Surprised by Charlottesville? You Haven’t Been Paying Attention

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America is a funny place.

 

On the one hand, we’re one of the first modern Democracies, a product of Enlightenment thinking and unabashed pluralism and cultural diversity.

 

On the other, we’ve built our entire society on a cast system that is the basis of our economics, politics and cultural mores.

 

We’re the land of Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers, Duke Ellington, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Day O’Connor.

 

But we’re also the land of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Charles Lindberg, Bull Connor, and David Duke.

 

Tolerance and love are as American as apple pie. But so are racism, sexism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

 

“It is not as though the United States is the land of opportunity, or a hypocritical racist state,” says sociologist John Skrentny. “It is one or both, depending on context.”

 

 

So this week when people saw Nazis marching openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only thing that was really so surprising about it was how surprised so many people seem to be.

 

“That’s not my America!” they seem to be saying.

 

To which I reply, “Hell, yes, it is! Where have you been the last 241 years!?”

 

We base our salary scales on genitalia! You think we’re really so freaking advanced!?

 

The shade of your epidermis determines the likelihood of police arresting you, charging you, even killing you regardless of your having a weapon, whether you resist arrest or simply lay on the ground with your hands in the air.

 

Regardless of the evidence, if you’re convicted, the length and severity of the sentence are all partially determined by the amount of melanin in your skin. The cultural derivation of the name on your resume determines the likelihood of employers calling you back for an interview. In many places, your rights are legislated based on whom you love.

 

Our schools are segregated. Our taxes are levied most heavily on those with the least means to pay. Our prisons house more black people today than did slave plantations in the 1860s.

 

Yet a bunch of white dudes carrying Tiki torches shouting hate filled puns (“Jew will not replace us”? Seriously?) somehow doesn’t compute?

 

Come on.

 

This is America.

 

Racism and prejudice are not threats smuggled in past border security. They’ve always been here. At least since Europeans came offering trade and peace with one hand and guns and smallpox with the other.

 

The land of the free was stolen from the Native Americans. Our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Our laws and electoral system were built to empower one group at the expense of others.

 

Yet reformations in this process are rarely met with celebration. Instead of memorializing the end of slavery, we embrace the institution with fond remembrance.

 

Nor did prejudice and bigotry end when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, after Brown vs. Board, the Voting Rights Act, Freedom Rides, sit-ins or civil rights protests.

 

America has always been a place hostile to the under privileged, the second sex, religious dissenters, the brown skinned.

 

At most, we had become less confrontational in recent years, but we never really changed our core values, our social structures, who has power and who does not.

 

During my lifetime, people started to equate having a black President with the end of racism. Somehow they ignored the everyday reality for most black people.

 

They ignored the constant prejudice against the poor, the continued bigotry against LGBTs, the Islamophobia, the increase in hate crimes.

 

If there has been any change during the past eight months, it hasn’t been with the degree to which Americans are prejudiced. It’s the degree with which we’re willing to hide it.

 

Whereas before racists would claim to be colorblind, that their actions were completely devoid of racial bias, today they sigh and repeat the dusty slogans of Jim Crow Alabama or 1930s Berlin.

 

And somehow people are actually surprised about this.

 

It’s because too many of us have swallowed the lies about living in a post-racial society.

 

You thought we were beyond all that. It was a brave new world, morning in America, and we were finally treating everyone equally – unless you looked at what we were actually doing.

 

Mainly this is the reaction you get from white people. They rub their eyes and just can’t believe it.

 

You don’t see this too often from people of color, Muslims, LGBTs and some Jews. Why? Because they never had the luxury to ignore it.

 

That’s what we white folks have been doing since the beginning.

 

Whenever these issues come up, we have a knee jerk reaction to minimize it.

 

Things aren’t that bad. You’re just blowing it out of proportion.

 

But, no. I’m not.

 

That’s why you’re so damn shocked, son.

 

You haven’t been looking reality square in the face.

 

So when we’ve got undeniable video footage of angry white males (mostly) marching through Southern streets brandishing swastikas and assault rifles, it catches many white folks off guard.

 

They’re not prepared for it – because they haven’t been doing their homework.

 

We’ve been living in a bubble. Especially those living in major metropolitan areas.

 

That kind of thing never happens around here, right?

 

Of course it does!

 

Just because you live above the Mason Dixon Line doesn’t mean you’re safe.

 

You have a black friend, you like authentic Mexican food and you laugh while watching “Modern Family.”

 

But you haven’t opened your eyes to the reality outside your door.

 

You send your kids to private school or live in a mostly upper class white district. You have an exclusive gym membership that keeps out the riff-raff. You work in an office where that one token person of color makes you feel sophisticated and open-minded.

 

You’ve got to wake up.

 

You’ve got to educate yourself about race and class in America.

 

Because those people you saw in Charlottesville aren’t an anomaly.

 

They are an authentic part of this country, and if you don’t like it, you have to do something about it.

 

You can’t hide behind denial.

 

You have to take a stand, pick a side, and be counted.

 

Because one day soon, the torches will be outside your door.

 

You have to decide now – do you want to brandish or extinguish them?

I Am So Sick of White People’s Excuses (And I’m White!)

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What the heck is wrong with us, white people?

Systematic racism is all around, but we refuse to see it.

Oh, and I do mean REFUSE. It’s not a matter of being unable to see it. Our eyes and minds work just as well as anyone else’s. We can perceive reality. Too many of us just choose not to.

