Barbara Kingsolver: “everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up”

“So many of us have stood up for the marginalized,” explains writer Barbara Kingsolver in the wake of Trumplandia, “but never expected to be here ourselves,” adding:

It happened to us overnight, not for anything we did wrong but for what we know is right. Our first task is to stop shaming ourselves and claim our agenda. It may feel rude, unprofessional and risky to break the habit of respecting our government; we never wanted to be enemies of the state. But when that animosity mounts against us, everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up. Either one will have difficult consequences. That’s the choice we get.

She then calls for those of us with a social justice conscience to wear our hearts on our sleeves, including teachers:

If we’re teachers we explicitly help children of all kinds feel safe in our classrooms under a bullying season that’s already opened in my town and probably yours. Language used by a president may enter this conversation. We say wrong is wrong.

I have been using the writing of Kingsolver in both my high school English classes and a variety of college courses since the 1990s, and my first book-length examination of teaching a writer focused on Kingsolver.

The most enduring writing from Kingsolver for me as a teacher has been her essay writing. And while Kingsolver’s politics drives her fiction—such as Flight Behavior—and her poetry, there is a artistry to her essays that allows her politics to meander instead of immediately provoking.

For example, her collection Small Wonder grew out of 9/11, and the essays speak powerfully with a progressive voice that is unlike the American character and that challenges the flag-waving patriotism/nationalism the terrorism spurred across the U.S.

And while Kingsolver actually lives her convictions, her newest confrontation of what Trump means for the U.S. reads as an intensified Kingsolver-as-activist.

“We refuse to disappear,” she announces.

The American character has long misread and misrepresented the label “political,” and the rise of Trump may have, as Kingsolver argues, brought about inadvertently the change promised by Obama: “everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up. Either one will have difficult consequences.”

But only one—speaking up in the name of the good and the equitable—has the potential for the sort of consequences a free people should be seeking.

“Out of Time” in Post-Truth Trumplandia

We’ve been through fake-a-breakdown
Self-hurt, plastics, collections
Self-help, self-pain
EST, psychics, fuck all

“Country Feedback,” R.E.M.

Maybe this is the stuff of Legend, or false memory—or that the Russians can hack even that—but it seems R.E.M. kept a running list of possible album titles as they recorded, a practice often including daring titles left to linger with the specter of a very unlike-R.E.M. outcome.

For the now 25-year-old Out of Time, that title, I recall, came from a final statement on that board—the band was out of time for submitting the recordings and title.

That the album most associated with R.E.M. and their delayed rise to pop culture fame, fueled as well by their becoming MTV darlings, has turned 25 in the year of electing Trump seems cruelly painful, and whether or not my recollection about how the album was named is factual has become irrelevant in post-truth Trumplandia.

Throughout the 1980s, R.E.M. was immediately loved by Rolling Stone and the so-called college radio crowd, and they were a touring alternative rock success—a reality that had much to do with fans and music critics recognizing that within the realm of popular music, R.E.M. took their craft seriously and were uniquely adept at that craft.

By the time the band angered those 1980s alternative fans by signing a huge record contract with Warner Brothers, and then (gasp) achieved fame with “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. had become known as both a highly ethical band (making money but not selling out their artistic autonomy) and a political band; neither seemed to hurt the band in ways that other performers could not avoid (think many years later the fate of the Dixie Chicks).

Still now after the band has called it a day, after their fame dwindled into petty sniping at the albums produced after Bill Berry retired (Up, Reveal and Around the Sun unfairly slighted by critics and fans), after the inevitable rush to reconsider the enduring excellence once R.E.M. no longer was a practicing band—it is the politics of R.E.M. that fascinates me, from the more overtly political “Orange Crush” and “Ignoreland” to the ambiguously political “Fall on Me” or intimacy politics of “Tongue.”

Yes, Out of Time soared into the wider national and international consciousness with “Losing My Religion” as the least likely of hits (dare we say radio hit in the context of the album’s first song and the fact that this world is now a distant memory?) and an iconic tour-de-force in music videos.

