The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology

Reporting in Education Week, Evie Blad explains:

Having a growth mindset may help buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement, researchers found in a first-of-its kind, large-scale study of 168,000 10th grade students in Chile.

But poor students in the study were also less likely to have a growth mindset than their higher-income peers, researchers found.

Similar to the popularity of “grit” and “no excuses” policies, growth mindset has gained a great deal of momentum as a school-based inoculation for the negative impact of poverty on children.

The binaries of growth and fixed mindsets are often grounded in the work of Carol Dwek, and others, who defines each as follows:

According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”…

Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck.

However, the media, the public, and educators often fail to acknowledge two significant flaws with growth mindset: (1) the essential deficit ideology that focuses all of the blame (and thus the need for a cure) in the individual child, and (2) the larger failure to see the need to address poverty directly instead of indirectly through formal education.

First, then, let’s consider deficit ideology [1], as examined by Paul Gorksi:

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

Any person’s success or failure can be traced to a number of factors, but in the U.S., our blind faith in the rugged individual defaults to ascribing credit and blame at least initially if not totally to the individual’s character traits such as “grit” and a growth mindset.

Student X is successful because of Quality A, and thus, Student Y’s failure is due to a lack (deficit) of Quality A; therefore, formal education must instill Quality A into Student Y.

This formula is compelling, again, because of our cultural myths, but also because the formula is manageable and seemingly efficient—and since efficiency is at the core of how we design and run schooling, the media, the pubic, and most educators fail to step back critically in order to reimagine how to deal with students holistically and generatively instead of through the traditional deficit model.

As a simple but representative example, most of us have taken a paper-and-pencil test in our schooling, one on which the teacher marks answers wrong with an X and then calculates our grade at the top of our papers—as in “100 – 30 = 70.”

This process is the deficit ideology that starts with every student having 100 and then defines that student’s learning on the test by what is missed, what is lacking.

One way to flip this ideology is to recognize that all students actually begin each assessment with 0 (no work has been done), and then the grade should be built on what learning and understanding the student demonstrates: simply checking the accurate responses and then giving credit for those positives.

The entire traditional approach to formal education in the U.S. is a deficit ideology, but the hyper-emphasis on children living in poverty, and black/brown students and English language learners, has increased the power of deficit approaches through growth mindset, “grit,” and “no excuses.”

Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow set aside those lives when they magically walk into school and behave in ways (growth mindset, “grit”) that few adults do who are also burdened by forces more powerful than they are.

Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.

But research also refutes the claims of growth mindset and “grit” that achievement is primarily the result of the character of the individual. The same person, in fact, behaves differently when experiencing slack (privilege) or scarcity (poverty).

As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir detail extensively, living in scarcity (poverty) drains a person of mental capacities the same as being sleep deprived; therefore, the solution to “buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement” is to address poverty directly instead of trying to “fix” the students who are victims of that poverty.

In other words, if we relieve children of food insecurity, home transience, etc., we are likely to find that those students in poverty who appeared to lack “grit” and growth mindset would then demonstrate those treasured qualities.

We are currently misdiagnosing growth mindset and “grit” (as deficit ideologies) as causal characteristics instead of recognizing them as outcomes of slack (privilege).

The deficit ideologies of formal schooling—particularly those (growth mindset, “grit”) targeting impoverished and black/brown students—are the entrenched indirect approaches to alleviating poverty criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Ultimately, teaching disenfranchised and struggling students growth mindset and “grit” come from, mostly, good intentions that are tragically trapped in deficit ideologies.

The great and tragic irony of growth mindset advocates is that they are also victims of deficit ideologies—as they focus their “scornful gaze” on poor children and children of color.

And just as we have allowed coded racism such as “thug” to replace the now taboo racial slur “nigger,” we are embracing deficit ideology cloaked as scientism to label students as lacking growth mindset and “grit” to mask the very ugly suggestion that these children are simply lazy.

