Category Archives: Poverty

South Carolina’s Education Problem: Crisis, Faddism, and Boondoggles

One of my first scholarly publications, “A new honesty in education—Positivist measures in a postmodern world,” included the 1998 governor’s race in South Carolina between David Beasley (incumbent Republican) and Jim Hodges (Democrat) in a solidly Republican state.

While the governorship that election shifted to Hodges, mostly because of the wedge issue of gambling in SC, I noted that both candidates and political parties ran on a dishonest but effective platform—SC education was at the bottom in the U.S. In fact, both candidates had billboards lambasting the state’s education ranking that were virtually indistinguishable except for the candidate information.

In 2022, it is important to highlight that SC was popularly and politically identified in crisis and need of reform after two decades of crisis (A Nation at Risk under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s) and a series of standards and high-stakes testing reform.

I entered education in 1984, right after then-Governor Richard Riley had pushed SC as one of the first adopters into the accountability movement.

As a high school teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I watched and listened as SC political leaders called for modeling SC education policy, standards, and testing on Florida and Virginia; despite its bombastic libertarian proclamations, SC is copy-cat state when it comes to education policy.

And therein lies the problem.

SC remains trapped in a cycle of education crisis, education faddism, and education boondoggles.

After those two decades following A Nation at Risk, SC once again doubled down on reform and accountability during the No Child Behind Era (NCLB) under George W. Bush, and then, stumbled into the Obama era reforms—value-added methods for teacher evaluation, charter schools, and (yes) Common Core.

That Obama/Common Core era is a perfect example of educational dysfunction in SC.

SC rushed to adopt Common Core and the related testing (fadism), purchased teaching and learning materials labeled as Common Core aligned (boondoggle), and then while teachers were being trained and the entire educational system was transitioning to the new standards, SC dropped Common Core (because conservatives falsely labeled the movement as Obama’s although the standards came form the National Governor’s Association and were strongly bipartisan).

This wasteful nonsense was almost entirely partisan politics and had little to do with teaching and learning.

So as we watch 2022 slip into 2023, SC remains trapped in the crisis > fadism > boondoggle cycle that has been demonstrated to fail education since the early 1980s.

The accountability movement phase 1 (mostly a state-level movement) after A Nation at Risk was declared a failure and lead to the accountability movement phase 2 that pivoted on NCLB (and included federal policy mandating “scientifically based” teaching and materials).

About another 20 years after phase 2, we are once again screaming crisis, including a(nother) reading crisis and the really ugly anti-CRT/book banning movements (see how all of these are related historically).

SC has been quick to pass copy-cat reading legislation (see HERE and HERE) for about a decade, and the current budget includes millions and millions of dollars for “science of reading” policy, training, and materials (sound familiar to those who watched the Common Core disaster?).

As one specific example, SC like many other states is simultaneously (again) calling for limiting everything in education to “scientific” while investing huge amounts of tax dollars to non-scientific boondoggles (see here about LETRS).

Education is an incredibly profitable market in the U.S., and the only people who have benefitted from 40 years of constant crisis > reform are those who repeatedly rebrand educational materials to match the fad-du-jour.

The current reading crisis and curriculum crisis in SC and across the U.S. are marketing and political scams—all faddism and boondoggles.

SC does not have a reading crisis, and does not have a CRT crisis.

The real educational problems in SC (and throughout the U.S.) are once again being ignored—poverty, racism, and inequity in both the lives of children and citizens as well as in our schools.

Affluent children continue to have the best access to learning while marginalized and vulnerable children are neglected, ignored, or pushed into the most limited and limiting educational contexts (such as test-prep).

SC is not experiencing a new or unique educational crisis, but we are suffering from a historical and current reality that is reflected in our educational system—a lack of political will.

Crisis, fadism, and boondoggles are the playground of political leaders and education marketers who reap the rewards of misinformation, misdirection, and finding ourselves in a hole while continuing to dig.

Ozark’s “Careless People”: Allegory of Race and Class

***Spoiler Alert***

This post is intended for people who have viewed the full series, including the final episode, of Ozark.


Many people have acknowledged that Ozark is a well-acted derivative of Breaking Bad. But an analogy just as important, if not more so, is that Ozark is a 2010s-2020s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1910s-1920s The Great Gatsby.