According to the Guardian, at least 793 Americans have been killed by police so far this year. That number includes 194 black people or 4.86 per million. That’s more than double the rate for white people at 1.96 per million.

This is not an opinion. This is an undeniable fact. Every number is backed up with verifiable data. And moreover, it follows the same pattern we’ve seen for a couple of years now since news organizations have taken up the slack from the federal government and started counting.

Why does that not worry more white people? It worries me. I don’t want to live in a country where police use lethal force so often against civilians, so much more than almost any other developed country on Earth. And I don’t want my black friends and neighbors to be targeted so much more.

I’m a middle school teacher. Most of my students are black. I don’t want to have to worry that they or their parents are going to be murdered just because of an excess of melanin. Street gangs are worrisome enough without having to add into the mix many of the very law enforcement officers that are supposed to keep us safe from those gangbangers.

But when you bring this up to white folks and other facts detailing the systemic racism that pervades our society, you get every excuse in the book.

They simply refuse to engage with what you’re saying. They deflect and redirect and change the subject – and they don’t even seem to realize they’re doing it.

Blue lives matter, they say. All lives matter. Every form of life seems to matter to white people – except explicitly black lives.

We seem to think it’s impossible to care about both police and African Americans. We seem to think any expression of the value of human life has to be universal without mentioning individual groups that are at a higher risk than others.

It’s wacko, clearly a way of shutting down a conversation white folks will do anything to avoid.

The easiest dodge seems to be talking about black-on-black crime. As if somehow that makes it right.

It goes something like this: You’re worried about police killing black people, what about other black people? Most African Americans are killed by other African Americans.

Of course what they omit is that the same is true for white Americans. White folks kill each other much more than any other race does. But you never see people wringing their hands about white-on-white crime, do you?

Moreover, it’s irrelevant. If I point to a single incident of a white person killing a black person, it is not therefore justified because black people kill black people more often. Would you think an African American is justified for popping a cap in your Caucasian mom’s ass because most of us, honkies, usually off other honkies? Of course not!

But so much for logic. One of the most popular evasions is to blame it all on inferior black culture.

It goes like this: Black people don’t suffer systemic racism. If there are any ways in which they are selected against in society, it’s because they’ve earned that treatment because of the way they act.

Black people come from unmarried parents. They are on Welfare and a host of other social ills. THESE are the reasons behind so-called racism, not unjust systems.

It’s pure nonsense.

How does coming from unmarried parents mean you deserve to be killed by police at a greater rate than white people? How does parental marital status affect the justice system handing out more severe and longer sentences for blacks than for whites who commit the same crimes? How does the Facebook status of your pops and your moms somehow translate into difficulty getting a job due to your black sounding name?

In short, the two have nothing to do with each other.

Yes, black people have children out of wedlock about twice as often as white people. So what? Some people aren’t meant to be married. Often it’s better for the children if the parents don’t stay married to people who mistreat each other, a marriage where there is no love. Would racism suddenly disappear if black people just kept their chins up and married each other irregardless of whether the relationship was healthy for them and their children?

Let’s get to what white people are really saying here. Whites aren’t saying marriage is a magical shield against prejudice. They’re saying: Damn! Look at these strangers! These others! These people who aren’t like you and me!

The fact that many of them don’t get married before having children just shows how morally inferior they are to us. They deserve their treatment because they don’t share our sensibilities.

This is a pretty heartless way to think. Not only do the parents, apparently, deserve to be selected against, but so do their kids who had nothing to do with whether daddy gave mommy a ring or not. Moreover, where did the culture of marriageless childbirth come from for black people? When their ancestors were kidnapped from Africa and brought to these shores as slaves, it was the white slave masters who forbade them from marrying. In many cases, that tradition doesn’t exist because we took it away. Meanwhile, about a quarter of white couples have children out of wedlock, too. What’s our excuse?

But this won’t be enough to convince most white interlocutors.

They’ll just huff and puff and spout some nonsense about welfare.

They’ll say Black people fall into immoral and violent behavior because they’ve been taught by liberals to exist on welfare and not get jobs of their own.

Again, the problem is black people, themselves, aided by bleeding heart liberals trying to give them a helping hand. Some white folks even go so far as to say this is real racism because by giving black folks such sweet benefits for not working, liberals purposefully destroyed black people’s natural inclination to productivity.

Think about it for about two seconds, and you can see how crazy it is.

Black people deserve to be killed at twice the rate of whites because they don’t have jobs? They deserve to be gunned down because they’re too lazy to work?

Or alternatively, they deserve not to get call backs when they turn in resumes with black sounding names because they’re lazy!? These people just handed in job applications. We can imagine they did that because they wanted freaking jobs! But being lazy makes them unqualified for the very jobs they tried to apply for in the first place?

Let’s look at the facts for a moment. Black people don’t accept the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more than whites. It’s the other way around.

More than 40% of SNAP recipients are white. Only 25% are black.

But that’s raw data. When we look at it as a percentage of the population, black people are twice as likely to be on Welfare as Whites. Only 12% of the country is African American, after all.

So why bring up the raw data? Because if you’re upset about the sheer numbers of people on assistance, you’re mad at more white people than black people.

Moreover, black people actually need it more than whites. More than 27% of black people live in poverty compared to only 10% of whites. Hence the larger percentage of blacks on SNAP.

This isn’t meant to throw anyone under the bus for being on public assistance. Times are tough and well paying jobs are hard to come by. For instance, most of the people who accept SNAP benefits actually are employed, but their pay is too small to sustain them. Thanks, Walmart.

