Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I am Not an URM

There is a national effort to broaden participation in STEM fields in higher education across the country. That is a good thing. Broadening participation is an effort to increase the number of Black, Hispanic, Native Americans and women successfully engaged in the STEM enterprise. In the day to day language of this effort, I am an URM – an Under Represented Minority. Black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Alaska Natives are all classified as underrepresented minorities. On innumerable slide presentations there is a line that says, “Increase the participation of women and URM’s.”  Women are invariably first, followed by URM’s. What the presenter says while that line is on display is some variant of, “it is essential for the continued success of the United States that we increase the number of women and members of underrepresented groups who contribute to the economic vitality of the country. Diversity is one of our national assets. ….”

I agree, but I am not an URM.

URM sounds like a disease.  A disease naturally, is something that needs to be cured.  Lurking in the background of this designation are the ascribed attributes of URM’s when referring to Black students – poor, urban, culturally opposed to education and poorly prepared, among other things.  This label is degrading.  What happens if you say it out loud?

“My name is Kamau Bobb. I am an underrepresented minority.”  There is no power in that.  I can find no pride in that.

The repeated association of URM with all the painful attributes, links them in people’s minds.  It is a conditioning like any other.  The more times we associate URM with poverty and deficit, the more solid the link becomes in all of our minds.  Black equals URM equals deficit.  That is a debilitating cycle of equivalence. 

There is no question that the symptoms of poverty disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic students. Explicit and targeted efforts to address those conditions are a cornerstone of the broadening participation movement, and should be. Focusing exclusively on those symptoms; however, removes the focus from the disproportionate discrimination meted out against those same students, regardless of their preparation. I am confident that in many instances discriminatory practices by White and Asian people, who are unnamed in all of this, are fueled by the persistent equivalence between URM, Black, and problem.  An alternative is to name groups of people directly, not as referenced against some other – and to distinguish between students’ condition and their identity. 

Language matters.  I am a Black Man, not an URM.


Saturday, December 6, 2014


I am not old.  Maybe I am. I was 10 in 1982. My parents were relatively new immigrants from Guyana. I didn’t know it at the time, but in those days they were preparing me for a complicated Black American existence – for the new course of our family in the Untied States. During Black History and Culture Month all my friends and I, in P.S. 282 in Brooklyn, had to watch old distorted videos of black people suffering in the American South.  I cannot count the number of times I have seen John Lewis and the other marchers being attacked by the terrorists on the Edmond Pettis Bridge in Selma.  At home throughout the year, my father made me watch Like It Is with Gil Noble on Sundays.  I had to listen to WLIB, the Black News and Information Station. I had to read articles in The Amsterdam News and The City Sun.  I had to learn my way around the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  My mother brought me to Nkiru Books on Flatbush Avenue as part of our mother and son routine. The first book reading I ever attended was James Baldwin reading from The Fire Next Time. The first time I was frisked was not by NYPD, but by the Fruit of Islam at a pre-Savior’s Day address by Minister Farrakhan at Restoration Plaza in Bed Stuy.  After he frisked me he said, “Welcome Brother.” I was being prepared.

I was learning about the resilient spirit of black people in America in the context of white American barbarism. Violence against black people was lurking near everything I was exposed to. I was learning about human resilience in the face of adversity. Looking back; however, I think at that age I wanted to accept these ugly truths in an historical mode, sterilized in a textbook, the way I later learned about the barbarism of the Japanese in China or the Nazis in Europe, or the English in India - as if they were from a different human era that was not as evolved. 

Chapter 2 - Japanese
Chapter 3 - Germans
Chapter 4 - Southern Whites 

That historical view is a farce. It is still true that white people kill black people in America with impunity.  During the endless replay of Eric Garner’s final moments, it struck me that I was watching the murder of an American black man on tv and no one was punished. This was not grainy video from 1965 on Eyes on the Prize.  This was July, 2014.  The history version of this narrative might take us back to Emmett Till or Medgar Evers or countless others in those distant and distorted images of 1950’s and 60’s America.  This isn't history.  This is contemporary and complicated by that very fact. 

Without any history books, off of the top of my head, I can recite black people in my time that were brutalized by white men in contemporary digital clarity.

Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Travon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner

I see clearly now that I was being prepared for a complicated Black American existence.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Back in the Day When 65 Was Passing, I Understood

I went to school in the modern middle ages, in the late 70’s and 80’s right between the birth of the home computer, but before the internet.  Romantically, in those days school was straight forward.  I went to Public School 282 on the corner of my block. It was chock full of hybrid West Indians, Puerto Ricans, Black and White kids.  Curtis, Erin, Charles, Timothy, Willie, Tiffany, Jean-Pierre, Raquel – remember names like those? I had a Jewish first grade teacher named Ms. Marcus, a Jamaican third grade teacher named Ms. Hunter and an Italian sixth grade teacher named Ms. Masia. Despite the cultural sophistication that is required in public education in New York and the endless list of other challenges, there was one very simple standard that everyone knew – 65 was the minimum passing grade.  When we took tests, in whatever grade, in whatever class, the minimum passing grade was 65.  If you got at least 65 percent of the test right, you passed, if you did not, you failed.  It was a clean standard, and I understood it.

Now I live in Georgia and things are different.

Today in Georgia, children go to school in the post-modern middle ages, after the rise of the internet, but before the extinction of books and mental discipline. School testing is different now.  The tests have complicated names, like the Georgia Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, or the Criterion Reference Competency Test (CRCT). I wouldn’t want to take a test with a name like that. It sounds like something I might catch, then get teased, “eeewww you got that CRCT!” (pronounced cri-kt). 

Not only are there too many of these tests and their names are too complicated, the results are not clean. I like clean. 65 percent isn’t passing anymore.  Now, these tests follow the post-modern middle age rules where every child gets a trophy, win or lose.  The results students get are one of three measures of proficiency – did not meet, meets, or exceeds the standards.  They can’t even fail anymore, rather, they do not meet the standard.

When a Georgia student takes the mathematics CRCT in the 5th grade for example, they can get 50 percent correct on the test and earn a “meets the standard.”  To earn the coveted “exceeds the standard,” and get their name in bright lights and in the school paper, the student need only score 78 percent correct. Astonishingly, if in the same year a 7th grade student takes the 7th grade math CRCT, they can get 47 percent correct and also earn a “meets the standard.”  Not only does the percent correct that earns you a meets vary from grade to grade, it varies in each grade from year to year. Absolutely not clean.

What is the academic standard where you can know less than half of the material and still meet the expectations of learning for the standard? The question rings like a riddle from an alternate reality of education.  Georgia consistently ranks in the bottom five states in the country in education.  Maybe it is an alternate reality where 50 is the new 65, and 78 is the new excellent.  In 2013, 71 percent of all Georgia students graduated from high school. Only 50 percent graduated from high school in the Atlanta Public School District.  In this new reality maybe Georgia exceeds the standard, Atlanta meets it and I just don’t understand.