Racism, the White Plague of the U.S.

Race remains a deeply misunderstood aspect of the U.S. Some of this confusion lies in basic terminology, such as being able to distinguish between “racial” and “racism/racist.”

Let’s consider the NFL to unpack that language and its relationship to how racism and being a racist applies to the U.S.

Here are racial demographics of the league (from 2018):

These data are racial, but stating facts such as NFL players are disproportionately black or that head coaches and CEO/presidents are overwhelmingly white are not racist.

Here’s where it becomes complicated. Has racism created these disproportions, and can we at least question if not outright accuse the CEOs/presidents of being themselves racist?

Some times being racist or the fact of racism is blatant—such as the unmasking of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling or the newly released recordings of Ronald Reagan talking with Richard Nixon.

However, the facts of racism in the U.S. and directly identifying someone as racist remain somewhere between impolite and offensive (often responded to in ways that suggest calling a racist “racist” is more offensive than actual racist behavior).

For example, the current occupant of the White House has once again offered a deeply muddled and delusional refuting of his being identified as a racist (based on his language and behavior):

“I think the word has really gone down a long way because everybody’s called a racist now,” the president said. “Her own party called Nancy Pelosi a racist two weeks ago. The word is so overused. It’s such a disgrace. I can tell you, I’m the least racist person there is in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”

“They use it almost when they run out of things to criticize you. They say, ‘He’s a racist, he’s a racist,’” Trump continued. “In some cases, it’s true, there are people who are racist ― bad people. But with me, they have a hard time getting away with it, and they don’t get away with it.”

While many have focused on his “I’m the least racist person there is in the world,” I would suggest that the “as far as I’m concerned” is nearly as important to address.

First, the sobering truth about racism and being a racist for white people in the U.S.: There are only four options for how white people can be identified in terms of their relationship to being racist—(1) being a racist, (2) being complicit with racism in either a passive (ignorant) role or through denial, (3) benefitting from racism while denying racism exists, or (4) benefitting from racism while actively resisting that privilege.

The very shorthand version of this dynamic is, I regret to explain, that all white people in the U.S. are essentially racist because systematic racism is alive and well in the U.S. and it is the product of disproportionate white power that has accumulated as a result of that systematic racism.

Racism is a combination of race and power, and whites remain the dominant race in the U.S. in terms of wealth and access to power (even those whites who are in poverty and suffer great misfortune have advantages of race over a comparable black person in the exact same situation).

As I have detailed, I was raised in a racist community and home; I very much embraced many ugly elements of racism even as I felt deeply uncomfortable with the most extreme aspects of racism in my community and my family’s ideology.

Since I have actively spent my entire adult life, since college, rejecting that racism and working to dismantle my privileges grounded in systematic racism, I aspire to the fourth condition noted above—but that does not absolve me of the racism I am a part of simply because I am white.

It also doesn’t justify me announcing “I am not racist” or “I am the least racist person in the world.”

First, those declarations too eagerly toe the line of denial (the third condition above).

Second, it is not the role of white privilege to declare if and when any of us have attained the status of “not racist”; it is not an obligation or duty of oppressed people to absolve whites or to carefully identify who of us are racists and who of us are not, but ultimately, when systematic racism ends (a result in the hands of white people), those harmed by that oppression are the ones capable of making that observation.

The seemingly flippant “as far as I’m concerned” is just as damning as the self-declaration of not being a racist.

The current POTUS is blinded by his many privileges and completely incapable of recognizing his own gross qualities as a virulent racist and misogynist; megalomaniacs are not apt to recognize their megalomania.

His supporters and enablers are a much more complicated group, falling among the first three conditions notes above.

White America is the land of racism, the reason racism exists. None of us who are white are without the sin of racism.

Like alcoholics who find sobriety by announcing their alcoholism even as they are sober, white Americans must admit our varied roles in systematic racism even as some of us live daily to avoid being racists.

Racism is the white plague of the U.S. Those of us who recognize that reality, regret the history and current consequences of racism, and seek ways to dismantle racism have much more important things to do than to announce that we are not racist because such shallow self-absorption is easily as offensive and harmful as being the sort of oafish racist that can end all doubt about your racism.

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Teacher Preparation and the Kafkan Nightmare of Accreditation

Over three-plus decades of teaching, I have found that students are far less likely to laugh while reading Franz Kafka than, say, while reading Kurt Vonnegut. But Kafka and Vonnegut are essentially satirists, though both traffic mainly in dark humor.

