Likely as a consequence of being a critical educator and my own proclivities as a non-joiner skeptic, I remain mostly an outsider in the education reform debates—although I am a 30+-year educator and an established blogger/public voice on education.
Not addressing only specific, recent debates but prompted by my own witnessing of the evolving (and muddled) Pearson monitoring controversy and how that seems as problematic as the much longer (and equally muddled) Common Core debate, I posted the following Tweets earlier today:
Education activism for equity does not have to be perfect but we should seek to rise above those we critique in word and deed
Education activism for equity must be dedicated to achieving EQUITY, not dedicated to organizations or people (conduits for equity) — Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) March 25, 2015
On Common Core (see here, here, and here) and Pearson monitoring (see here and here), I cannot be placed neatly into any major camp of the ongoing debates.
And throughout my blogging and public work on education reform, I forefront race and racism as well as poverty—noting that addressing race in the U.S. immediately prompts both harsh reactions and stunning silence.
As more context, I am regularly confronted as a union shill and union basher, depending on the detractor; although I am not now and have never been a member of a union, living and working my entire life in a right-to-work state, but simultaneously support unionism while acknowledging that organized unions (NEA and AFT) have mostly failed education.
That same pattern occurs within politics since many assume I am a Democrat (I am not) and both partisan sides bristle at my equal-opportunity criticism of mainstream politicians’ failures related to education.
None of this is intended as a pity party or a pat on my own back, but to note I am living, and thus witnessing from a privileged white/male vantage point, what I am concerned about in this post: Even—or notably among—good people with whom I consider myself in allegiance on educational goals, education activism for equity too often fails by slipping into the wrong allegiances (people and organizations) and not the ultimate goal, equity.
To understand this, I think we must return to race and other aspects of marginalized people and voices. Three powerful situations must be acknowledged:
Civil rights organizations with black leadership speaking out in favor of high-stakes testing and accountability.
Blacks identified as supporting Common Core.
Blacks associated with strong support for charter schools.
As well, Andre Perry has offered two important examinations of the white/black dynamic in education reform:
To understand the racial divide in the education reform debate (why do blacks support many of the policies strongly rejected by a mostly white education reform counter-movement?) requires the same considerations necessary to unpack the often misguided Common Core and Pearson monitoring debates: Simplistic analysis of white and black support fails to confront the inherent problems with white privilege and fully expand the important contributions of minority voices.
As I have examined about black support of charter schools in the context of mass incarceration, I want to flesh out the three bullet points above by arguing that all three must include “as mechanisms for educational equity.”
In other words, it is misleading to say that civil rights or minority populations embrace policy A or practice B as if those policies and practices have no goals attached to them. The support must be read as “We support X in order to accomplish Y”—and it is that Y which is vital to emphasize, educational and social equity for minorities and the impoverished.
As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.
And that brings me back to my morning Twitter flurry.
Education activism for equity must not succumb to mere missionary zeal, and certainly fails when people and organizations trump the goal of equity or when winning the debate destroys the actual reason for the debate.
As I noted above, education activism for equity has failed in those ways—just as have the NEA, AFT, and Democrat Party (all of which I highlight since they are associated with being “liberal” and supposedly for both public education and economic/educational equity).
And all of this is very disappointing and disheartening—just as being alienated and ignored among those with whom I have strong allegiances is very disappointing and disheartening.
But again, this isn’t about me, although I do feel an obligation to bear witness to the failures among those I personally respect and publicly share ideologies—even when I disagree with them.
And I have failed along the way to this post, often—and will likely fail again.
But I stand by the Twitter flurry above, I stand by the unpopular positions I hold about Common Core and Pearson monitoring—despite the tensions those stands cause specific people and organizations, many of whom also pursue educational equity.
Teaching and activism are compelling pursuits for me because they both demand that we rise above personal and organizational commitments, that we rise to our individual commitment to humanity: They are all our children.
Teaching and activism require our humility, and a capacity for listening and learning, for admitting when we are wrong and moving forward.
And in both roles, we risk ourselves in order to find ourselves and the world we imagine can and should be.
Their important volume included a chapter on LaBrant by England and West, but the project also produced a recorded interview of LaBrant when she was 100, a gold mine for my biographical work.
Jeanne and I became good friends because of our love of English teaching, history, and the people who have created that history. But one of our frequent conversations was about a claim by LaBrant in the interview: LaBrant was adamant that during her life that spanned the 1880s into the 1990s she had never once experienced sexism.
