Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Being Trapped

I wonder a lot what it would be like to have enormous social responsibility, what it would be like to be a leader on a grand scale and to be able to articulate the vision, hopes and dreams of people. I wonder what it would be like to exercise that degree of freedom. I sometimes wonder about the view and the pride that my daughter and wife would have of me, if I were a man of global stature.

Recently I wondered what it would be like to be trapped. There is no shortage of evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, about the urban black underclass. It is a segment of our society and a portion of our people that are underserved, undereducated, underemployed and is the definition of the American underclass. There is no doubt that the human spirit is and will always be triumphant. Indeed the story of black people in the United States is that triumphant story. There is also equally no doubt that the condition of poverty shackled to race is guilty of the murder of thousands of ambitions, hopes and dreams. What is it like today, to have little or no education, to have your ambitions and dignity constantly under public and private attack? I wonder what happens at the moment when so many young black men, for example, just say, “fuck it” and turn towards the abyss.

Surely, that moment comes at the ends of a path. It is at the end of a path where system failures, benign and intentional neglect and the bad luck of circumstance collude to undermine the spirit. The human spirit of legend is unconquerable, but the human spirit of an individual needs protection or at very least inspiration. My whole life has been on a trajectory that has kept me protected and safe from that path. I had the good luck of being born to educated parents. Their emphasis on education was similar to their emphasis on food. According to them, the substance of my body and the substance of my mind are the elements of my life – without one or the other, I would surely die.

I cannot really know what it is like to be trapped in this particular way and I do not take for granted the privilege that is. If I continue to think about being free, I have to continue to think about being trapped.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Taking Responsibility

The State of Georgia is going to execute Troy Davis today. That means that a man or a woman, employed by the State, is going to kill him. This case has earned legendary acclaim. There are a slew of inconsistencies, witness recantations and questions that lead to an abundance of doubt regarding Mr. Davis’ guilt. Despite that, and appeals from former United States President and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jimmy Carter, and the Pope of the Catholic Church and countless others, a man or woman working on behalf of the State of Georgia is going to kill Troy Davis.

At the moment the United States is involved in a series of wars and conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Our supposed objectives in these places are to introduce democracy and civil society. It is easy to make the argument that we are hypocritical in purporting that we are the standard bearers of civilization while allowing state sanctioned killing here in the United States. Pointing out hypocrisy; however, to people who support murder as a form of vengeance dressed as justice is ineffective. I argue that supporters of capital punishment should not hide behind false claims of Western Civility and human decency.

If the Governor, who has the unique authority to prevent the killing of a man, chooses not to save his life, then he should be responsible for taking it. If he so supports capital punishment as an element of state justice, then he should demonstrate his core beliefs and publicly shoot Troy Davis himself. He would not hesitate to volunteer for a day to teach a 2nd grade class in support of his belief in education. He surely wouldn’t pause to throw out the first pitch for the Braves in support of his belief in sport as a critical component of society. He should personally bear the responsibility of publicly taking another man’s life. Lead by example and take his support of capital punishment to its logical and literal end.

Doing so would unmask the philosophy so we, as a nation, can be more clear about who we really are. We can align behind our leaders based on their public acts. We would be clear that our government kills people despite questions about their innocence. Regarding immigration, we could be clear that we are a nation that will round up tens of millions of working people based on their ethnicity and deport them in an Idi Amin model.

Pointing out hypocrisy to the zealotry is futile. I would encourage public leaders to simply take on more personal and public responsibility about their beliefs. Their doing so would bring some honesty to the state murder of Troy Davis and some clarity to the rest of us on the meaning of being an American.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I was recently invited to the Atlanta Motor Speedway by some representatives of Nascar and a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education group. They wanted me to see a program for high school students and essentially try to partner with Georgia Tech. That was all upfull and right.

Nascar, on the other hand, does not have an image that, shall we say, resonates with me and my world view. To be frank, I hold the stereotype of Nascar fans as drunk, sunburned, sweaty southern rednecks. I know that in a crowd of nearly 110,000 people that cannot be universally true, but stereotypes being what they are, that doesn’t really matter. The truth is that all stereotypes hold a kernel of truth somewhere; however, ugly they may be or inapplicable to every individual in the group.

