Sunday, September 24, 2017

Considering American Heritage When the President Calls you a Son of a Bitch

In 2017 in Alabama, the President of the United States said to a group of cheering white people:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.

The symbolism is impossible to miss.  The ‘sons of bitches’ that the President is referring to are primarily black men who play on teams owned by rich white men. These athletes have owners. Even in the time of twitter when history is farther away than 140 characters, the historical link to America’s heritage of slavery is clear. If it wasn’t, the President recalled that heritage explicitly in case we missed it. According to him, these black athletes have “a total disrespect for our heritage, and everything we stand for.”

Our. We.

My heritage in the Americas began with being owned. For black people, our heritage was not gilded with ownership, it was barbed terror. What these players are protesting is the litany of white police men who are shooting and killing black people with impunity. The murderous behavior of the police is a continuing public display of the inhumanity that is the foundation of the dark side of American heritage. The same side that the President champions and is immortalized in the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and their kind. The same side that thought it ordained that white people should own, buy and sell black people.

These athletes are protesting a heritage that viewed black people as beasts, as mere sons of bitches. Chattel. The President’s remarks loosely translated into 19th century American heritage language would be, “Countrymen, gentlemen and fellow Christians, I implore you to snatch those uppity niggers off the field right now and string ‘em up – that’ll teach ‘em to have some goddamn respect.”

In 1852, Frederick Douglass addressed the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society and delivered his remarks, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? In that address he offered an answer – “A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration [of the 4th of July] is a sham.”

The President’s recollection of American heritage is a sham. America’s future is dependent on its ability to achieve humanity and redemption. It can only learn that from the people who were subject to its inhumanity and remained human despite.  Once the President and his tribe learn that lesson, American heritage will be revealed to them and perhaps then we can all have something to stand for.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

STEM, DACA and the Battle for America's Future

The argument for inclusion, diversity and broadening participation in STEM fields is that the country is better when all of its people and talents are engaged. On one side of this divided nation that simple argument is obvious and needs no defense - it is part of the national definition, part of the alignment with lofty American ideals. On the other side lives the dark side of the American story – the side of the past, of American cruelty, barbarism and terrorism.

Making the case for STEM education when the American dark side is on the rise will require extraordinary focus and a commitment to battle that my generation has not experienced.

What are we really up against in this American past?

In recent months the full weight of the conflict between America’s past and future was revealed again. In Charlottesville, a man in defense of America’s past drove a car into a crowd gathered in support of America’s future. He crushed a young woman and killed her. In a manner similar to the barbarism of ISIS soldiers, he was fueled by a doctrine of hatred and inhumanity. He was riled up by thousands of his tribe who, in 2017 - 152 years after the end of the Civil War, gathered to defend Robert E. Lee, the standard bearer for southern sedition, slavery and American treason.

Shortly thereafter, the President pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Over years, Sheriff Arpaio unleashed on Hispanic people in Arizona, a degree of tyranny, violence and dislocation reminiscent of the cruelty meted out to Japanese Americans during World War II. On the pretense that they are illegal people, he commissioned his officers to hunt for brown people, harass, arrest and corral them into jails and detention centers that he himself called concentration camps. He brought back the chain gang from the dark corners of early 20th century America – for black and brown women. A US. District court judge found him guilty of being a vile and a repugnant reminder of the dark side of the American past.

The President not only pardoned the man, he pardoned his philosophy.

He did so in the face of an approaching storm, Hurricane Harvey – one of the most devastating storms in American history. A storm whose recovery, we all know, will require the back breaking labor of thousands of those very Hispanic people.

And then today the President revoked DACA – the Deferred Action for  Childhood Arrivals. In doing so he took a step further in his public disdain for America’s future and his revelry in its dark past. He cast a cloud of dread and uncertainty over 800,000 people living in this country. The cruelty and inhumanity of this act is clear. It is as clear to those who believe in America's future, as it is incomprehensible.