Marty and Wendy Byrde are essentially Tom and Daisy Buchanan, although Wendy is often more like Tom, and Marty, more like Daisy. None the less, Marty and Wendy fit well narrator Nick Carraway’s description of the Buchanans:

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

The Great Gatsby

The Byrdes leave a staggering trail of carnage, larger but similar to the bodies in the wake of the Buchanans. Both couples survive mostly unscathed—at least still wealthy and alive.

If we include the Breaking Bad comparison, the two series’ creators made some important and different decisions about Marty and Walter White—the main white male center of the “vast carelessness”—and some profoundly important different decisions about the parallel characters of Jesse and Ruth—both sympathetic characters who suffer some of the greatest consequences of the carelessness.

Ozark and Breaking Bad ultimately offer some excellent aspects of contemporary series, and nearly equal elements that are problematic. Notably, the shows center whiteness against Mexicans as murders and drug lords—with the whiteness often seeking viewer empathy.

The back story of Walter White—and the annoying messaging that being reduced to a high school teacher is proof Walter has been cheated by the universe—folds into his cancer diagnosis; this feels much reduced in the scene where Marty is on his knees about to be murdered, only to start the momentum toward nothing ever really touching Marty Byrde, unlike Walter’s fate.

Bryan Cranston and Jason Bateman go a long way to help the writers skirt past the ugliest of truths beneath these men scorching the earth for the good of their family. They are, in fact, the worst sort of “careless people,” selfish and calculating.

Breaking Bad, like Better Call Saul, are far better written and filmed than Ozark, even as these series are carried by incredible acting, possibly even better in Ozark than its obvious inspiration.

On balance, Break Bad is the better series, but in its last episode, Ozark makes a case for itself because of the decisions around Ruth, in contrast to her parallel, Jesse, from Break Bad.

Like the Buchanans, the Byrdes are outsiders, and although Jesse is a local like Ruth, Ruth’s parallels in Gatsby are the Wilsons, low- to working-class characters. And like Myrtle and George Wilson, Ruth as redneck young woman, is sacrificed beside her not-yet-finished empty pool with a corpse buried beneath. The imagery of her death is intensified as we hear her telling Wyatt he doesn’t know how to be rich—paralleled by Myrtle’s pathetic efforts to play rich in Gatsby.

Ozark seems to argue that the class barrier trumps race and gender. It certainly dramatizes that class trumps character and intelligence and work ethic.

Hard working and smart—Ruth and Wyatt cannot survive the carelessness of the Byrde’s. (BY TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX)

Ruth splayed on her dirt yard—reminiscent of Myrtle mutilated in the road by Daisy driving Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce—comes after mid-final-episode the Byrde’s suffering a dramatic car accident, one shown in an earlier episode, one no one could simply walk away from.

For me, the car wreck had no emotional weight, even as Marty and his children crawl free, miraculously unharmed, even as Wendy appears unconscious (dead?) until Marty rouses her. The family soon after arrives at their house in a taxi, Wendy noting they survived only somewhat battered and bruised.

But it is Wendy’s comment to Novarro’s priest that reveals the narrative purpose of the accident—not to tease the audience with one or more Byrde deaths but to show that the entire series is an extended allegory about the Teflon promises of whiteness and wealth.

As Wendy boasts to the priest as she takes him by the shoulders, they will survive, and they do.

The series ends black screen, a gun shot, the Byrde’s winning (a more honest and cynical ending than Breaking Bad), murderously (again) after Marty softly nods to his teen son, Jonah, who fires the shot.

Like Walter White, for Marty, and now Jonah, “what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.”

Many plot lines and characters force viewers to repeatedly interrogate that very concept; Walter and Marty live by the ends justifying the means.

Yet, none confront that central question more vividly than the tensions between Wendy and Ruth about the killing of Wendy’s brother, Ben.

The last episode highlights the emptiness pervading Ozark with Ruth caving to Wendy about culpability for Ben’s murder, prompted by Wendy committing herself in yet another grand manipulation (suggesting viewers should feel empathy for Wendy since, as the scene depicts, she shares with Ruth the consequences of an abusive father).

Ozark and Breaking Bad left me wondering how I am supposed to feel about the characters.

