All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


16 March 2014

Responses to Rachel Levy's Concerns

One of my favourite bloggers, Rachel Levy, has recently taken it upon herself to write out a series of thoughts, worries, and ruminations about various things having to do with education, race, and social class.  Her ideas are ideas about which much thought is required, and I wanted to take the time to address some of them. 

It's always nice when authors number their paragraphs.  It makes responses really, really easy.  Now in these responses, I am not out to criticize, and I'm not out to be a cheerleader.  (Though I do a fair amount of criticizing, especially in Number 7, and I'm always a big cheerleader for Rachel.)  I'm not even offering direct responses to everything.  I'm just taking the provocative thoughts she was "riffing" on, and doing some riffing of my own.  I'm quoting most of her post here, but you really should click through and read the whole thing first.

1.  What a person knows about race dynamics constantly evolves, no matter how long or how much one has been involved in struggles against racism, or how involved one has been in communities of color. Once we understand once, we will continue to learn and to struggle to understand the next time. Dynamics change, laws change, circumstances change, younger people come in with their own unique perspectives, perspectives that have been influenced by current times, not the past (even if they have studied the past).
1.  Despite the first sentence, the point Rachel seem to be making is more about the underlying dynamics themselves than what we know about them.  One might assume, of course, that we should "keep up" in terms of what we know.  But what's also true, I think, is that what there is to be known isn't really reducible to general principles or rules, even at any one point in time, without taking a certain sort of position of your own on racial issues.  What "race dynamics" there are out in society, what sorts of "shifts" and states there are to be perceived, is a function of your interpretative framework for racial issues in the first place.  It's almost as if "knowledge" of things is an organic process, a give-and-take between the self and the environment...
2. Some white progressive  (or other) public education activists seem to think that their first priority is to preserve public education and that those efforts will inevitably help to address structural racism. Are those efforts enough? I don't know, but it seems too simplistic to me. Too often, white public education activists seem to say, "You are hurting our common cause by bringing internal issues of race up" rather than "I am hurting the cause by not addressing issues of race."
2. Yes, well, beware of anyone who claims "common cause" with you when they seem to be undermining your interest.  On the other hand, trust people when they tell you who they really are.  If someone calls themselves a "public education activist" it's probably a strong sign that their first commitment is to save public education through activism.
3. Some white educators who teach a majority of students of color seem to think that because of that, they are engaged in social justice work, or in anti-racism work. But even if you serve students of color and serve them well as an educator, does that mean you're engaged in social justice or anti-racism work? I'm not so sure. It seems to me that there has to be something more to such work. Also, you can teach mostly or all white students and be engaged in anti-racism or pro-social justice work, as well.
3. It depends, of course, what you mean by "social justice work" and "anti-racism work".   The next time someone wants to claim that mantle for their work, I suggest that one just ask them what they mean by it.  Assuming that they don't just rhetorically collapse into a pile of fail-and-lose, they'll either have to tell you something REALLY interesting about their work, or they will have to give you a definition which will make it clear that the sort of high-moral-horse positioning that such conversations usually herald is totally unfounded.
4. Speaking of social justice, I hear that phrase batted about so much so that I wonder if it has lost its meaning somewhat. Or, maybe people just don't seem to know what they mean when they say it. How does one define social justice? Well, here's the definition of "social justice" from John Rawls and Aristotle via wikipedia:

Social justice is the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.[1] Classically, "justice" (especially corrective justice or distributive justice) referred to ensuring that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles,[2] and received what was due from society. "Social justice" is generally used to refer to a set of institutions which will enable people to lead a fulfilling life and be active contributors to their community.[3] The goal of social justice is generally the same as human development, and the relevant institutions are usually taken to include educationhealth caresocial securitylabour rights, as well as a broader system of public servicesprogressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealthequality of opportunity, and no gross inequality of outcome.
Sounds good to me. But do all stakeholders agree on this? In any case, just because you call something "social justice" doesn't mean that it is.
4.  In 1999, I asked one of my good friends, a committed liberal, what "Social Justice" was.  (Note the capitals.)  I've asked dozens of actively liberal people since then -- some of them quite educated and intelligent --  and I've never really gotten a satisfactory answer.  As best I can tell, it's a label that identifies a vaguely-to-heavily intellectual approach to being a political Progressive.  It's an insider's term, a sort of shorthand for "the things in which we believe."  The best analog I can think of is the way that religious people use the term "Scripture."  Yes, the term technically means "part of the written text of the Bible/Torah/Koran", but that's not what it *really* means to the believers.
5. I'm wondering if there's a disconnect between public education activists who are anti-charter and parents of color who send their children to charter schools. I see a certain amount of judgement of people of color who send their kids to charter schools, especially the for-profits and "no excuses" chains. While I am troubled by the proliferation of charter schools, and especially of those of for-profits and no excuses variety, and have problems seeing them as public democratic institutions, I am also loathe to judge people who send their children to them. I'm not seeing where most people of color are gung-ho about sending their children to such charters, but rather that they see it as the least bad option. Or maybe, it's matter of values matching up. Even as I acknowledge that the "market" is rigged in well-endowed charter chains' favors, I find it problematic to assume that people whose children go to them are simply pawns of that system. We need to find out why people of color send their children to charter schools when they do. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students. I don't think that that means we should destroy the traditional public schools system--I think we should make it better for all students, but "rigged market" aside, we need to explore what might cause people who would otherwise support public schools to leave them.
5. I don't think it's a disconnect.  I think it's a simple difference of interests.  As I indicated above, "public education activists" are, BY DEFINITION, in favor of public education to the point that they make supporting and expanding and improving it a large part of their day to day activities.  Parents who send their kids to charter schools are typically interested in one thing over all others: the best future for their child.  It's the same thing that most parents are interested in.  Whether they are making a mistake or not -- and they may be -- parents do what they think is best for their kids.  The more interesting question, and the question I take it Rachel really want us to ask, is why they THINK that the charter schools are best.  And I think that's obvious: Rachel said herself that "we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students." 

I think that mistates the case, though.  While it's true that students of color aren't as well-served, that's a side-effect of what I think is really going on, which is that *communities* of color aren't as well-served.  "The problem" is larger than the individual student, or even the individual school.  I'm not sure exactly what "the problem" is, but I suspect that it has something to do with the distance at which most large, urban districts work from their charges, and a sense of alienation that the community has from the educational enterprise.  Charters, even large network charters, are much more "boots-on-the-ground" type of institutions that often DEMAND interaction with the community in a way that more traditional, bureaucratic "public education" can actually discourage.  That's just a suspicion, though, not an argument.
6. When people say "we need to reach out to communities of color" and the group they are addressing includes people of color, there is something wrong. That "we" is excluding and sounds like the people of color already in the group are invisible. Furthermore, whose movement is it? Who owns it? If said policies are affecting mostly communities of color, should white people put themselves in charge of the movement?
6.  Here I think Rachel's wrong to worry.  If I'm in her audience, and she's talking about reaching out to communities of color, I think she's on safe ground -- because she's not really talking about reaching out to all people of color.  Odds are she's talking specifically about engaging under-serviced communities afflicted with certain types of social problems.  And as Brown as I am, I'm not really a part of such a community.  I'm included in her implicit "we" -- meaning us well-intentioned, well-educated, concerned citizens who don't like that children in our society are growing up without a "good" education as we understand it. 

In other words, it's not problematic because the "they" and "we" isn't really a distinction based on race at all.  (This ties in to the discussion below in #8.)

As for "who owns" the movement... it depends on what the movement is.  Generally speaking, when a bunch of white (read: rich/middle class) people get together to do work for a community of color (read: poor), what's going on is a sort of cultural missionary work.  Oh, they deny it.  How they deny it!  But that's usually what's going on.  And here's a newsflash: the converts can't "own" the missionary work until they've been converted first. 

Still, it's an open question both whether the community wants the missionary work, and whether the community would be better off with or without it.
7. Sometimes, I see or read about injustices that happen to people of color in the education sector and I am outraged or troubled and I want to write about them. I can use any megaphone I have to try to get others thinking about these things, to try to effect change, and I can use my white privilege to try to get through to those who don't see a problem. But in doing that, am I co-opting the outrage? Am I associating the problem with me, a white woman, rather than "making space for people of color to share their experiences directly," as a friend of color recently spoke of? By listening to and talking to someone who might not listen as easily to my black or Latina equivalent am I perpetuating their racism?
7. Pardon the profanity, but Fuck this whole line of thinking.

To hell with the notion that Rachel shouldn't speak up about injustice or mistake because she's not "authentic" or aggrieved enough to say something, and to hell with the silly idea that her friend seems to have that her only job is not to speak herown mind, but to engage in some sort of service to help others speak theirs. 

