Ellison, Baldwin, Coates: #BlackLivesMatter, a Reader

Published in 1944, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy by Gunnar Myrdal, prompted black novelist Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1913–April 16, 1994) to offer a review, one that is much more than a review, including:

This was a period, the 1870s, wherein scientific method, with its supposed objectivity and neutrality to values, was thought to be the answer to all problems. There is no better example of the confusion and opportunism springing from this false assumption than the relation of American social science to the Negro problem. And let us make no easy distinctions here between Northern and Southern social scientists; both groups used their graphs, charts and other paraphernalia to prove the Negro’s biological, psychological, intellectual and moral inferiority, one group to justify the South’s exploitation of Negroes, and the other to justify the North’s refusal to do anything basic about it. Here was a science whose role, beneath its illusionary non-concern with values, was to reconcile the practical morality of American capitalism with the ideal morality of the American Creed.


The most striking example of this failure is to be seen in the New Deal administration’s perpetuation of a Jim Crow army, and the shamefaced support of it given by the Communists. It would be easy—on the basis of some of the slogans attributed to Negro people by the Communists from time to time, and the New Deal’s frequent retreats on Negro issues—to question the sincerity of these two groups. Or, in the case of the New Deal, to attribute its failure to its desire to hold power in a concrete political situation, while the failure of the Communists could be laid to “Red perfidy.” But this would be silly. Sincerity is not a quality that one expects of political parties, not even revolutionary ones. To question their sincerity makes room for the old idea of paternalism, and the corny notion that these groups have an obligation to “do something for the Negro.”

James Baldwin‘s A Report from Occupied Territory (1966)

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations (2014)

Ta-Nehisi Coates Completely Shuts Down Shelby Steele In Epic Fashion In This Reparations Debate (see video clip)

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow

Black Lives Matter: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males (2015)

“Black Girls Matter”: An Interview With Kimberle Crenshaw and Luke Harris


James Baldwin at 90: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”

January 1, 2000, exposed a truly baffling phenomenon about most humans: A silly fascination with numbers that end in zero that completely renders those humans irrational. In the land of the arbitrary where people fear that arbitrary dates can spawn the Apocalypse, the irrational can’t even manage those arbitrary dates as January 1, 2001 (not 2000), was the turning point of the millennium.

And so we now witness a flurry of articles about James Baldwin, mostly ignored over the past few decades, because August 2, 2014, would have been Baldwin’s 90th birthday—somehow signifying he is more important now than when he would have turned 89.

As someone who has come to cherish Baldwin the essayist and Baldwin the public intellectual, I welcome this sudden burst of sunlight on one of the most daring and perceptive voices ever among writers in the U.S. I cannot stress enough in print that I find Baldwin as valuable today as ever, and often feel deeply inadequate as a writer and would-be public intellectual against the power of Baldwin.

To join in with this celebration, I want to recommend primarily that Baldwin’s voice be read and viewed/heard—that we do not allow all being said and written about him to suffice. And on August 2, 2014, we have so much of Baldwin before us, so much that we have failed to embrace, to consider carefully, to allow these words to complete their unmasking:

My journey with Baldwin has resulted in an edited volume (co-edited with Furman colleague Scott Henderson), James Baldwin: Challenging Authors. So here I want to share the introduction I wrote for that collection of essays.


No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.[i]

Trayvon Martin was killed February 26, 2012, in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie. In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless. But, as Arundhati Roy (2004) has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” (n.p.).

In this introduction to a volume on the work of James Baldwin, I, like Roy, am compelled to speak beyond Trayvon about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—about those Others: African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the U.S. was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders. Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males too often result in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration (Thomas, 2013) over the past thirty-plus years. While Wright’s and Ellison’s novels continue to capture the African American male experience—including the entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing—Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—the plight of African American males continue to send an ominous and powerful message today  (see Chapter 9 for a fuller discussion).

In 1963, Ellison (2003) spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble. (p. 546)

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized because of non-standard language skills). But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much ‘culturally deprived’ as products of a different cultural complex” (p. 549). Ultimately, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored.

Baldwin (1998) addressed teachers in that same year, 1963:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. (p. 678)

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children. Education, for Baldwin, must be revolutionary, an act of social justice. In Baldwin’s words, I hear a refrain: No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However, if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook school shooting (December 14, 2012) has beneath the George Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love

When teacher and blogger Jose Vilson[ii] posts a blog, I read carefully and don’t multitask. Why? I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire life in the South where racism clings to the region like the stench of a house razed by fire.

And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white. So when Vilson (2013) posted “An Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters],” I listened, and I recognized:

Anger isn’t a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it’s the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest….

However, for anyone to say that racial insults are “no big deal” speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, “You can’t build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.” I’d take it one step further and say that we can’t build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people’s terms. I refuse to believe that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.

How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?…

Adults, on the other hand, don’t get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront. (n.p.)

I have learned to read and listen to Jose as I do with New York Times columnist Charles Blow and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, as I do with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and now more than ever, James Baldwin, who is the focus of this volume.

I have learned daily—I continue to learn today—that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people, specifically African American males. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most hateful people I have encountered have been white men—yet, daily brown and black faces smile at me (even or especially when we are strangers) and speak with kindness and joy when we approach each other on the street, in restaurants, and where we all work and live. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most beautiful humans—and the greatest reason to live on this planet—are children of every possible shade. They laugh and sing and dance and run with the beauty of life that has nothing at all to do with race or the supreme and inexcusable failures of the adults in whose care they reside.

America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as anybody else. America the Beautiful has also created a criminal class out of African American men, building a new Jim Crow system (Alexander, 2012) with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs. America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero-tolerance schools imprisoning urban communities (Nolan, 2011).