LaBrant, Jeanne and I agreed, was so determined and assertive as a person that this claim was both a perfect example of who LaBrant was and completely unbelievable.
Thomas’s assertion about racism reminds me of LaBrant’s about sexism, but it also strikes a cord about the pervasive responses I receive to much of my public writing about race, class, and poverty.
Two comments recur: (1) Why does it always have to be about race?, and (2) I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I think the problem is class, not race.
The first comment tends to prompt me to want to say, Why is it never about race? But I suspect people who offer that first response are unlikely to listen to anything.
Thus, it is the second response where I believe raising a few questions has the potential for helping people who deny racism today see that they have a serious evidence problem.
Let me start by returning to Blow’s central thesis when responding to Thomas:
One thing that I will submit, however, is that the emphasis must shift from discussions of interpersonal racism — which I would argue are waning as they become more socially unacceptable — to systemic and institutional biases, which remain stubbornly infused throughout the culture.
Interpersonal incidents of racism are easy to identify and condemn, particularly as their prevalence dwindles. We do hear too much about these at the expense of discussions about the systemic and institutional biases that are harder to see — it’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem — and that rarely have individual authors. This bias is obscured by anecdote but quite visible in the data sets.
The evidence, I acknowledge, supports Blow’s assertion that “interpersonal racism” is “waning” but that “systemic and institutional” racism remains powerful and must be confronted.
Please examine the prison incarceration data by race. White males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but per 100,000 people in each racial group, 2207 African Americans to 380 whites (nearly an inverse proportion of 6 to 1) constitute that prison population (2010 data). Since there are also more whites in poverty than African Americans (about 2 to 1, 2011-2012 data), what accounts for the inequity of these numbers by race? If incarceration is a function of class and not race, the prison population should be about 2 whites to 1 African American.
Please examine data on discipline rates, access to courses and teachers, and retention rates in U.S. schools; for example, “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.” Why such inequity by race in schools, inequities that foreshadow the incarceration inequities?
Are issues related to race different in 2014 when compared to the 1960s? Yes, in many ways, some of the more overt aspects of blatant racism have been confronted—although the consequences of that development have also masked racism—and racism no longer finds refuge in statutes.
To answer the questions above is to confront the evidence and then to offer answers that I suspect racism deniers simply do not want to admit—despite the inevitable conclusion that racism remains a powerful marker for inequitable consequences throughout society and within institutions.
Blow ends his Op-Ed with: “Simplistic discussions about race — both those that are history-blind and those that give insufficient weight to personal choices — do nothing to advance understanding. They obscure it.”
To that I add, denying racism does not end it, but that denial obscures it as well.
Saying something doesn’t exist will not make that true; it is a sort of word magic that reinforces the unacknowledged status quo.
The evidence shows systemic and institutional racism persists and is powerful. To end racism, we must first name it.
In 2005, Sherman’s excellence in the classroom was the centerpiece of a profile by Eric Sondheimer of the Los Angeles Times. Compton gained a national reputation as the epicenter of Los Angeles’ gang and crime problems in the 1980s and 1990s, and the state ran the failing school district from 1993 to 2001. Sherman, though, knew he had the ability to excel in the classroom—and that his teammates did too.
“I’m trying my best to get them where I’m going, to the college level,” Sherman told Sondheimer. “I’m helping them study for the SAT. A lot of people come in blind in what they need to know, not knowing one day they could be a top college prospect.”
Sherman talked the talk and walked the walk, telling his teammates to “quit making excuses” for poor academic performance while posting a 4.1 GPA—more than good enough to be accepted into Stanford, the first Dominguez player in over 20 years to be good enough athletically and academically to earn an invite there.
While media hype certainly plays a role in the lingering focus on Sherman after the on-field interview, the responses offer important moments to consider.
There is some comfort, I think, in a growing recognition that responses to Sherman have been at least fueled by racism—including the coincidence of Justin Bieber’s arrest and the resulting confrontation of how Sherman has been labeled a “thug” while Bieber’s wealth and white/male status shield him from a number of verbal and legal consequences that African American males experience daily.
And beginning a dialogue on the use of “thug” as code for racial slurs and racism also adds to a social effort to reach race and class equity in the U.S.
But I haven’t seen yet any consideration of using GPA to justify Sherman; his GPA has become a reflexive association, especially among mainstream, white, middle-class media.
Sherman did well in high school. (And he grew up in Compton.)
Sherman went to Stanford. (And he grew up in Compton.)
Sherman had a high GPA in high school and Stanford. (And he grew up in Compton.)