Let us embrace instead as educators a redirected focus—as Gorski implores:

Hegemony is a difficult thing to break. In order to break it, we must consider our own complicity with it and our socialization for compliance. We must avoid the quick fix and the easy answer. We must bare the price of refusing compliance, knowing that by looking up, by training our gaze toward the top of the power hierarchy, we might strain our necks, not to mention our institutional likeability, more so than we do when we train it downward, where we pose no threat to the myths that power the corporate-capitalist machine. But if we do not break hegemony, if we do not defeat deficit ideology, we have little chance of redressing, in any authentic way, its gross inequities. This, we must realize, is the very point of the redirected gaze: to ensure and justify the maintenance of inequity and to make us— educators—party to that justification and maintenance.

The social and educational inequities in the U.S. must be our targets for repair—not our students. And thus, we are left with a dilemma confronted by Chris Emdin: “The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”


[1] See also Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1).

Bizarro Politics and Fearing the “Other”

For decades, I was wasting my votes in South Carolina by aggressively voting against Republicans. I really never voted for a Democrat, but I certainly found all the Republicans so vile that I felt a moral duty to vote against them.

Then in 2005, I was sitting in a hotel in New Orleans just months before Katrina hit and watching an interview on TV with George Carlin. Prompted by Charlie Rose about the 1992 election, Carlin explained that he was a lifelong non-voter.

Since then, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Carlin, I have been a non-voter and very openly not a Republican, Democrat, or (the silliest of all) Independent.

With the rise of Trump, I also resisted addressing this new and unprecedented level of insanity in mainstream politics: Trump is a bizarro cartoon extreme of everything wrong with partisan politics and the U.S. (although he certainly isn’t an extreme conservative, which I address below).

Recently, I have broken my Golden Rule of not mentioning the fools who live by the glory of being mentioned, even when being called fools (again, Trump is the king of that crap).

I also have been forced to reconsider partisan politics—most disturbingly, to acknowledge that if the Republicans had nominated Jeb Bush, they would have had a very powerful leg to stand on in terms of refuting Hillary Clinton over ethics and honesty.

Yes, we all could have quibbled over policy (I detest Jeb Bush’s policy, especially the dumpster fire of education policy in Florida), but Jeb Bush proved himself one of the most honest candidates in the primary campaign, and Hillary Clinton has a legitimate credibility problem (one that is typical of almost all candidates and only easily exposed by an unusually ethical, honest candidate).

And while there is a long and disturbing history (especially in the South) of major blocks of voters voting against their best interests, the Trump phenomenon, again, is a truly extreme example of that paradox.

I have begun to understand this better after seeing a photo with a news story about Trump: A line of young white males all wearing “build the wall” t shirts mimicking Pink Floyd’s The Wall (possibly in the top three most offensive things I have seen in the campaign as a Pink Floyd fan).

Trump has risen along a continuum of Republicans who have maintained the religious right’s support despite multiple infidelities and divorces, as well as amassing wealth that clearly contradicts the whole camel through an eye of a needle idea of reaching heaven.

Trump also has seemingly increased the loyalty of poor and working class whites—despite his being the sort of business man who has exploited and ignored those populations to amass and squander his wealth. (We worship the wealthy in the U.S. and conveniently ignore that wealth is always built on the backs of workers who are left out of that wealth loop.)

I don’t want to catalogue the many contradictions between who Trump is and those subgroups who support him, but it is without question that Trump maintains support from many stakeholders who are somehow putting aside that he does not represent them in order to remain rabidly behind him.

Along with the “my team” aspect of partisan politics in the U.S. (a certain number of Republicans and Democrats, for example, would vote for anyone on their “team,” even if we simply swapped candidates), I believe there is one extremely disturbing common denominator cementing the Trump wall: fearing the “other.”

Trump has garnered the support of the anti-government Republican party with mantras of “I can do this for you” and with plans such as the federal government building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. (huge time and tax money commitments from the “less government” crowd?).