So how much does a family of four get on SNAP? It depends on how much money the household earns, but the total income must be below the federal poverty level – $23,050. For many families it comes to about $399 a month. That’s $1.10 per person, per meal.

This isn’t exactly living high off the hog. I can’t imagine anyone making bank who would throw it all away to live so luxuriously on food stamps.

However, this is exactly what a lot of white people think about blacks.

It goes against the facts, and it doesn’t explain the reality of systemic racism.

In so many ways our society is set up to give white people an advantage and black people a disadvantage. That doesn’t mean all white people have it perfectly. There are an awful lot of dirt poor white folks out there – many of their kids are in my classes, too. But while they may be disadvantaged socially, economically or many other ways, they aren’t disadvantaged racially.

That’s the whole point.

Racism still exists and talking about it doesn’t make you anti-white. It makes you pro-black and pro-justice.

Those aren’t bad things to be.

We, white people, have to stop being so fragile when racism is brought up. Though I’ve artificially concerned myself only with black people here, we need to listen to what all people of color are telling us about how they’re treated. We need to take a hard look at the facts.

Being white and admitting racism exists doesn’t make you a racist – though you probably benefit from it. It just means that if you want to stand on the right side of history, on the side of equity and justice, you may need to bring your thinking into agreement with reality.

Why the Rich Need Racists: Prejudice as Social Control

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HELP WANTED: RACISTS
Anywhere, USA

-Must have an irrational fear and hatred of all things African American.

-Must honestly believe black people get all the breaks, have it easier than whites.

-Must believe black people are naturally inferior to whites, lazy, prone to criminality, less intelligent, etc.

-Must believe racism ended with either (1) the civil rights movement or (2) slavery.

But must hide these beliefs under a thin veneer of civility. For instance:

-must never use the N-word (in public)

-must never beat or kill a black person (unless on the police force)

-must never light a burning cross on a black person’s lawn (and get caught)

-must never tweet or express these views publicly in a way that can be traced back to you.

Enjoyment of rap music, black culture or black sexual partners optional. Fox News viewership preferred.

Bonus pay if racism is unrecognized by the applicant.

No experience necessary. Apply within.”

If you saw an advertisement like the above posted in your local shop window, it really wouldn’t be so surprising. Would it?

Well maybe because of it’s bluntness. But it’s not really that different from campaign fliers for Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump vowing to “Make America Great Again!”

Throughout it’s history, when exactly was America great for black and brown people who have been denied equal rights? When was it great for women or LGBTs or a host of other non-cis/non-male/non-white people?

A pledge to make America great again is just a pledge to make America white again – or at least to propel male whiteness back to the center of normativity.

(In fact, much of what I’m going to say about racism here could also be said of all kinds of prejudice. But for the interest of clarity, I’ll try to contain myself to focusing on racism, though I acknowledge the high degree of intersectionality of the phenomena.)

Yep. A lot of folks are riled up because the flower of white male privilege is wilting, and they think too many are suggesting we let it die.

What can they do? White people’s only remaining claim on supremacy is based on a fleeting numerical majority that is fast coming to an end. Soon they’ll be outnumbered.

They’re so mad about even an incremental loss of white power, they’re willing to blind themselves to obvious injustices against people of color.

For instance, black people are killed by the police at twice the rate of white people. Unarmed black people are killed at five times the rate. Yet somehow it’s black folk’s own doggone fault.

What if he has a legal weapon, but it’s not anywhere in use? HIS FAULT.

What if he has no weapon? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s just a child? HIS FAULT.

What if it’s a woman mysteriously found hanged in her prison cell with no possible motive for suicide? HER FAULT.

What if he’s screaming in pain from an injury sustained in the police encounter? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s complaining on video that police are choking him and he dies as a result of those injuries? HIS FAULT.

I mean come on, people! How does a brotha’ got to die before white folks will admit to some culpability by police?
And that’s just one type of example. Consider: There are more black people in prison today than were slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. Black people get harsher prison sentences than whites for the exact same crimes. Black people are segregated into poor communities with underfunded schools. People with black-sounding names are less likely to get a job than white counterparts with the same experience.

And on-and-on-and-on.

Yet you’ll find white apologists everywhere who will see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil of the racial caste system under which their black brothers and sisters are forced to live. They refuse to acknowledge it, get angry when you bring it up and will actively support it at the polls.

That’s racism, people.

It’s 2016. Legal slavery ended more than 150 years ago in this country. The civil rights movement ended more than 60 years ago. Why do we still have systematic racism baked into the fabric of America?

In 1963, the African American writer James Baldwin asked the same question. He said:

“The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people, and our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger who they’ve maligned for so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have the n****r in the first place. I am not a n****r. I am a man. But if you think I’m a n****r, it means you need it… You, the white people, invented him, and you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

Why do white people need racism?

Today we have an answer. The short version would be this: because it’s useful.

It serves a function in society.

When people conceptualize each other into these highly dubious and unjustifiable categories of black and white, it provides a valuable service to the status quo. In fact, we couldn’t have the status quo without it.

When historians look back at the ancient Spartan empire of 900 -192 BC, there is little confusion why their society was so highly militarized. Few historians wonder why such a small population organized themselves into a military state. They needed to control the vast network of slaves dispersed throughout their community. The conquerors were massively outnumbered by the conquered so they resorted to militarized fear to keep their social structure intact. They weren’t afraid of invaders from without. They were afraid of invaders from within.