Black-and-white photograph of Kafka as a young man with dark hair in a formal suit

Franz Kafka 1923 (public domain)

The Metamorphosis is the work most people associate with Kafka, but it isn’t readily recognized, I have found, that the work is filled with slapstick humor—the scene when Gregor is revealed as a bug to his family—while also making a damning commentary on the consequences of the bureaucratic life.

You see, Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis into a bug is merely a physical manifestation of his life as a salesman, which, Kafka illustrates, is nothing more than a bug’s life.

This, of course, was Kafka’s impression of early twentieth century Prussia as well as the corrosive nature of materialism. As I enter my eighteenth year as as a teacher educator, after eighteen years as a public school English teacher, I can attest that Kafka has pretty much nailed my career on the head as well.

So when I saw Teacher-Preparation Programs Again Have a Choice of Accreditors. But Should They? in Education Week, I immediately recognized that this was the wrong question—or at least incomplete.

Accountability, standards, and assessment have been pervasive my entire career in education, which began in 1984. Over that career, I have heard a consistent refrain about the failures of both K-12 education and teacher education.

As I have recently detailed, teacher education is, in fact, the new scapegoat for all that ails education.

I have worked through about ten combined iterations of standards and assessment expectations, include two different rounds of submitting the teacher preparation program I am solely responsible for now, the first being for NCATE and the for CAEP (mentioned prominently in the article linked above).

Through these experiences, I have witnessed that the same complaints of failure remain while each new round of standards and assessment promise to reform the system and bring great success (often for all students), only to be replaced in a few years under the blanket of the same crisis rhetoric and the same promises that never materialize.

This Kafkan nightmare is perfectly described by Gilles Deleuze, who also turns to Kafka:

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. In The Trial, Kafka, who had already placed himself at the pivotal point between two types of social formation, described the most fearsome of judicial forms. The apparent acquittal of the disciplinary societies (between two incarcerations); and the limitless postponements of the societies of control (in continuous variation) are two very different modes of juridicial life, and if our law is hesitant, itself in crisis, it’s because we are leaving one in order to enter the other.

In my home state of South Carolina, for example, the state adopted Common Core standards, planned to implement the assessment designed for those standards, purchased textbooks and materials aligned with the standards, trained teachers in the standards, and then dropped the standards for new SC versions of standards before Common Core could ever be fully implemented.

My first experience with accreditation of teacher education programs was early in my tenure in higher education. I was baffled both by the process (again, I am solely responsible for an entire program and all the data as well as the report submitted for that accreditation) and my colleagues’ almost complete uncritical obsession with the requirements. In short, the vast majority of my department’s time and attention was devoted to fulfilling the obligations of accreditation—not teaching, not scholarship, but standards, rubrics, and data tables mandated by the accreditation entity.

Just six or seven short years later, the process came back around again—nearly the same, but different. NCATE had been replaced by CAEP and standards were different along with the report itself and the broad expectations being both eerily different and the same.

Accreditation, I suspect, is a process that is perceived as a necessary layer of bureaucracy to insure some sort of consistency and fidelity among all teacher education programs across the U.S. This appears to be the same initial urge driving Common Core, for example.

Political leaders have used accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing for nearly four decades as a way to claim a commitment to higher expectations and better outcomes from the public education system. The public appears incapable over that time to examine closely the argument that schools are failing (the mainstream argument is both false and misleading) or the assertion that accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing will somehow address those problems.

Accreditation of teacher education is essentially a thinly veiled admission that there is no political or public trust of teacher educators, the field of education, or teachers.

Beneath that lack of trust, the accountability era for public education and the allure of accreditation are evidence that political leaders and the public fundamentally misunderstand teaching and learning.

Here is the sobering truth about teaching and learning: To teach is about offering the opportunity to learn; however, there is no way to guarantee that teaching will result in learning regardless of the quality of the teacher or the motivation of the student.

Accountability and accreditation are designed with the assumption that teaching and learning can be prescribed and clearly defined (standards) and then made visible with assessments that are valid and authentic.

Those assumptions are mostly hokum.