These are not angry and hyperbolic claims about the soot-stained American past; these are claims about the roots that continue to thrive and bear bitter fruit. Baldwin (1998), in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (originally published in The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” (p. 737) and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed”:

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 [emphasis added]. 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…. (pp. 737-738)

These realities of racism from 1966 linger today—the scar of racism cloaked, as Baldwin recognized, with claims of justice:

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. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect. (p. 734)

And thus, Baldwin’s conclusion about the Harlem Six rings true still:

One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society. (p. 738)

Today, racism is thinly masked, and many refuse to see it.

In 1853, Frederick Douglass recognized what would 100 years later be portrayed as invisibility by Ralph Ellison:

Fellow-citizens, we have had, and still have, great wrongs of which to complain. A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.

As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious of our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. (qtd. in Alexander, 2012, p. 140)

Douglass’s charges are echoed in Baldwin’s (1998) “No Name in the Street,” which points a finger at the entrenched American problem with race:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (pp. 432-433)

America doesn’t know what to do, but it is startlingly clear that we should know what not to do: Don’t suspend and expel young black men without just cause, don’t incarcerate young black men without just cause, don’t lure and then send young black men to war, and without a doubt, don’t allow anyone to demonize anyone else with racial slurs.

Maybe, in the end, racism remains a cancer on America the Beautiful because we will not face it or unmask it—and because we have become so cynical that the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and as James (“Jimmy”) Baldwin demanded, the solution is love. Love everyone, but be vigilant about loving the least among us—children, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, the elderly—and do so color-blind.

As stated above, I offer these words because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Vilson (2013), refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background” (n.p.). Or, as Baldwin (1998) himself said: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’” (p. 738)—and we all must hear what everyone else says—especially the words they choose—never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

In 2004, poet Adrienne Rich (2009) wrote about a postage stamp bearing the face of American ex-patriot writer James Baldwin: “the stamp commemorates Baldwin’s birthday, August 2: he would have been eighty that year” (p. 49). This volume appears in 2014, the year that Baldwin would have turned ninety.

Rich’s essay reads as the journey of one writer’s experience embracing the other, but Rich also highlights what this volume seeks to address as well—the lack of attention that Baldwin receives in the twenty-first century U.S. Why, Rich asks, does a country still laboring under the same issues of race continue to ignore a powerful voice, as Americans certainly did when Baldwin spoke of racism?

Quoting from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” Rich (2009) includes the following:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Baldwin’s challenge here should haunt us because it remains the challenge before us—“[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

The following chapters—based on both scholarly and experiential perspectives—make significant contributions to the astonishingly slim amount of research and discussion that exists on one of the twentieth century’s most important public intellectuals. They provide key insights into Baldwin’s literary skills, his political views, and the impact his life and work had on historic, as well as ongoing, policy debates. They reveal a complicated, often tormented, and always provocative individual who confronted racism, imperialism, and homophobia as a black, gay pacifist. It should therefore come as little surprise that his work maintains its relevance as American society continues to grapple with racial, social, and political challenges.

Happy birthday, Jimmy, and let me offer this as what feels to me to be a fitting birthday song:

See Also

A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.


Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (revised ed.). New York, NY: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Ellison, R. (2003). The collected essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. J.F. Callahan. New York, NY: The Modern Library.

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Roy, A. (2004, November 8). The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture. Real Voice.

Thomas, P. L. (2013, May 17). Education reform in the New Jim Crow era. Truthout.

Vilson, J. (2013, April 8). An open letter from the trenches [to education activists, friends, and haters] [Web log]. The Jose Vilson.

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

[i] Portions of this chapter are adapted from two blog posts: “The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard,” (2013, July 25), https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-deliberately-silenced-or-the-preferably-unheard/ and To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism (2013, April 9), https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/to-jimmy-and-jose-with-love-i-walk-freely-among-racism/

[ii] Vilson offers about himself at his blog, The Jose Vilson (http://thejosevilson.com/): “José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father. He co-authored the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Public Schools … Now and In The Future with Dr. Barnett Berry and 11 other accomplished teachers. He currently serves as the president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality, and has been a part of the Acentos Foundation, LATinos In Social Media (LATISM), the Capicu Poetry Group, BlogCritics, and the AfroSpear.”

Misreading the Never-Ending Drop-Out “Crisis”

Prompted by Peter Greene’s Why Students Drop Out, further evidence that evidence doesn’t matter for the Obama administration of Secretary Duncan, I post below an entry for the Daily Kos from 4 February 2012.

The political and public concern about high school graduation rates must be placed in two contexts: the historical reality of drop-out rates in the U.S. and the misleading use of “crisis” discourse surrounding drop-out rates.

I also strongly recommend Ralph Ellison’s speech from 1963, What These Children Are Like, which confronts the high drop-out rate among African American students:

I assume you all know that I really have no business attending this sort of conference. I have no technical terminology and no knowledge of an academic discipline. This isn’t boasting, nor is it an apology; it is just a means of reminding myself of what my reality has been and of what I am. At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble.

Daring to Look Behind the Curtain: The Drop-Out Crisis Redux

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”—does this sound familiar? Possibly at least echoed in the 2012 State of the Union Address by President Obama, who made this charge regarding U.S. public education?:

We also know that when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.

The opening quote is from a 1947 Time magazine article focusing on John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the mid-1940s. The drop-out crisis has been one of many refrains in U.S. politics and education for nearly a century.

Fifty years later, in 1997, The America’s Promise Alliance formed, chaired by General Colin Powell, with the express purpose of confronting the drop-out crisis.

Yet, despite decades of some essential facts—many students persisting in dropping out of school, drop-out rates disproportionately occurring in at-risk sub-groups (high poverty, racial minorities, English language learners), federal and state policies and codes mandating school attendance—we find ourselves in 2012 with President Obama declaring yet another mandate, which was met with applause.