At the Atlanta Motor Speedway on this particular Friday afternoon during the pre-race practice runs, the temperature was about 60 zillion degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently Nascar fans go to the races in Winnebago’s, trailers and tents and camp out for the few race days in this excruciating heat. Also, there are no trees within at least a mile of the track, so everyone is camped out directly in the crosshairs of the sun. Hence the sweaty and sunburned sections of the stereotype.

What struck me as I drove onto the grounds, was the number of confederate flags. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many per capita in my life. Indeed some of them were on extra thick poles, which may have been crosses in their former lives, and were at least 10 or 15ft long. At least the breeze had sense enough not to blow, so all the flags were forced to bow down as I drove by. In addition to that, I even saw a poster asking people to join the “Sons of the Confederacy.” I really was shocked by that. I thought the Sons went out with Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind. I didn’t know they were still around in Madea’s modern world free of stereotypes. Maybe it is Tyler Perry's fault.

The whole time I was trying to be quiet and inconspicuous. After the demonstration with the students I was standing reading some of the program’s brochures. I was wearing a Tech shirt and a guy came up to me and said, “So you go to Georgia Tech?”

Think of the most stereotypical southern drawl you can and then replay the question in your mind so you can hear what I heard. The guy was a scruffy looking white man with a huge belly that hung down below his belt. His t-shirt had a race car on it with smoke coming from the exhausts in the form of a rebel flag. He had on shorts, work boots and a hunting hat. He was both sunburned and sweating. This is a non-fiction account.

“No.” That was enough for me, keep it short and don’t say anything more than the answer to the question – standard procedure with New York’s Finest and the Sons of the Confederacy.

“So whaduya do there?”

“I work there.”

He kept pressing me. Once I explained what I did, what he said next took me in a Nascar ride back in time.

He turned to look directly at me and lowered his head so he could see me above his shades and under the brim of his hunting hat.

“So yer one of those highfalutin fellers ain’ cha?”

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pimping School Choice

I was recently in a discussion slash argument with an official from a large charter school company. He was making the case that the schools of the company were schools of choice and had long waiting lists, ergo they are good schools – otherwise parents would not choose to send their children there. This despite the evidence suggesting the companies’ schools are mediocre at best. There is certainly a simple and elegant logic to that argument which I appreciate. There is another side of course, which overlooks the reality of the options available in the choice.

School choice, from the point of view of a for-profit education salesman, is a simple example of consumer rationality. A family faced with the choice between educational option A and educational option B will simply reveal their preference and select the school that matches their family interests. The extension of that logic, the salesmen would have us believe, is that if you have long waiting lists for your schools, then your schools must be good. Neat, clean and spurious.

From the point of view of education as a public good instrumental in a civil society, there is a different conception of choice. The majority of charter schools in the United States are in communities where the public school systems are poor, dysfunctional and ineffective. Detroit is a prime example. That translates into individual schools that are unsafe, unclean, undesirable dark places that have little to do with education. Of course those communities are highly correlated with populations of the black and brown poor. In many instances the families of these communities are facing educational suicide for their children if they enroll them in their local public school. In states like Georgia where students’ academic performance, on average, ranks 48th among all states, it is clear how bad local public schools can be.

Under these circumstances, parents would choose any school option over the local public school where failure is a near certainty. The salesman’s argument presents a false choice. It suggests that the waiting list for the life raft is because you offered drowning people a good raft. As long as the raft is afloat, people will choose it. The quality of option A is immaterial when certain ignorance and psychological damage is option B. Using the argument of school choice under these circumstances is pimping the concept of choice. Real school choice is when families are choosing between schools of equal caliber and different styles.

