“The soft bigotry of low expectations” Race, Class, and Education in Daily Roundup Monday 8/5/2013

Today’s roundup features some material featuring really great intersections of race, class, and education.

First up, Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame pens an amazing article about generational differences that have affected class and our approach to education:

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” Everyone in my parents’ generation thought of J as one of “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R’s existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as “our kid.” Until we treat the millions of R’s across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.

Janelle Scott, writing over at The Answer Sheet, takes on a more specific topic and considers how the education reform movement has misunderstood the Civil Rights Movement:

Other adherents—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits— have echoed Duncan’s association of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement with market-based school choice. In so doing, they have reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman.  In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in Alabama’s capital after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer.  In addition, Parks and many of her fellow activists engaged in intensive preparation at the Highlander Center to be ready to risk their lives in acts of civil disobedience. Moreover, the concerns of these civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and achieve the full rights of citizenship.  As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

For a more poignant and on-the-ground look at how race and class affect education, the New York Times ran two stories by college freshmen at Yale and Harvard who are both from Jackson, Mississippi. Justin Porter, at Harvard, writes:

Earlier this year, I read an article about the failure of elite colleges to attract poor students: a Stanford study had found that only 34 percent of top students in the lowest income level had attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

His friend, Travis Reginal, at Yale adds:

For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.

And to top the day off, I encourage you to watch this amazing video from Ta-Nehisi Coates. In it, he discusses the historical realities that have made things like the George Zimmerman verdict possible. It’s worth 40 minutes.

That Racism Over There, or, the Fetishization of Racism

It’s weird being in a city where there are so many publications reporting on so many different stories. Back home, I can literally read every news source for local news in any given day. That’s virtually impossible in a place like Chicago.

Today, one of our mentors directed some of my peers to an online blog’s report of an alleged crime committed on July 4th. The blog reported that a black 18-year-old man allegedly stole a woman’s phone. It identified this 18-year-old as a student who graduated at my mentor’s school. The article is very slanted and, well, racist, portraying the recent graduate as a thug. Certainly, stealing is wrong and, if he did in fact steal the phone, he should be reasonably punished. But this article judged this young man by this one, albeit very dumb, action, and attempted to paint a picture of the young man as someone with a history of problem behavior. And the comments are worse–there are literally too many comments to count of the “there goes the neighborhood because of those people” type. (I didn’t post the original article here because I’m so ashamed by its bad journalism that I can’t bear to signal boost it.)

In my CMA group, we had a moment of righteous anger while one member of our group read the article and the comments. And while it felt good to have an example of relatively clear right and wrong in front of me, it also made me a little uncomfortable. I’m not completely sure why, but I think it has to do with the privilege it gives me. By observing and noting someone’s blatant racism, I get to distance myself from racism. I get to feel better about myself. What I’m actually feeling when I think about the young man’s trial is not empathy for the hate he is experiencing but rather relief that I am not as racist as those people.

One of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writes about how most racist people are good people because Coates interprets racism broadly. It is not restricted to anonymous comments on a blog. It also occurs every time I make an unwarranted assumption about someone based on their race or when I’m complicit in someone else’s racism.

In some ways, then, observing the kind of bigoted racism that is so easy to find on the Internet is a form of fetishization for me. It enables me to experience relief about my own insecurities. It allows me to box racism in and other it, pushing it far away from me. It’s terrible that this young man has to endure the kind of racism that has been aimed at him, but racism is not fixed by a room full of college graduates groaning over anonymous comments. It’s fixed by every single person examining personal assumptions, biases, prejudices, and, yes, racism.