But appreciating an album also requires taking the album as a whole:

Out of Time
01. Radio Song
02. Losing My Religion
03. Low
04. Near Wild Heaven
05. Endgame
06. Shiny Happy People
07. Belong
08. Half A World Away
09. Texarkana
10. Country Feedback
11. Me In Honey

The paradox of R.E.M., for me, is that the popularity of the band includes “Losing My Religion” and the odd controversy over the so-called too-poppy “Shiny Happy People”—and maybe that the album has guest vocals from KRS-One and Kate Pierson of the B-52s—but that many among those wider, late-to-the-party fans don’t understand: “I’m not sure all these people understand,” Stipe sings in the haunting and magnificent “Nightswimming.”

Maybe, just maybe, R.E.M. is about the politics of understanding, a call to the politics of intimacy.

Theirs is the art of the politics of the beautiful, of raising voices and instruments against all the unnecessary shit.

I fall in love hard with musical performers/groups and writers. And then I consume everything they create.

There is a direct line from my love affair with R.E.M. to The National, and especially with R.E.M. disbanding, my time and energy have been disproportionately committed to The National and CAKE.

So I have recently revisited Out of Time, and it has been lovely and tearful.

R.E.M. as the politics of the beautiful.

But the beautiful of Out of Time for me is “Low,” “Belong,” “Half a World Away,” and “Country Feedback.”

“I’ve had too much to drink/ I didn’t think, I didn’t think of you,” echoes into my bones—and then:

Oh, this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes, high-alive
Blind eye that turns to see
The storm it came up strong
It shook the trees and blew away our fear

The politics of the beautiful, the politics of understanding, the politics of intimacy.

“That’s me in the corner,” I suppose, “Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool.”

And I miss R.E.M.


The Zombie Politics of School Choice: A Reader

The original zombie narrative has been re-created and distorted in contemporary U.S. pop culture, as Victoria Anderson explains:

So what were zombies, originally? The answer lies in the Caribbean. They weren’t endlessly-reproducing, flesh-eating ghouls. Instead, the zombie was the somewhat tragic figure of a human being maintained in a catatonic state – a soulless body – and forced to labour for whoever cast the spell over him or her. In other words, the zombie is – or was – a slave. I always find it troubling that, somewhere along the line, we forgot or refused to acknowledge this and have replaced the suffering slave with the figure of a mindless carnivore – one that reproduces, virus-like, with a bite.

While there is some nuance and variety among the many ways in which U.S. pop culture have manipulated the zombie narrative, central to almost all of those is the zombie as relentless consumer who has risen from the dead and resists being killed permanently.

In that context, school choice is zombie politics because the ideology will not die and its many versions (vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools) are destructive.

A few decades ago, school choice advocacy depended on the appeal of the ideology itself since choice is idealized and fetishized in the U.S.

Once school choice policy began to be implemented, and then over the past 2-3 decades as evidence from how choice has not achieved the promises made, school choice advocacy has depended on constantly shifting the type of choice and the promises.

At the center of the school choice debate is a failure in the U.S. to appreciate the importance of the Commons, how publicly funded institutions are necessary for the free market to work (both economically and ethically).

For example, publicly funded roads and highways are powerful and essential for commerce in the U.S. Many resist toll roads in the U.S., and certainly, the entire economy and way of life in the U.S. would be destroyed if we left roads and highways to the whims of the Invisible Hand.

Two facts remain important now as the election of Donald Trump and the apparent choice for Secretary of Education suggest that the zombie politics of school choice has been rejuvenated:

  • The overwhelming evidence for all aspects of school choice show little differences when compared to traditional public schools; some aspects can certainly be categorized as harmful, and any so-called positives are erased when those gains are explained—attrition, comparing apples and oranges, selectivity, inability to scale, etc.
  • Idealizing parental choice fails to step back to the bedrock promise of publicly funded institutions: insuring that choice isn’t necessary.

Just as a blow to the head and brain can kill permanently the zombie, evidence and truth should eradicate the zombie politics of school choice. However, Trumplandia is a post-truth country.

None the less, the truth is our only real option so below is a reader to combat the zombie politics of school choice:

Idealizing, Misreading Impoverished and Minority Parental Choice 

Parental Choice, Magical Thinking, and the Paralysis of Indirect Solutions

School choice lessons for Charleston – Post and Courier

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

Don’t Buy School Choice Week

Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice

Work by Christopher Lubienski

The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private SchoolsChristopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski 

Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking – 2016 Collection, William J. Mathis (NEPC)

Julian Vasquez Heilig on vouchers

Julian Vasquez Heilig on charter schools

School Finance 101, Bruce Baker

School Vouchers Are Not a Cure For Segregation: Part I , Jersey Jazzman

Here are links to all five parts of the series:

On negative effects of vouchers, Mark Dynarski

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.