Likewise, if humanity survives our current moment in time, historians of the future will undoubtedly be in agreement about the reasons for American racism. It’s the same reason found in ancient Sparta. We need it to keep our society together.
In America today, the top one percent own more than the bottom 90 percent. The richest 85 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the country. And it’s only getting worse.

A country with such vast wealth inequality cannot survive without a scapegoat – black people. The majority of the population would not let the top one percent gorge themselves on our riches unless they had distracted us with something.

Don’t pay any attention to the Wall Street bailout. Look at those welfare queens, which is code for black people sucking away our wealth.

Don’t pay attention to the overt militarization of the police force. Look at those violent black criminals they have to deal with by pulling their service pistols and shooting them into submission.

Don’t pay attention to the inequitable distribution of education funding to your public schools. Look at how these black kids don’t pull up their pants, and if they manage to graduate, they’re given undeserved preference over more qualified white people through affirmative action.

Think about it. Why do we have a sizable black population in the first place?

Slavery. The very presence of a substantial black population is attributable to market forces. We needed a cheap workforce for our agricultural industry – especially tobacco and cotton. It was a labor intensive process and the only way to make a substantial profit at it was immoral thrift. And you can’t get much cheaper than forced, generational servitude.

Why weren’t black people treated equally after the Civil War?

We still needed that cheap workforce. The wealth of our nation depended on it. We needed legal ways to keep them subjugated. We needed to keep them on the farm or in prison so the economic engine of agriculture could continue unabated. If they all had the right to vote or could protest their conditions, that would hurt the bottom line. They’d gain freedom, but we’d lose money. Not gonna’ happen.

Why didn’t equality come after the civil rights movement?

Agricultural mechanization had decreased the need for cheap labor, but having an underclass is profitable for whoever can take advantage of them. The invisible hand of the market will preserve human subjugation for as long as it can and as long as it turns a profit.

Moreover, throughout the entire history of this country, the rich have needed something to keep white labor in check, too. Fair wages, overtime pay, child labor laws, vacation pay, workplace safety – all of these rights had to be fought for tooth and nail – usually by the most demonized of social institutions, the labor unions. We needed something to stop the rising tide of economic fairness. Giving white workers someone to kick around made them more satisfied with their own lot in life and less willing to fight for a larger share of the pie.

It went something like this: You may have to work in the factory all day, but at least you aren’t one of THEM. You might be bone tired while the bosses get rich off of your labor, but at least you can feel proud of your race.

What an amazing swindle! The rich have actually convinced many hard-working white people to feel proud of the pigmentation of their skin! No. Not their cultural heritage. Not the struggle of their moms and dads, their ties to a homeland across the sea, their religion or ethnicity. No. The color of their skins!

If intelligent aliens ever crossed light years of space and time to investigate the intellect of human beings, that one fact would have them rushing back home shaking their tentacles and multiple heads in disbelief!

Just look at how racism has been used to justify the actions of the wealthy throughout history!

Europeans discover a New World in 1492 full of riches to plunder and exploit. But how do you justify doing that when it’s already populated? How can you do that morally? After all, doesn’t our God command we love our neighbors as ourselves? Isn’t murder and theft a… gulp… sin?

Well obviously the indigenous peoples don’t count. They’re not like us. They’re not Christians. They’re heathens.

But wait a minute! The church is forcing them to adopt our religion. This justification has a sell-by date. It won’t last long enough for us to suck every drop of wealth out of the Americas.

So we came up with a new way to dehumanize people – racism. It’s not just that they’re heathens. They’re subhuman, too. FWEW! Problem solved.

Then comes 1776. The American colonies revolt and write up some high minded language about all men being equal. If we actually believed that, it would necessitate a new social order. Much easier to find new justifications for the old one.

Well we already agreed the Native Americans are naturally inferior. These African slaves we stole are likewise beneath our high ideals. The same with women. And the poor. And immigrants. And homosexuals. And whoever else we need to subjugate. They just don’t count.

When idealism and capitalism have come into conflict, the rich have invariably chosen capitalism. And when the rest of us choose racism, prejudice, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, we’re doing them a favor. We’re backing up their interests.

Stop being such chumps, white people!

A racist is invariably a traitor to his own class. A sexist is a sycophant to the smart set. A xenophobe is a diversion to the hands buried in your pocket robbing you blind.
Your interests have much more in common with all those people you’ve been taught to hate. You could be coming together in common cause with all those black and brown people. You could be rising up and demanding your due. We could join together and demand a fair shake, an equitable piece of our gross national product.

But instead we are content to protect an ever shrinking share of our national wealth if we can just keep that ridiculous and childish pride in our lack of melanin.

During the same interview, Baldwin was asked if he thought there was any hope America would change it’s ways. He said:

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”

I agree.

It’s all up to us, white people.

Racism doesn’t serve us. It subjugates us just like it does everyone else.

They throw us a bone and we jealously guard it like its a prime cut of steak.

When are we going to wake up? When are we going to put away hate and choose love?

When are we going to join our brothers and sisters in the struggle and demand what’s ours?

The rich may need racists, but we don’t.

Taking Back Your Name – The Pros and Cons of Political Correctness

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“What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
Toni Morrison

“Never trust anyone who says they do not see color. This means to them, you are invisible.”
Nayhyirah Waheed

 

Call me Steve.

Not Steven. Not Stephen. Certainly not Steveareno.

