White People, We Need to be Responsible for Our Own Racism

Screen Shot 2020-06-23 at 5.32.02 PM

 

Hey, White people.

 

We need to talk.

 

You may be watching all these protests and demonstrations lately and be wondering what they have to do with you.

 

After all, you didn’t kill George Floyd. You didn’t put up a Confederate statue. You didn’t call the police on a Black person just because he was being Black.

 

At least, I hope you didn’t.

 

But all this strife and unrest really does have a lot to do with you.
Not because of anything you did necessarily, but because of who you are – your role in society.

 

Now don’t get all defensive on me.

 

I’m not saying you should feel guilty for things that you had no control over, don’t approve of or possibly didn’t even know happened.

 

As James Baldwin said:

 

“I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason…”

 

That’s really the point – responsibility.

 

You have responsibilities just by being a White citizen of the United States. I have those same obligations.

 

And it’s high time we talked about exactly what those commitments are and how we can meet them.

 

One of those responsibilities is consciousness.

 

We can’t be so ignorant of racism and White supremacy anymore.

 

I know everyone is different and some people know more about these things than others. However, you have to admit that just being a White person, you probably don’t know nearly as much about them as any random Black person.

 

After all, Black folks deal with this every day. You and I, we’re just visiting.

 
And, heck, maybe we don’t know much about them.

 

Maybe the schools should have taught us more. Maybe movies and TV and media should have prepared us better.

 

But they didn’t.

 

So we need to remedy that ignorance.

 

That means reading up on the subject – reading a book like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander or “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi, or “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

 

There are also some great films like “13th” and “When They See Us” by Ava Duvernay, “Do the Right Thing” by Spike Lee or “I Am Not Your Negro” by Raoul Peck.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I’m not saying this like I know everything there is about the subject. I need to crack open some more books, watch some more movies and learn more, too.

 

There’s always more to learn.

 

The fact that so many white people found out about the Tulsa Massacre from the HBO’s series “Watchmen” proves that, as does the fact that many of us learned about Juneteenth only because President Trump suggested having one of his hate-filled MAGA rallies in Tulsa on that date.

 

Knowledge is power. So let’s get some.

 

Second, we need to understand that racism is first and foremost a system.

 

It is a built-in component of almost every social structure, government policy, historical narrative and media message in this country.

 

Think about what that means.

 

We don’t need racists to have racism.

 

The system, itself, is enough.

 

Let’s say we had a ray gun that could eliminate racism. You shoot people with this zap gun and POOF they’re no longer racist.

 

So we take the gun to space and hit everyone in the US with it. All racist attitudes immediately disappear. Not a single person in the entire country is racist.

 

It wouldn’t matter.

 

All of our systems are still racist.

 

The way our government works, the legal system, law enforcement, housing, the tax code, the schools – everything.

 

You don’t need a single racist person. The system, itself, perpetuates the ideology by treating people of color unfairly and pretending that this injustice is exactly the opposite, and – what’s worse – our unquestioning acceptance of that system makes it invisible.

 

That gives us another responsibility.

 

We have to actively change the system.

 

To go back to Baldwin:

 

“I’m an American whether I like it or not and I’ve got to take responsibility for it, though it’s not my doing. What can you do about it except accept that, and then you protest it with all your strength. I’m not responsible for Vietnam, but I had to take responsibility for it, at least to the extent of opposing my government’s role in Vietnam.”

 

So it is our responsibility to recognize where our systems are racist and to do everything we can to change them.

 

We need to fully integrate our schools, for instance. We need to reform our criminal justice system so that Black people are not arrested and convicted at higher rates than White people who commit the same crimes. We need to stop police or others from killing unarmed Black people and getting away with it. We need to stop denigrating Black people for the “crime” of having Black-sounding names.

 

This is the work of social justice. It requires us to get involved in organizations like Black Lives Matter, Journey for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

 

It requires us to think about which policies we support and which politicians we can support at the polls.

 

But that’s not all.

 

We have one more great responsibility to meet.

 

We can’t just understand racism and fight systems of oppression. We have to fight the most insidious proponent of White supremacy.

 

And it is us.

 

These systems that create an unjust society also created you and me.

 

So to a greater or lesser degree they have shaped our minds, our conceptions, our norms, our values.

 

If we’re being honest, we have to admit that includes some racism.

 

We didn’t ask for it, but racist ideas have seeped into our consciousnesses.

 

And most of the time we may not even be aware they’re there.

 

I know I’m not.

 

Let me give you an example.

 

Several years ago my wife and I won free tickets to an opera recital. We like that sort of thing so we dressed in our finest and went to the concert hall to enjoy some culture.

 

The soprano was a local girl I’d never heard of (I’m sorry. I can’t remember her name), but she was wonderful. She was also Black.

 

And the Black community was out in force to support her. The concert hall was filled with mostly Black faces above suits and Sunday dresses.

 

It was the first time I could remember not being in the majority, and it made me uncomfortable.

 

I knew it was stupid. The other people there at the concert were no danger. No one was going to take their suit jacket off to jump a couple of White people who came to hear Puccini and Verdi.

 

But I felt some fear in my gut.

 

It wasn’t rational. I guess all those nightly news reports disproportionately megaphoning Black crime while ignoring that committed by White folks had an effect on me. I didn’t ask to be taught that fear. I didn’t want it. I recognized it as dumb and bigoted.

 

I couldn’t control the way I felt. But I could control the way I reacted.

 

I made an effort to talk with those around us and be as friendly as possible. And for their part these folks were entirely warm, cordial and inviting.

 

That’s what I’m talking about.

 

We, White people, have to take a step beyond learning about racism and acting against it. We have to do some soul searching and locate it within ourselves.

 

It’s probably there.

 

You can’t grow up in America without having it grow inside you like an alien pathogen.

 

We are sick with it – some people more than others – but all of us White folks are infected.

 

Maybe that doesn’t bother you.

 

It bothers me.

 

I don’t want it.

 

I don’t want these stupid ideas inside my head. And, yes, I don’t want the privileges I get just because of my pigmentation.

 

If I succeed in this life, let it be because I did something worthy of success. Don’t let it be just because of the lack of melanin in my skin.

 

Everyone deserves to be treated fairly.

 

Black people even more so because they are so often not treated that way.

 

As Baldwin said:

 

“We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

 

I bring this up not to judge you.

 

Brother, I’ve never met you. Sister, I don’t know you.

 

I’m on my own parallel journey.

 

There is only one person you have to be accountable to – and that is yourself.

 

Can you live with yourself if you have not taken these few steps?

 

If you believe in justice, don’t you have a responsibility to be so in all your dealings with other people?

 

Black people are people.

 

Black lives matter.

 

White people like us have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters of color.

 

Let’s meet them.


 

 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Standardized Tests Increase School Segregation

Screen Shot 2020-06-18 at 5.46.22 PM

 
Let’s say your community has two schools.

 

One serves mostly white students and the other serves mostly black students.

 

How do you eliminate such open segregation?

 

After all, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education as essentially separate and unequal.

 

It’s been nearly 70 years. We must have a recourse to such things these days. Mustn’t we?

 

Well, the highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively made school integration voluntary especially within district lines. So much so, in fact, that according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation more than doubled nationwide.

 
But let’s say you did find some right-minded individuals who cared enough to make the effort to fix the problem.

 

What could they do?

 
The most obvious solution would be to build a single new school to serve both populations.

 

So if you could find the will and the money, you could give it a try.

 
Unfortunately, that alone wouldn’t solve the problem.

 

Why?

 

Standardized tests.

 

Even when students from different racial or ethnic groups aren’t physically separated by district boundaries or school buildings, the way we rate and sort these students within the same space causes segregation.