It is there I focus on Ruth and Jesse, the characters with the most lingering sympathetic qualities in spite of their very human flaws, and frailties. I think we can (and should) find more sincerity in the struggles of Jesse and Ruth against the backdrop of the posing and ruthlessness of Walter and Marty.

Like Gatsby, Ozark is a deeply cynical work about the American Dream. This American nightmare is more like what John Gardner lamented:

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

“Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)

The Byrdes shit all over the Ozarks, and we are left with one final wry smile from Marty and, yes, the gun shot.

“[L]et other people clean up the mess they had made”…

Debt and Poverty in a Christian Nation

One reason, I think, some people shun history is that historical context can be deeply disturbing—but that context also helps illuminate a better understanding of the present.

The following example is both disturbing (nearly impossible to believe) and an apt analogy for the current debate about college loan forgiveness.

Deborah C. England offers these sobering facts about marital rape in the U.S.:

Marital rape was a term that was viewed by the law as an oxymoron until shamefully late in U.S. history. Until the 1970’s, the rape laws in every state in the union included an exception if the rapist and the victim were husband and wife. In 1993, all 50 states had finally eliminated the “marital rape exception.” But the effects of these archaic exceptions persist and interfere with spousal rape prosecutions in some states.

The History of Marital Rape Laws

Only over the last three decades have wives been allowed to pursue legal consequences for being raped in their own homes, by their spouse, and thus, far more women have lived under the specter of marital rape than not in U.S. history.

Should those women be so offended by the change in law that they resent the new (and morally justifiable) law? Should they demand that all women continue to suffer as they did?

Of course not.

That many suffered needlessly is not grounds for maintaining a wrong.

Many in the U.S. live under the burden of student loans because the U.S. has chosen not to fully fund K-16 education and has chosen to ignore predatory lending and abusive interest rates and repayment schedules.

Student debt relief is acknowledgement of a wrong—not a give-away, not a slap in the face of those who were equally wronged.


My parents were working-class Boomers who made college a clear expectation. I am quasi-first-gen since neither parent graduated college but had 1 year, Mom, and 2 years, Dad, but I was aware paying for college was a burden on my parents.

That “burden” in the late 1970s and early 1980s was semesters that cost hundreds of dollars because I attended my local state university branch, living at home over half of that time as an undergraduate. I also tutored on campus and had other jobs, mostly to fund my recreational time.

My parents were very gracious and would have contributed even more if I had asked, but I always felt guilty and tried to lessen that burden. I enrolled in the maximum hours per semester allowed to make their contribution “worth it.”

And I chose to be a high school English teacher because I felt I should complete a “practical” degree and have a career. English, even in the early 1980s, was viewed as a “useless” degree—although my heart always longed to be a “straight” English major, as the rhetoric of my college years went.

My parents never told me what major to pursue, but I felt it was the right thing to do to honor their sacrifices. I graduated as an undergraduate in December and couldn’t find full-time teaching until the next fall.

That was a very hard time with lots of tension because I worried I wasn’t going to be able to follow through with the right thing. I was living at home and struggling to secure part-time work, including being a substitute teacher that spring and starting my MEd immediately.

My teaching career began in the fall of 1984 in the high school where I graduated in 1979. I taught over a decade and continued to cobble together graduate courses on top of my MEd until I entered a doctoral program in 1995. I took out one $6000 loan throughout my grad experience from 1984 – 1998.

And my school district reimbursed tuition for one graduate course a semester along the way.

I taught full time as a high school teacher, was an adjunct at several local colleges, and completed my EdD simultaneously—while married and with a young daughter. These were very tense and overwhelming years of continuing to do the right thing into my late 30s.

I cannot get past that much of these experiences were about “burdens” on my parents, me, and my family. I missed a lot, including my daughter scoring 6 goals one Saturday morning in recreational soccer while I sat in my 6-hour graduate course 90 miles away.

I want to add “unnecessary” to “burdens” because the US is a mostly hateful people, not meeting the label of “Christian Nation,” who think this sort of suffering is a good thing.

It isn’t.

All this to say—there should be no student debt and K-16 education should be fully publicly funded.

Regardless or especially because of those who have survived the horrible system we have created and allowed.