It’s a preference. My preference. My choice. And if people want to be in my good graces, they’ll comply with my wishes.

There’s nothing strange or unreasonable about this. We do it all the time – usually when we’re being introduced to someone.

“Hi. I’m Steve.”

“Nice to meet you, Steve. I’m Elisha.”

“Elisha? What a beautiful name!”

“Thank you, Steven.”

“Please. Call me Steve.”

Is there anything wrong with that? Does that stifle conversation? Does it stop people from talking freely to each other?

No. Certainly some names are hard to pronounce or – in my case – remember. But overcoming those hurdles is just common decency. It’s not too much to ask – especially if you’re going to be dealing with this person for an extended length of time.

The idea that allowing people to define themselves somehow shuts down conversation is rather strange. But it’s the essence of opposition to political correctness.

“Political correctness is tyranny with manners,” said conservative icon Charlton Heston.

I wonder if he would have felt the same if we’d called him Charlie Hessywessytone.

A more fleshed out criticism comes from President George H. W. Bush who said, “The notion of political correctness declares certain topics, certain expressions, even certain gestures off-limits. What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.”

Is that true? Is political correctness really censorship? That’s the conflation made by many conservatives and even some liberals. After all, popular Left-wing comedian Bill Maher sarcastically calls his HBO show “Politically Incorrect,” and he often rails against the practice.

There’s a kernel of truth to it. We are asked to change the way we speak. We’re asked to self-censor, but we already do this frequently without wailing against a loss of free speech.

Human beings are subject to various impulses, but as adults, we learn which ones we can act on and which we shouldn’t. I may think it would be hilarious to run into a crowded movie theater and yell, “FIRE!” However, I know that doing so – while possibly funny to a certain kind of person – would result in injuries and trauma as moviegoers stampede out of the theater. So I don’t do it. Is that censorship? Maybe. But it’s censorship with a small c.

The Hestons, Bushes and Mahers of the world seem to think political correctness is more like Capital C Censorship. But this is demonstrably false.

That kind of Censorship is the act of officials, possibly agents of the government, a corporation or some other formal bureaucracy. But political correctness has nothing to do with officials. There are no censors. There are only people who ask to be named a certain way.

A censor looks at a news report of military operations in Iraq and deletes material that would give away the army’s location. Political correctness is nothing like that. It involves someone asking others to refer to themselves THIS WAY and not THAT WAY.

The penalties for violating Censorship are official. Ask Chelsea Manning who is serving a 35-year prison sentence for doing just that. The penalties for violating political correctness are social. You may be criticized, condemned or disliked.

If you criticize Manning for releasing classified documents to Wikileaks, you’re not violating political correctness. That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it. However, Manning is a trans woman who is going through hormone replacement therapy. If you refer to her as “him” you are violating political correctness. You’re naming her in a way that violates her wishes. The penalty is not a prison sentence. It’s a sour look.

So political correctness is not Censorship. In some ways, the confusion comes from the term “political correctness,” itself.

Though its origins are hard to pin down, it appears to have been coined by the Soviets to mean judging “the degree of compatibility of one’s ideas or political analysis with the official party line in Moscow.” At least that’s what the International Encyclopedia of Social Studies says.

The term came to prominence in the United States in conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza’s book “Illiberal Education.” He disparaged affirmative action as a kind of political correctness that gave preference to (what he saw as) unqualified minority students over whites in college admissions.

So the first mention of the term in the USA was simply to disparage liberal political policies. It was a ham-handed way of comparing the Left with the Soviets. Yet somehow this term has become the handle by which we know simple civility. It’s kind of hard to feel positively about a concept that begins with a mountain of unearned negative connotations.

Conservatives know the power of getting to name something. It’s their go-to propaganda tactic and lets them control much of the debate. For instance, that’s why the Right loves to call Social Security an “entitlement.” There’s truth to it because you’re entitled to getting back the money you pay in, but it’s full of unearned negative connotations as if these people were somehow demanding things they don’t deserve.

In essence, political correctness shouldn’t be political at all. It’s just kindness. It’s just being a decent human being. Don’t purposefully call someone by a name they wouldn’t appreciate. Respect a person’s ownership of their own identity.

And for some people that’s hard to do. Their conceptions of things like gender, sexuality, race and religion are extremely rigid. The only way to be a man is THIS WAY. The only way to be spiritual is THAT WAY. But if they give voice to these ideas in the public square – especially in the presence of people who think differently – they will be frowned upon.

But is this really so dissimilar to the crowded movie theater? Refusing to acknowledge someone else’s identity is harmful to that person. It tramples the soul similarly to the way their body would be trampled in a stampeded exit. So you shouldn’t do it.

The result is an apparently much more tolerant society. It’s no longer okay to use racial, cultural, gender and sexual stereotypes in public. You’re forced to give other people consideration – or else face the consequences of being disliked. And on the surface, that’s a much more inviting world to live in.

However, there is a glaring problem. In some ways, this has made public discourse more antiseptic. People don’t always say what they mean in the public square. It’s not that they’ve changed the way they think about the world. They’ve just learned to keep it to themselves until they’re around like-minded individuals. They reserve their racist, classist, sexist language for use behind closed doors.

This is why when I’m at a party peopled exclusively by white folks, some partygoers may let racial epithets slip out. And we all laugh nervously to be polite. Or maybe it’s more than politeness. Maybe for some it’s to relieve the tension of such refreshing candor like taking off a girdle. Fwew! Here, at least, I can say what I really think without having to worry about people looking down on me for it!