 

This is because our manner of placing kids into classes, itself, is discriminatory.

 

We have exactly this situation in my own western Pennsylvania district, Steel Valley. We have two elementary schools – Barrett and Park – one of which serves mostly black kids and the other which serves mostly white kids. However, even when the children get to our single middle and high schools, segregation persists.

 

They may finally be in the same building, but they aren’t in the same classes.

 

Most academic tracks have at least a lower and a higher level of each course. The former is invariably organized around remediation and basic skills, the latter around critical thinking and creativity.

 

Moreover, being in the higher level course comes with increased opportunities for mentoring, field trips, special speakers, contests, prizes, and self esteem. And the lower courses can degenerate into mindless test prep.

 

Which would you rather your child experience?

 

We don’t enroll students in one or the other at random. Nor do we place them explicitly based on their race or ethnicity.

 

Increasingly schools enroll students based primarily on their test scores.

 

Classroom grades, student interest, even teacher recommendations are largely ignored. Kids who pass their state mandated standardized assessments generally get in the higher classes and those who fail get in the lower classes.

 

And – Surprise! Surprise! – since test scores are highly correlated with race and class, most of the black kids are in the lower classes and most of the white kids are in the higher classes.

 

Let me be clear.

 

This isn’t because there’s something wrong with the poor kids and children of color or something right about higher socioeconomic status and white kids.

 

It’s because of (1) economic inequality, and (2) implicit bias in the tests.

 

In short, standardized assessments at best show which kids have had all the advantages. Which ones have had all the resources, books in the home, the best nutrition, live in the safest environments, get the most sleep, don’t live with the trauma of racism and prejudice everyday.

 

However, even more than that is something indisputable but that most policymakers and media talking heads refuse to acknowledge: standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy.

 

It was invented by eugenicists – people who believed that white folks were racially superior to darker skinned people. And the purpose of these tests from the very beginning was to provide a scientific (now recognized as pseudo scientific) justification for their racism.

 

A standardized test is an assessment where the questions are selected based on what the “standard” test taker would answer. And since this norm is defined as a white, middle-to-upper-class person, the tests enshrine white bias.

 

I don’t mean that 2+2=4 has a racial bias. But most questions aren’t so simple. They ask test takers to read passages and pick out certain things that are more obvious to people enculturated as white than those enculturated as black. They use the vocabulary of middle to upper class people just to ask the questions.

 

This is white supremacy. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for funding, tracking, and self-respect is educational apartheid.

 
Black students make up almost 17 percent of American students nationwide. If all things were equal, you’d expect them to make up a similar percentage of advanced courses. However, they account for only 10 percent of students in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes.

 
In some areas it’s worse than others.

 

For example, according to a Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report from 2014, black students in the northern California city of Sacramento make up 16.3 percent of the population but only 5.5 percent of GATE programs. Meanwhile, in the south of the state, in San Diego, 8 percent of students are black, but make up just 3 percent of GATE classes.

 

Those are big disparities. In fact, the phenomenon is so common that social scientists created a term to describe it – racialized tracking.

 

But it has also been the subject of civil rights complaints.

 
In New Jersey the imbalance was so extreme the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint in 2014 against the South Orange–Maplewood School District. In a statement, the ACLU said racial segregation across academic tracks “has created a school within a school at Columbia High School.” More than 70 percent of students in lower classes were black while more than 70 percent of students in advanced classes were white.

 

Even so there wasn’t much that could be done. The matter ended with the Office for Civil Rights ordering the district to hire a consultant to fix the problem, but it still persists to this day.

 

This “school within a school” went from metaphor to reality in Austin, Texas. In 2007, a city school, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Early College High School, split into two different entities existing within the same building. And the main factor separating the two was race.

 

The second floor became the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA), a public magnet high school serving mostly white and Asian students. Meanwhile, the majority black and Latino students stayed on the first floor taking regular education courses.

 

How can that be legal? Because too many people want it that way.

 

LASA is ranked the best Texas high school and the 11th-best high school in the United States. In fact, whenever you see those lists of the best schools in the country, they are often the result of a wealthy local tax base combined with how many poor and minority kids they were able to keep out.

 

It’s a matter of priorities.

 

Many people – especially white people – talk a good game about equity but what they really want for their own children is privilege.

 

It’s what happens when you let scarcity dominate public education, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

We can invest in our schools so that all children have what they need – so that they aren’t in competition for dwindling resources.

 

But this must go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on social justice. Black lives matter. We cannot continue to treat black children as disposable.

 

Being gifted, talented or advanced can’t be reduced to a score on a standardized test. In fact, I’d argue that such measures should be banished from our conception of excellence altogether as the tests, themselves, should be discontinued.

 

This doesn’t mean we can ignore the centuries of racist policies that keep our children of color down – housing segregation, inequitable funding, over policing, a lack of resources, being left out of specialized programs. Nor does it mean that we can ignore implicit bias white teachers invariably have about black students.
But we have to dismantle the systemic racism enshrined in our school policies. The most well-meaning individuals will make little headway if the system, itself, is corrupt.

 

The two must be accomplished hand-in-hand, at the micro and macro level.

 

Integration is absolutely essential. We must ensure that all of our students get to go to school together – but not just in the same buildings, in the same classes.

 

This requires an end to standardized testing but maybe also an end to advanced placement courses as we know them. Why focus on higher order thinking only for the privileged kids – do it for all. Individual student needs can be met with dual teachers in the room, pullout resources and the like.

 

It is important to meet the needs of every student, but we cannot in doing so allow unspoken bias to be the gatekeeper of opportunity.

 

Equity is not just a pretty word. It has to be one of our most cherished goals.

 

Otherwise our policies and our people will leave many children behind.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

1500x1000-garn-book-sale-2020-2

Who Will Protect My Right NOT to Pay for Your Child’s Religious Education?

Image: Supreme Court Hears Montana State Tax Credit Case

 

 

When I was a kid back in middle school, I had a crush on this girl, let’s call her Patty.

 

 

She wasn’t the most popular or beautiful girl in class, but I kinda’ liked her.

 

 

 

Of course, she had no idea I was alive.

 

 

Or so I thought, until one day she walked straight up to my desk and started rubbing my hair.

 

 

I was shocked at first, but then I just closed my eyes and went with it.

 

 

 

I remember the soft caress of her fingers in my mop of curls. She seemed to massage every inch of my scalp. Then she asked, “Where are they?”

 

 

“Where are what?” I asked.

 

 

“Your horns,” she said. “I want to see your horns.”

 

 

“What?” I said. “I don’t have any horns.”

 

 

“Of course you do,” she said. “My pastor said all you Jews have horns but you hide them in your hair. I want to see them.”

 

 

I had never even heard that bit of anti-Semitism before Patty. But I knew when I was being ridiculed.

 

 

The laughter. The embarrassment. I think I asked to go to the bathroom and stayed until the class was over.

 

 

 

Why bring up such childhood trauma?

 

 

It has baring on a case before the US Supreme Court this week –  Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

 

 

Three women are suing the state of Montana for refusing to pay for their kids to attend religious schools through a defunct voucher program.

 

 

Backing the effort are far right figures and groups like The Cato Institute, The Council for American Private Education, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Center for Education Reform – all of which have filed Amici Curiae briefs arguing that prohibiting religious schools from getting public money is somehow a violation of the First Amendment.

 

 

If successful, the case would open the door to publicly-funded private religious education across the country – not to mention siphoning much-needed money away from the public schools.

 

 

It’s bad enough that kids learn prejudicial lies from the pulpit and parochial schools. It’s worse if the victims of such prejudice have to pay for their tormentors to be thus indoctrinated.