Daring to Look Behind the Curtain

Power, authority, privilege, and winning are certain narcotics—numbing the mind and soul, limiting vision, and removing the possibility of pulling aside the curtain of assumptions to see the reality behind the pageantry.

I have always had an affinity for The Wizard of Oz, similar to my life-long affection for children’s books like Hop on Pop and Go, Dog, Go! of my childhood. The Wizard of Oz, now, offers an important reading about the nature of critical pedagogy as it confronts the enormity of authority.

A critical reading of the classic film of Dorothy and Toto focuses on the dangers of norms—that those caught up in the given are trapped like bugs in amber, never even considering there is a curtain, much less the possibility of looking behind it—and the need for the brave outsider, that person or those people who both consider the possibility of the curtain and act on pulling it aside.

Americans are tragically bound to our ideals—such as our faith in free markets, rugged individualism, and our contemporary tandem of royalty, wealth and fame—and we fear pulling aside those curtains because we don’t want to confront that those ideals may be wrong.

Thus, our leaders are allowed and even encouraged to do the same thing over and over, while lamenting that things never change (or worse, while never even acknowledging that our so-called “crises” are not unique to our time but persistent realities we in fact maintain by the very cures we prescribe). And such is the case with the drop-out crisis redux (Obama’s 2012 incarnation).

Mandating that students remain in school until 18 or upon graduating is maintaining the status quo while decrying the status quo. Like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the endless accountability spawns of that legislation, creating a national mandate for attending school fails for the same reasons a national curriculum and national testing will fail, for the same reasons that student accountability morphing into school and teacher accountability have and will fail: These are all acts of those who cannot imagine the curtain, and are, in effect, desperately keeping anyone from looking behind the curtain.

So here are just some of the things we should pull aside the curtain to consider:

The prekindergarten expulsion rate was 6.7 per 1,000 prekindergarteners enrolled. Based on current enrollment rates, an estimated 5,117 prekindergarten students across the nation are expelled each year. This rate is 3.2 times higher than the national rate of expulsion for K-12 students, which is 2.1 per 1,000 enrolled.

Four-year-olds were expelled at a rate about 50 percent greater than three-year-olds. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4.5 times that of girls. African-Americans attending state-funded prekindergarten were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and Caucasian children, and over five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children.

And Gilliam (2005) details further that gender and race are distinct elements in how pre-kindergarteners experience school:

African-American preschoolers were about twice as likely to be expelled as European-American (both Latino and non-Latino) preschoolers and over five times as likely as Asian-American preschoolers. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4½ times that of girls. The increased likelihood of boys to be expelled over girls was similar across all ethnicities, except for African-Americans (?2 = 25.93, p < .01), where boys accounted for 91.4% of the expulsions.

Students from some racial- and ethnic-minority groups, and those from disadvantaged families, continued to turn in lower SAT scores on average than those of their white, Asian, and more-affluent peers, patterns that have held their shape for the past decade.

In reading, for instance, white students’ average score was 528, and Asian students’ was 519, compared with 454 for Latino students and 429 for African-Americans. In math, white students outscored blacks by 108 points and Latinos by 69 or more points. Asians’ average math score was 55 points higher than that of white students….

Students’ scores continued to reflect their family income and parents’ education. Those in the lowest-income brackets, and whose parents had the least education, scored 125 points or more below their peers at the top of the family-income or parental education grid.”

South Africa under Apartheid was internationally condemned as a racist society. What does it mean that the leader of the “free world” locks up its Black men at a rate 5.8 times higher than the most openly racist country in the world?

While white males outnumber African American males 5 to 1 in the U.S., the prison population (which exceeds a ratio of 10 to 1 of men to women) is 6 to 1 African American males to white males.

“You Matter. Your Culture Matters. You Belong Here.”

When Diane Ravitch pulled back the curtain and asked “Does President Obama Know What Race to the Top Is?” some responses to her blog clamored to support the ideals we allow to thrive behind “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”—looking always at the student or the teacher and abdicating supreme authority to tests.

But if we dare to pull aside the curtain we must ask: Why is prekindergarten so much like prison? How do males and specifically African American males find their lives so often trapped in exclusion and punishment?

Yes, if we pull back the curtain of the drop-out crisis, and set aside the notion that compulsion is the answer, we can stop to ask: Why are so many students dropping out?

This question is vital since there is no compelling evidence that dropping out of school has ever been a fruitful path for most people to take.

Linda Christensen offers a rare look behind the curtain, an alternative to Obama’s myopic policy:

The school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t just begin with cops in the hallways and zero tolerance discipline policies. It begins when we fail to create a curriculum and a pedagogy that connects with students, that takes them seriously as intellectuals, that lets students know we care about them, that gives them the chance to channel their pain and defiance in productive ways. Making sure that we opt out of the classroom-to-prison pipeline will look and feel different in every subject and with every group of students[emphasis added]. But the classroom will share certain features: It will take the time to build relationships, and it will say, “You matter. Your culture matters. You belong here.”

Standardizing students is dehumanizing, and likely driving children into our streets. Compulsion doesn’t address that fatal flaw.

Compelling children and young adults to remain in our scripted, test-based classrooms where we can predict how children will be labeled and ranked simply by the accident of their zip codes, the color of their skin, and the language of their homes is inexcusable; it is the act of those who are deaf and blind and numb to the humanity of us all.

Testing, labeling, sorting, and ranking are both the creation and tool of the historical realities of the U.S., a culture committed to the ideals of equity but mired in the realities of racism, classism, and sexism. Testing perpetuates these plagues on our possibilities; testing will never address them.