Since such reactions occur mostly in homogeneous groups, it makes the world look much more enlightened than it really is. Pundits and policymakers look around and cheer the end of these social ills when they haven’t ended at all. They’ve merely gone underground.

And so we have an epidemic of colorblind white people who can’t see racism because of the gains of political correctness. Somehow they forget those unguarded moments. Somehow they haven’t the courage to examine their own souls. Or perhaps they don’t care.

And so we have the conundrum: which is better – to live in a world where all individuals have the right to name themselves or to live in a world where our most basic prejudices are on display for all to see?

Personally, I pick political correctness, and here’s why.

Words are important. We think in words. We use them to put together our thoughts. If we continue to respect individuals’ names in word, eventually we’ll begin to do so in thought and deed.

This isn’t mind control. It’s habit. It’s recognizing an ideal and working toward it. As Aristotle taught, the way to become a good person is to act like one. Eventually, your preferences will catch up with your habits.

I think that’s what’s happening today. Look at the children. They’re so much less prejudiced and racist than we, adults. This is because they’ve learned political correctness first. They didn’t have to unlearn some archaic white-cisgender-centrism. This is normal to them, and I think that’s a good thing.

Obviously some people will balk at this idea. They will look at this ideal as reprehensible. They want to return to a world where women were little more than property, a world where black people knew their place, where sexual identity was as simple as A or B.

But I think most of us recognize that this is not a world where we’d want to live. Modern society can be scary and confusing but trying to respect everyone as a person isn’t a bad thing. It’s consideration, concern, warmth.

Perhaps the best way to love your fellow humans is to call them by their proper names.

Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

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“Pennsylvania educator and public school advocate Steven Singer is one of the most powerful voices in the nation when it comes to speaking out for students, parents, teachers and our public schools.”
Jonathan Pelto, founder of the Education Bloggers Network

 

 

“Steven Singer wrote these five terrific posts last year. I didn’t see them when they appeared. Probably you didn’t either. You should.”
Diane Ravitch, education historian

 

“Your name should be Sweet Steven Singer. You are a delight.”
Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union

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Hello. My name is Steven Singer, and I am a gadfly.

I make no apologies for that. It’s what I set out to do when I started this blog in July of 2014.

I told myself that people were too complacent. There was no curiosity. People were too darn sure about things – especially education policy and social issues.

They knew, for instance, that standardized testing was good for children. Why? Because Obama said so. And he’s such a nice man. It’s too bad all those mean Republicans keep making him do all this bad stuff.

They also knew racism was over. After all… Obama! Right? Black President, therefore, the hundreds of years of struggle – finished! Move along. Nothing to see here.

Yet all this “knowledge” went against everything I saw daily as a public school teacher.

Standardized tests are good for children? Tell that to more than half of public school kids now living below the poverty line who don’t have the same resources as middle class or wealthy kids yet are expected to magically ace their assessments. Tell that to the kids who get hives, get sick, or throw up on test day. Tell it to the black and brown students who for some unexplainable reason almost always score lower than their white peers.

Racism is over? Tell that to all my minority students who are afraid to walk home from school because they might get followed, jumped, beaten or killed… by the police! Tell it to their parents who can’t get a home loan and have to move from one rental property to another. Tell it to the advertising executives and marketing gurus who shower my kids with images of successful white people and only represent them as criminals, thugs, athletes or rappers.

So when I started this blog, I consciously set out to piss people off. But with a purpose. To quote the original historical gadfly, Socrates, my role is, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” It seems well suited to a school teacher. After all, Socrates was accused of “corruption of the youth.”

It’s been quite a year. When I went to the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago last April, some folks actually seemed to know who I was. “Don’t you write that Gadfly blog?” was a common question.

When I met NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and AFT President Randi Weingarten, they both said, “I read your blog.” And then they looked me up and down suspiciously as if they were thinking, “THIS is the guy who writes all that stuff!? THIS is the guy giving me such a hard time!?”

Of course, I am human, too. One can’t sting and bite every day. Sometimes the things I write are met with love and approbation. Some weeks even Lily and Randi like me. Sometimes.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has given me tremendous moral support. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have one of your heroes appreciate your work! Her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” really woke me up as a new teacher. I’m also on the steering committee of the Badass Teachers Association, an organization that has changed my life for the better. The more than 56,000 people  there are my support. I would never have had the courage to start a blog or do half of the crazy things I do without their love and encouragement.

And there are so many more people I could thank: my fellow bloggers Jonathan Pelto, Peter Greene, Russ Walsh, Nancy Flanagan, Mitchell Robinson, and Yohuru Williams. Also the good people at the LA Progressive and Commondreams.org. The incredible and tireless radio host Rick Smith.

There are just too many to name. But no list of acknowledgment would be even close to completion without mentioning my most important supporter – you, my readers. Whether you’re one of the 9,190 people who get every new post delivered by email or if you otherwise contribute to the 486,000 hits my site has received so far, THANK YOU.

So in celebration of my first full year of blogging, I present to you an end of the year tradition – a Top 10 list. Out of the 90 posts I wrote in 2015, these are the ones that got the most attention. Often they incensed people into a fury. Sometimes they melted hearts. I just hope – whether you ended up agreeing with me or not – these posts made you think.

Feel free to share with family, friends, co-workers, etc. After all, I’m an equal opportunity gadfly. I always cherish the chance to buzz around a few new heads!