The battle lines are drawn – America’s past versus its future. Make America great again implies that its greatness lies in its past. It does not. Its greatness is the substance of our yearnings.  It is the reason we struggle for tomorrow to be better than today.

Our charge in the midst of the battle for basic human dignity and national decency is to ensure that the case for education is not lost. Education generally and STEM education in particular are cornerstones of the American future. In the end we will win, but it is clear now that STEM education is not merely a cause worthy of advocacy, it is a battle for America’s future.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

First Day of School in the neo-Klan Era

This is about me. 

Today was my daughter’s first day of school. For a variety of difficult reasons connected to the price black people pay to get our children elite education in the south, her school is predominantely white. It is a progressive white school as far as white schools go, but make no mistake, it is a white school. If it’s original charter had been, “A school for progressive whites, Jews and a tolerable number of coloreds” this is that school several years on.

I dropped her off into this environment after having watched, along with the rest of the country, a Klan rally earlier this week. I watched hundreds of white men and women, torches alit, rage dripping from their lips and hearts, marching and chanting verses of hate. I watched one of them on Saturday murderously drive a car into a crowd of people in the name of the Klan. I don’t need to explain the symbolism and significance of the Ku Klux Klan – a uniquely white American terror contribution to the world.

James Baldwin’s description of the Klan's influence on black people’s history in The Fire Next Time, is perhaps the best:

This past, the Negro's past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible--this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.

My job as father is to protect and exalt her human identity and authority – to offer her the moral and cultural tools to help her burnish her own intellect and beauty and to affirm her position in the world as a black woman, and as a whole person. The quality of education in this school helps that larger objective. The cultural experience of this school does not. This past spring, one of these white progressive children cursed my girl to her face and told her that she hates black people. A couple of grades ago, another of these progressive white children told the two black boys in her class that they were niggers and he wanted nothing to do with them.

I experience a brief moment of pain and pause every day that I drop her into this environment. I endure it on the hopes that we're doing the right thing for her education – which is absolutely excellent at this school. I endure it fully aware that in the history of black children and white schools, this is hardly a test. I endure it knowing that many of the kids, her friends and their families, are fantastic people. I am aware that the attributes of a group seldom map to individuals. I am also aware that she is a black island in a cultural sea that is not hers. Yet, I drop her off and endure.

But today was different.

The cost of elite education for our children is extraordinary. I dropped my beautiful black star into a sea of white children and it hurt.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

an address on broadening participation in puerto rico

this is a section of a keynote address i gave to about 150 faculty from the university of puerto. it is distinguished because i delivered it in spanish! the spanish version is below. a thrilling experience crossing the language barrier in public:

San Juan, Puerto Rico
26 May 2017

Sensitivity and insensitivity. Cultural sensitivity needs some context. As you know there is an extraordinary effort to establish equity in STEM education and the technical workforce in the United States. In most of this work, even at NSF, black and Hispanic students are bound together by a single set of parentheses and labeled – underrepresented minorities (URMs).

Cultural insensitivity starts there.

My family is from Guyana and I grew up in New York - Puerto Rico North. In New York, you have to know the differences between people.  I know the differences between the Caribbean Islands.  Everyone from the West Indies is not Jamaican. Africa is not a country and every African is not Nigerian. Everyone black is not African-American. I had to learn the different flavors of white people too – Italians, Russians, Greeks, Irish, Poles. I even had to learn that the Hasidim in Williamsburg were different than the Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights and the reform Jews in Park Slope.  I had to learn that Hispanic as a word didn’t mean much and I’m still not clear on the difference between Hispanic and Latino. I had to learn the differences between Dominicans, Cubans, Salvadorians and Puerto Ricans.  I never even met Mexicans until I went to California for the first time. Classifying us all as people of color or underrepresented minorities is an assault on our identities. It hides who we are and allows for all of us and our experiences to be reduced to a false sameness.