Many in the U.S., especially conservatives and libertarians, love to talk about choice, and that overlaps significantly with those who claim the U.S. is a Christian Nation.

The backlash over forgiving student loans is proof that both are veneers, essentially lies and distractions.

So in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, I, a humanist and non-Christian, want to leave you all with a little reading, a meditation of sorts (emphasis mine in bold):

15 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward themRather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they needBe careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

Deuteronomy 15: 1-11

So it goes.

Reading as a First-Mile Problem: Recognizing the Role of Poverty and Inequity in Literacy Development

Literacy scholar Tim Shanahan answers the question Why Is It So Hard to Improve Reading Achievement? with the following: “Classroom implementation is the last mile in reading reform.” He eventually adds, “The last mile rhetoric shouldn’t be a hair-on-fire message, but one that acknowledges both the current successes and the need to do better.”

Shanahan’s consideration of the persistent public and political concern over low reading achievement appears to offer a balanced admission that many approaches to reading instruction can be successful, but framing reading as a last-mile problem is finding yourself in a hole and deciding you just need to dig a little deeper.

Shanahan seems to accept a number of different “levers” as valid approaches to improving student reading, including a somewhat veiled endorsement of Common Core standards; in fact, he concedes: “Let’s face it. Our problem in reading isn’t that nothing works. It’s that everything does.”

In 2020, what Shanahan’s last-mile argument reveals, however, is that there is a mistake in teaching reading that can be addressed, but as a society, we refuse to acknowledge that reading is a first-mile problem.

That first mile is much larger than formal schooling, and what we refuse to recognize is that measurable reading achievement is a marker for the disadvantages of poverty and inequity in both the lives and schooling of vulnerable populations of students (students in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners, special needs students).

The accountability movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests has been paralyzed by in-school only reform. That movement is both an example of last-mile reform and why last-mile reform has failed.

First, let’s acknowledge that Shanahan does make a key argument about how reading is taught; for example, a recent review of meta-analyses of systematic intensive phonics has shown that most approaches to teaching reading are about equally effective, as Shanahan suggests.

However, the current “science of reading” version of the Reading War argues that systematic intensive phonics must be required for all students; this phonics-first claim has been concurrent with pathologizing most struggling readers as probably dyslexic.

If we shift from last-mile reform to first-mile reform, then, we must avoid both “all students must” and “everything works,” choosing instead to admit that every student deserves the reading instruction they need (regardless of what programs or standards mandate), and we must acknowledge that students living in relative privilege often acquire reading rather easily, suggesting that the conditions within which students live and learn need to be reformed—not the students or the teaching methods.

First-mile reform in reading must start with addressing poverty and inequity in every child’s life. Alleviating poverty, addressing food security, improving work opportunities and security, adopting universal health care—these are issues of equity that would allow all students to acquire reading in ways that are now common for affluent students (often before entering formal schooling).

Stable communities and homes not overburdened by poverty and inequity would have the opportunities to provide children with language-rich environments that send children to formal schooling already highly literate, often reading before direct instruction.

First-mile reform of reading, however, is not a narrow commitment to out-of-school only, but it makes primary equity-focused out-of-school reform while also including equity-focused in-school reform as secondary but essential.

Instead of digging the accountability hole deeper by seeing reading reform as a last-mile challenge, we must climb out of that silo and think differently about in-school reform.

Equity-focused reading reform starts with the conditions of teaching and learning—guaranteeing students small student/teacher ratios in early literacy classes, insuring all students have experienced and highly-qualified teachers, and funding fully the materials needed for rich literacy experiences (authentic texts for all students and robust libraries in the schools and in children’s homes and communities).

This new approach to reform would also avoid tracking students and then would monitor more directly equitable learning opportunities as opposed to narrow measurable outcomes. For example, all students should be in rich and challenging courses—and not in test-prep classes or highly prescriptive programs (reading programs or systematic phonics for all).

Last-mile reading reform continues to focus on students as inherently flawed humans who need to be fixed; first-mile reading reform recognizes that systems are flawed, and that all students can flourish if their living and learning environments are equitable and conducive to learning.

Ultimately, continuing down the current road to reading reform as if we just need to be more demanding of teachers and students in the crucial last mile is continuing to recognize the negative impact of poverty and inequity on children’s ability to read and teachers’ effectiveness in teaching reading.