Rachel Levy is a human being and a citizen of the United States (in addition to being a graduate of the greatest University on God's Green Earth).  If she's upset about something, she has the right -- and perhaps the moral duty -- to speak up.  If someone else wants to speak up -- someone with a darker complexion than she -- guess what?  THEY CAN SPEAK UP TO.  It's not a zero sum game.  We can all stand up and make a joyous noise unto the Evils of the Earth.  We probably all should.

And if she wants or feels the moral/social need to help facilitate others' speech, she can do that to. (Though her time and attention and energy *is* a zero sum game.) 
8. Even in 2014, inequality is not just "about class, not race." It's seductive to think so, and I went through a phase of thinking this, but espousing such a point of view means ignoring the role of history on conditions today and it means telling a person of color that the prejudice they experience does not exist. Even if it is more about class now than race, race very much determined class, and still does at least to a certain extent. I refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates:
 8.  Look, Allah loves wond'rous variety.  At least that's what Morgan Freeman said in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood movie.  And guess what?  There's ALL SORTS of inequality.  There's inequality differentiated on what's actually unequal: genetic endowments, educational access, money, scenic views, library access, school quality, air quality, traffic and public transportation access, opportunities to learn what silverware to use, opportunities to learn how to physically defend yourself, etc.  There's inequality differentiated on what's CAUSING the inequality: inequalities based purely on location, inequalities based on race, inequalities based on sex, inequalities based on perceived gender, inequalities based on fashion sense, inequalities based on height (this may also be part of the first set), inequalities based on "social class" (which are different than inequalities based on income and resources).  It's a wide, wide world of inequalities.  We can play all sorts of games with inequality taxonomies.

The key, as always, is to listen to what's being asserted.  I think that Coates and Rachel are, to some degree or another, attacking a straw man: the argument that "social class" explains everything.  You either have to be a moron or an over-the-top Marxist to really think that, or you have to be so afraid of engaging with issues of race that you reach for the magic explain-it-away concept.  OF COURSE there are still inequalities based on race.  There are inequalities based on race, and inequalities only *partially* based on race.  There are even inequalities that are mostly, but not exclusively, based on race.  And there are differentiations that can be made in the sorts of inequalities that are "based on" race.

But I strongly suspect that most (not all, but most) of that race-based inequality -- and I'm not saying it's not real -- is an "echo effect" of past discrimination.  It's like the way I still can't run, 10 years after my catastrophic leg injury.  It's like the way my inability to run has affected my life in a variety of derivative, negative ways.  There's no one stomping on my leg right now, no one driving me off the road.  The wrong that was done to me is no longer being done -- I've escaped that situation.  But the damage persists, until either it heals or I die (it's not going to heal).

Any community is an organism, and the African American community, such as it is, received an extended course of absolutely catastrophic damage over the last 300 years.  In this, Coates is right. 

By analogy, it suffered massive immune compromise, massive head trauma, extensive neurological damage, and some debilitating long-term deficiencies in important nutrients that led to skeletal and muscular degeneration.  As an organism, it simply is not functioning at 100%.  There's a very famous quote about this, by LBJ:
You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe you have been completely fair... This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.
I'm not saying that these "echo effects" account for all of the inequalities experienced by African Americans.  But I'd be willing to best that echo effects account for a LOT of them.  And that means that the inequality experienced by people of color isn't really about racial discrimination happening RIGHT NOW.  It's "about" racial discrimination, sure -- in a historical sense.  But that's not the same thing.

To continue the analogy: I don't need people to stop smashing my leg.  What I need is therapy and exercise.  And so now the question arises: which serves me more?  Should I pursue physical therapy, or should I insist that we stop people from running me off the road?

I take it that when Coates' "liberals" attempt to reduce the problem to one of class, what they're really doing in their well-intentioned hearts is to try to move to the "therapy" stage of things, on the view that the actual threat to the health and safety of the organism is mostly gone.  They have moved on to treating symptoms.

And that's probably true. 

It's *mostly* gone.


1 comment:

Rachel Levy said...

Really enjoyed reading this. And just when I thought no one was paying attention.

I wish I could replace your no. 1 for mine or at least add it in. Of course, perception and one's "interpretive framework" has so much to do with one's "understanding" of race dynamics. I guess what I was trying to say is that as circumstances change, then one's experiences and hence one's perception changes. I was trying to address people who say, well, I did this or was involved with that in the year XXXX therefore I know or I understand.

Anyway, I am seriously flattered that you dedicated a post to thinking and writing about what I thought and wrote about. And now I'm going to go think some more about what you said.