The standards and testing movement in K-12 education and the accreditation process for teacher education have proven to be what Oscar Wilde argued about how government addresses poverty: ““But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

Trying to meet the requirements of accreditation has made teacher educators less effective, has reduced the quality of courses and experiences for pre-service teachers, and has consumed an incredible amount of time and financial resources for teacher educators.

It is much ado about nothing.

The EdWeek question, then, is overly simplistic; the rise of AAQEP as an alternative to CAEP is the “illusion of choice” that masks the truly important choice—teacher education and education as a field need to abandon accreditation and seek instead to build a discipline.

Meeting the demands of accreditation is a waste of time and resources that should be dedicated to the things associated with disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology, etc.—reading and thinking deeply about the ideas and practices at the core of the field, conducting a wide range of research on those topics and problems, producing scholarship that informs an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning, and engaging students in those topics in ways that allow them to become the educators they seek to be.

To reject accreditation is to embrace higher expectations for teacher education, teacher educators, and teachers.

At the end of The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s macabre demise is a distraction for many readers who miss that this is a story about such rejections and not necessarily a tale about Gregor, but his family. After Gregor dies, “Then all three [Gregor’s family] left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now, and took the electric tram into the open air outside the city. The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun.”

Careful reading of the final paragraph reveals that the family’s obsession with Gregor, who himself had embraced a toxic bug life dedicated to erasing the family’s debt, has to be abandoned for their eventual happiness: “The greatest improvement in their situation at this moment, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling. Now they wanted to rent an apartment smaller and cheaper but better situated and generally more practical than the present one, which Gregor had found.”

Gregor’s sister becomes the symbol of a new, and better, possibility, a fully human life unfettered by the bug life swept into the dust bin.

See Also

The Metamorphosis at 100, Alexander Billet

Consent, Policing, and School Safety

A recent controversy at an Arizona Starbucks spurred anger across social media:

Starbucks on Sunday apologized after an employee at one of its stores in Tempe, Arizona, asked six police officers to leave or move out of a customer’s line of sight, triggering social media backlash.

The officers had visited the store on July 4 and had paid for the drinks, before one company employee approached them about a customer not feeling safe because of the police presence, the Tempe Officers Association said on Twitter.

Conservative pro-police voices called for a boycott of Starbucks, and eventually, the company issued an apology.

The outrage toward customers in Starbucks finding the presence of police officers intimidating is a uniquely American response, but not one common to all Americans.

Several months ago, I was having a late dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant after I finished teaching an evening course at my university. Just as I was eating chips with salsa and drinking the XX I ordered, in walked four officers with the county K-9 unit.

These men were typically outfitted like militia—several visible weapons and fatigues. They were dressed for war—not to serve and protect.

Image result for greenville county K-9 units

I was deeply uncomfortable when they sat beside me; in fact, I always find armed police officers intimidating because they have guns.

For many years now, U.S. police forces have become more and more militarized, through training and acquiring equipment from the military.

The uncomfortable Starbuck’s customers are, in fact, embodiments of what research shows about heavily armed and antagonistic police forces—especially when compared to London policing, which is grounded in policing by consent from 1829:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

Research on “deterrence models,” “based on the idea that offenders and would be offenders are responsive primarily to the risk of punishment,” where “agents of criminal justice need to send out signals of strength, force, detection and justice” and “legitimacy” models where “authority has the right to exercise power [because] it commands consent (a sense of obligation to obey) that is grounded in legality and moral alignment” support the problems with the former and the value in the latter.

That research concludes: “Policing by consent is based upon the idea that the police gain voluntary approval and cooperation from the public not through aggressive control of the population, but through fostering a close social connection between the police and public.”

And thus, citizens in London have a distinctly different experience with police:

[M]ore than 90 percent of the capital’s police officers carry out their daily duties without a gun. Most rely on other tools to keep their city safe: canisters of mace, handcuffs, batons and occasionally stun-guns.

This is no accident.

The Metropolitan Police, which covers most of London, was founded in 1829 on the principle of “policing by consent” rather than by force.

Giving everyday police officers guns sends the wrong message to communities, so this thinking goes, and can actually cause more problems than it solves.

…In the year up to March 2016, police in England and Wales only fired seven bullets….

These officers fatally shot just five people during that period, according to British charity Inquest, which helps families after police-related deaths.

The contrast with the U.S. is stunning:

It’s a world away from the United States, where cops killed 1,092 people in 2016, according to figures compiled by The Guardian.