Another explanation is that our historical understanding of the superior performance of private schools is no longer accurate. Since the nineties, public schools have been under heavy pressure to improve test scores. Private schools were exempt from these accountability requirements. A recent study showed that public schools closed the score gap with private schools. That study did not look specifically at Louisiana and Indiana, but trends in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for public school students in those states are similar to national trends.

In education as in medicine, ‘first, do no harm’ is a powerful guiding principle. A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction. More needs to be known about long-term outcomes from these recently implemented voucher programs to make the case that they are a good investment of public funds. As well, we need to know if private schools would up their game in a scenario in which their performance with voucher students is reported publicly and subject to both regulatory and market accountability.

Failing The Test Series

Regardless of motives, the charter initiatives in Oakland and Los Angeles together signal a significant watershed in the growth of a statewide movement that was birthed by California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992 to create classroom laboratories that might develop the dynamic new curricula and teaching methods needed to reinvigorate schools that were failing the state’s most underserved and disadvantaged children.

How that modest experiment in fixing neighborhood public schools could morph in less than 25 years into the replacement of public schools with an unproven parallel system of privately run, taxpayer-funded academies is only half the story of California’s education wars that will be examined in this series, much of which is based on conversations with both sides of the charter school debate. Over the next few days Capital & Main will also look at:

  • The influence wielded by libertarian philanthropists who bankroll the 50-50 takeovers.
  • How charter schools spend less time and money on students with learning disabilities.
  • The lack of charter school transparency and accountability.
  • How charter expansion is pushing Oakland’s public school district toward a fateful tipping point.
  • The success of less radical yet more effective reforms that get scant media coverage.
  • Nine solution takeaways for struggling schools.

(from Failing the Test: A New Series Examines Charter Schools, Bill Raden)

Charters and Access: Here is Evidence, Julian Vasquez Helig

No, Eva, You Can’t Do Whatever You Want, Jersey Jazzman

Don’t Trust Invested Advocates in Edureform Wars

from Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[I]t is nothing short of disastrous that more than ever before, one antidemocratic system of ideas—market ideology—almost exclusively defines the terms of educational politics and charts the path of education reform

…[I]deology is important in understanding educational change….Ideology is nonetheless often overlooked or at best misapplied by mainstream social scientists as a factor in politics. This is due in part to the dominance of quantitative methodologies in political science, which leads to the trivialization of the concept into conveniently measurable but irrelevant labels….Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage. (pp. 3, 8-9)

from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)

Posts about school choice

Posts about charter schools

 

Daring to Confront Race and Class through Poetry in Trumplandia

My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches

“Half a World Away,” R.E.M.

Writing specifically about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and drawing on powerful words from Toni Morrison, Jocelyn Chadwick, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), argues in We Dare Not Teach What We Know We Must: The Importance of Difficult Conversations:

Our ELA classrooms take our children around the world and beyond—into past, present, and future worlds. We provide safe and trusted spaces for them where difficult conversations can and do take place. If at times teachers, at whatever level they teach, hit a roadblock, perhaps this impediment is due to or own predilections of codifying our students, stereotyping them before we even listen to them, much less get to know them….[T]he last time I checked, we teach students—not colors, not types. Perhaps it is we who need to stop and reread all of the texts we teach from the 21st-century perspective of students’ empowerment— empowerment that our literature provides….It has been some of us who have been demurring, listening to the voices of others, telling us we dare not teach what we know we must. (p. 91)

Published in English Journal in the month the U.S. elected Donald Trump, Chadwick’s confrontation of “some of us who have been demurring” and “difficult conversations” resonates in ways, I suspect, that even Chadwick may not have anticipated.

Toni Morrison’s words after the election also serve teachers of English Language Arts in the same way that Chadwick anchors her argument about our classrooms, the literature we explore, and the discussions we encourage and allow:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Morrison’s lament, we must recognize the weight of both race and social class on the American character. Morrison confronts white privilege and the consequences of that privilege being eroded: “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

As teachers of ELA, it is ours to dare, to dare to teach openly against the world within which our students live and within which our classrooms exist. In the spirit of Chadwick’s call to re-read, and I would add re-teach, literature in that light, please consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” from her collection Another America/Otra America provides “safe and trusted spaces” for investigating the increased problems with race and social class in 2016 America.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator”

Kingsolver is best recognized as a novelist—notably for her The Poisonwood Bible—but she is also a brilliant essayist, a skillful poet, and an activist who lives her activism.