In hundreds of ways, the Obama administration’s education policies are being orchestrated from behind a curtain where no questions can be asked, not even the wrong ones.

Those with power, authority, and privilege (often built on the pillars of the circumstances of their birth and the fortunes afforded them by test scores) must face the mirror now and ask, “Why are children dropping out?” while making sure they keep their gaze steady into their own eyes where the answers lie.


Get adjusted. (1947, December 15). Time.

Gilliam, W. S. (2005, May 4). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. Yale University Child Study Center.

Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

The first five or six years of teaching high school English have blurred in my memory, but certain days, certain events, and certain students remain vivid.

One day in those years a young woman in my tenth-grade course blurted out in utter exasperation, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write!”

No, she was not being sarcastic. This student had been taught in her first nine years of school that English was mostly grammar books and grammar exercises—an environment in which she had excelled, making As.

Reading and writing were much messier, and she feared her status as an A student was in jeopardy.

As an English teacher, I marvel at the power of grammar in the world outside of school. Harry Ritchie, writing about the Bad Grammar Awards in the UK, laments:

It’s a big night on Thursday at the Idler Academy, which hosts its second annual Bad Grammar awards. The founder Tom Hodgkinson promises “a thrilling X-factor for pedants”….

Everywhere, that’s where. Because the Bad Grammar prizegiving is far from a merry little jape. It’s a piece of reactionary nonsense eagerly endorsed by Michael Gove, who has gone out of his way to promote the nonsensically reactionary “grammarian” who inspired all this drivel, Nevile Gwynne, the author of Gwynne’s Grammar. The horribly right-wing and entirely wrong-headed prejudices behind the book and the prize explain why last year’s winners were some academics who’d written in protest about Gove’s education policies and why the smart money this year is on poor old Tristram Hunt and his apparently heinous semicolon.

Grammar, even a garbled understanding of the term, is not just about correctness in English class. Grammar is about values.

Both in school and society, however, grammar is misunderstood, as Jonathon Owen concludes in his call for teaching grammar:

So yes, I think we should teach grammar, not because it will help people write better, but simply because it’s interesting and worth knowing about. But we need to recognize that it doesn’t belong in the same class as writing or literature; though it certainly has connections to both, linguistics is a separate field and should be treated as such. And we need to teach grammar not as something to hate or even as something to learn as a means to an end, but as a fascinating and complex system to be discovered and explored for its own sake. In short, we need to teach grammar as something to love.

And while grammar remains entrenched in our schools and public discourse, it appears that writer James Baldwin is fading. Kathi Wolfe examines Baldwin as an often ignored voice:

Back in the day, being on the cover of Time magazine was huge. Then, everyone from salesclerks to Wall Street traders read the newsweekly, and if your face, well known or not, peered out from it on newsstands or in mailboxes, everyone would know your name.

This was especially true when James Baldwin, the iconic novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, who wrote stirringly and eloquently on the civil rights movement, race and sexuality, made the cover of Time on May 13, 1963. Time made Baldwin a celebrity after the publication earlier that year of “The Fire Next Time,” his searing essays on race and civil rights. One of my most vivid youthful memories is that of my Dad pointing to Baldwin’s visage on Time and saying, “That man is our conscience! You’d have to be made of stone not to listen to him.”

I’m remembering this because Baldwin, who died in the South of France at age 63 in 1987, was born in Harlem 90 years ago this year. Yet, the legacy of Baldwin, black and openly gay years before Stonewall, and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, is fading in many classrooms, the New York Times reported recently. Fortunately, steps are being taken to commemorate and preserve Baldwin’s legacy.

Time Magazine May 17, 1963

James Baldwin—as novelist, public intellectual, and poet—was an important voice (although often marginalized) during his lifetime, but he remains an important voice because his concerns about race and inequity remain powerful in the U.S. today—and those inequities also remain grounded in attitudes about language.

Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

Ralph Ellison was simultaneously heralded as a Great American Novelist and shunned by the radical Left during the 1950s and 1960s. Baldwin suffered parallel experiences, although the shunning was politically inverse—Ellison, too traditional, and Baldwin, too radical.

As African American men of letters however, they shared a powerful recognition of the corrosive nature of deficit views of so-called Black English. Ellison confronted that view in a talk to teachers in 1963 addressing the high drop-out rates for Black students:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

Sara Dalmas Jonsberg, writing in English Journal nearly forty years later, recognized how the social stigma against Black English negatively impacted students’ perceptions of themselves:

When they arrived in my section of freshman comp, the course required of all entering college students, Tarsha, Shera, and Keydrya revealed themselves as bilingual. They knew how to write and speak “good English.” They were articulate and graceful in written and oral “school language.” They also knew how to speak “Black English,” and they knew when each language was appropriate. They referred to the argot they used privately as “slang” or “bad English.” I don’t know how they learned their two languages—which was first and which second, which was spoken at home and which had been acquired among friends—but I did notice this: one crucial lesson had been omitted from the language training of these alert and articulate young women. They did not respect the Black English they could speak so fluently. They did not know its history. They seemed ashamed and were apologetic if they fell to speaking it in class. Enthusiastic and thoughtful contributors to class discussions and projects, linguistically they demonstrated Theresa Perry’s comment that “Black English is the last uncontested arena of Black shame” (4).

Jonsberg’s solution? “I dragged them to the James Baldwin piece that is often included in composition readers: ‘If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?’

Thus, now, I do the same.

Writing from France in 1979, Baldwin opens with:

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

He had confronted the role of any person’s use of racial slurs in revealing that person in Take This Hammer, the same year as Ellison’s talk.

Immediately, Baldwin contextualizes his discussion of Black English in the language stratification he witnessed in France: “But each has paid, and is paying, a different price for this ‘common’ language, in which, as it turns out, they are not saying, and cannot be saying, the same things: They each have very different realities to articulate, or control.”