Of course it’s easier for police to remain unarmed if civilians do the same. Out of every 100 people in Britain, fewer than four of them owns a firearm, according to GunPolicy.org, a project run by Australia’s University of Sydney. In the U.S. there is more than one gun per person.

And for people living in Arizona, “on average, it happens every five days: An Arizona police officer aims a weapon and shoots at someone.”

That armed police officers enter a coffee shop and cause discomfort is not reason to boycott a lucrative chain but a clear signal about the harm being done to democracy and safety in the US. As Jonathan Mummolo’s research details:

The increasingly visible presence of heavily armed police units in American communities has stoked widespread concern over the militarization of local law enforcement. Advocates claim militarized policing protects officers and deters violent crime, while critics allege these tactics are targeted at racial minorities and erode trust in law enforcement. Using a rare geocoded census of SWAT team deployments from Maryland, I show that militarized police units are more often deployed in communities with large shares of African American residents, even after controlling for local crime rates. Further, using nationwide panel data on local police militarization, I demonstrate that militarized policing fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime. Finally, using survey experiments—one of which includes a large oversample of African American respondents—I show that seeing militarized police in news reports may diminish police reputation in the mass public. In the case of militarized policing, the results suggest that the often-cited trade-off between public safety and civil liberties is a false choice.

The public and political misguided belief in militarized police units is eerily similar to the public and political calls for turning public schools into prisons through armed guards (and teachers), surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and active shooter drills.

Just as militarized police forces do not deter crime or protect officers, commonly embraced safety features being implemented in schools do not make schools more secure and can often increase unsafe behavior by students.

To protect a democracy and the public schools that in theory feed that democracy, and to foster a society that is both free and safe, the concept of policing by consent is both more effective and better matched to the ideals often claimed for the U.S.

The root problem in the U.S. continues to be guns and seemingly unbridled tendencies toward authoritarianism.

The Starbucks customers had rational reactions not only to the presence of the police officers but to the reality those officers represent—that in the U.S. militarized police forces do not make us safer but often create violence and even death.

The Matrix and the Failure of Diversity

Several years ago, I wrote a confessional and tongue-in-cheek poem about having watched The Matrix a full 13 years after its release.

My childhood and adolescence had been fully steeped in science fiction—including my mother’s love of mid-twentieth century B-movies that often blurred science fiction and horror as well as Star Trek. However, just as I resisted Star Wars, I somehow never gave into the cultural phenomenon of The Matrix trilogy until 2012 when the films ran on my cable service, and I became hooked.

That initial viewing, as I explore in the poem, left me focused on how The Matrix trilogy often has at its core the Hollywood compulsion toward relatively formulaic love stories, but the films also pay homage to nerdom—or what may (dangerously) be interpreted as an endorsement of misogynistic male fantasies often embraced by incels and social media trolls.

As a child and teen, I moved from science fiction B-movies to science fiction novels and then comic book collecting. I have left none of this behind, but I also have had to confront how science fiction and superhero comic book narratives are often deeply problematic in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

The Matrix trilogy, however, may seem at first glance to be in many ways a revolt against these flaws. The Wachowski Brothers, now trans women identified as The Wachowskis, gained their fame for the film franchise. With the racially diverse cast and high-profile women characters, these films may appear to be bold efforts at diversity.

However, as I have been rewatching the films recently, the trilogy remains despite some of the surface features a white savior narrative—sitting among other movies such as The Martian and Gravity.

Image result for the matrix

Despite its iconic place among science fiction films, The Matrix trilogy remains a white savior narrative with Neo as the constant center. (Sygma via Getty Images)

One way to unpack a film’s gender diversity is the Bechdel test, and these guidelines help viewers recognize that many of the high-profile women characters remain merely in orbit around men—notably Neo and Morpheus. Expanding similar tests to race exposes that while the films are visually diverse (consider the slow-motion orgiastic scene in The Matrix Reloaded), the characterizations and narratives remain primarily normative because The Chosen One is Neo as white savior.

The Matrix trilogy proves to be the Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas of diversity initiatives because the films address only empirical diversity (not substantive diversity) while reducing that diversity to the service of racial and gender norms centered on whiteness and men.