We mustn’t keep our heads down, we mustn’t keep digging.

We need finally to acknowledge that reading is a first-mile problem.

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

June Carryl, Crystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)
June CarrylCrystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)
Ah-in YooSteven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

School Rankings as Racist, Classist Propaganda

On 20 May 2019, the Charleston Post and Courier offered this: Here’s what it takes for a SC school to be the No. 1 public high school in the US. And here is what is newsworthy:

The news was out before the sound of the school announcement system crackled through the halls: Academic Magnet High, long regarded as the top-performing high school in South Carolina, had climbed to No. 1 in a national ranking of public high schools.

Just three days later, The State (Columbia, SC) reported: Richland 1’s elite elementary school is also its whitest and least impoverished. This coverage explains:

Like all parents, Sara McBride just wanted her son to get the best possible education.

That’s why she tried to get her son into Richland 1’s highest-ranked school: Brockman Elementary. A school where class sizes are small and teachers’ advanced degrees and experience nets them a higher average salary.

The South Carolina Department of Education provides for 1270 public schools in the state a Poverty Index; for 2018, Academic Magnet High is the #1 least impoverished school in the entire state, and Brockman Elementary is #57, placing these two celebrated schools in the top 4.5% of all schools in the state in terms of extremely low poverty as well as disproportionate racial imbalances (Brockman is 75% white and AMH has only 3.5% black enrollment).

SC as a state ranks in the bottom ten of high-poverty states (about an 18% poverty rate) and has a relatively high percentage of black citizens (28%) as well as about 5-6% Hispanic/Latinx.

Across the U.S., there are some harsh facts about measurable student outcomes and demographics of students being served. Race, socioeconomic status, first language, and special needs are all highly correlated with those measurable outcomes.

High poverty, majority-minority schools with high percentages of ELL and special needs students have historically low test scores.

Therefore, these rankings and labels such as “elite” are gross misrepresentations of school quality.

Imagine if we had some hospitals that admitted only well patients and then ranked those against the hospitals serving curably sick patients as well as hospitals only admitting the terminally ill.

Can you guess how they would rank if we used health of the patients as the data for ranking?

This is more than just a problem of semantics, but to be blunt, these schools are not elite; they are selective—one overtly (AMHS) and one indirectly (BE).

These rankings and then the media coverage that perpetuates the rankings mask some powerful and essential facts that if confronted could help drive substantial social and educational reform that would serve students in SC much more directly.

First, public schools are primarily a reflection of the communities they serve; high-poverty communities have high-poverty schools, and both the communities and those schools suffer under enormous burdens related to a wide array of inequities linked to racism and poverty.

Second, schools almost never change the burdens of those communities. In fact, formal schooling has structures that tend to perpetuate and even intensify the inequities of high-poverty and racial minority communities—inequitable discipline policies, tracking, inequitable teacher assignment, inability to attract and retain experienced and certified teachers.

Magnet (AMHS) and choice (BE) mechanisms work to increase inequity because affluent and privileged students are over-served while poor students, racial minorities, ELL, and special needs students are systematically excluded through direct and invisible structures (choice, for example, often requires parents who can provide transportation and the time needed for transportation).

Conversely, poor students and racial minorities are over-identified as having special needs while also being under-identified in other sorting structures such as gifted and talented.

In-school inequities also include that wealthy and white student are more often served by experienced and certified teachers while sitting in classes with lower student/teacher ratios (typically correlated with being in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tracks). High-poverty students and racial minority students experience just the opposite—inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers and high student/teacher ratios as well as more remedial and test-prep courses.

Continuing to rank schools while also maintaining a disproportionate concern for narrow data (test scores) serves only to misrepresent how well students are learning, how well schools are serving their students, and how our policies and practices are in fact guaranteeing success and failure for children born into privilege or disadvantage through no effort or fault of their own.

The real news in the two articles above is that SC has a long history of political malfeasance—a lack of political will—and a compliant media that simply refuse to label racism and classism for what they are.

U.S. Education a Scam and a Rigged Game

iceberg on water
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Many years ago while I was a high school English teacher, I began to advocate strongly against the influence of the SAT, and all standardized testing. One of the few sources for that criticism was work by Alfie Kohn, whose publications received pretty harsh resistance from the testing industry.