Possibly Baldwin’s central focus is the nature of language: “language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”

If we doubt Baldwin’s relevance, let’s pause there and consider the Donald Sterling controversy and the role of his private language exposing his racism and the consequences of those revelations divorcing Sterling from the larger community.

It is not just the language we use, and the prejudices we hold about that language, but what language reveals about us.

Couched in the politics of language is Baldwin’s confrontation of how mainstream English appropriated Black English while simultaneously marginalizing it:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound. Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means, roughly, the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with let it all hang out and right on! Beat to his socks which was once the black’s most total and despairing image of poverty, was transformed into a thing called the Beat Generation, which phenomenon was, largely, composed of uptight, middle- class white people, imitating poverty, trying to get down, to get with it, doing their thing, doing their despairing best to be funky, which we, the blacks, never dreamed of doing–we were funky, baby, like funk was going out of style.

Now, no one can eat his cake, and have it, too, and it is late in the day to attempt to penalize black people for having created a language that permits the nation its only glimpse of reality, a language without which the nation would be even more whipped than it is.

Black English for Baldwin was forged out of necessity and with that comes its power—”A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey“—and power is both frightening and threatening:

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.

African Americans are not language deficient, Baldwin asserts, adding,

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

Language is political, but so are any people’s decisions about who and how to teach both the privileged and the oppressed. So Baldwin ends:

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

As a free people, we cannot afford either our lingering deficit view of language or Baldwin to fade from our classrooms and our collective conscience.

Wolfe concludes, and I concur:

Why does Baldwin’s legacy matter? Because we still perpetuate and encounter homophobia and racism; and great writing still nourishes our hearts and minds. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin! Long live your prophetic voice!

Ralph Ellison, a Century: From Unseen to Misseen

With his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s narrator announced on the first page: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994)

And with this novel, the ironies become so layered that “irony” likely isn’t sufficient.

Many see only Invisible Man when they hear Ellison’s name. And Ellison’s entry into the exclusive and mostly white and male world of the American literature canon is not without controversy since that entry has much to do with modernist (and thus a certain type of traditional, a certain level of normative) expectations for what makes literature high-quality.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

As Ellison was being embraced by the mainstream world of literary fiction at mid-twentieth century, he was also creating tensions among the more left-leaning African American arts and civil rights movement—especially among the radicals.

Now at one hundred years since Ellison’s birth and more than fifty years since Invisible Man was published, the rich paradox of the invisible black man in the U.S. at mid-twentieth century must be viewed through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations.

And the more recent trials surrounding the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart.

Ellison’s invisible man recognized that mainstream (and white) America refused to see him, but African American males in the second decade of the twenty-first century are now faced with another reality of being misseen as “thugs”—criminals by their very existence.

African American males know this reality of being misseen as soon as they enter school.

Maybe one hundred years after Ellison’s birth, we have in the U.S. moved away from refusing to see African Americans, but I fear that our gained sight is not what Ellison envisioned.

There is much still to be mined in the words of Ellison, and on the occasion of his 100th birthday, I offer some places to read—and urge that we all use such occasions to close our eyes in order to open them anew and to re-vision the world.

For Further Reading


Thomas, P.L. (2008). Reading, learning, teaching Ralph Ellison. New York: Peter Lang USA.

Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (PBS)

Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8 (The Paris Review)

Ellison at 100

“What These Children Are Like”: Rejecting Deficit Views of Poverty and Language

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism

Education: The Invisible Profession

“What These Children Are Like,” Ralph Ellison

The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (Modern Library Classics)

A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison (Historical Guides to American Authors), Steven C. Tracy  (Editor)

The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison (Cambridge Companions to Literature), Ross Posnock (Editor)

Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, Lawrence Jackson

Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad

“What These Children Are Like”: Rejecting Deficit Views of Poverty and Language

“I am an invisible man,” begins Ralph Ellison‘s enduring modern classic Invisible Man, which transforms a science fiction standard into a metaphor for the African American condition in the U.S.

Less recognized, however, is Ellison’s extensive non-fiction work, including a lecture from 1963 at a seminar for teachers—“What These Children Are Like.”

More than 50 years ago, Ellison was asked to speak about “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent,” the disproportionate challenges facing African American children in U.S. schools. Ellison’s discussion of language among African Americans, especially in the South, offers a powerful rejection of enduring cultural and racial stereotypes:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

What Ellison is rejecting is a deficit view of language as well as a deficit view of people living in poverty that blurs with racial prejudices. This deficit view is not some remnant of history, however; in fact, a deficit view of language and impoverished people is one of the most resilient and often repeated claims among a wide range of political and educational ideologies [1].

For example, Robert Pondiscio notes in a post for Bridging Differences:

We know that low-SES kids tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies and less ‘schema’ than affluent kids, and both of these are correlated with (and probably caused by) poverty. Low-SES kids have heard far fewer words and enjoyed few to no opportunities for enrichment.

When I posted a challenge to this deficit view, Labor Lawyer added this comment:

How about the seminal research outlined in Hart & Risley’s “Meaningful Differences”? Their research showed that there were significant differences in how low-SES parents and high-SES parents verbally interacted with their children + that the low-SES parents’ interactions were generically inferior, not just reflective of different vocabularies. The low-SES parents spoke less often to their children, used fewer words, used fewer different words, initiated fewer interactions, responded less frequently to the child’s attempt to initiate an interaction, used fewer encouraging words, and used more prohibitive words.

Two important points must be addressed about deficit views of language among impoverished people: (1) Ellison’s argument against a deficit view from 1963 is strongly supported by linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists, but (2) the flawed Hart and Risley study remains compelling, not because the research is credible (it isn’t), but because their claims match cultural assumptions about race and class, assumptions that are rooted in prejudices and stereotypes.