Cultural sensitivity begins by acknowledging that the parentheses that bind us are for the convenience of measurement. They are a false bracket around richly different people. The work that we do demands more of us. For example, in my work at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, we had partnerships for engineering students from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.  While doing that work it always struck me that many students coming from there were white. If they didn’t speak, I wouldn’t know they were from Puerto Rico. They didn’t look like the many black, brown and dark skinned Puerto Ricans I grew up with. On our end, however, the Hispanic box was checked and we moved on. The differences of color and class in the Puerto Rican context were hidden in the parentheses.

Our charge in STEM education is to have the courage to acknowledge what we can plainly see. The substance of the proposals we write, the programs we envision and our strategies of engagement have to be courageous. They must acknowledge the reality that our lives affirm as truth. The convenience of the parentheses is a luxury of the privileged. Getting rid of them is the responsibility of those of us trapped within them.


Voy a saltar a un espanol titubeante, tengan paciencia conmigo!

Sensibilidad e insensibilidad. El tema de la sensibilidad cultural necesita ponerse en contexto. Como ustedes saben, hay un esfuerzo extraordinario para establecer la equidad en el campo de la educación STEM y en el campo técnico en los Estados Unidos. Ahora bien, en la mayor parte de este trabajo, incluso en la NSF, los estudiantes negros e hispanos están unidos por la etiqueta de minorías sub-representadas. – Underrepresented Minorities.

El concepto de insensibilidad cultural comienza precisamente allí.

Mi familia es de Guyana y yo me crie en Nueva York – la otra isla. En Nueva York, usted tiene que conocer las diferencias que existen entre las personas. Conozco las diferencias entre las Islas del Caribe. No todo el mundo que viene de las Indias Occidentales es jamaiquino. África no es un país y no todo el que viene de Africa es nigeriano. No toda persona negra es afroamericana. Tuve que aprender los diferentes matices del mundo blanco también - italianos, rusos, griegos, irlandeses, polacos. Incluso tuve que aprender que los jasidim en Williamsburg eran diferentes de los judíos ortodoxos de Crown Heights y de los judíos reformistas de Park Slope. Tuve que aprender que la palabra hispano no significa mucho, y todavía no me queda claro cual es la diferencia entre hispano y latino, y chicano. Tuve que aprender las diferencias entre dominicanos, cubanos, salvadoreños y puertorriqueños. De hecho, ni siquiera conocí a mexicanos antes de ir a California por primera vez. Clasificarnos a todos como personas de color o minorías subrepresentadas es un asalto a nuestras identidades. Nos invisibiliza y permite que todos nosotros y nuestras experiencias se reduzcan a una falsa igualdad.

La sensibilidad cultural comienza reconociendo que la etiqueta, de la que les hable, es una conveniencia de la medición estadistica. Es una falsa camisa de fuerza para la riqueza de la diferencia. El trabajo que hacemos exige mucho más de nosotros. Por ejemplo, en mi trabajo en el Consejo de Acción Nacional para Minorías en Ingeniería, tuvimos convenios con los estudiantes de ingeniería de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Mayagüez. Al hacer ese trabajo siempre me sorprendio que muchos estudiantes que venían de allí eran blancos. Si no hubiesen hablado, no hubiese pensado que eran de Puerto Rico. No se parecían a los puertorriqueños negros, marrones y de piel oscura con los que me crié. Para efectos de nuestra medicion estadistica se cumplia con la marca hispano. Las diferencias de raza y clase en el contexto puertorriqueño se ocultaron en la etiqueta hispano.

Nuestra tarea en el campo de la educación STEM es la de tener el coraje de reconocer lo que es evidente. Lo sustantivo de nuestras propuestas, de los programas que imaginamos y las estrategias de compromiso tienen que reflejar valentia. Deben reconocer la realidad de la verdad que nuestras vidas afirman. La conveniencia de la etiqueta es el lujo de los privilegiados. Deshacerse de las etiquetas es la responsabilidad de aquellos de nosotros atrapados dentro de ellas.