One of my best friends and colleagues while teaching high school left for higher education before I did, and as I would several years later, found himself teaching at a selective liberal arts college. He taught education foundations, where he included some of my work and Kohn’s confronting the failures of testing and the SAT specifically.

What my friend and former colleague discovered is that students at a selective liberal arts college did not receive well his message or the evidence about the inequity in high-stakes standardized testing and college admission exams.

As the recent college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues, is gradually unmasking, people with privilege are powerfully invested in proving their merit—even if that veneer has to be manufactured at great expense.

I have been very successful at every level of formal education, attaining what is ominously called a “terminal degree.” Along that journey, I worked very hard, and simultaneously, the journey was nearly effortless because it required skills that I have mostly been quite adept at completing.

As well, I have been a professional educator for 35-plus years, at both the K-12 and higher education levels, including public and private schools.

In those experiences, I have been afforded incredible privilege because I am white and male. But I also have been often at arm’s length from that privilege in some ways because of my working-class background and my ideological alienation from my personal and professional communities.

Most difficult has been that despite my educational accomplishments and career as an educator, I have witnessed and then argued that while formal education is often framed as powerful in terms of how it shapes society and people (the “great equalizer” and “game changer” mantras), the reality of K-12 and higher education in the U.S. is that they mostly reflect and reinforce our inequities along racial, economic, and gender lines.

With the so-called college admissions scandal before us, I hope we can have larger discussions of what the purpose of education is and how access to education must be as sacred as what happens once students enter school.

The scandal exposes that education is not a game changer, but a marker for privilege. The wealthy are always branding, always seeking ways to be associated with the aura of quality.

Wealthy celebrities needed a daughter to attend USC for the prestige that attending Arizona State did not offer. This is no outlier, but an extreme example of how the wealthy perpetuate and are drawn to “elite” institutions, whether it be selective pre-schools, private K-12 academies, or the Ivey League.

Some experiences I have noticed throughout my teaching career include a misunderstanding of teaching and learning compounded at selective (mislabeled as “elite”) colleges by a wish among faculty to take credit for the existing so-called excellence in students admitted.

Let me explain with some historical context first.

The concept of universal public education in the U.S. is expressed very well as an ideal by the deeply flawed elitist Thomas Jefferson in the following passages:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

I… [proposed] three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life and such as should be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally and in their highest degree… The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor. (p. 791)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Door, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

The recent college admissions scandal is but the tip of the iceberg of privilege that has already sunk the Titanic plan detailed above by Jefferson, himself an original elitist unable to make his ideal real.

So, since these lofty claims established formal education in the U.S., we have instead embraced a deficit ideology—framing students needing to learn as a flaw of the student and a burden on the teacher (misunderstanding teaching and learning)—and creating formal education as a mechanism of enculturation (institutions that either label and shame those deemed deficient or label and praise those deemed elite).

If we pull back from the scandal and how this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the wealthy gaming everything along a spectrum from inequitable and unethical to outright criminal, we must also interrogate that we have failed the ideals of not only universal public education (K-16), but also the potential of education to revolutionize society and individuals.

Many students who need that ideal education the most are disenfranchised from or disillusioned by formal schooling while many privileged students are deeply invested in the game of formal schooling even as the education itself mostly washing over and by them.

In both cases, education is a scam and a rigged game.

While we are hand wringing over the college admissions scam, my home state of South Carolina has rejected provisions in a new education bill calling to lower some student/teacher ratios, claiming such mandates are too expensive.

However, in public schools across the state, mostly white and affluent students sit daily in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes with incredibly low student/teacher ratios, classes often next door to so-called regular classes at and above state maximums for student/teacher loads.

Inequity serving the wealthy and white and mis-serving everyone else—this is a feature of our systems and institutions, including schools, not a glitch—as some seem to suggest about the admissions scandal.

Today, in 2019, formal education in the U.S. is mostly a disturbing snapshot of how we are a people mostly using rhetoric to hide the power and momentum of privilege.

There is really nothing shocking about the admissions scandal, unless you want to pretend it is something other than the tip of a very old and very large iceberg of privilege that defines the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “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.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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