Her sole collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America, reflects the essential political nature characterizing all of Kingsolver’s work and is published as a bi-lingual collection of Spanish and English versions of all poems (Rebeca Cartes translates Kingsolver’s original English into Spanish).

“What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” provides traditional opportunities to highlight the craft of writing and of poetry, including (through which I will discuss the poem more directly later):

  • The importance and power of titles.
  • Word choice, connotation, and framing/motifs.
  • Pronouns and ambiguity.
  • Character and plot in genres/modes beyond fictional narratives.

To frame the poem in the context of the world within which our students live, however, means that students should be allowed and even invited to connect Kingsolver’s craft with the tensions in public discourse about race and class after the election of Donald Trump—concerns about “deplorables” and debates about if and how to understand white anger/fear as well as the increased focus on the white working class.

The poem reads in full:

The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:
I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

A first reading of the poem should include asking students about the janitor in the title—Who do they see? Is that janitor they envision black or brown? What do they notice about the presence of the janitor in the poem itself?

Here, the students can see how racialized their perceptions are, and then discuss the tension between the janitor being in the elevator and the title, but invisible in the lines of the poem.

How does the poem create a space to discuss the marginalization of people by race, by profession, and by social class?

This central question is further complicated in the poem’s use of color imagery, diction, and pronouns.

In the first line “gold bracelets” triggers social class that shades the conversation between friends (again, who do students see when they imagine these women?) that is being overheard by the janitor in the elevator. Voiceless and seemingly invisible to these women with at least relative affluence, the janitor may represent those same conditions in the U.S. for people of color and people from the working class.

The comments by the “woman in the gold bracelets” are layered and coded:

  • She refers to her fired domestic help as “one” and then also refers to the broken vase as “one”—the ambiguity of the pronoun usage reducing the worker to an object.
  • Word choices such as “worked” and “colors” connote “worker” and “colored” if we extend the poem to race and social class.
  • The suggestion in her comments (“another one”) triggers the implication that the worker is expendable, replaceable, just as the vase may be, although the women appears more concerned about replacing the vase.

And then, the friend’s response forces the reader to reconsider or re-examine a first read with “one that speaks English”—more directly invoking the race and nationality of the worker and opening a door to the political and public debates about undocumented workers.

Presented with a bi-lingual collection, how many students initially see a black man as janitor, but then after the friend’s comment, rethink that assumption since the poem appears to be interrogating the tensions of race, class, and language between whites and Latinx?

The final two lines bring the reader back to “gold,” which frames the poem in color imagery that speaks to materialism and affluence as well as opulence.

#

Chadwick quotes Morrison on teaching: “Open doors, let them in, give permission, and see what happens. Students make you think. I learn faster and more when I am teaching.”

And while I am skeptical of universality, I am enamored by the enduring that is art, that is literature. Kingsolver’s poem opens doors for her readers—to the enduring tensions of race, social class, and language; to the specter of invisibility and what Arundhati Roy has explained as: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”; and to debates about naming racism and racists.

All texts, all poetry, and then this poem—as Chadwick acknowledges, “we teach students” who live in a flawed and complex world not of their making.

Teachers of ELA have unique responsibilities to engage with out students and the world through the texts we choose and the texts students choose as open doors into the world that our students could build instead.

Thanksgiving: “be brave/ And be kind”

A couple nights ago, my son-in-law and I were downstairs along with my granddaughter, his daughter.

He had set the oven to heat and then sat on the couch. As my granddaughter is prone to do, she took her father by the finger and urged him onto the floor with her.

Soon, he was cross-legged with her in his lap.

I heard the oven beep that the temperature was ready so I told him, prompting him to say that his daughter didn’t sit with him as she was that often so he wasn’t in a hurry to move.

I smiled and said he shouldn’t move because before long she would hate him—thinking about the inevitable teen years of rebellion and parent/child tensions.

He said he wasn’t looking forward to that, shaking his head. I added that she’ll grow out of that also.

As I watched my son-in-law and granddaughter there in the floor, I heard the universe whisper as it always does if we are willing to listen:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

Today is my second day alone caring for both of my grandchildren; the first day a week ago included my granddaughter’s first major vomiting experience, and my grandson, only a couple months old, obliged with also spitting up on me later in the day—a two-fer.