 

 

In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical . . . ”

 

 

I agree. That is sinful and tyrannical. Especially if those abhorrent beliefs lead to actions detrimental to the health and well-being of those being forced to pay for just such ignorance to be renewed in yet another generation.

 

 

The incident with Patty wasn’t the first or last time I suffered through religious persecution. I went to public school but the worst torment usually came from kids who had a year or two of parochial education.

 

 

For example, I can’t tell you how many times classmates asked me why I killed Jesus.

 

 

Now I’m a middle school teacher, myself.

 

 

I do my best to foster understanding and acceptance of all peoples no matter their race, gender, orientation or creed.

 

 

That doesn’t mean I squash religious discussion or opinions, either.

 

 

Kids are allowed to think and say what they choose. If they want to pray or express a religious belief, that’s fine so long as they don’t hurt others.

 

 

Though radical right ideologues decry the loss of religion in public schools, all that really means is that the adults don’t get to express their theologies. The kids have never been thus encumbered.

 

 

Even so, religious ignorance is never far away.

 

 

 

Every year before I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” I go over the history of the Holocaust.

 

 

 

At least one student always raises his or her hand and asks if Hitler was Jewish.

 

 

I patiently explain that he wasn’t, but they insist that he must have been. After all, Father Such-And-Such said it, so it must be true.

 

 

And this is the kind of nonsense that is often taught as fact at parochial schools.

 

 

Private religious institutions are infamous for revisionist history and denying climate science. What’s less well-known is how they often try to normalize racist attitudes.

 

 

The American Christian Education (ACE) organization provides fundamentalist school curriculum to thousands of religious schools throughout the country. Included in this curriculum is the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks. A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.

 

 

In their pages you’ll find glowing descriptions of the Ku Klux Klan, how the massacre of Native Americans saved many souls, African slaves had really good lives, homosexuals are no better than rapists and child molesters, and progressive attempts at equal rights such as Brown vs. Board of Education were illegal and misguided. You know – all the greatest Donald Trump campaign hits!

 

 

Today these claims are uncritically being taught to children at schools receiving school vouchers. We’re using public money to increase the racism and prejudice in the next generation.

 

 

In any sane country, a case like Espinoza would be about stopping such nonsense! But the plaintiffs and their billionaire backers actually want to EXPAND IT!

 

 

The goal is to destroy facts and promote ignorance. That requires the destruction of public schools.

 

 

Kyle Olson said as much in a 2018 op-ed for National School Choice Week – a bit of propaganda he helped create in 2011 through his lobbying firm, the Education Action Group. In fact, he credited Jesus, himself, with anti-public school venom.

 

Olson wrote:

 

“I would like to think that, yes, Jesus would destroy the public education temple and save the children from despair and a hopeless future.”

 

 

These are the folks complaining that public tax dollars aren’t being allowed to fund parochial schools everywhere and where they are allowed to bankroll such schools they aren’t being allowed to do so enough.

 

 

Technically, the First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to support religious schools.

 

 

But the Espinoza crowd think that laundering the money through Tax Credit Scholarships somehow makes it all okay. A business or rich donor hands money to families to send their kids to private schools. Except that money makes a stop at a “scholarship” organization first, and the donors get to deduct their contributions from their taxes. Blogger Peter Greene tells us to think of it like this:

 

 

“I’m the state, and you owe me $100. I am not allowed to gamble, but if you give that $100 to my bookie instead, I’ll consider us square.”

 

 

It’s a shell game that pretends spending tax money before it gets deposited in the government’s account frees our public servants from following the rules.

 

 

I don’t care where it’s been, that’s my money as good as if you took it from my wallet because it’s money owed to me and every other taxpayer. That money is owed to the public good, not some ideologue’s Sunday school project, and its absence means I have to pay more to fund things we all need like police, firefighters, public transportation, and public schools.

 

 

They’re right about one thing. This is an issue of religious freedom, but it’s not about their freedom. It’s about MY freedom not to support their beliefs.

 

 

I say – let them believe what they will. It’s their choice, and they have the right to subject their children to it if they want.

 

 

But leave me out of it.

 

 

Don’t expect me to foot the bill.

 

 

I’m rightly compelled to pay for public education because it benefits everyone. It creates an educated populace capable of keeping the lights on. It creates people who know enough about the world that they can make knowledgeable decisions and vote for good leaders.

 

 

But parochial schools are exclusionary by design. Spreading their ignorance does not benefit society. It hurts it.

 

 

We talk a lot about the First Amendment, but we seem to forget what it actually says:

 

 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

 

 

That should be our guiding principle – religious freedom.

 

 

Let people practice their faiths however they see fit.

 

 

But respect my freedom from religion as much as I respect your freedom of it.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-3

School Field Trip Turns Into a Tour of Our Nation’s Unhealed Scars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 
You’ve got to be a little crazy to take a bunch of teenagers on a field trip – especially overnight and out of town.

 

But that’s what I did, and – yeah – guilty as charged.

 

For the second time in my more than 15-year career as a public school teacher, I volunteered along with a group of parents and other teachers to escort my classes of 8th graders to Washington, DC, and surrounding sights.
 
And I never regretted it. Not for a moment.

 

Not when Jason bombed the bathroom in the back of the bus after eating a burrito for lunch.

 

Not when Isaac gulped down dairy creamers for dessert and threw up all over himself.

 

Not when a trio of teenage girls accidentally locked themselves in their hotel room and we needed a crowbar to get them out.

 

But as I stood in Manassas, Virginia, looking at a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the edge of regret began to creep into my mind.

 

There he was perched on the horizon, ripped and bulging like an advertisement for weight gain powder.

 

“We call him the superman statue,” the park ranger said.

 

And as I stood amongst the confused looks of my western Pennsylvania teens, I felt a wave of cognitive dissonance wash over me like a slap in the face.

 
Stonewall Jackson, a lanky Confederate General whose horse was too small for him, here mythologized, enshrined and worshiped like a hero. Yet he was a traitor to our country.

 

They call him Stonewall because the union army couldn’t get through his battle lines. He was like a wall the North could not break through.

 
So what?

 

He was fighting to preserve human slavery. Who cares how well he fought or how great his tactics? He was on the losing side of history.

 

We shouldn’t be praising him. He should be forgotten, at best a footnote in a record that celebrates those fighting to overturn human bondage, not those battling to uphold it.

 

But the confusion didn’t start at the statue. It began before our tour bus even arrived at the national park.

 

I teach Language Arts, not history, but I had never heard of the battle of Manassas. I knew it was close to Bull Run, a nearby creek where the two Civil War battles of that name were fought.
 
It was only when the park ranger was showing us the sights (of which there weren’t many) that the truth became clear.

 
Even today more than 150 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the two sides can’t agree on the names of the battles.

 

In the South, they name them after the nearest city or town. In the North, we name them after the nearest geologic landmark.

 

So even though this battle took place on a farm in northern Virginia, we still can’t agree even on what to call the confrontation – much less its import to our shared history.

 

Before we stepped out onto the battlefield, the park service treated us to a short documentary film about the site and its history – “Manassas: End of Innocence.”

 

The film was narrated by Richard Dreyfus. I marveled at hearing Mr. Holland nonchalantly inform us that this first battle of the Civil War marked the titular “end of innocence.”

 
I’m still not sure who suffered such an end. Was it the nation, as a whole, which had never before experienced such a bloody war among its own citizenry, pitting brother against brother? Was it the North who had not until this point realized the South would resist with shot and shell?  Was it the South who had not yet tasted the bitterness of Northern aggression?

 

The latter seemed to be the narrator’s implication.

 
Dreyfus painted a scene of peaceful life on the farm shattered by the sneak attack of union soldiers.
 