And while I haven’t heard or read it, I imagine Sherman has been discussed with the standard, “He speaks so well. (And he grew up in Compton.)”
Each time these justifications are used, I recognize a level of racism and condescension not unlike the use of “thug”—not toward Sherman, but toward a hushed suggestion of those real thugs (he grew up in Compton) with whom Sherman is being unfairly confused. You know, those others who do poorly in school. His GPA becomes a tool in wink-wink-nod-nod public discourse that is just as poisonous as the use of “thug.”
For me, Sherman is a highly skilled athlete in a sport filled with other highly skilled athletes—many of whom happen to be African American.
Setting aside the slurs aimed at him, Sherman is also triggering a social taboo (grounded in racialized norms) against a certain type of bravado. Sherman isn’t Muhammad Ali, but it seems fair to note how white mainstream America responded to Ali—not for the substance of his vision, not for the power of his athleticism, not for his eloquence and showmanship, but for his bravado.
Having been born and raised in the South, I am old enough to recognize the warnings in negative responses to bravado by African American men—a warning about being uppity, a nastiness of lingering racism.
So when many rush to justify Sherman by his GPAs, I see the same white faces explaining how Barry Sanders and Jim Brown did it the right way, meaning they displayed an understated character on the field. No spiking the ball after a touchdown, no thumbs to the name on the back of the jersey, no chest thumping.
And it all sounds to me like praising the other for knowing his place, a place decided for him.
Let’s not allow the conversation about “thug” being code for a racial slur disappear behind the next wave of media hype, but let’s also unmask the many other codes being used to justify Sherman—such as branding him with the confirmation of GPA and attending the right university.
Richard Sherman is a highly skilled athlete, competing in a sport made up of highly skilled athletes.
That isn’t simple, or even meant to be simplistic, but there are credible ways to praise Richard Sherman for the content of his character without taking veiled swipes at those people we continue to marginalize as Others.
Yes, there are codes behind words, but there are codes behind numbers as well. GPA (and SAT scores) may be waved to justify an athlete unfairly slurred, but those numbers are also masking how GPA and SAT serve to perpetuate privilege and gate-keep—a mask of objectivity that hides racial, class, and gender biases in those numbers.
Let me try once again to clarify both that these claims are true and necessary to name in order to change.
“Poverty is destiny” is a normative  fact of the United States. For most children, the social class they are born into predicts the trajectory of their lives, independent of their self-worth, effort, and all sorts of other factors we are more likely to associate with the individual child.
That this is a normative statement includes a concession that outliers exist (some people fall out of and rise above the social class of their births), but outliers do not discredit a normative statement just as we must caution against making an outlier status the rubric for normalized behavior. In other words, that African American men have scaled to the presidency and supreme court stands as outliers against the disproportionate number of AA men incarcerated in our country:
Michelle Alexander has embodied the need to name in order to change by confronting the normative facts of mass incarceration as well as the indisputable fact that mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow, thus racist.
Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion….
In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race….
We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families….
The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline….
It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months….
The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.
Alexander and Reardon are naming normative facts—ones that many all along the ideological spectrum not only refuse to do themselves, but rush to silence others who do name in order to change.
If the patterns of mass incarceration and “no excuses”/”zero tolerance” schools and policies even impacted privileged white males proportionately in the U.S., the outcry would be deafening.
The current and historical racially disproportionate and negative patterns of the U.S. penal and judicial systems and the rise of highly segregated “no excuses” charter schools and “zero tolerance” urban public schools must be named and then we must act t change that which is racist, that which is classist, that which is sexist.
Refusing to name, refusing to act guarantees poverty will remain destiny and the current education reform movement will continue to mirror the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration.
If you are uncertain about the messages our culture sends about race, view the video below:
This starts with caveats and clarifications so please be patient.
I am white, male, and heterosexual—by the coincidences of my birth, many of my defining characteristics place me in the norm of my culture and combine to bestow upon me through no merit on my part a great deal of privilege.
Below, then, I am making no claim that the closets I have suffered and that others suffer share some sort of ultimate equivalence even though they share the crippling power of fear. I remain deeply angered at the scars of racism, sexism, and homophobia that linger in my country that claims to be a beacon of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I remain deeply angered at the scar of poverty that flourishes in that same country wrapping its crass consumerism and capitalism in the flag in order to continue to ignore inequity.
But as a privileged person, I too understand the weight of the closet and the paralysis of fear so I am venturing into this not as a pity party, not as navel gazing, and not to make some grand claim that I know what it is like to be the daily victim of racism, sexism, or homophobia, what it is like to be homeless or hungry.
