of the poor and oppressed in those with privilege who rest on the fact of adversity themselves.

GUEST POST: In Defense of Civic Engagement in Schools

Brian Charest, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Redlands
School of Education
Department of Teaching and Learning

Last week, we saw firsthand the incredible democratic potential and power of civic engagement. Hundreds of thousands of students across the country, in places like Los Angeles and Chicago, from New York to Parkland, and many small towns and cities in between, peacefully walked out of their schools and universities to protest gun violence in the US.

We heard the impassioned voices of students speaking out and urging legislators not only to look carefully at the research that supports gun safety regulations, but also to act on this research by passing sensible public safety legislation that protects our young people. These students (who some are calling activists), with their earnest, inspired, and eloquent speeches, are not only an amazing antidote to the cynicism infecting so much of our national politics (they even convinced our president to reverse his positions on gun safety—if only temporarily), they are also an example to us all of what civic engagement can look like when we make it a priority in schools.

Yet, there are still some who have openly criticized and tried to intimidate these students. Make no mistake, the people making these threats to these students are attempting to undermine our democracy. We should all be vigilant when we see these types of smear campaigns aimed at silencing or intimidating our fellow citizens. When people are silenced, debate ends and democracy ceases to function. We have an ethical obligation, as educators, to engage in debate with our students and to ask questions with them about how to change the world for the better.

Let’s remember this: it was a group of high school students in Parkland who stood up and spoke out against some of the most powerful and well-funded special interests in our country and started a national movement. We might begin by asking why would such powerful groups need to threaten and intimidate a group of young adults exercising their rights to participate? The answer, of course, is that these students are engaging in the public sphere and making powerful arguments to change our society for the better. What’s more, because of who they are and where they come from, they’re being heard. Why these students have the power and privilege to be heard is also worth examining. The point here, of course, is that all of these questions are worth asking and asking them now is part of what it means to be civically engaged. And, the lesson here is that people can often out organize the big money and special interests. Who wouldn’t want students to learn this lesson?

If we believe that our democracy requires citizen participation, then all of us no matter what side of the debate we find ourselves, should be supporting school walkouts, rather than discouraging them. Why? Because civic engagement is necessary for our democracy to function. This is also an opportunity to for educators to redefine what civic engagement means in schools.

So, while I understand the urge to call these students activists, doing so undermines the core responsibilities that fall to all ordinary citizens. In other words, citizenship includes both rights and responsibilities. Each of us is both responsible for participating and also exercising our rights in our democracy. When we call citizen participation activism, though, we turn it into something that’s viewed as outside the norm, when, in fact, citizen participation is a requirement for a healthy democracy.

Too often, civic participation in our schools and communities is reduced to following the laws, voting, contributing to a political campaign, or volunteering. All of these forms of civic participation are important, no doubt, but citizenship doesn’t end there. Our country has a long history of civic participation and civil disobedience. This is something that we should teach our students about civic engagement. A healthy democracy requires that all of us get involved in public debates, participate in marches, speak out, protest, go on strike, or invent some new way to engage in the public sphere when necessary and appropriate.

One of the stated purposes of the current walkouts is to galvanize public support as a way to pressure lawmakers to enact effective gun safety legislation so that students will never again have to hide in fear or run for their lives from school. These students have had enough, and they are sending a clear message: listen to us, or we will vote you out of office.

What these students have discovered is that a majority of Americans support them and their stated goal of more and better gun safety legislation. But, that’s not all that these students have learned. They’ve also realized that money and special interests have undermined our democracy and that it’s up to ordinary citizens to fight back. Our elected officials are no longer supporting or enacting legislation that’s supported by a majority of Americans. What better reason than this could there be for a national call for civic participation?

Two more nationwide protests are scheduled to take place on March 24 and on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. As educators (including teachers, university faculty, researchers, and administrators), we should be publicly supporting, participating in, and helping to organize with our students, teachers, and principals in our schools and universities, who wish to participate in the upcoming protest against gun violence.

Our schools, for better or for worse, reflect our priorities as a society and should be spaces where students and teachers discuss what those priorities should be. In other words, even if we disagree about what to do about our culture of violence in the US, we should still support the rights of all citizens to participate in peaceful protests. There are many ways to respectfully include those who choose not to march or walkout. We can begin by engaging with them in dialogue about civic participation as well as debates about the root causes of gun violence and what to do about it.

In fact, those of us who work in schools and universities need to carve out time in our classes to research and discuss the root causes that have created a culture of violence in the US. Doing so would allow students to participate in an informed discussion about how to address the root causes of gun violence in our society. Such a conversation would examine the larger issues of public safety, the culture of violence in the US that equates masculinity with guns, bullying in schools and on campuses, violence against women in our society, the increase in militarism in schools that serve our most vulnerable youth (e.g, ROTC programs, military-run schools, junior police academies, etc.), state sanctioned violence through policing, and, perhaps, most importantly, the systemic racism that blinds us to the effects of gun violence in poor communities of color.