THAT is what marked this “end of innocence.”

 
“Innocence!?” I thought.

 

These people were not innocent. They owned slaves. Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the 85-year-old who refused to evacuate her farm and was killed in the fighting, owned another human being.

 

In my book, that disqualifies you from any kind of innocence.

 

And that’s what this whole war was essentially about. Should people be allowed to own other people?

 
The answer is an unequivocal – NO.

 

The fact that an entire segment of our population still drags its feet on that question has implications that reverberate through our history and up through our last Presidential election.

 
A few days before venturing to Manassas, my students and I toured Washington, DC. We stopped in front of the White House.

 
I’d been there before. It’s a popular place for protests of every kind. But never had I seen it so crowded with discontent.

 

Political critics had set up booths and tents. They even brought speakers to blast out music to accompany their protests. My favorite was the song “Master of the House” from Les Miserables booming from a booth with multicolored “F- Trump!” signs.

 

But as we took our picture in front of that iconic Presidential manor, itself, partially built by slaves, I couldn’t help noticing another kiosk across the way – one selling MAGA hats.
 
In fact, they were everywhere.

 
A few students even bought them – cheap red knockoff baseball caps with a slogan of dog whistle hatred emblazoned on the front.

 

Make America Great Again? Like when union troops couldn’t get passed Stonewall Jackson?
 
We hit many more famous sites.

 

We went to the Jefferson memorial and all I could think about was Sally Hemings. We went to the FDR memorial and all I could think about were the Japanese internment camps. We went to the Martin Luther King memorial and all I could think about was how the struggle continues.

 

We didn’t talk much about what we were seeing. We just raced through the experience of it – going from one to another – gotta’ get back on the bus in time to hit the next one.

 
We had a really good time together on that field trip. Me, included.

 

But we took a lot more home with us than souvenirs.

 
It wasn’t just sight seeing or a vacation from the normal school day.

 

We toured the historic scars of our nation.

 

Scars still red and ripe and bleeding.

 

Will they ever heal, I wondered.

 

Will our nation ever become whole, healthy and clean?

 

I suppose that depends on us.

 

Because the first step to healing them is recognizing that they’re still there.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-3

Why is There a Racial Achievement Gap?

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 12.15.01 PM

 

Sometimes the most racist aspects of a society are right there in front of you, but no one seems to notice.

 

Take the racial achievement gap.

 

It’s a term used to describe the fact that black and Latino students don’t do as well academically as white students.

 

Why does it even exist?

 

Why do students of color in the United States achieve less than their white peers?

 

They have worse grades, lower test scores, meager graduation rates and fewer achieve advanced degrees.

 

As of 2018, they had the lowest mean score of any racial group on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

 

And it’s been like that for more than half a century.

 

In 1964, a Department of Education report found that the average black high school senior scored below 87% of white seniors (in the 13 percentile). Fifty years later, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that black seniors had narrowed the gap until they were merely behind 81% of white seniors (scoring in the 19th percentile).

 

So what does that mean?

 

It’s a question that has haunted our education system for more than a century.

 

And the various answers that have been offered to explain it often reveal more about our society than they do about black and Latino children.

 

CLAIM 1: People of color are just genetically inferior

 

 

I know. This sounds glaringly racist.

 

And it is.

 

Yet this was the favorite answer for the achievement gap at the start of the 20th Century (More on that later).

 

However, it has been espoused as recently as 1995 by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve where the authors attributed relative black failure and low socio-economic status to biological inadequacy.

 

Murray and Herrnstein sparked such an intense academic debate at the time that the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a Task Force on Intelligence. Instead of soundly disproving this theory, the resulting APA report could come to no definite conclusion: “At this time, no one knows what is responsible for the differential,” the authors wrote.

 

Today the idea that people of color are genetically inferior has been soundly defeated.

 

There is simply no evidence that racial characteristics are strongly correlated with intelligence.

 

If it were true, for example, you’d expect to see the same achievement gap from native born Africans immigrating to this country as those who are born in the US. But that is not the case. In fact, we see just the opposite effect – a sizable percentage of African immigrants earn some of the best grades, have some of the highest test scores, and disproportionately graduate from high school and achieve advanced degrees.

 

This is something that distinguishes foreign-born Africans – especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa – even from other immigrants. African immigrants sit near the top of the scale of so-called model minorities.

 

If the problem was mere genes, this wouldn’t be so.

 

CLAIM 2: America’s people of color are culturally inferior

 

You’d think it would be obvious how racist such a claim is, but it is an increasingly popular explanation of the achievement gap.

 

In The End of Racism, popular conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza blamed the racial accomplishment gap on black cultural defects. “[T]he old discrimination” has declined and been replaced by “rational discrimination” based “on accurate group generalizations,” wrote D’Souza.

 

In other words, it’s not genes, but pathological community values that keep many people of color at the bottom. Black and brown students would do better in school if their culture fostered hard work, determination, grit and valued learning. They’d learn more if their parents weren’t always in jail or having innumerable children to increase their food stamp benefits.

 

From a purely ideological standpoint, this is textbook racism – the belief that some racially defined groups are in some sense better or worse than others.

 

It’s the minstrel show as case study. It boils down the attributes of 40 million people to mere stereotypes and pretends that they’re real.

 

The truth is most people of color don’t fit the corny clichés. In the real world, most black folks do not commit crime, only about 6 percent of unmarried black women give birth each year, and most black people are not recipients of welfare benefits. Indeed, fewer than 200,000 black adults in the entire US currently receive cash welfare benefits from the government. That’s out of about 30 million black adults in all. So these are not cultural norms.

 

Furthermore, black crime rates, out-of-wedlock birthrates, and welfare dependence have gone down in recent years, while white rates have increased.

 

Such claims show more about those making them than the people the claims are supposed to be about. When a black person struggles, the cause is assumed to be a deeply ingrained cultural attribute. When the same happens to white people, it’s an anomaly.

 

For instance, in the 80’s and 90’s the media blamed black culture and black communities for the crack epidemic. But today those same talking heads excuse the mostly white and rural opioid crisis as an aberration. No one seems to claim that it is because the white family is breaking down or white culture is in decline.

 

Black families are disproportionately poor and thus suffer higher rates of everything that comes with it.

 

But this is not an artifact of their culture anymore than it is for poor whites.

 

CLAIM 3: People of color experience higher rates of poverty and thus struggle more academically.

 

Finally we have a claim based in fact and not racial stereotypes!

 

When we look at test scores, like those on the NAEP, we see that state racial achievement gaps are strongly correlated with state racial socioeconomic disparities.

 

Poor people achieve worse academic outcomes than wealthier people. And this is true across race and ethnicity.

 

It just makes sense. Living in poverty means less access to healthcare, neonatal care, pre-kindergarten, and fewer books in the home. It often means fewer educated family members to serve as a model. And it often means suffering from malnutrition and psychological trauma. Impoverished parents usually have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet and thus have less time to help with homework or see to their children. All of this has a direct impact on education.

 

The fact that a larger percentage of people of color are poor, helps explain the disparity of achievement between races.

 

The fact that achievement gaps tend to be largest in places where racial socioeconomic disparities are largest, supports this theory. Moreover, in neighborhoods with greater socioeconomic equality, the racial achievement gap is likewise smaller or nonexistent.

 

Achievement gaps are strongly correlated with racial gaps in income, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and educational attainment.

 

However, poverty, alone, does not explain away the problem.

 

Even when racial disparities are few and far between (typically in states with small black and/or Hispanic populations), the gap can persist.

 

We shouldn’t discount poverty. It goes a long way to explaining the problem. It just doesn’t go all the way.