This, however, is a place to offer a few words about the intersections that may at first not seem like intersections at all: Jason Collins coming out of the closet, the Boston Marathon bombing, Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and other “no excuses” schools.
“Stones can make people docile and knowable,” writes Foucault . “The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure—thick walls, a heavy gate that prevent entering or leaving—began to be replaced by the calculation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies” (p. 190).
Here, Foucault is being literal, confronting the culture of control that is housed in social institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and schools. But I want to consider the enclosure of the metaphorical closet before coming back to the role of the brick-and-mortar school below.
My privilege built on gender, race, and sexuality (all elements of my being I have not chosen, but essentials of whom I am) has contributed to my existential angst of coming to recognize throughout my life the equally important aspects of my Self that are distinctly outside cultural norms.
In my late 30s, I began to experience panic attacks, notably ones not directly associated with an event but attacks that were, as best as I can describe them, the manifestation of a war with myself. The attacks came upon me any time I tried to sleep, relax, and this was when my Normal Self let down the guard enough for the real and true me to begin to fight for the surface.
Again, I don’t want to belabor my personal struggles, but I do want to emphasize that the human condition is fraught with closets of many kinds that are joined by fear.
My closeting has always been an existential one: I have never felt the sort of normal response to religion that others appear to embrace (a powerful closeting condition in the South), but even more profoundly, I recognize my worldview as completely out of kilter with almost all other humans. It has created for me an often overwhelming sense of alienation.
What often is left unspoken is that it is in the moments of conflict between who we truly are and who we are expected to be that we feel self-conscious, we imagine that all eyes are on us, judging us, recognizing us for who we truly are in order to banish us from the community. For me, it is the never-ending ritual of “Let us pray…” or that split second when someone says something and everyone else nods in agreement while I calculate the damage that would be done if I said my piece. Both of these seem trivial to me in the text I just typed, but the cumulative effect of this daily, I think, must not be discounted—particularly as it occurred in my childhood and youth.
Closets exist because humans come to recognize two forces—who we truly are and who the World around us demands that we be. If who we truly are doesn’t match the demand, we often gather the stones to build our closets because above all else we are afraid of not being accepted, not being loved, not being cherished for who we truly are.
Even in our moments of such recognitions, we reach out for someone to join us:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
The closet, then, is a place to hide, how not to be seen. However, the human condition involves a drive not only to be seen, but also to be accepted, embraced. This has been profoundly demonstrated in Jason Collin’s own words about his motivation for confronting his sexuality within the exponentially judgmental worlds of social and athletic homophobia and normative expectations for being fully a man.
This tension between being seen and not being seen is at the center of Foucault’s culture of control: “This infinitely scrupulous concern with surveillance is expressed in the architecture by innumerable mechanisms….The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly” (p. 191).
Constant surveillance, then, achieves two ends: The power and coercion of normalizing (control, obedience), and the creation of anxiety, fear, where neither are warranted: “The perpetual penality that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (p. 195).
The existential angst within the human condition, made more pronounced from within our many closets, confronts the concrete structures recognized by Foucault—hospitals, schools, prisons—but also now confronts a pervasive surveillance that was identified and then normalized itself because of the Boston Marathon bombing—the Brave New World of constant surveillance through smart phones, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and the interconnectivity afforded through the Internet.
The normalizing came in the form of repeated comments from political leaders, law enforcement, and the media that the constant surveillance has now shown itself as essential for our safety—from the (criminal) Other, our mechanisms for the middle-class cocoon.
“Similarly,” Foucault explains, “the school building was to be a mechanism for training” (p. 190).
Building on Foucault’s recognition of the structures within a culture of control, DeLeuze details:
We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools….But everyone knows that these institutions are finished….These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything [emphasis added]. (pp. 3, 5)
And now the intersections among closeted existences, fear, constant surveillance and the Boston Marathon bombing, and the “age of infinite examination” that is education reform built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing.