One powerful example of the popularity of a deficit view of language and poverty is the success of Ruby Payne’s framework of poverty books and teacher training workshops—despite a strong body of research refuting her claims and despite her entire framework lacking any credible research [2].

To understand the problems associated with deficit views of language and poverty, the Hart and Risley study from 1995 must be examined critically, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas published in 2009 [3].

Hart and Risley: Six African American Families on Welfare in Kansas City

Dudley-Marling and Lucas reject the deficit view of poverty and language, calling instead for an asset view. They note that deficit views place an accusatory gaze on impoverished parents, and thus, blaming those parents reinforces stereotypes of people in poverty and allows more credible sources of disproportionate failure by students in poverty and minority students to be ignored.

Since the political, social, and educational embracing of deficit views is commonly justified by citing Hart and Risley (1995) [4], Dudley-Marling and Lucas carefully detail what the study entails and how the claims made by Hart and Risley lack credibility.

First, Hart and Risley

studied the language interactions of parents and children in the homes of 13 upper-SES (1 Black, 12 White), 10 middle-SES (3 Black, 7 White), 13 lower-SES (7 Black, 6 White), and 6 welfare (all Black) families, all from Kansas City. Families were observed for one hour each month over a period of 2 1/2 years, beginning when children were 7–9 months old. (p. 363)

Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

What is particularly striking about Hart and Risley’s data analysis is their willingness to make strong, evaluative claims about the quality of the language parents directed to their children….

Many educational researchers and policy makers have generalized the findings about the language and culture of the 6 welfare families in Hart and Risley’s study to all poor families. Yet, Hart and Risley offer no compelling reason to believe that the poor families they studied have much in common with poor families in other communities, or even in Kansas City for that matter. The primary selection criterion for participation in this study was socioeconomic status; therefore, all the 6 welfare families had in common was income, a willingness to participate in the study, race (all the welfare families were Black), and geography (all lived in the Kansas City area). (pp. 363, 364)

In other words, Hart and Risley make causational claims based on a very limited sample, and those claims are widely embraced because they speak to the dominant culture’s assumptions about race and class, but not because the study’s data or claims are valid. Dudley-Marling and Lucas explain:

Conflating correlation with causation in this way illustrates the “magical thinking” that emerges when researchers separate theory from method (Bloome et al., 2005). Hart and Risley make causal claims based on the co-occurrence of linguistic and academic variables, but what’s missing is an interpretive (theoretical) framework for articulating the relationship between their data and their claims….

The discourse of “scientifically based research,” which equates the scientific method with technique, has led to a body of research that is resistant to meaningful (theoretical) critique. Hart and Risley’s conclusions about the language practices of families living in poverty, for example, are emblematic of a discourse of language deprivation that “seems impervious to counter evidence, stubbornly aligning itself with powerful negative stereotypes of poor and working-class families. It remains the dominant discourse in many arenas, both academic and popular, making it very difficult to see working-class language for what it is . . . or to be heard to be offering a different perspective.” (Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005b, p. 153)…

[T]hey are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

The accusatory blame, then, focusing on impoverished parents is a powerful and detrimental consequence of deficit views of poverty and language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas add:

Blaming the poor for their poverty in this way leaves no reason to consider alternative, systemic explanations for poverty or school failure. There is, for example, no reason to wonder how impoverished curricula (Gee, 2004; Kozol, 2005; Oakes, 2006), under-resourced schools (Kozol, 1992), and an insufficiency of “high-quality” teachers in high-poverty schools (Olson, 2006) limit the academic performance of many poor students. Nor is there any reason to consider how the conditions of poverty affect children’s physical, emotional, and neurological development and day-to-day performance in school (Books, 2004; Rothstein, 2004). Recent research in neuroscience, for example, indicates that the stresses of living in poverty can impair children’s brain development (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007). But most Americans do not easily embrace systemic explanations for academic failure. In our highly individualistic, meritocratic society, it is generally assumed that academic underachievement is evidence of personal failure (Mills, 1959). (p. 367)

That deficit views of language and poverty remain compelling is yet another example of a research base being discounted because cultural beliefs offer pacifying blinders:

Rolstad (2004) laments that “linguistically baseless language prejudices often underlie [even] well-designed, well-conducted studies” (p. 5). Linguistic research conducted within theoretical and anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics that demonstrates the language strengths of children from non-dominant groups “has had virtually no impact on language-related research elsewhere” (Rolstad, 2004, p. 5). The deficit-based research of Hart and Risley, with all of its methodological and theoretical shortcomings, has been more persuasive than linguistic research that considers the language of poor families on its own terms (e.g., Labov, 1970; Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981; Gee; 1996; see also Michaels, 2005), perhaps because Hart and Risley’s findings comport with long-standing prejudices about the language of people living in poverty (Nunberg, 2002). (pp. 367-368)

Continuing, then, to cherry-pick one significantly flawed study in order to confirm cultural stereotypes reveals far more about society and education in the U.S. than it does about children living and learning in poverty.

Despite many well-meaning educators embracing this deficit view as well as Hart and Risley’s flawed study, seeking to help students from impoverished backgrounds acquire the cultural capital associated with the dominant grammar, usage, and vocabulary is actually inhibited by that deficit view:

Finally, Hart and Risley draw attention to a real problem that teachers encounter every day in their classrooms: children enter school with more or less of the linguistic, social, and cultural capital required for school success. However, we take exception to the characterization of this situation in terms of linguistic or cultural deficiencies. Through the lens of deficit thinking, linguistic differences among poor parents and children are transformed into deficiencies that are the cause of high levels of academic failure among poor children. In this formulation, the ultimate responsibility for this failure lies with parents who pass on to their children inadequate language and flawed culture. But, in our view, the language differences Hart and Risley reported are just that—differences. All children come to school with extraordinary linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources, just not the same resources. (p. 369)

A larger point we must confront as well is that all efforts to describe and address any social class as monolithic is flawed: Neither all affluent nor all impoverished children are easily described by what they have and don’t have. In fact, social classifications and claims about a culture of poverty are equally problematic as deficit views of poverty and language [5].