 

CLAIM 4: Racist policies and bias widen the achievement gap

 

There are numerous factors that can adversely affect achievement for children of color above and beyond poverty. These include the availability and quality of early childhood education, the quality of public schools, patterns of residential and school segregation, and state educational and social policies.

 

For example, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board, school segregation is still a problem. In fact, in many parts of the country, they are actually more segregated today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

 

According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation has more than doubled nationwide. That’s twice the number of schools comprised almost entirely of students living in high poverty and/or students of color.

 

The number went from 7,009 to 15,089 schools. And that’s just the worst offenders – schools with more than three quarters of students from only one race or class. Throughout the country there are thousands more schools not as extreme but still serving mostly poor and/or minority students, and thus receiving fewer resources, more teacher layoffs, dealing with larger classes and crumbling infrastructure.

 

Even where segregation isn’t a problem, racist policies can creep into the academic culture.

 

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that black students in K-12 schools are far more likely to be disciplined — whether through suspension or referral to law enforcement — than their racial counterparts.

 

A 2014 study found that people generally view black boys as older and less innocent starting at the age of 10. Another study released in 2017 produced similar results, finding that Americans overall view black girls as less innocent and more mature for their age, from ages 5 to 14.

 

These have real world consequences for children’s academic development. If even well-meaning (and mostly white) teachers are more likely to see children of color as potential trouble makers, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And kids who are in trouble often have more difficulty making the grade.

 

Finally, there is the influence of charter and voucher schools, many of which target their enrollment at students of color.

 

These are schools that are (at least in part) publicly funded but privately managed. They are not required to have nearly the same transparency as traditional public schools, don’t have to be democratically controlled and can often be run for a profit.

 

They can cut services to students on a whim and if students struggle, they can give them the boot forcing them to try to catch up at the local public school.

 

These practices are so worrying that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Black Lives Matter have both called for a moratorium on all new charter schools. Journey for Justice has gone even further with a call for more community schools.

 

Bias and policies like these can have a big impact on students, but we haven’t even discussed the largest culprit.

 

CLAIM 5: The standardized testing industry is essentially biased

 

We’ve talked a lot about why there’s a racial achievement gap.

 

We haven’t talked that much about if.

 

You have to admit, it’s counterintuitive to think that there should be academic hierarchies based on race. One race is better than others at school? Really? Isn’t that, itself, a racist assumption?

 

If there is no evidence for genetic or social differences along racial lines, can we explain everything else by way of socioeconomics and racist policies?

 

Perhaps. But even more so, we need to question the mechanism that started this whole debate in the first place – standardized testing.

 

 

That is the primary mechanism used to determine if there is a racial achievement gap at all.

 

If that mechanism is biased, so is the result.

 

This is particularly troubling for an industry that was built on the eugenicist premises with which we started this article.

 

Standardized testing, as we know it, originates from the work of Francis Galton – Charles Darwin’s cousin and an English statistician. In 1869, he wrote in Hereditary Genius that “[t]he average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.” Galton nearly invented the western eugenics movement, but couldn’t find a method to test his theories.

 

Enter France’s Alfred Binet and Thodore Simon. In 1905 they developed an IQ test that 11 years later was revised by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman for use in America.

 

In his book, The Measurement of Intelligence, Terman wrote that these “experimental” tests will show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.”

 

For Terman, the achievement gap wasn’t a problem. It was a feature he was actively trying to prove, and he thought he had done so with his experiments on 1.7 million U.S. servicemen in World War I.

 

His deeply biased work convinced a generation of scholars. Princeton University psychologist Carl C. Brigham presented the results as evidence of genetic racial hierarchy in A Study of American Intelligence – merely three years before he used these same ideas to craft the SAT test in 1926.

 

Though that same SAT test has been revised since Brigham’s time, the fundamental principals behind it remain the same. Along with the PSAT, it was taken by more than 6.7 million students in the 2015-16 school year.

 

The ideals of the eugenicists lost popularity after World War II, but they were by no means finished. Famed physicist William Shockley and educational psychologist Arthur Jensen carried these concepts into the 1960s before they were revived again in The Bell Curve in the ‘90s.

 

These are not just bugs in the system. They are what the system was meant to prove in the first place.

 

Our worship of the data has made us all unwitting accomplices of an ideal that is prejudiced in its axioms.

 

By defining academic success or failure primarily as success or failure on standardized tests, we’ve effectively barred generations of children of color from the benefits of an education. And in using these same tests for “accountability” purposes to reward or punish their schools by granting or denying resources, high stakes testing has become the academic gatekeeper. Biased assessments have been used to grant real world opportunity.

 

How many opportunities have been denied because of them? How many black and brown children have been denied entry to college, professions, graduate schools, jobs, places at the highest ranked schools?

 

How many young black and brown children have been convinced of their own ignorance because of a test score of dubious quality?

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

So we return to the question with which we began this article:

 

Why is there a racial achievement gap?

 

The answer is NOT because of genetic or cultural deficiencies in children of color.

 

The gap stems from a combination of disproportionate levels of poverty among black and brown people, racist bias and policies embedded in our public school system and – more than anything else – reliance on a flawed assessment system.

 

If we want to really close the achievement gap, we must do several things. First, we must continually discredit and criticize the genetic and social critique of racial minorities at the heart of the conservative movement.

 

Next, we must create a more just and equitable education system. This means fairly funding our schools. We must increase integration. We must halt the spread of charter and voucher schools. We need to make sure all our teachers and principals have cultural sensitivity training and increase the numbers of teachers of color in our school system.

 

And we must get rid of our system of standardized testing.

 

It’s a tall order, but that’s the only way to close an even more pressing gap – the gap between our reality and our ideals.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-4

The World Mourns for Jews After Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Shooting. What About Other Targets of Hate?

Chin110118RallyAgainstAntisemitismMet5

 

When a white supremacist killed 11 people and wounded 6 others at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend, the world took notice.

 

Lights dimmed at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building.

 

Candlelight vigils were held nationwide – including in Boston, Houston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

 

A host of international leaders from the Pope to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage, sadness and solidarity.

 

I’ll admit that as a native Pittsburgher and person of Jewish descent, it touched me deeply.

 

For a moment, it seemed like the whole world had stopped spinning and from every corner of the globe people were with us in our tragedy.

 

But at the same time, it was troubling.

 

After all, there were at least two other major hate crimes in the U.S. perpetrated within 72 hours of the shooting.

 

In Kentucky, a white man shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kroger grocery store following a failed attempt to break into a black church.

 

Only two days later, a deranged man who had railed against Democrats and minorities with hate-filled messages online was arrested for allegedly sending mail bombs to people who’d been criticized by President Donald Trump.

 

IMG_8311

 

Where were the candlelight vigils for those atrocities?

 

Where were the international landmarks going dark?

 

Where was the worldwide condemnation?

 

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s tragedy, these other violent acts have been almost forgotten.

 

Yet they’re all symptoms of the same disease – hate and bigotry.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

What happened in Pittsburgh was terrible.

 

The Anti-Defamation League estimates that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue may be the most deadly attack on Jews on American Soil in our history.

 

694940094001_5854810496001_5854807723001-vs

 

But me and mine do not have a monopoly on sorrow.

 

We suffer, but we are not the only ones hurting.

 

This all happened not far from my home.

 

I’ll admit that I am having a really hard time dealing with it.

 

I am not sleeping well.

 

I find myself zoning out in the middle of everyday activities.

 

And I feel this constant anxiety like part of me is expecting to hear a gunshot ringing down the hall at any time.

 

When the alleged shooter entered the sanctuary armed to the teeth and shouted “All Jews must die!” before carrying out his plan, he included me in his declaration.

 

All Jews.