The “build the wall” refrain of the Trump campaign is simultaneously the most irrational and most compelling and solidifying aspect of his run.

The Newt Gingrich moment when he refused to acknowledge violent crime is down in the U.S. by insisting that it is more important that the public believes there is more crime—this is the “wall” element writ large.

Trump is the orange-faced, wild-haired Clown Leader of Fear—a very bad script plagiarized from a much better Stephen King novel.

The fear of the “other” feeds Islamophobia, racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, etc., and can be maintained only through ignorance and delusion.

And mainstream cloaked-racist refrains such as “black-on-black crime” have created the foundation upon which the Trump Circus has been built.

Some continue to argue that we must not demonize Trump supporters as stupid, but I believe that reasonable call is deeply flawed.

Do poor and working class whites have reason to be disillusioned? Of course, but that doesn’t excuse there misinformed responses.

White high school drop outs have the same employment opportunities as blacks with some college (see here page 8), but the angry poor/working class voters supporting Trump will not admit their white privilege, and refuse to address the complicated facts of a racist U.S. society.

So the ultimate paradox of the rise of Heir Clown Trump is that “build the wall” is the real unifying theme that discredits his “Make America Great Again”—because, if we were informed at all, we may be compelled to see just what our country’s values are regarding the “other”:

Liberty Enlightening the World poster

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Today in Bad Edujournalism: Putting Lipstick on the Test-Prep Pig

I often have to make sure I didn’t accidentally click on an article from The Onion, but, once again, this is actually in Education WeekStandardized-Test Prep Isn’t the Big, Bad Wolf.

And the real clincher is the author: “Travis Coleman has been teaching standardized-test prep for more than 10 years and is the LSAT curriculum manager at Magoosh Online Test Prep in Berkeley, Calif.”

So, let me understand this. A test-prep careerist is given a platform in the top education publication in the U.S. to defend test-prep?

The commentary sets out to refute Sal Khan’s attack on the test-prep industry, establishing a dichotomy between test-prep that addresses “content” and test-prep that addresses “test-taking skills.”

First, let’s not gloss over Khan, whose homophone name captures perfectly what the Khan Academy is, a con.

Just as one example, Karim Kai Ani offers a substantive critique of the poor quality of the Khan Academy math videos, concluding:

Unfortunately, the media hype surrounding Khan Academy has created a level of expectation far beyond what it – indeed, what any person or website – could ever reasonably deliver. Reporters have confused journalism with sycophantism, and the entire narrative has become a head-scratching example of the suspension of common sense.

The real problem with Khan Academy is not the low-quality videos or the absence of any pedagogical intentionality. It’s just one resource among many, after all. Rather, the danger is that we believe the promise of silver bullets – of simple solutions to complex problems – and in so doing become deaf to what really needs to be done.

But the Khan Academy in cahoots with the David Coleman SAT is an even greater con.

Now, to return to Travis Coleman’s defense of test-taking skills test-prep.

There is a serious core problem with high-stakes standardized testing that should be addressed: When a lack of test-taking skills lowers standardized test scores or when gaining test-taking skills raises test scores, we should respond not by endorsing test-prep, but by recognizing and then rejecting high-stakes testing as inherently flawed.

High-stakes standardized testing already is powerfully skewed by social class, race, and gender. Access to test-taking skills test prep—which is commercialized—is a subset of the social class bias of high-stakes standardized tests.

The only way anyone can justify test-prep of any kind is to remain trapped in the corrosive high-stakes standardized test paradigm. If we step back from that, then, Travis Coleman’s defense falls apart entirely—as does the devil’s deal between Khan and David Coleman.

So let’s end with a thought experiment (one augmented by Herb Childress’s excellent Seventeen Reasons Why Football Is Better Than High School).

We decide playing musical instruments now should be along side math and literacy in our core curriculum, requiring standards and, of course, high-stakes standardized tests.