First let’s zoom in to the life of the student, specifically the student marginalized in her/his home and community and then marginalized in her/his school: “a pupil’s ‘offense’ is not only a minor infraction, but also an inability to carry out his tasks,” Foucault explains (p. 194), predating significantly the new norm of “no excuses” school cultures as captured by Sarah Carr’s look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the rise of KIPP and similar charter schools:
The reformers approach students they perceive as disadvantaged in much the same way they do struggling teachers….[L]ow income children must be taught, explicitly and step-by-step, how to be good students. Staff at a growing number of “no-excuses” charter schools…are prescriptive about where new students look (they must “track” the speaker with their eyes), how they sit (upright, with both feet planted on the ground, hands folded in front of them), how they walk (silently and in a straight line, which is sometimes marked out for them by tape on the floor), how they express agreement (usually through snaps or “silent clapping” because it’s less disruptive to the flow of class), and, most important, what they aspire to (college, college, college). This conditioning (or “calibration” or “acculturation”…) starts with the youngest of students. (pp. 42-43) 
“The disciplinary mechanisms,” Foucault explains, “secreted a ‘penalty of the norm,’ which is irreductible in its principles and functioning to the traditional penalty of the law” (p. 196). Carr and Nolan, in her ethnography of zero tolerance policies in urban high schools , shine a light on how schools and the penal system have merged in the U.S. for “other people’s children”—creating both a school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons.
CCSS and the high-stakes tests designed to enforce those standards, then, are yet a logical extension of the broader purposes of school to control, an institution that “compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes[,]…normalizes” through the mechanism of tests:
The order that the disciplinary punishments must enforce is of a mixed nature: it is an “artificial” order, explicitly laid down by a law, a program, a set of regulations. But it is also an order defined by natural and observable processes: the duration of apprenticeship, the time taken to perform an exercise, the level of aptitude refer to a regularity that is also a rule. (Foucault, pp. 194-195)
As well, Deleuze recognizes education is in a contant state of crisis, reform, and standardization, within which schools, teachers, and students can never finish. Our Brave New World of standardization and “infinite examination” is one of international rankings, school rankings, teacher rankings, and student rankings—all of which assure that virtually everyone cannot possibly measure up; number two is perpetually the first loser.
“The power of the Norm appears throughout the disciplines,” adds Foucault:
The Normal is established as a principle of coercion in teaching with the introduction of a standardized education and the establishment of the ecoles normales (teachers’ training college)….Like surveillance and with it, normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age. (p. 196)
A culture of control is the antithesis of a community.
A culture of control uses the normative gaze to breed conformity and to excise the Different from the herd.
A community reaches out, lends a hand, opens arms. A community is an invitation to the recognition of the humanity that joins all people despite the diversity among us individually.
Many closets, one fear—this should speak to our hearts in a way that moves us beyond cultures and societies of control and toward a community.
We should also come to see that our culture of control is built upon and perpetuated by a dehumanizing education mechanism grounded in surveillance and fear.
Just as fear is the wrong motivation for embracing the perpetual surveillance created by smart phones, cameras on every street corner, and the Internet, fear is the wrong motivation for how we build our schools.
Ultimately, KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools, CCSS, and the perpetual churn of education reform are the consequences of fear.
Ceaseless school reform is irrational and heartless; it is building closets from the stones of test scores.
Ceaseless school reform creates schools and a society in which we all must find ways not to be seen, fearful if we take the risk to stand as our true selves in that open field we too will be shot down like a punch line in a comedy sketch.
 Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See “The means of correct training” from Discipline and punish.
I am currently drafting a chapter on schools as prisons (a product of zero tolerance and “no excuses” ideologies and policies), and along with the words of James Baldwin being relevant today—
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. (Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433) 
—so are the words of Carter Godwin Woodson:
[T]he educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America [is] an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself….The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker people….The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race. (pp. 4-5) 
 Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America. Originally published in 1972, No Name in the Street.
When Jose Vilson posts a blog, I read carefully, and I don’t multitask.
I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire 52 years in the South where racism clings to our region like the stench of a house razed by fire. And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white.
“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.”
I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people and 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, that the most beautiful humans, the greatest reasons to live on this planet are children of every possible shade—red and yellow, black and white children 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 any race of people
America the Beautiful created a criminal class out of African America men, building a new Jim Crow with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs.
And 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, as James Baldwin, in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted as an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” 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….”
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.”
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.”
Today, the racism is thinly masked, and only the adults refuse to see it.
“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.”
Douglass’s charges remain in Baldwin’s “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.”
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, don’t incarcerate young black men, 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, we will not unmask it, and ultimately, the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and James (“Jimmy” of the allusion-as-blog-title) 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.
I may have no real right to these words as a privileged, white male, but I offer them, as I stated above, because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Jose, refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.”
And as Baldwin referenced: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”—and we all must hear what everyone else says, the words they choose, never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.
To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love,
 The passage below is cited by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.
educator, public scholar, poet&writer – academic freedom isn't free