 

That’s me.

 

That’s my daughter. My parents. My family.

 

It means something to me that so many people have come together to repudiate this crime.

 

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and other U.S. based Muslim groups donated more than $200,000 for funeral expenses. An Iranian refugee (who hadn’t even been to the three rivers) started a GoFundMe that brought in $1 million for the victims and their families.

 

You can’t go anywhere in Pittsburgh without a memorial, a moment of silence, a shared statement of solidarity and love.

 

At the symphony, musicians read two statements from the stage against hate before playing a Hebrew melody with string quartet.

 

At my school – I’m a teacher – the union decided to collect money for the victims.

 

 

I saw a barge floating down one of the rivers that had the message “Stronger Than Hate” on the side next to the modified Steelers logo where the top star had been replaced by a Star of David.

 

IMG_8309

 

I even saw a similar message on a Wendy’s sign: “PittsburghStrong/ Stronger/ Than Hate”.

 

IMG_8312

 

The community has come together in a way I’ve never seen before.

 

 

But I can’t help wondering why.

 

 

Even after Richard Baumhammers went on a racially motivated killing spree in 2000 murdering five people including two Jews, the response wasn’t this overwhelming.

 

 

Perhaps it’s just that this latest shooting is the final straw.

 

Perhaps it is the moment when our nation finally pulls together and says that enough is enough – We won’t tolerate this kind of hate and violence.

 

I hope that’s it.

 

However, in the shadows of my mind I wonder if it might not be a reflection of the same beast that struck us last weekend.

 

Could it be that we’re willing to put up with violence against brown people, but only draw the line when those targeted have lighter skin?

 

I guess my point – if I have one – is this: Thank you, But.

 

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s Jews, thank you for having our back.

 

If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need your continued support and solidarity.

 

But it’s not just us.

 

Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

Our country was built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans.

 

The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans.

 

Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and is hidden in the way we practice health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

 

The shock and solidarity in the wake of the synagogue shooting is appreciated, but it’s not enough to mourn only when 11 Jews are murdered in cold blood.

 

It’s not enough to take a stand against anti-Semitism.

 

We need to join together to fight all of it.

 

We need to be unified against school segregation, police brutality, xenophobia and prejudice in all of its forms.

 

The white supremacist who killed my friends and neighbors targeted us because he thought we were helping brown-skinned immigrants into the country.

 

We can’t just stand for the helpers. We need to stand for those in need of that help.

 

It just won’t work any other way.

 

We can’t just be against violence to light skinned minorities. We have to empathize and protect our brown skinned brothers and sisters, too. We have to love and cherish our LGBTQ neighbors, as well.

 

IMG_8310

 

We have to realize that our freedom, our safety, our very lives depend not just on what rights we have – but on what rights we give to all.

 

That is the only way any of us will ever feel safe again.

 

Through love and solidarity for every. Single. Human. Being.

 

AR-181029559.jpg&MaxH=500&MaxW=900


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-3

The Pittsburgh Community is Stronger Than the Synagogue Shooter’s Hate

43579727_10156281113318860_8423220729121603584_n

 

There’s a popular yard sign in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

 

In bands of green and blue and yellow, it projects the same message in Spanish, English and Arabic:

 

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

 

If the community had a motto, I think that might be it.

 

Though known for its high concentration of Jewish residents, the Pennsylvania locale is a multicultural crossroads.

 

That may have made it a target today when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue.

 

Though the alleged culprit has been captured, details are still being uncovered. The death toll has yet to be tallied.

 

Unconfirmed reports state that he shouted “All Jews must die,” before opening fire.

 

But I don’t believe that the Jewish community was his only target.

 

Or more precisely – it wasn’t just the Jewish part – it was the community that had grown up around it.

 

I know Squirrel Hill well.

 

I live close by. I grew up on those streets. I’ve been to services at that synagogue. I have family who are members.

 

Thankfully it seems that no one related to me was there this morning. But when victims names are released, I probably will know who they are.

 

I know this community.

 

I am an extended part of it.

 

And that’s something of which I am proud.

 

Just walk along Murray Avenue and you’ll see Indian, Italian, Jewish, African, Chinese – every nationality imaginable – offering the fruits of their culture for friendly commerce.

 

You’ll see Hasidic Jews in dark hats and flowing tzitzit walking next to women in colorful saris next to trans and lesbians, kids with every color skin playing together in harmony.

 

Whenever I want a good corned beef sandwich or a quality lox and bagel, I go there. Whenever I want a spicy curry or the freshest sushi or an authentic macaroon, that’s the place. If I want to hear a string quartet or a lecture from a visiting dignitary or even if I want to swim in a public pool, membership to the Jewish Community Center is open to all.

 

It’s like a few blocks of cosmopolitan life tucked away in a city more known for segregation. We have many ethnic neighborhoods but few where one culture flows so easily into another.

 

Heck. Even the Tree of Life Synagogue, itself, doesn’t serve one congregation. It serves three who all had services going on at different parts of the building this morning.

 

There’s just something very special about this place.

 

It’s where you can go to be yourself – in fact, you’re encouraged to be who you are and not conform to any particular norm. Yet in doing so, you’re somehow demonstrating unity.

 

Paradoxically, being you makes you one of us.

 

It’s weird.

 

I think it may have been that sense of community that made Squirrel Hill, in general, and the Tree of Life Synagogue, in particular, a target.

 

The hate-filled person who attacked us today was terrified of that unity.

 

He was so frightened of disillusion, of losing his sense of self, that he had to end the lives of those who could do what he couldn’t.

 

It’s pathetic, really.

 

If your sense of self is only a negative, only opposition to someone else’s otherness, you really don’t have much self to lose.

 

If you define yourself by your hate, what are you?

 

Do you even really exist?

 

Most of us are very different.

 

We are complex assortments of personality – a family identity, a cultural heritage, a work persona, a spirituality, a sense of justice.

 

Communities like Squirrel Hill nurture this multifarious nature.

 

They welcome and celebrate difference.

 

I wish America was more like Squirrel Hill and not the other way around.

 

If this community’s normal was our national ideal, think of the country we would be living in!

 

Being different wouldn’t be an obstacle, it would be cherished.

 

When meeting someone with an unfamiliar name, a heritage of which you were ignorant, a sexuality or gender identity of which you had little knowledge – your response wouldn’t be fear or discomfort. It would be a thrill of excitement that you are lucky enough to broaden your understanding of the many ways there are to be human.

 

It would be a country where no one grew up so stunted and afraid that the only solution they could imagine would be the death of others.

 

That’s the America I want to live in.

 

Squirrel Hill is stronger than this synagogue shooters hate.

 

I hope our country is, too.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-1

Disowning the Lie of Whiteness

auschwtiztattoo 

The most vivid memory I have of my great-grandfather is the tattoo on his arm.

 

It wasn’t an anchor or a sweetheart’s name or even the old faithful, “Mom.”

 

It was just a series of digits scrawled across his withered tan flesh like someone had written a note they didn’t want to forget.

 

Beneath the copious salt and pepper hairs was a stark number, the darkest stain on his skin.

 

Gramps is a kindly figure in my mind.

 

He died before I was even 10-years-old. All I really remember about him are wisps of impressions – his constant smile, a whiff of mothballs, how he always seemed to have butterscotch candies.

 

And that tattoo.

 

I think it was my father who told me what it meant.

 

When he was just a young man, Gramps escaped from Auschwitz. A guard took pity on him and smuggled him out.

 

His big European family didn’t make it.

 

My scattered relatives in the United States are all that are left of us.

 

Those are the only details that have come down to me. And Gramps isn’t here to add anything further.

 

But his tattoo has never left me.