Yesterday was the last class session for my three courses (two first-year writing and one foundations in education) before Thanksgiving break.

My classes are intellectually challenging—the writing course focusing on James Baldwin and #BlackLivesMatter and my education course never straying far from the impact of poverty and race on teaching and learning.

In the wakes of the presidential election in 2016 and then attending the National Council of Teachers of English’s annual conference in Atlanta, GA (#NCTE2016), I think my class sessions and my own view of everything have been even more intensified than usual.

As I looked into the eyes and faces of my students, I also heard the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

Just before my trip to #NCTE2016, a student who had driven from Greenville, SC, to Atlanta, GA, the weekend after the election to protest asked my experience with protesting myself.

Another student had asked for my perspective on the protests more broadly the classes before as well.

My answer to both included my support for the protests, but that my own approach to advocacy and activism was grounded in my professional self; I view teaching and being a writer as activism, as advocacy.

In fact, I cannot fathom how to separate my private and professional selves just as I cannot fathom how to teach or to write without being political.

“I am a writer,” I explained. “It’s the only way I know how to respond to this world.”

Speaking to the student who needed someone to understand her urge to protest, I also heard the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

And then at #NCTE2016, where Ta-Nehisi Coates was a featured speaker, Coates answered in a similar way about his writing and his concept of protests and advocacy.

Also at the conference, I told a friend as we walked through the exhibition hall that being a writer and sitting with a line of people eager to meet you, to have you sign your book—that must be the ultimate way to feel like a writer.

The immediate feedback of teaching—a necessarily social act—is a beautiful thing against the isolation and distance of being a writer.

But writers need that feedback as well, need to know there is an audience.

As I sat listening to Coates being interviewed, as I walked through the convention center at #NCTE2016, I also heard the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

I’ve never been one for holidays, the stress and break in the rhythms of life are hard on those of us who suffer from anxiety. Fall and winter holidays are even more stressful for me with the dwindling daylight and the creeping cold temperatures.

But there is certainly something about Thanksgiving—taking the space and time to give thanks—that can rise above the problems with the literal source of the holiday and the inherent problems with holiday celebrations.

Do we as teachers and writers especially need that space and time to acknowledge and appreciate all for which we should be thankful?

I think so—now more than ever.

As a teacher, I am thankful for and I love my students.

As a writer, I am thankful for and I am humbled by my readers.

With my granddaughter playing nearby and watching Doc McStuffins, with my grandson sleeping on my bed, I squeeze in time to write, and I pause to listen to the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

Trumplandia 2016 (Prelude): What Mainstream Media Hath Wrought

The election of Barack Obama prompted a rash claim that the U.S. was officially post-racial. As a cruel commentary on that misinterpretation of the first black president, the era of Donald Trump has coincided with the Oxford Dictionary naming “post-truth” the word of the year.

Part of being “post-truth” includes that which shall not be named.

For example, “[a]n Alabama police officer has been fired for sharing racist memes, including one about Michelle Obama,” reports Lindsey Bever of the Washington Post. But the police department’s explanation for the firing is important to analyze:

Bryant, the city manager, said statements that are “deemed to be biased or racially insensitive or derogatory” can affect the community’s trust in the police department and, when that happens, “we have to take action to correct it.”

Not racist, not racism, but “racially insensitive.”

While Bever does use “racist” in the lede, later she explains:

Since Donald Trump was elected president, a wave of racially and religiously motivated acts of intimidation, violence and harassment have swept across the country — from a middle school in Michigan and a high school in Pennsylvanian to universities in Texas and elsewhere.

Not a wave of racism, but “racially motivated acts.”

And while this article and the incidences Bever details are mostly about how racists and racism have been confronted and with consequences (multiple firings of public officials), the piece still reflects the tendency in the U.S. for mainstream media to avoid or tiptoe around directly naming racists and racism.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, explains in a detailed blog post:

I said over two years ago that media style guides precluded major newspapers from calling something racist.

Then I asked around and professional media people told me that there isn’t a style convention on this matter so much as an informal culture. The general rule, I was told, is to never call anything racist and certainly to never call anyone racist. At best, they might quote someone calling something or someone racist.

The implication is that there is no such thing as objectively racist. Racism, according to many mainstream media producers and gatekeepers, can only be subjective.