Three Types of Diversity—and Why Many Diversity Initiatives Fail

In the U.S. where whiteness and being a man are centered, the first type of diversity is similar to how The Martian and Gravity as films work as if race and gender do not exist in any expressed way. In other words, the centering of whiteness and being a man are not acknowledged and rendered normal, and thus correct or best. Often the mask used in this type is to call a narrative or character “universal.”

A second type of diversity exists in organizational efforts designated as diversity initiatives, such as those commonly found on university campuses. This second type most often resembles The Matrix because the manifestations of these diversity initiatives tend to be limited to rhetorical outcomes (mission and diversity statements, etc.) and superficial goals (hiring or admitting people who can be labeled “diverse,” etc.).

This second type can be dangerous since it does not disrupt the status quo of centering whiteness or being male but seems to be diverse; this second type can also spur open hostility to diversity as well. Those who unconsciously or consciously oppose diversity as a goal tend to confront the superficial possibilities of diversity initiatives by asserting “We can’t just hire/admit diversity for diversity’s sake”—a claim that can seem credible if not fully unpacked (ignoring, for example, the long history of people being hired because they are white or men).

As I noted above, this superficial diversity allows lifting identifiable diverse people, Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas, to positions as a nod to diversity even as those so-called diverse people work against the interests of marginalized people. Carson claims racism no longer exists, and Thomas works to dismantle the affirmative action that he benefitted from in his career.

Yet, the Republican Party can point to these men as proof of diversity in the party.

A third type, the elusive type, of diversity in which both empirical diversity exists—we can see black and brown people, and women in roles and positions disproportionately dominated by white men—and their status actively de-centers whiteness and being a man.

During the current 2019 women’s World Cup, we may be witnessing something close to this third type in the person of Megan Rapinoe who is centering being a world-class woman athlete (deconstructing the “plays like a man” narrative and among women teammates demanding equal pay for their performance) and gay:

“To me, it’s literally all the same, insofar as I want people to respect who I am, what I am — being gay, being a woman, being a professional athlete, whatever,” Ms. Rapinoe said in the article. “That is the exact same thing as what Colin did.”

For films, or any art, and organizations claiming to seek diversity as a goal, then, there is much more involved than simple empirical diversity.

The Matrix trilogy remains an iconic work of cinematic science fiction, and much about the narrative breaths life into traditional frames, such as the white savior, in ways that we can enjoy and even praise.

But the success of The Matrix also depends on a lazy public, one awash in the first type of diversity and occasionally tolerant of the second type. There also is a great deal of flash and visual spectacle that makes The Matrix appealing—and ultimately dangerous like Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas.

Even for those of us who have affinity for The Matrix trilogy, and the resurgence of admiration for Keanu Reeves, we must be able to confront the failures in this series in terms of diversity and then admit we can, and must, do better.

Once Racist: More on My Redneck Past

There is so much about the U.S. in the story of Kyle Kashuv.

Kashuv as a teenager has had thrust upon him a complex and accidental fame. First, he gained recognition by being among the high school student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooing.

Next, Kashuv filled a partisan political niche by being the face of conservative activist students after that school shooting—an event that spawned a rise in what has been characterized in the U.S. as left-wing political activism by a number of his classmates.

And now, Kashuv is the face of consequences: He was first accepted in Harvard and then that acceptance was rescinded.

Conservatives across the country have rushed to express outrage, focusing on arguments that his actions (documented and repeated racist language) occurred while he was still young; these defenses of Kashuv have often been absent the fact that colleges, and Harvard, have rescinded acceptances for similar reasons in the past (with little media fanfare) and that the nature of all college admission is judging applicants for their behavior while only in their teens.

By the logic of apologists for Kashuv, Harvard—and all colleges—are irresponsible for admitting or rejecting students for the grades they earned and the accomplishments they achieved while teenagers.

But the larger problem with how conservatives have rushed to defend Kashuv is that it is grounded in a plea for license, not freedom.

Kashuv has not been denied his freedom to express racist language and bigoted ideology; Kashuv has not been denied the opportunity to rise above these deplorable displays of calloused youthful indiscretion (if that is what it was); and Kashuv has not been denied access to a college education.

While it may seem harsh due to his age and his notoriety, Kashuv is simply experiencing consequences. To be free to speak and believe in the U.S. is not, ideally, also freedom from consequences.

As I watched this debate play out on social media, I noticed several people share that when they were teens, they knew racist language and slurs were wrong, and they refused to use them.