Just as Ellison confronted, U.S. society and schools remain places where minority and impoverished children too often fail. Much is left to be done to correct those inequities—both in society and in our schools—but blaming impoverished and minority parents as well as seeing impoverished and minority children (no longer invisible) as deficient stereotypes behind a false justification of research has never been and is not now the path we should take.

“I don’t know what intelligence is,” concludes Ellison in his lecture:

But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Continuing to embrace a deficit view of poverty and language is to embrace a desert that will never bear fruit.

[1] The source of this blog post is a comment on a post at Education Week, but deficit views of language by social class, notably the standard claim that children in poverty speak fewer words than children in middle-class and affluent homes, are common and not unique to the blog post identified here.

[2] Please see this bibliography of scholarship discrediting Payne’s framework. See also:

Thomas, P.L. (2010, July). The Payne of addressing race and poverty in public education: Utopian accountability and deficit assumptions of middle class AmericaSouls, 12(3), 262-283.

[3] See Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009, May). Pathologizing the language and culture of poor childrenLanguage Arts, 86(5), 362-370.

[4] Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

[5] Please consider the following works in order to confront a wide range of problems associated with class and poverty:

Return of the Deficit, Curt Dudley-Marling

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul Gorski

Poor Teaching for Poor Children … in the Name of Reform, Alfie Kohn

The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman

“A Question of Power”—Of Accountability and Teaching by Numbers

Almost three years ago (March 12, 2011, at OpEdNews), I posted the piece below and then adapted it as a section of Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. (IAP, 2012; see Chapter Five: The Teaching Profession as a Service Industry). Below I am posting the draft version from Ignoring (with a few added hyperlinks), and feel that the key point about the misuse of accountability—drawing on a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—highlights how teaching is an invisible profession. If not the whole piece, please consider my examination of the scene between the novel’s narrator and Kimbro below.

“A Question of Power”—Of Accountability and Teaching by Numbers[i] 

The speaker in Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” confronts the contrast between land and sea—”the sea is another story/ the sea is not a question of power”—leaving the clear message that our world is “a question of power.” Over the past thirty years, the education reform debate and the rising calls for education reform have exposed themselves as a question of power. The education reform debate is a mask for the powerful to maintain their power at the expense of marginalized groups, primarily people trapped in poverty. The first three years of the Obama administration have evolved into intense clashes about policy and commitments in the field of education, exposing that the education reform debate is about more than our schools; it is a question of power. Unless the sleeping giant—the voice of educators—is awakened, the power will remain in the hands of the inexpert.

As many ignored or marginalized the rallies in Wisconsin about teachers’ rights and the role of unions in our public education system, a role that is not nearly as unified as the public believes since many states are non-union (Larkin, 2011), the corporate and political elite continued to speak from positions of celebrity and authority that lack expertise and fly above the accountability that they champion:

“Well, it’s a dereliction of duty on behalf of the Democrat state senators in Wisconsin,” Bachmann said. “There was an election in 2010. The people spoke clearly in Wisconsin. They elected a new senator, Ron Johnson to replace Russ Feingold, a new governor, Scott Walker. And then they elected Republicans to run both the House and the Senate. This was a change election in Wisconsin. People wanted to get their fiscal house in order. That’s exactly what Gov. Walker and the House and Senate are trying to do, and now the Democrats are trying to thwart the will of the people by leaving the state? This is outrageous. And, plus, we have the president of the United States also weighing in with his campaign organization busing 25,000 protesters into Madison? It’s outrageous.” (Poor, 2011)

During the rising calls for bureaucratic education reform, revamping teacher evaluations and pay, and the Wisconsin teacher protests, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (2011) weighed in about reauthorizing NCLB: “However, any new law must be a step toward stronger, more precise accountability.” And her audacity here is even bolder than what the new reformers have been perpetuating through film and popular media.

During President George W. Bush’s tenure, NCLB was a corner stone of his agenda, and when then-Secretary Spellings announced that test scores were proving NCLB a success, Gerald Bracey and Stephen Krashen(2006) exposed one of two possible problems with the data. Spellings either did not understand basic statistics or was misleading for political gain. Krashen detailed the deception or ineptitude by showing that the gain Spellings noted did occur from 1999 to 2005, a change of seven points. But he also revealed that the scores rose as follows: 1999 = 212; 2000 = 213; 2002 = 219; 2003 = 218; 2005 = 219. The jump Spellings used to promote NCLB and Reading First occurred from 2000 to 2002, before the implementation of Reading First. Krashen notes even more problems with claiming success for NCLB and Reading First, including:

Bracey (2006) also notes that it is very unlikely that many Reading First children were included in the NAEP assessments in 2004 (and even 2005). NAEP is given to nine year olds, but RF is directed at grade three and lower. Many RF programs did not begin until late in 2003; in fact, Bracey notes that the application package for RF was not available until April, 2002.

And for this, how was Spellings held accountable? Not at all, as the contradiction and misinformation were primarily ignored by the mainstream media.