While, again, Bever’s journalism is relatively bold in this context identified by Cottom, the authority figure in the article represents well a fundamental problem in the U.S. with naming racists and racism.

For example, in 2014, when high school students dressed in black face for intramural football, the principal reacted as follows:

A group of seniors in Sullivan, Missouri was criticized after donning blackface for an intramural football game, which their principal said fueled a misunderstanding, the Riverfront Times reported.

“I thought, ‘Oh, they don’t mean anything by it. Just let it go. No one thinks anything of it,’” Sullivan High School principal Jennifer Schmidt. “I didn’t think anyone did. Evidently, someone did.”

Schmidt said the 12 seniors painted their faces black on Nov. 5 as part of a charity “powder-puff” football game organized by the junior class. According to her, the face paint was intended to be a parody of the football team’s habit of wearing eye-black on their own faces.

Broadly, then, although in the U.S. there is lip service given to the importance of a free press in a democracy, the real problem is that there is no critical free press—one that honors a careless “both sides” and “press release” journalism over offering the public informed stances.

In the prelude to the era of Trumplandia, we are now faced with how the lack of a critical free press either allowed or created Trump and how the rise of a critical free press could suppress the danger inherent in Trump’s tenure as president and turn the tide against bigotry.

A vivid example of the dangers ofthe traditionally passive mainstream media is the coverage of Trump considering former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee for Secretary of Education; for example, Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week:

Trump’s search for education secretary appears to be crossing party lines. Rhee, who has identified as a Democrat throughout her career, is a strong supporter of school choice (including vouchers), which appears to be the top K-12 priority for Trump. She also rose to prominence for how she handled teachers and teacher evaluations during her tenure in the District of Columbia, which lasted from 2007 to 2010. In 2010, she left the nation’s capital and founded StudentsFirst, an advocacy group that pushes for choice, reforms to labor policies often unfriendly to teachers’ unions, and data-based school accountability. She stepped down as the leader of StudentsFirst in 2014.

Framed as crossing party lines, and then detailing in Wikipedia fashion Rhee’s professional resume, this coverage ignores Rhee’s lack of experience in education (a Teach For America corp member) as well as her tenure in DC that was either significantly mismanaged or outright criminal [1].

Even more telling is Ujifusa’s use of the standard mainstream journalism “both sides” reduction of all issues—some will applaud Rhee and some will not. Of course, no effort is made to make an informed recognition that Rhee is, like Trump, so tarnished in her career that she is unsuited for public service.

Those in positions of authority and the mainstream media who report on them are both trapped in maintaining and creating a safe space throughout the U.S. to protect racism, white privilege, and sexism/misogyny from being named. As Cottom includes about this phenomenon:

The most cited and widely recognized [research] is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s theory of colorblind racism in which there is racism but no racists….

Media had, at some point, produced a culture that normalized using euphemisms for racism and racists.

And so, in Trumplandia, not only is truth sacrificed, but also is any semblance of expertise, credibility, or ethics.

The consequence of that approach is Trump himself and now the government he has the power to build.

The only antidote to perpetuating bigotry is to name it—including especially by a critical free press that could be a powerful force for a free people.


[1] Omitting as well that Rhee’s husband, Kevin Johnson, is also a seriously tarnished public official.

 

The “R” Word as Taboo in Twenty-First Century U.S.A.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a not-to-distant dystopia in which Atwood explores the rise of a theocracy as a sanctuary for the declining white race; the work is a tour-de-force confrontation of sexism and misogyny as well as dramatization of the relationship between power and language, including the power inherent in what humans name* and what humans taboo.

The central handmaid of the tale, June/Offred, narrates her own journey through hell that includes being assigned to a Commander who monthly is charged with attempting to impregnate his handmaid in what this new nation of Gilead calls the Ceremony, infusing the act with religious and official overtones.

However, June/Offred characterizes the Ceremony with a disturbing and clinical precision:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

Many aspects of this passage are worth emphasizing, but let’s focus on the importance and value in June/Offred naming accurately this awful thing happening—and not ignore the weight of taboo language (such as the word “fucking”).

“I have guarded my name as people/ in other times kept their own clipped hair,” opens Barbara Kingsolver’s poem, “Naming Myself,” “believing the soul could be scattered/ if they were careless.”

Here too are the intersections of naming, gender, and power: why must women abandon their names in the legal/religious act of marriage while men retain theirs?