 

10) The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Published: July 17, 2015
Views: 7,122

Description: It hit me like a slap in the face that almost all Senate Democrats voted to make the reauthorization of the federal law governing K-12 public schools a direct continuation of the same failing policies of the Bush and Obama years. Heroes like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seemed to be turning their back on teachers, parents and school children. And they were stopped in their efforts by… Republicans!

Fun Fact: This story had some legs. It inspired a bunch of education advocates like myself who are also Bernie Sanders supporters to write the candidate an open letter asking him to explain his vote. His campaign eventually responded that it was about accountability!?


 

9) Punching Teachers in the Face – New Low in Presidential Politics

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Published: Aug. 3
Views: 14,735

Description: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie thought he’d run for the Republican nomination for President. He thought threatening to metaphorically punch teachers unions in the face would get him votes. It didn’t.

Fun Fact: This new low in Presidential politics came just after Donald Trump had announced he was running. Christie’s new low now seems almost quaint after Trump’s calls to tag all Muslims and monitor their Mosques. How innocent we were back in… August.


 

8) This Article May Be Illegal – Lifting the Veil of Silence on Standardized Testing

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Published: April 18
Views: 15,818

Description: Teachers and students may be legally restrained from telling you what’s on federally mandated standardized tests, but we’re not restrained from telling you THAT we’re restrained. Is this just protecting intellectual property or direct legal intimidation of educators and children?

Fun Fact: I have not yet been arrested for writing this piece.


 

7) Stories about Teachers Union Endorsements of Hillary Clinton

Did the AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

(July 12 – 4,448 hits)

 

The NEA May Be About to Endorse Hillary Clinton Without Input From Majority of Members

(Sept. 21 – 3,873 hits)

A Handful of NEA Leaders Have Taken Another Step Toward Endorsing Hillary Clinton Despite Member Outcry

(Oct. 2 – 739 hits)

Teachers Told They’re Endorsing Hillary Clinton by NEA Leadership, Member Opinions Unnecessary

(Oct. 4 – 7,074 hits)

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Published: July 12 – Oct. 4
Views: 16,134 TOTAL

Description: You expect your union to have your back. Unfortunately it seems our teachers unions were more interested in telling us who we’d be endorsing than asking us who the organizations representing us should endorse.

Fun Fact: I broke this story pretty much nationwide. News organizations like Politico were calling me to find out the scoop.


6) Why We Should Have ZERO Standardized Tests in Public Schools

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Published: Jan. 30
Views: 16,443

Description: Someone had to say it. We don’t need any standardized tests. We need teacher-created tests. And that’s not nearly as crazy as some people think.

Fun Fact: This was written back when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was being rewritten and naïve fools like me thought we might actually get a reduction in high stakes testing. Spoiler alert: we didn’t.


 

5) Atlanta Teacher RICO Conviction is Blood Sacrifice to the Testocracy

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Published: April 3
Views: 18,187

Description: There is something terribly wrong when we’re using laws created to stop organized crime as a means to convict  teachers cheating on standardized tests. I’m not saying cheating is right, but the mafia kills people. These were just teachers trying to keep their jobs in a system that rewards results and refuses to balance the scales, listen to research or the opinions of anyone not in the pockets of the testing and privatization industries.

Fun Fact: Watching all those seasons of “The Wire” finally came in handy.


4) Not My Daughter – One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl From Toxic Testing

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Published: March 20
Views: 26,420

Description: How I went to my daughter’s school and demanded she not be subjected to high stakes testing in Kindergarten.

Fun Fact: They were very nice and did everything I asked. If you haven’t already, you should try it!


 

3) I Am Racist and (If You’re White) You Probably Are, Too

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Published: June 2
Views: 28,906

Description: White folks often can’t see white privilege. This is my attempt to slap some sense into all of us. If you benefit from the system, you’re responsible to change it.

Fun Fact: Oh! The hate mail! I still get it almost every day! But I regret nothing! A black friend told me I was brave to write this. I disagreed. Anytime I want I can hide behind my complexion. She can’t.


2) I Am A Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got

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Published: Nov. 19
Views: 45,196

Description: Our public schools are already places of refuge for our nation’s school children. Send me more. I’ll take them all. I’d rather they end up in my classroom than drowned by the side of a river.

Fun Fact: I got equal love and hate for this one. Some folks were afraid of terrorists. Others didn’t think we could afford it. But many told me my heart was in the right place. Lily and the folks at the NEA were especially supportive.


 

1) White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

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Published: Sept. 6
Views: 96,351

Description: Maybe we should stop laughing at black people’s names. Maybe we should try to understand why they are sometimes different.

Fun Fact: You’d have thought I threatened some people’s lives with this one! How dare I suggest people should stop mocking other people’s names! If you want to know how strong white fragility is in our country, read some of the comments! But many people thanked me for bringing up something that had bothered them for years but that they had been too polite to talk about, themselves. This is easily my most popular piece yet.

 

White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

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As a public school teacher, few things give me as much anxiety as getting my student rosters for the first time.

I look over the list of names for my incoming children and cringe.

How do I pronounce that?

Every year it never fails – there’s always at least four or five names I’ve never seen before – or at least never spelled quite like THAT!

As a white teacher in a district with a majority of black students but very few black teachers, there’s not really many people to turn to for guidance.

And if I don’t figure it out soon, I’ll be making a pretty terrible first impression. No one likes to have their name butchered, especially children, especially if an adult is doing it, especially if that adult is white.