For me, however, I have quite a different confession—one that the following Tweeted video well documents in a context far different than my upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s in South Carolina:

These children above both knew the terror of their language and their actions, and they seem almost gleeful in the boldness of their hatred. This video in many ways feels like the evidence of Kashuv’s behavior, which he frames as “private” and “immature.”

In my home and community of Upstate South Carolina, everyone knew racial slurs and racist behavior were dehumanizing and, essentially, wrong. But whites of all social classes and statuses persisted in using the language (casually and often in whites-only situations) and held the N-word in their pockets when the moment arrived to wield it against a black person.

Except in rare circumstances, you see, there were virtually no negative consequences for our casual and aggressive racism; in fact, among whites, racial slurs and behavior gained a person status.

Whites pridefully told stories of putting black people in their places—retelling in vivid detail the exchange so that racial slurs were fore-fronted in the retelling.

When I was in my late teens, I worked as an assistant in a golf pro shop at the country club where my parents built their dream home; this was the urge of proximity my working-class parents aspired to as an unconscious rejection of being just working-class in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

The private golf club was all-white, as detailed in the by-laws, but the people living on the course and the members were mostly just the rednecks of my hometown no matter how hard they pretended to be otherwise.

One morning while I was in the pro shop, one of the grounds crew workers was milling around and decided to teach me something: “Want to know where [racial slur] come from?”

We were alone, and he was an adult. But I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear what was coming, but his question was just a formality.

He explained in detail that when Cain killed Able, and Cain was banished from the Garden, Cain mated with apes. And the result was the black race. And he had learned this himself in church. Sunday school.

He quoted scripture.

The problem with this moment in my life is that my only real response—all remaining private in my thoughts—was that I knew I wasn’t that ignorant. But thinking myself better than this man did nothing to dissuade me from my casual racism couched in my family and my community (among many whites who actually did not reject this man’s outlandish Garden of Eden version of races).

So here is my story of privilege, of the grand comfort I was allowed because I was a white young man and a good student, smart.

I attended junior college, and then I was a commuter at a satellite campus of the state university—never even considering a selective college in my home state much less something a rarified as Harvard or Duke. I was first-generation and my parents, despite their aspirations, could not have afforded more than what I did (college never cost my family more than hundreds of dollars a semester).

Here is the white male privilege part, and why I am not an apologist for Kashuv having his acceptance revoked—even as I freely admit my own behavior probably trumped his in many ways.

At junior college on a lesser level and then during my last two-and-a-half years as an undergrad, I was allowed the space to realize that an entire world and set of ideologies existed unlike my home and community—specifically that many well-educated people were actively not racist, sexist, or homophobic.

These new contexts and my journey with professors and literature (Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes) allowed me to choose to be a better person, to face my bigotry spawned by my home and community in order to be a more humane, to be fully human.

Four decades later I am deeply embarrassed by who I was for those first couple of decades of my life. In fact, I spend a good deal of my work as a teacher and writer seeking ways to confront that past by advocating for equity for all humans.

But there really is nothing I can do that pays the debt, that changes my history.

As I watch the sound and fury surrounding Kashuv, however, I can say without hesitation that he is being afforded a privilege I was not; Kashuv is being held accountable and this is happening early enough that he can right his ship if he so wishes.

He will suffer very little loss from this, but he can benefit—as white men often do—on the other side of being a truly calloused young man who is blind to his advantages.

There is far too little difference between my truly unforgivable youth and Kashuv’s more recent “private” and “immature” racism.

Neither, however, is the least bit funny, and neither is a case of how the U.S. should honor freedom.

Language and behaviors must have consequences in order to protect everyone’s humanity against the privileging of some people’s humanity.

 

The Problem with Balanced Literacy

My summer graduate course, Foundations and Current Trends in Literacy Research and Practice, never fails at being an invigorating course for me and my students because it combines foundational topics in literacy with a never-ending series of current debates and controversies surrounding those enduring elements of teaching and learning literacy.

For several years recently, my home state of South Carolina has provided ample content because of the current reading legislation, Read to Succeed, heavily drawn from Florida’s reading policy and commitment to grade retention as a punitive key element in teaching reading.

This summer, however, even with Read to Succeed firmly entrenched and resulting in grade retention for students, a new wave of controversy has invigorated this course’s topics—the media focus on the “science of reading” driven by advocates for students with dyslexia and the (tired) resurgence of calls for systematic phonics for all students.