A test is designed, multiple-choice like the SAT and most of the standards-based testing across the U.S.

We provide all the children test-prep, and scores skyrocket.

Of course, no time was spent playing instruments, and no child can play any—except for the few who do so on their own time.

Or, to focus on Childress’s argument, every Friday night, high school football teams line up across from each other on the gridiron, each team neatly in rows of desks, and take multiple-choice tests to determine the best high school football teams!

Both of these scenarios are ludicrous—until you consider that band and football are extracurricular activities, which by their nature are deemed less important than the core curriculum.

Why, then, do we demand more of children and young people in band and football (in both, they must do the real thing, as Childress points out, as “a public performance”) than we do of students learning math and literacy?

I would argue, it is a con—pure and simply—fostered by the education industry that depends on teaching and testing materials (commercialized), and thus,the test-prep pig feeding the real big bad wolf, high-stakes testing—that has blown the school house down.

That students need all sorts of test-prep to do well on high-stakes standardized testing is yet more proof we must abandon high-stakes standardized testing.

Putting lipstick in the test-prep pig cannot camouflage that fact.

Misogyny 2016

No, this isn’t the easy blog attacking Donald Trump as a misogynist.

In fact, the warranted attacks on Trump’s many flaws are often incomplete by omission: Trump’s racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, et al, are ours.

But the presidential race has exposed misogyny 2016:

And let us not ignore the misogyny and sexism in how Hillary Clinton is portrayed and vilified.

Bates, I believe, sums up the mess perfectly in her closing:

To tear down wives and daughters as if they are empty vessels of family honour is dangerous and demeaning. But it also distracts us from the real issues. Most political men offer ample opportunities for criticism, all by themselves.

In many, too many, ways, the Trump monster is the ugly manifestation and reflection of who we are. In our finger pointing, let’s recognize how many fingers are turned back at us.

James Baldwin “Afraid” (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987)

In his Message to Grassroots (10 November 1963), Malcolm X ends with:

No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover. When James Baldwin came in from Paris, they wouldn’t let him talk, ’cause they couldn’t make him go by the script. Burt Lancaster read the speech that Baldwin was supposed to make; they wouldn’t let Baldwin get up there, ’cause they know Baldwin’s liable to say anything.

Just three years later, James Baldwin again proved Malxcolm X right, authoring A Report from Occupied Territory (11 July 1966) for The Nation.

The essay resonates powerfully as virtually all of Baldwin’s essays do until this day—but it also leaves the mouth acrid because the bitterly unjust world Baldwin captures lives out before us now as vividly as it did during Baldwin’s life.

In the most perverse of prophesies, Baldwin places words in the mouths of Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin … :

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer [emphasis added]. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

And Baldwin’s witnessing remains confrontational, razor-focused, and nauseatingly accurate for anyone who truly believes in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness:

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets.

Four years earlier (17 November 1962), Baldwin’s Letter from a Region in My Mind detailed his own awakening:

I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis….Therefore, to state it in another, more accurate way, I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without.

James Baldwin Gets Comfortable to Write

1/30/1963, New York, NY. James Baldwin sprawls across the bed in his New York apartment to jot down some notes. PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTMANN / CORBIS

Baldwin afraid was Baldwin coming to recognize racial despair:

School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.

Here is the Baldwin “liable to say anything” mentioned by Malcolm X, the Baldwin who situated racism in whiteness, the source, the reason:

There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

Over five decades later, the racism remains, the tensions have intensified, and the list of names of the sacrificed grows—and Baldwin’s assessment could be written today in nearly the exact same way with the same degree of Truth:

In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.

2 August 2016, Baldwin’s birthday.

White privilege and white fragility remain as powerful and deaf, dumb, and blind as Baldwin witnessed as a teen.

However, “[e]verything now, we must assume,” Baldwin ends his Letter, “is in our hands”:

we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

And yet, we falter…