Kingsolver’s speaker, like Atwood’s narrator, both uses and values language as power—guarding a name and naming.

#

The election of Donald Trump as the president of the U.S. comes in the wake of Trump making inflammatory comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women. Nonpartisan and measured assessments of Trump’s words rightly label them as racist, xenophobic, and sexist/misogynistic.

The rise of Trump as a political leader has exposed the lingering taboo in the U.S. for naming racism, even when there is direct evidence of racist language and behavior and especially when that racism is coded (getting tough on crime, building a wall, evoking the specter of terrorism).

Serious public debate has parsed making the distinction between Trump being a racist and Trump courting and/or attracting racists, such as being endorsed by the KKK, neo-Nazi organizations, and the white nationalist movement.

A perverse shift has occurred, in fact, from the mislabeling of Barack Obama’s being elected president as proof that the U.S. is a post-racial society to Trump’s rise asking the U.S. to reconsider what counts as racism.

Trump personifies the triple-Teflon of being white, male, and affluent, most notably in the power of those attributes to deflect the label “racist.” As Trump himself asserted defiantly:

I can never apologize for the truth. I don’t mind apologizing for things. But I can’t apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.

Trump’s own strategy frames his words and behavior as “truth,” therefore not “racist.”

The election of Trump grounded significantly on white voter support, including a majority of white women, adds another layer of tension in that if Trump has voiced racism and/or practiced racism, how complicit are voters as racists themselves?

In short, are the approximately 25% of eligible voters who supported Trump racists? And if so, who can name that racism?

#

A valued colleague who is a rhetorician posted on social media his argument that white liberal elites, especially, should stop naming people as racists—pointing to the overwhelming evidence that the approach is ineffective.

Faced with evidence of racism, whites tend to emphasize their own personal struggles, and many whites now believe racism toward whites trumps racism toward blacks.

Systemic racism (distinct from individual racists) tends to be much harder for many in the U.S. to name or confront. For example, the political and media perpetuation of black-on-black crime is enduring despite the fact that all crime is mostly intra-racial—the white-on-white crime rate is nearly identical to the black-on-black crime rate.

To approach this in Trump-logic: black-on-black crime rates are true; therefore, referring to them cannot be racist.

But even the racism that can be named in the U.S. is reduced to the most extreme and even cartoonish version that Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “oafish racist”:

Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word “Negro”—which would be bad enough—but “nigra,” in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.

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.

What Trump represents, however, is more insidious:

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.

The racism of Trump and emboldened by Trump sullies the “elegant,” but it certainly meets Coates’s recognition of “plausible deniability.”

#

Finally, let’s return to June/Offred, being fucked, but not raped because “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

In a free society, black and brown people find themselves in a parallel circumstance to June/Offred, the victims of racism even though “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

And as my colleague noted, victims of racism certainly find value in naming racism and racists.

The problem my colleague raises, however, is among white allies to those victims of racism; if it is ineffective for white allies to name racism, to name racists, what is our obligation as allies against racism and inequity?

To suggest that racism and racists do not exist until acknowledged by whites is a nasty dose of paternalistic racism. To tip-toe around racists for fear of offending them and entrenching racism further also seems like a slap in the face of black and brown people living the very real consequences of racism and the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

As a very privileged ally to everyone marginalized by racism (as well as sexism/misogyny, xenophobia, and all sorts of bigotry), I believe I must listen to black and brown voices, but I also must use my privilege to amplify (not confirm) those voices—to stand beside and behind, but never to speak for.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when even the oafish racist was not called to account; therefore, I am convinced that a key step to erasing elegant racism, systemic racism, is to have the courage to call racists “racists” regardless of the evidence that those rightly labeled “racists” will not change.

I am taking this stand because I am not sure our goal is to change individual racists, but to change the greater capacity of the larger population who have yet to confront their culpability in elegant/systemic racism, and thus to create a critical mass in the name of equity that will eradicate racism over time.

In the most profound and bitter sort of appropriateness, the U.S. has elected the very worst and most perfect leader of, as Trump would say, the truth about the U.S.—which is that we are a racist, sexist/misogynist, and xenophobic people, drunk on consumerism and negligent in our humanity for each other.

With that before us and named, let us hope we can confess our sins, do our penance, and create a more perfect union.


* Dare we call fascism “fascism”? No, this isn’t the 1930s – but yes, this is fascism, James McDougall