This argument allows educational salesmen to pimp choice and use it as a reason to provide poor people mediocre education while profiting from the public trough. Thank goodness for the good, regular public education I got, otherwise I might not be able to recognize the pedagogy of the pimp.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Accused of Being Racist

A white woman recently accused me of being racist. She and I are affiliated with the same school and it was based on our respective approaches to this school that she accused me. It is the first time, at least to my knowledge, I have been accused as such. The dictionary definition of a racist is a person who believes that “race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” She did not confront me directly, so I am not sure which part of this double barreled definition she thinks I embody. Surely she cannot think, that in this day and age, I believe one race is inherently superior to others, so she must think I am guilty of racism definition 1(a).

If I thought that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities I would be trapped in several boxes of futility. My parenting would be in vein. The potential of my daughter would be predetermined. Her blackness would be the determinant of her personal traits and mental and physical capacities. The infrastructure of love and support that my wife and I provide her would be insignificant against of the weight of her black-based capacities. Our love for her, designed to launch her human potential, would be futile.

Another problem I would have as a racist is related to my own identity. There is no doubt that in the American legend, black men are little more than physical species of minimal mental capacity – creatures trapped by our color. As a racist I would have limited identity options. I could believe the color-based definition of myself or I could challenge it and prescribe another color-based set of attributes to black men that suited me better. I am not a physical specie of minimal mental capacity. If I accepted the American legend I would be an anomaly from the definition or somehow not black. If I challenged the American legend, even to prescribe a different color-based set of characteristics, I would have to be reflective. I would have to recognize that the prevailing color-based definition of me as a black man doesn’t fit. The very act of doing that would disqualify me as a racist.

I suspect her accusation was prompted because I am not shy about talking about race. Race is undoubtedly correlated with several social conditions in the United States, particularly in education. The correlation between black men and education is almost universally negative in the U.S. If I were racist I would subscribe to the idea that it is because of our blackness that we are destined to poor academic performance and underachievement. Clearly I do not believe that.

It may be that she is trapped in that box of futility where racism doesn’t offer comprehension of black men who don’t fit the legend. It is a possibility.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Obama 1, Osama 0

It’s been so long my fingers are unsure.

I saw a sign in the Times that was a sign of the times. Obama 1, Osama 0. Nice. I certainly did not feel the urge to run out and chant “U.S.A., U.S.A.” in the streets. That seemed crass, to so vocally celebrate the assassination of a man, regardless of his crimes. I did feel that justice had been served. The question now is should the United States release pictures of the slain Bin Laden?


Displaying pictures of a man shot in his head reduces us a nation. I recall when so called Iraqi insurgents gathered cheering around the dead bodies of U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge. It was barbaric. It seemed to be a lack of civility from a different era. It was reminiscent of white slave holders chopping off the feet of runaway slaves and displaying the severed limbs as a message to others. I’m sure the insurgents felt that they were exacting justice on the contractors and sending a message to others, “You invaders are not welcome here!” Publicizing the pictures of Bin Laden’s body would be an act in the same vein.

What purpose would it really serve? Those members of Al Qaeda and other extremists who believe that the announcement of Bin Laden’s assassination is propaganda will believe what they want to believe regardless of any evidence to the contrary. They are in the category of Donald Trump, a mindless lot for whom evidence and reason are just irritants. Showing pictures of Bin Laden’s body will not change the minds of that group. Not only would it not change their minds, but it raises the question of what the best outcome would be. Do we really think they will say, “The U.S. killed Osama, I guess it’s time to focus on democracy and Jesus.”? Surely not. Fundamental beliefs thrive on adversity. The pictures will serve as fuel, as a renewal of the fight.

On these shores, showing the pictures will invigorate American’s like those who destroyed a Mosque and left a sign, “Osama down, Islam is next.” That fraction of the American public is larger than we like to admit. They thrive on ignorance and violence is ever near. Like Trump and the birthers, they would have black people show our freedom papers for inspection to prove we’re Americans. They would bludgeon immigrants crossing the southern border and display their broken bodies as deterrents. This behavior in the United States is already here. It does not need encouragement.

Showing Bin Laden’s picture would be a mistake. President Obama’s order to assassinate Bin Laden was a clear display that the arms of American justice will get you. No doubt. His message to the nation and the world was what it ought to have been, Presidential. He should leave it at that.