 

It’s become a pillar of my subconscious.

 

The fact that someone could look at my kindly Gramps and still see fit to tattoo a numeric signifier on him as if he were an animal.

 

A little reminder that he wasn’t human, that he shouldn’t be treated like a person, that he was marked for erasure.

 

If I look at my own arm, there is no tell-tale integer peeking through the skin. But I am keenly aware of its presence.

 

I know that it’s there in a very real sense.

 

It is only the American dream that hides it.

 

Coming to this country, my family has made a deal, something of a Faustian bargain, but it’s one that most of us have accepted as the price of admission.

 

It’s called whiteness.

 

I am white.

 

Or I get to be white. So long as I suppress any differences to the contrary.

 

I agree to homogenize myself as much as possible and define myself purely by that signifier.

 

White. American. No hyphen necessary.

 

Anything else is secondary. I don’t have to deny it, but I have to keep it hidden until the right context comes to bring it out.

 

During Octoberfest I have license to be German. When at international village I can root for Poland. And on Saturdays I can wear a Kippah and be Jewish.

 

But in the normal flow of life, don’t draw attention to my differences. Don’t show everyone the number on my arm.

 

Because America is a great place, but people here – as in many other places – are drawn to those sorts of symbols and will do what they can to stamp them out.

 

I learned that in school when I was younger.

 

There weren’t a lot of Jewish kids where I grew up. I remember lots of cracks about “Jewing” people down, fighting against a common assumption that I would be greedy, etc. I remember one girl I had a crush on actually asked to see my horns.

 

And of course there were the kids who chased me home from the bus stop. The scratched graffiti on my locker: “Yid.”

 

The message was clear – “You’re different. We’ll put up with you, but don’t ever forget you are NOT one of us.”

 

There were a lot more black kids. They didn’t get it any easier but at least they could join together.

 

It seemed I had one choice – assimilate or face it alone.

 

So I did. I became white.

 

I played up my similarities, never talked about my differences except to close friends.

 

And America worked her magic.

 

 

So I’ve always been aware that whiteness is the biggest delusion in the world.

 

It’s not a result of the color wheel. Look at your skin. You’re not white. You’re peach or pink or salmon or rose or coral or olive or any of a million other shades.

 

Whiteness has as much to do with color as Red has to do with Communism or Green has to do with environmental protection.

 

It is the way a lose confederacy of nationalities and ethnicities have banded together to form a fake majority and lord power over all those they’ve excluded.

 

It’s social protection for wealth – a kind of firewall against the underclass built, manned and protected by those who are also being exploited.

 

It’s like a circle around the wealthy protecting them from everyone outside its borders. Yet if everyone banded together against the few rich and powerful, we could all have a more equitable share.

 

But in America, social class has been weaponized and racialized.

 

You’ll see some media outlets talking about demographics as if white people were in danger of losing their numerical majority in this country in the next few decades. But there’s no way it’s ever going to happen.

 

Today’s xenophobia is a direct response to this challenge. Some are trying to deport, displace and murder as many black and brown people as possible to preserve the status quo.

 

But even if that doesn’t work, whiteness will not become a minority. It will do what it has always done – incorporate some of those whom it had previously excluded to keep its position.

 

Certain groups of Hispanics and Latinos probably will find themselves allowed to identify as white, thereby solidifying the majority.

 

Because the only thing that matters is that there are some people who are “white” and the rest who are not.

 

Long ago, my family experienced this.

 

Before I was born, we got our provisional white card. And if I want, I can use it to hide behind.

 

I’ve been doing it most of my life.

 

Every white person does it.

 

It’s almost impossible not to do it.

 

How do you deny being white?

 

At this point, I could throw back my head and shout to the heavens, “I’M NOT WHITE!” and it wouldn’t matter.

 

Only in a closed environment like a school or a job or in a social media circle can you retain the stigma of appearing pale but still being other.

 

In everyday life, it doesn’t matter what you say, only how you appear.

 

I can’t shout my difference all the time. Every moment I’m quiet, I’ll still be seen as white.

 

It’s not personal. It’s social. It’s not something that happens among individuals. It’s a way of being seen.

 

The best I can do is try to use my whiteness as a tool. I can speak out against the illusion. I can stand up when people of color are being victimized. I can vote for leaders who will do something to dismantle white supremacy.

 

Not because I am some kind of savior, but because I know that my own freedom is tied to the freedom of those being oppressed by a system that provides me certain privileges.

 

But let me be clear: doing so is not the safe way to go.

 

In defending others you make yourself a target.

 

I get threats all the time from racists and Nazis of all sorts. They say they can tell just by looking at me that I’m not white at all.

 

The worst part is I’m not sure what I am anymore.

 

I don’t go to synagogue. I don’t even believe in God. But I’m Jewish enough to have been rounded up like Gramps was, so I won’t deny that identity. It’s just that I’m more than one thing.

 

That’s what whiteness tries to reduce you to – one thing.

 

I don’t want it anymore.

 

I’m not saying I don’t like the protection, the ability to be anonymous, the easy out.

 

But it’s not worth it if it has to come with the creation of an other.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where people of color are considered less than me and mine.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where they can be treated unfairly, beaten and brutalized so that I can get some special advantage.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where human beings are tattooed and numbered and sent to their deaths.

 

Because the Holocaust is not over.

 

American slavery is not over.

 

Neither is Jim Crow or lynching or a thousand other marks of hatred and bigotry.

 

Nazis march unmasked in our streets. Our prisons are the new plantation. And too many of our police use murder and atrocity to ensure the social order.

 

As long as we allow ourselves to be white, there will be no justice for both ourselves and others.

 

So consider this my renunciation of whiteness – and I make it here in public.

 

I know that no matter what I say, I will still be seen as part of the problem. And I will still reap the rewards.

 

But I will use what power is given me to tear it down.

 

I’m burning my white card.

 

I know it’s a symbolic gesture. But I invite my white brothers and sisters to add theirs to the flames.

 

Let us make a conflagration, a pillar of fire into the sky.

 

Let whiteness evaporate as the smoke it is.

 

Let us revel in the natural hues of our faces as we watch it burn.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-4

You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Fight Racism. But You Have to Try

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 1.50.03 PM

 

I am a white guy who talks about racism.

 

I teach mostly students of color in a western Pennsylvania public school. I write a blog about education and issues of prejudice. And I participate in social justice campaigns to try and redress the inequality all around me.

 

But in my quest to be an anti-racist, one of the most common criticisms people hurl my way is to call me smug:

 

You think you’re so perfect!

 

You’re just suffering from white guilt.

 

You love black people more than your own people.

 

Things like that.

 

Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.

 

I make mistakes.

 

All. The. Time.

 

I am just like every other white person out there. But I have recognized certain facts about my world and I’m trying to do something about them.

 

America is built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans. The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and was hidden in the way we practiced health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

And it’s getting worse. Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

It does not make me special that I am trying to do what little I can about that. It just makes me human.

 

That’s it.

 

I am not perfect.

 

I am no better than anyone else.

 

But I am trying to do the right thing.

 

When I first became a teacher, I had the chance to go to the rich white schools and work with the wealthy white kids. I hated it.

 

I found that I had a real affinity for the struggling students, the poor and minorities.

 

 

Why? Probably because I have more in common with them than the kids who drove to school in better cars than me, wore more expensive clothes and partied with designer drugs.

 

Does that make me better than a teacher who stayed in the suburbs? No. But hopefully it gives me the chance to make a greater difference against white supremacy.

 

 

When I saw how unjust our school system is, I could have gotten out. Law school was definitely an option. So was becoming a technical writer or a job as a pharmaceutical ad rep.

 

 

But I dug in and spoke out.