These national protests are the first step toward a public conversation about these root causes—a step that can help lead to the enactment of a public safety plan to reduce gun violence in the US. Such a plan would emerge from what we currently know about gun safety and gun violence prevention. Such a plan would also align with the views of a majority of Americans who believe in things like background checks for all gun buyers (93%), a ban on the sale of guns to anyone convicted of a violent crime (88%), and for waiting periods for all gun purchases (72%).

I urge all educators and advocates to take this moment to not only voice your support for civic engagement (no matter which side of the debate you’re on), but also take concrete steps to engage in the public gun safety debate. There are many ways to get involved, and we shouldn’t let this moment pass in silence.

This is an important moment for our nation, and students and teachers have an opportunity to not only debate the issue of public safety, but also get involved in a process of democratic policy making. Doing so would not only encourage teachers to teach about the power of civic engagement, but also provide an opportunity for students to see firsthand the importance of civic action in a democracy.

We need look no further than our own national history to know the power and promise of civic engagement. It has always been through a combination of careful study and vigorous debate combined with direct civic action that citizens have worked to shape their world for the better. If we don’t teach our students how to be citizens now, when will they learn to do it?

Twenty-first Century Smoking Gun?

My mother died of stage 4 lung cancer in early December 2017 after fumbling through life reduced by the weight of a stroke in June of the same year.

As a teen in the 1950s, she was taunted by her own mother for not smoking—and eventually caved, becoming a heavy smoker for decades, including while my sister and I were babies, children, and teens. We lived in the ever-present smoke of my parents, filling the house and the car.

My father resisted peer pressure when he was a teen and a four-sport letterman in high school. He used to tell us about sitting around socially with his friends smoking and drinking beer while he abstained from both, drinking milk in defiance instead.

He told these stories and others while sitting in our living room smoking and drinking Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. My father also regularly told us not to smoke or drink.

But by the time my parents married, my mom 19 and my dad turning 21 on their wedding day, they were a cool 1960s working-class couple, smoking their way toward the American Dream.

As a child, I remember being at my paternal grandparents’ house and all the adults were smoking. They even handed us cigarettes to try and laughed as we gagged.

We were children.

Another enduring memory of my childhood is my sister and me in the backseat of our family baby blue station wagon, no seat belts and the car filled with the smoke from both parents smoking.

This was early and mid-twentieth century America where media was saturated with alluring smokers on billboards [1] and TV, in magazine ads smiling, and romantically in films.

Product placement was in full swing, and at least part of the tar-and-nicotine-stained American Dream appeared to be several packs of cigarettes a day.

Paul Newman, set of The Hustler (1961)

When I was in high school, my father stopped mid-cigarette on the drive home from work one day, never smoking again. His death, a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, from heart failure, like hers, certainly can be traced to years of smoking, a habit that during their early lives seemed not only reasonable, but the cool thing to do.

But my mother persisted for many years after I moved out—even though during our childhood my sister and I often collected all her packs of Kool cigarettes, hiding them or writing imploring pleas for her to stop all over the packages.

I never smoked, or even felt compelled to smoke. I was a hopeful athlete so cigarettes seemed anathema to my faltering efforts to be the sort of athlete my father had been.

I abhorred smoking, cigarettes and the pot common among my peers during the 1970s, and throughout my teens and into adulthood, I became vigilant about non-smoking environments even though the world was by default a place for smokers for a good 40 years of my life.

Non-smoking sections in restaurants often required walking through the smoking section, the larger main area, to get to non-smoking. One chain restaurant had a lattice partition between non-smoking and smoking; the smoke drifted through the gaping holes rendering the division symbolic only.

Even in South Carolina and North Carolina (home of tobacco), this seems archaic today, even fantastical. Smoking now is prohibited in restaurants, and smokers have clearly been relegated to minority status.

The default of the second decade of the twenty-first century is non-smoking—a new normal that has come about from both free market responses and government mandate. In fact,many states still do not legislate smoke-free areas as one would think considering how common non-smoking environments have become.

I am in my sixth decade, and in my life time, cigarette smoking and Big Tobacco went from cool and powerful to shunned and unmasked. It wasn’t easy or quick, however.

Part of this cultural shift can be linked to the tobacco industry being exposed in 1994 by Congressional hearings and a major law suit a few years later.

Hindsight is 20/20, but my perspective on how the battle for non-smoking environments was won is captured well by Mike Campbell’s explanation for how he became bankrupt in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.'”