And herein lies the problem with the accountability demands coming from the new reformers and not being challenged by the media or the public. The premise that our schools are failing is a distortion, especially when based on further misuse of data such as international comparisons (Riddile, 2010), but the claim that education is failing because of “bad” teachers and powerful teachers’ unions is more disturbing since no one ever offers any evidence, even manipulated evidence, to show that the most pressing education reform needed is teacher quality and disbanding unions. In fact, the entire course of the current accountability era has been destined to fail because the reforms are never couched in clearly defined problems. Instead, solutions are driven by ideology and cultural myths.

Calls for higher standards and greater accountability suggest that educational failure grows from a lack of standards and accountability—but where is the evidence those are the sources? Calls for changing teacher pay scales and implementing merit pay suggest that current pay scales and a lack of a merit pay system are somehow causing educational failures—but where is the evidence those are the sources? Charges against union influence and claimed protection of “bad” teachers also suggest that unionization of teachers has caused educational failure—but where is the evidence those are the sources?

The truth is that the new reformers are attacking teachers and unions because this is a question of power—maintaining power with the corporate and political elite at the expense of the ever-widening gap between them and the swelling workforce that is losing ground in wages and rights (Noah, 2010). De-professionalized teachers stripped of the collective bargaining are the path to a cheap and compliant workforce, paralleling the allure of Teach for America (TFA) as a cheap, recycling teacher pool—an essential element in replacing the universal public education system with a corporate charter school and privatized education system. From the perspective of the new reformers’ corporate lens for education, there is money to be made, of course, but better yet, the corporate takeover of education helps solidify the use of schools to generate compliant and minimally skilled workers.

In Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man, the unnamed main character finds himself in a hellish nightmare after being kicked out of college and sent on a cruel quest for work in New York. He then turns to a paint manufacturing plant for employment:




The exchange between the main character and his supervisor, Kimbro, when the main character is first learning his job is important at this moment in the history of U.S. public education and the rising tide against unions:

“Now get this straight,” Kimbro said gruffily. “This is a busy department and I don’t have time to repeat things. You have to follow instructions and you’re going to do things you don’t understand, so get your orders the first time and get them right! I won’t have time to stop and explain everything. You have to catch on by doing exactly what I tell you. You got that?” (p. 199)

What follows is the main character being told by Kimbro that Liberty Paints’ prize item, white paint, requires ten drops of black. The process makes no sense on many levels to the main character, but he is chastised for questioning doing his job as told: “‘That’s it. That’s all you have to do,’ [Kimbro] said. ‘Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it'” (p. 200).

The scenes that follow include the main character being reprimanded for a decision although the compared paint samples look identical—the only difference being one is the result of his choice and the other is the work of the supervisor. (Later, Ellison examines the role of unions at the plant, also sections valuable to the debates today.) But here, I want to emphasize that this scene from Invisible Man is little different from the accountability dynamic begun in the early 1980s. For nearly three decades, teachers have been mandated to implement standards and to prepare students for tests that those teachers did not create and often do not endorse. Like the main character in Invisible Man, they are told daily, “’You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it’” (Ellison, 1952, p. 200).

And like the main character above, they are now being held accountable for the results—disregarding the power structure that mandates the standards and the tests, disregarding the weight of evidence that shows test scores are more strongly aligned with poverty than teacher or school quality. The question of power in the U.S. is that voice, thus power, comes from wealth and status. As I considered earlier, would anyone listen to Bill Gates about education if he had no money? (Thomas, 2011, March 1).

At the end of his ordeal, the main character in Invisible Man has been rendered not only silent but also invisible. He hibernates and fights a covert battle with the Monopolated Light & Power company by living surrounded by 1369 lights. His story is a question of power, a struggle to bring the truth to light. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, teachers, educators, scholars, and everyone concerned about democracy and freedom must reject the urge to hibernate and wage silent battles. Instead, voices must be raised against the powerful who have now set their sights on teachers, schools, students, and ultimately the majority of us standing on the other side of the widening gap between the haves (who have their voices amplified) and the have nots (who are silenced, invisible).

The focus on teacher quality is a political struggle over power, one that benefits the corporate and political elite as long as the public remains blind to social inequity and poverty.


Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible man. 30th anniversary ed. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Krashen, S. (2006, October 2). Did Reading First work? The Pulse. Retrieved from  http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/krashen_reading_first.pdf

Larkin, J. (2011, February 18). 14 Democratic senators flee Wisconsin, teachers strike for second day in a rowBallot News. Retrieved 27 June 2011 from http://ballotnews.org/2011/02/18/14-democratic-senators-flee-wisconsin-teachers-strike-for-second-day-in-a-row/

Noah, T. (2010, September 3). The United States of inequality. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/id/2266025/entry/2266026

Poor, J. (2011, February 18). Michele Bachmann weighs in on Wisconsin teacher sick-out strike: ‘It’s a dereliction of duty.’ The Daily Caller. Retrieved 27 June 2011 from http://dailycaller.com/2011/02/18/michele-bachmann-weighs-in-on-wisconsin-teacher-sick-out-strike-its-a-dereliction-of-duty/

Riddile, M. (2010, December 15). PISA: It’s poverty not stupid. The Principal Difference [Web log]. Retrieved from http://nasspblogs.org/principaldifference/2010/12/pisa_its_poverty_not_stupid_1.html

Spellings, M. (2011, February 22). It’s an outrage. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-spellings/its-an-outrage_b_826525.html

Thomas, P. L. (2011, March 1). Ironic lessons in education reform from Bill Gates. OpEdNews.comhttp://www.opednews.com/articles/Ironic-Lessons-in-Educatio-by-Paul-Thomas-110301-979.htm. Reposted at The Answer Sheet, March 3, 2011, The Bill Gates problem in school reform

[i] —–. (2011, March 13). “A question of power”: Of accountability and teaching by numbers. OpEdNews.comhttp://www.opednews.com/articles/A-Question-of-Power–Of-by-Paul-Thomas-110311-481.html