The only solution I’ve found is to soldier on with the first day’s attendance and just try my best:

Me: Shah-NEE-Qwa?

Child: Shah-NAY-Qwa.

Me: JAY-Marcus?

Child: JAH-Marcus.

It’s uncomfortable, but I get through it and eventually learn.

However, one thing I’ve stopped doing is going to other white people for help. That’s a recipe for disaster.

It almost always turns into an exercise in subtle racism and white supremacy. No matter who the person is, no matter how kind, caring or empathetic, the reaction to unique black names is most often derision.

White people snicker and use the situation as the impetus for telling stories about other black names that they thought were even more outrageous.

It’s not that we’re trying to be hateful. I don’t think we even recognize it as racist, but it is.

We use the situation as an opportunity for bonding. THOSE people who are not like you and me – THEY name their children things like THIS! Not like you and me who name our children more respectably.

Make no mistake. This is racist behavior. We are emphasizing the otherness of an entire group of people to put ourselves over and above them.

It’s bigoted, discriminatory, prejudicial and just plain dumb.

What’s wrong with black names anyway? What about them is so unacceptable?

We act as if only European and Anglicized names are reasonable. But I don’t have to go far down my rosters to find white kids with names like Braelyn, Declyn, Jaydon, Jaxon, Gunner or Hunter. I’ve never heard white folks yucking it up over those names.

I can’t imagine why white people even expect people of color to have the same sorts of names as we do. When you pick the label by which your child will be known, you often resort to a shared cultural history. My great-great-grandfather was David, so I’ll honor his memory by calling my firstborn son the same. Jennifer is a name that’s been in my family for generations so I’ll reconnect with that history by calling my daughter by the same name.

Few black people in America share this same culture with white people. If a black man’s great-great-grandfather’s name was David, that might not be the name he was born with – it may have been chosen for him – forced upon him – by his slave master. It should be obvious why African Americans may be uncomfortable reconnecting with that history.

Many modern black names are, in fact, an attempt to reconnect with the history that was stolen from them. Names like Ashanti, Imani and Kenya have African origins. Others are religious. Names like Aaliyah, Tanisha and Aisha are traditionally Muslim. Some come from other languages such as Monique, Chantal, and Andre come from French. I can’t understand why any of that is seen as worthy of ridicule.

Still other names don’t attempt to reconnect with a lost past – they try to forge ahead and create a new future. The creativity and invention of black names is seldom recognized by White America. We pretend that creating names anew shows a lack of imagination when in reality, it shows just the opposite!

Creating something new can be as simple as taking an Anglicized name and spelling it in inventive ways. Punctuation marks also can be utilized in unusual positions to add even more distinctiveness such as in the names Mo’nique and D’Andre.

At other times, they follow a cultural pattern to signify as uniquely African American using prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -ique/iqua, -isha, and -aun/-awn.

And for the ultimate in creativity, try mixing and matching various influences and techniques. For instance, LaKeisha has elements from both French and African roots. Other names like LaTanisha, DeShawn, JaMarcus, DeAndre, and Shaniqua were created in the same way.

This is something all cultures do. They evolve to meet the needs of people in a given time and place. Yet when it comes to people of color, we, white folks, whoop and guffaw at it. Heck! When we can’t find black names far enough out of our mainstream, we even make them up!

Don’t believe me? Have you heard of La-a? The story goes that a black girl was given that name and a white person asked how it was pronounced. The black woman said her name was La-DASH-ah. This is often followed by a punchline of black vernacular.

Har! Har! Har!

But it’s not even true! According to Snopes, this is a made up story. It’s the American version of a Polish joke and demonstrates how far white people will go to laugh at black culture.

The great comedy duo Key and Peele tried to call attention to this in their outstanding substitute teacher sketches. In a series of short routines, an almost exclusively white classroom gets a black substitute teacher from the inner city schools. Mr. Garvey is expecting black names, so he pronounces the students’ middle class white names as if they were African American.

Almost everyone loves this sketch. It gets universal laughs, but wait until it’s over. Too many white folks try to continue the giggles by then talking about crazy black names they’ve encountered. But that’s not at all the point Key and Peel were trying to make! They were trying to show how cultural context shapes our expectations of proper names. Mr. Garvey is worthy of our laughter because his expectations are out-of-sync with his surroundings. When we expect all African Americans to have European or Anglicized names, we’re just as out of touch as Mr. Garvey. But like Dave Chapelle’s comedy, sometimes the person laughing the loudest is getting something the comedian didn’t intend at all.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if black names just generated snickers. However, white culture actually selects against people with black sounding names.

Countless studies have shown how much more difficult it is for someone with a black sounding name to get a job, a loan or an apartment than it is for someone with a white sounding name. It’s one of the most obvious features of white supremacy. You may not like black names, personally, but do these people deserve to suffer for embracing their own culture?

Moreover, having a European or Anglicized name is no guarantee of fair treatment. It certainly didn’t help Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.

If we’re really going to treat people equitably, an easy place to begin is with black names. White people, stop the laughter and giggles. I used to do it, myself, until I thought about it. Yes, I’m guilty of the same thing. But I stopped. You can, too.

It’s not the biggest thing in the world. It’s not even the most pressing thing. It’s not a matter of guilt. It’s a matter of fairness.

Because when the final role is taken of all America’s racists and bigots, do you really want your name to be on it?


NOTE: This article also was published on Everyday Feminism and the Badass Teachers Association blog.