While I am not prone to optimism, I have been contemplating the shift from a smoking to a non-smoking culture in the US as some solace for those of us resisting fatalism about America’s gun culture.

I genuinely believe the smoking culture in this country, aided by Big Tobacco and negligent political leadership, killed my parents prematurely.

Today, I also believe the gun culture in this country, aided by the NRA and negligent political leadership, needlessly sacrifices countless lives for a hollow symbolic gesture that aligns guns with freedom.

But as the 1990s proved to be a tipping point for the rights and lives of non-smokers, I wonder if Parkland, Florida will prove to be equally important in hindsight for the fight to end mass and school shootings, to end pervasive gun violence, to end gun-assisted suicide.

Some day, I hope some day soon, I hope in what remains of my life time, that we will, like Mike Campbell, declare that our country’s corrosive gun lust ended gradually and then all at once.


[1] An early poem of mine:

billboard

(You! Driver) “Come to MARLBORO COUNTRY”:
a cowboy’s face looming over passing
cars with passengers racing, just lighting
like the cowboy’s massive fist; flat, paltry,
and weather-beaten, the billboard stands tall
and proud—a god-head begging for money,
promising a land of milk and honey.
He pushes both regular and menthol.

MARLBORO COUNTRY: Do come. Cough and gag
in the blackened swirling smoke, walk on low,
lifeless plains where tobacco once would grow
and light your decorated cancer fag.
Go ahead! Read the big words and inhale
the clear, clean manhood—the photographed smell.

The Death of Teaching and Learning in America

“We’re the mass shooting generation. I was born months after Columbine. I’m 17 years old and we’ve had 17 years of mass shootings,” Kasky said.

Parkland Students: ‘We’re The Mass Shooting Generation’

As a teacher educator, I am fortunate to maintain professional and personal relationships with wonderful early-career educators. But here are a couple stories from one young teacher I’d rather not tell.

First, this early-career teacher has distinguished herself already; in many ways, she represents the very best of who we all want to be teaching students. But at a recent meeting about pay and benefits next year, she was informed that the slight raise she was anticipating would be negated by new retirement deductions.

Her response: “I love to teach, but I know a day is coming when the negatives outweigh the benefits, and I just won’t be able to do this any more.” She added that this moment seemed to be coming sooner rather than later, that she wasn’t going to be a martyr.

As an English teacher, she also has been struggling with her canon: the steady drip, drip, drip of male authors exposed for sexual harassment and abuse—Garrison Keillor, J.D. Salinger, Sherman Alexie.

As she has confronted these issues, and stopped assigning those writers, she has witnessed students come against a very troubling reality; one student noted in class, “Everybody we read has committed sexual harassment.”

These two moments represent the professional weight of being a teacher—issues about pay and benefits as well as pedagogy.

Now, let’s mix in something that may prove even more daunting.

At the sparsely attended walk out on my campus, one student showed up with a sign: “I am scared to be an Ed Major.”

IMG_9701

The very real specter of schooling as a place in which students and teachers must be vigilant about safety, about the possibility of being shot; the very real specter of calls for turning schools into fortresses, with teachers armed like prison guards.

As David Edwards reports, students increasingly see attending school not as a place of learning, but a place to survive:

“It’s really scary,” the organizer added. “This is a turning point. Things really have to change. We won’t tolerate it. We won’t tolerate being scared to come into school. We won’t tolerate having to stay out of school because we’re scared. It has to change. We can’t be hunted.”

[MSNBC’s Ron] Allen observed that “hunted” was a “powerful word” to use in this context.

“I think that it’s become obvious that we’re the victims,” the girl insisted. “That we are the ones that are going to die if this continues. So I think that we have to fight to at least say that we don’t want to die.”

For decades now, many of us in education who believe in the possibility of universal public education have feared the death of teaching and learning, but we have imagined that coming from policy, free market and accountability approaches to so-called reform.

But something more sinister is happening: Schools have always labored under the weight of the communities they serve, and teaching and learning is now dying a slow and horrible death because of America’s gun culture combined with those bureaucratic monsters many of us were mostly pointing to.

In America, our students and teachers have become martyrs for our misguided politics and ideology—from abdicating teaching and learning to the standards and testing industry, to literally sacrificing lives in the name of gun lust.

Some of us have feared the death of public schools, the death of teaching and learning. Our outcry for decades now may have seemed like hyperbole—or to some, self-interested whining.

But now we are watching both the literal and figurative death of teaching and learning, and too many think the best recourse is doubling down on all the ways this death has come about.

As more and more teachers and students declare that they will not be martyrs, what role will the rest of us take—in their defense or to their demise?