The scapegoats in this “science of reading” frenzy are teacher education and balanced literacy (the younger cousin of the similarly maligned whole language).

At the end of class preceding the next day’s focus on balanced literacy, a graduate student asked for a quick definition because since she was new to education and had recently experienced many interviews that asked her to define balanced literacy, she felt quite disoriented and uninformed about what it means.

I pulled up my standard paragraph from Dixie Lee Spiegel and immediately heard several other students note this isn’t how they have had the term defined in their schools.

As I read the daily reflections on the readings for balanced literacy, this response, I think, is an important way to address the problem with balanced literacy (edited for some minor formatting):

My school places a huge emphasis on balanced literacy. However, it is presented more in terms of how much time and in what context various components of literacy should be implemented in class daily (we even have it in a pie chart) [emphasis added]. We used to have a great deal of autonomy in the curriculum we chose in reading and writing, but our district recently adopted Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study. Although Calkins desires for teachers to use her units as a framework, it has become a way to make sure all teachers are doing the same thing [emphasis added]. In practice we have a balanced literacy program in terms of we give students choice (although in the early grades very restricted choices), allow time for free reading, a lot of experience with literacy, small, guided reading group instruction, and explicit phonics instruction; we are doing all of this in a systematic, controlled way. I read the article about effective balanced literacy instruction and felt it did a great job in summarizing the qualities that make a teacher highly effective in the implementation of balanced literacy. But the point is…it takes a highly effective teacher, period.

Having only been consistently teaching for five years, I also understand how incredibly challenging it is to be a masterful teacher. I feel I could have seemed that I was implementing balanced literacy proficiently in a class I had two years ago. Most of my class came from literacy rich environments and could discuss books in meaningful ways. The ones that did struggle, were inspired by their peers to take risks in reading (they made me look good). This past year, I did not have a class as a whole that loved reading. For a lot of them, it was a challenge to get them to listen to stories much less engage in meaningful conversations. The majority of them would say they hated to read. Calkins (and my reading coach) would have me go to a first grade unit of study and implement more basic literacy skills to scaffold, but there was no way I would be able to do this alone. The lessons are very in depth and it would have cost me more time than I had available. Also, those mini-lessons would not have appealed to the 6 or 8 students who were ready to have more comprehensive, richer discussions. Reading and literacy implementation was a struggle all year.

I also realize that it is easier within systems to quantify and package things, but you simply cannot do this with teachers and students [emphasis added]. It is easy to show learning in a quantitative way. Although my students achieved higher reading levels this year, which looks great on an SLO [Student Learning Objectives], as a teacher I know that I missed it with them. I also realize that I can say I am doing balanced literacy, but I know it isn’t truly what balanced literacy is intended to be [emphasis added].

To open the discussion, after reading this an other reflections with similar descriptions, I explained to the class that both whole language and balanced literacy are philosophies of teaching and acquiring literacy; they provide evidence-based broad concepts to guide practice, but neither was originally intended to be programs or templates for how teachers teacher or how students learn.

As the response above demonstrates, however, education in practice is often over-reliant on programs and less diligent about addressing philosophy or theory. In short, the problem with balanced literacy is not that teacher education teaches balanced literacy and not the science of reading (note because balanced literacy as a philosophy of literacy embraces that full and complex science of reading) and not that teachers do not know the science of reading but are teaching balanced literacy, but that almost all schools have adopted programs, many of which claim the label of “balanced literacy” while also breaking the foundational elements of that philosophy (see the last sentence of the response above).

And just as the media, dyslexia advocates, and phonics proponents have endorsed, these reading programs (labeled “balanced literacy” or not) are primarily about addressing standards, preparing students for high-stakes tests, and imposing a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning reading; and therein is the essential flaw.

All teachers and all students doing the same things at the same time and being held accountable for doing the mandated program—this is literacy instruction in the U.S., and this is the grand failure no one in the media or in political leadership is willing to address.

All the bluster around calling out “balanced literacy” is nothing more than distraction because it doesn’t really matter what label we assign to how teachers teach reading or how students learn reading; what matters are the expertise of teachers, the needs of students, and the teaching/learning conditions that support or inhibit (see complying with reading programs) effective teaching and learning.

The real problem with balanced literacy is too few people know what it is and as a result are failing it along with the students and teachers caught in that misguided vortex.

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?