 

 

I could have left, but who would be there to speak for my students? Who would speak truth to power about high stakes standardized tests, unaccountable charter and voucher schools, inequitable funding and the boondoggle of Common Core Standards?

 

 

So I got active in my union, spoke at rallies, lead marches on incorrigible law-makers and started a blog.

 

Does that make me better than teachers who kept plugging away at their jobs but didn’t rock the boat? No way. But hopefully I have a better chance at helping change things for the better.

 

 

When I saw that politicians in my state wanted to stop the parents of my students from voting by trampling their civil rights with a voter ID law, I started a campaign asking the officials that were tasked with enacting the law to ignore it.

 

 

It was a hard battle that made me do things I was not at all comfortable doing. You try asking a public servant on camera to break the law and go to jail for what he knew was right.

 

Strangely enough, it worked. Along with several other campaigns throughout the state, we got the voter ID law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

 

Some people look at that and other accomplishments and think I’m conceited.

 

They say I’m a white savior hogging the spotlight for myself and keeping the very people I’m trying to help in my shadow.

 

That’s not my intention at all.

 

I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help and support of people of color.

 

Everything I’ve done in this fight has been with their help and encouragement.

 

Does that mean I’m impervious to making a racist comment? Does it mean I’ve never participated in a microaggression? Does it mean I see every racist impact of my society and my place in it?

 

Absolutely not.

 

I screw up every day.

 

Multiple times.

 

But that’s the point. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to try.

 

One of the books that has helped guide me on this journey is Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.

 

The chapter on “White Supremacy Culture” should be required reading for every activist organization or budding civil rights warrior.

 

The authors offer a list of characteristics that stem from white supremacy that can affect even the best intentioned of groups and individuals. These norms are difficult to name or identify but can lead to major dysfunction:

 

 

“They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.”

 

 

And the number one characteristic is Perfectionism.

 

This involves the following bullet points:

 

  • “little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway

 

  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate

 

  • or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them

 

  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes

 

  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong

 

  • little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes

 

  • tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right”

 

 

Solutions offered to this problem are:

 

“Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;

 

develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;

 

create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;

 

separate the person from the mistake;

 

when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism;

 

ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.”

 

These are things we should keep in mind as we try to move forward in this fight.

 

Certainly white people can be resistant to criticism and see any and every comment or appraisal as personal or demeaning – especially if that remark is made by a person of color.

 

Frankly, white people need to get a thicker skin about it. We need to realize that this impulse to personalize analysis is often a psychological attempt to avoid looking at oneself and what unconscious aspects of the social order one has internalized.

 

However, those offering criticism must realize that context is everything. We must create an environment where such remarks are constructive. Otherwise, they’ll do more harm than good.

 

None of this is easy.

 

But if we want to be anti-racists, that’s not the job we signed up to do.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-4

Since School Vouchers Don’t Increase Test Scores, Racism is an Acceptable Reason for Privatization, Says Advocate

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 10.20.41 AM

For decades, school voucher advocates claimed that sending poor kids to private schools with public tax dollars was acceptable because doing so would raise students’ test scores.

 

However, in the few cases where voucher students are even required to take the same standardized tests as public school students, the results have been dismal.

 

In short, poor kids at private schools don’t get better test scores.

 

So why are we spending billions of public tax dollars to send kids to privately run schools?

 

A 2018 Department of Education evaluation of the Washington, D.C., voucher program found that public school students permitted to attend a private or parochial school at public expense ended up getting worse scores than they had at public school.

 

Their scores went down 10 points in math and stayed about the same in reading.

 

These are not the pie in the sky results we were promised when we poured our tax money into private hands.

 

However, corporate education propaganda site, The 74, published a defense of these results that – frankly – makes some pretty jaw dropping claims.

 

The article is “More Regulation of D.C. School Vouchers Won’t Help Students. It Will Just Give Families Fewer Choices for Their Kids” by far right Cato Institute think tanker Corey DeAngelis.

 

In his piece, not only does he call for less accountability for voucher schools, he downplays the importance of standardized test scores.

 

And he has a point. Test scores aren’t a valid reflection of student learning – but that’s something public school advocates have been saying for decades in response to charter and voucher school cheerleaders like DeAngelis.

 

Supply side lobbyists have been claiming we need school privatization BECAUSE it will increase test scores. Now that we find this claim is completely bogus, the privatizers are changing their tune.

 

But that’s not the most shocking irony in DeAngelis article.

 

Parents don’t really care about the scores, he says. Instead they send their children to voucher schools because… You know what? I’ll let him tell it.

 

“Families choose schools for their children based on several important factors, including culture, individual attention, and, of course, safety. Research tells us that parents — unsurprisingly — often value these things more than standardized test scores.”

 

Certainly parents prefer their children have more individual attention. But many private schools have larger class sizes than public schools.

 

Moreover, reducing class size at all schools would be a more equitable reform than letting some kids enjoy smaller classes if they can just get into the right school.

 

However, it is his other two claims that sent my racist dog whistle senses tingling.

 

So parents don’t like the CULTURE of public schools. And they’re afraid public schools aren’t as SAFE.

 

Hmm. I wonder what culture these parents are objecting to. I wonder why they would think public schools wouldn’t be as safe.

 

Could it perhaps be fear of black students!?

 

I don’t want my little Billy to be exposed to all that rap music and kids with sagging pants. I don’t want my little Susie to cower in a class full of thugs and gangstas.

 

This is racist, stereotypical and just plain wrong about what you’ll actually find in public schools.

 

But it’s also typical white flight – the impulse behind the charter and voucher school movement in the first place.

 

Where did the boom for privatized schools come from historically?

 

It was a reaction to Brown vs. Board. When the US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, many white parents rebelled. They didn’t want their kids to go to school with THOSE kids. Hence, Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge’s aborted plan to close all state schools and issue vouchers to private schools instead.

 

Hence, the plan that actually did take place in Price Edward County, Virginia, in 1959 where the public schools were closed and all taxpayer money for education was funneled to segregated white academies that would not admit black students. Though the term had yet to be invented, these were proto-“charter schools.” They were publicly funded but privately run. They were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge.

 

Hence, various segregationist “freedom of choice” plans in several states that allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools. Black students could apply but because of various administrative hurdles were never admitted.

 

This is the history of so-called school choice. And it is a history that DeAngelis, the 74 and the Cato Institute are willing to bring full circle.

 

School privatization advocates pretend they’re defending choice, but what choice are they championing?

 

The choice to segregate?

 

Pardon me, but I don’t think we should be spending public tax dollars to enable bigots.

 

If you want to shield your children from the horrors of kids with darker skin, do so on your own dime.

 

Public money should only be spent on policies that are in the public good – and that’s not segregation. It’s the exact opposite – integration.

 

Learning how to get along with people who are different than you is an essential skill for good citizens. Understanding that people of different races, ethnicities, religions and cultures are also human is vital if our nation is to survive.

 

Being exposed to another culture isn’t a bad thing. It’s the definition of the American melting pot.

 

Our public schools are not perfect. They suffer from targeted disinvestment – especially those situated in urban neighborhoods and those serving larger populations of children of color.

 

But that is because of the same segregation school privatization lobbyists are empowering. If all students went to the same schools, parents wouldn’t allow this kind of inequity.

 

In protecting their own kids, parents with power and resources would be protecting all kids.

 

But this isn’t the goal of privatization promoters. They don’t care about what’s best for children. They’re looking out for what’s best for the businesses running the privatized schools.

 

So what have we learned?

 

School vouchers do not increase test scores.

 

And when that excuse behind the entire school privatization movement is exposed as nonsense, opportunists have no problem using racism and prejudice to defend their industry.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-4