Why is There a Racial Achievement Gap?

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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!

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

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

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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!

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Disowning the Lie of Whiteness

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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!

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

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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!

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

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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!

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Don’t Tread on Me, But Let Me Tread All Over You: The Credo of Personal Freedom and Limitless Greed

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Every neighborhood has one.

 

A yellow flag showing a coiled spring of a snake above the motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

 

In my usually well-manicured suburb, you’ll find it waving bravely over the garbage house.

 

There’s three broken down RVs sitting on the lawn, a busted sofa in the back yard, a rotten picnic bench and several rusted out vehicles in various states of disrepair.

 

I’m not sure why the owners think anyone would want to tread on them. We’d much rather walk quickly on by without being seen or commented on.

 

Because in my experience that’s the thing about most of the people who fly this flag.

 

They’re indignant about anyone stepping on their rights but all too ready to step all over yours.

 

I remember it wasn’t really too long ago that this flag had no such connotations.

 

It was simply the Gadsen flag, a relic of the American Revolution. It was nothing more than a reminder of a time when we cherished our national independence from Great Britain and wanted to make sure they knew we didn’t want the King to come back and start ordering us around.

 

In fact, it was designed by American general and politician Christopher Gadsden in 1775. This “Sam Adams of South Carolina” modeled his patriotic statement first used by the Continental Marines on an earlier famous cartoon from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.

 

800px-Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die

 

You’ve probably seen it. A snake is cut into several pieces – each representing one of the colonies – with the motto, “Join or Die.”

 

So originally it was a call for unity, perhaps even federalism. It was a way of framing the argument that we’d be stronger as one nation than as a group of separate states.

 

Gadsen’s version was really a continuation of that same thought. It was as if he were saying, “Here we are, one unified nation ready to strike to protect itself from tyranny.”

 

It wasn’t until 2009 that Gadsen’s flag became associated with the radical right.

 

Like so many hitherto nonpartisan symbols, it was appropriated by the Tea Party movement, which tried to cast their libertarian extremism as somehow harkening back to the American Revolution.

 

Even the name Tea Party is a misnomer. The original Boston members of the Sons of Liberty who threw British tea into the harbor in 1773 were protesting taxation without representation. Modern day Tea Partiers were protesting the taxes levied by their own duly elected representatives.

 

They were poor people duped into thinking the rich paid too much despite the fact of gross income inequality and the wealthy not paying their fair share.

 

It’s this willful ignorance that typifies the contemporary right.

 

The truth doesn’t matter. It only matters what can be spun into a pithy sound bite that can be broadcast on Fox News or some other propaganda source and then repeated ad infinitum in place of any real debate or conversation.

 

To be fair, the left does it, too, but not nearly to the same degree.

 

When a topic makes the rounds of the 24-hour news cycle, you can hear the same canned responses from right and left on just about every channel regardless of who is speaking. The only difference is that the left usually makes at least passing reference to reality while the right closes its eyes and says whatever it believes to be true with perfect conviction.

 

The Gadsen flag is a perfect example of this hypocrisy.

 

The motto “Don’t Tread on Me” has come to mean radical individual freedom.

 

I can do whatever I like and there’s nothing you can do about it.

 

I can own as many guns as I like. I can teach my kids whatever facts I like. I can discriminate against anyone I like.

 

But there’s never a mention about other people except to limit what they can do in relation to the speaker.

 

In short, there’s nothing explicit about making this rule universal – I won’t tread on you if you won’t tread on me.

 

It’s just don’t tread on me and I’ll do whatever I like in relation to you.

 

After all, many of these personal freedoms the radical right cherishes actually do impact the rest of us.

 

Unregulated gun ownership means more shootings, more suicides, more deadly instances of domestic violence, more kids coming to school with semi-automatic guns in their book bags and more malls and theaters slick with bystander blood.

 

Moreover, if you teach your kids whatever facts you like, that means you indoctrinate them into your worldview. You don’t give them the chance to see the real world for what it is in case they may have different views on it than you do. This impacts both your children and the country, itself, which will have to somehow run with a greater portion of ignorant and close-minded citizens.

 

And don’t get me started on discrimination! You think you should be able to say whatever you like to whomever you like whenever you like. It’s fine to wear a t-shirt calling Hillary Clinton a “cunt” but when late night comedian Samantha Bee does the same to Ivanka Trump, you’re up in arms!

 

You think you can support laws that allow bakers to refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples but are raving mad when a restaurateur refuses service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders!

 

 

This kind of sanctimonious duplicity has real world consequences.

 

 

Unarmed black people are shot and killed by police at a much higher rate than white people. Yet you won’t tolerate any protest, condemnation or protest. People can’t assemble in the streets, athletes can’t kneel during the national anthem, you won’t even allow the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” because you say, “All Lives Matter,” while in reality you mean “All Lives Except Black Ones.”

 

You oppose abortion but no one is forcing anyone to have abortions. In your headlong crusade for individual freedom you want to ensure that others don’t have this choice because they might choose differently than you. Or at least they might choose differently than you SAY you do, because when the light of day is cast upon you, we find an alarming number of hypocrites here, too.

 

There are too many far right politicians who campaign on overturning Roe v. Wade who pressure their mistresses to abort the unwanted issue of their indiscretion.

 

The underlying cause of such myopia is a perverse focus only on the self.

 

You look at what you want for you and pay no attention at all to what others should likewise be allowed.

 

It is the underlying selfishness of post Enlightenment Western thought come back to haunt us.

 

Hobbes and Locke and Smith told us that greed was good.

 

It’s what makes the world go round.

 

You look to your self-interest, and I’ll look to mine, and that’s what’s best for everyone.

 

However, they forgot that everyone doesn’t have the same power – physical, social, financial or political. Some people are strong and some are weak. Some are rich and some are poor. If you pull the shortest straw at the lottery of birth, you won’t be able to get the same things for yourself as those who won it as soon as the doctor slapped their newborn bums.

 

So we have layers and layers of class and economics. We have social structures designed to keep black people here and Hispanics there and white people at the top. We have a society that worships the rich and bedevils the poor. We have belief systems that praise one kind of sexuality only and demonizes anything that diverges from that norm. And the most defining thing of any newborn baby is what you’ll find between its legs.

 

“Don’t Tread on Me” has become a farce.

 

It’s a maxim hoisted on those with very little individual power to convince them to join together and become powerful while guarding the door for the wealthy.

 

They sit atop their mountains of trash as if they were dragons on piles of gold.

 

And they point their pitchforks at the rest of us as if we wanted a piece of it.

 

In this way, they make themselves the willing patsies of the ruling class.

 

It’s a sad thing to behold.

 

Because if we all just stopped for a second and recognized our common humanity, we’d agree that the status quo is unacceptable.

 

If we were more concerned about the rights of all than just our own rights, we’d agree that the wealth of this great nation has not been fairly distributed.

 

The snake is coiled and ready to strike but it is pointed in the wrong direction.

 

It shouldn’t be pointed at 99% of us. And it shouldn’t be so solitary.

 

It should be a sea of snakes, a great slithering mass of humanity, hissing and spitting with venom, our reptilian eyes focused on the elites.

 

Don’t tread on me?

 

Don’t tread on USSSSSSSSSSS!


 

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!

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