Saturday, April 30, 2011

Carnival of Racism

After decades of accusations of racism, conservatives have gotten pretty fed up.  Their views on a variety of economic and social policies are often attacked by liberals as being informed by racial bias.  Yet it is extremely rare for a conservative to openly admit to racist feelings, the only ones openly doing so found in white-supremacist groups or on the "racialist" fringe of academia. 

That racism correlates with conservatism is an empirical fact.  Aside from psychological research findings, the prevalence of racist political expression amongst conservatives is well-known.  The Southern Strategy, Willie Horton, Welfare Queens, the Macaca Moment, just to name a few, along with countless others leading up to the modern "carnival of racism" surrounding the Obama presidency - birthers, racist posters and emails, intonations of "Hussein", and "secret Muslim" conspiracies.  While many of these expressions are controversial, in that they are often denied as racist either in intent or content.  But taken in sum, along with many other instances, there is undoubtedly a tendency on the right to appreciate racist expression.  To be sure, white-supremacist and racialist movements are otherwise entirely conservative.

Racial prejudice is usually impossible to prove, as it draws from multiple cultural patterns and themes, and almost every modern expression of racism is categorically denied. People simply never admit to racist expression.  To take two recent examples of undeniably racist expression, the authors claim complete innocence.  In 2008, a California Republican women's group included in a newsletter to its 200 members this image:

The president of the group apologized, yet denied any racist intent:
"I didn't see it the way that it's being taken. I never connected," she said. "It was just food to me. It didn't mean anything else."

In 2009, the mayor of Los Alamitos, CA sent out this image in an email:

The mayor issued an apology, yet, again, intent was denied. 
"He said he was unaware of the racial stereotype that black people like watermelons."
What seems more likely, is that the mayor, along with many others in the country, are simply unaware of their own unconscious racial bias.  This becomes a big problem, because if we are ever going to root out this unconscious bias, especially when it correlates with certain political views, we must first acknowledge that it exists.  Yet every time we see evidence of it, excepting maybe the most explicit displays, it is denied or discounted.

Here’s a thought experiment. Assuming racism correlates with conservatism, think of what those expressions might be. Then ask whether the people involved admitted they were being racist. I challenge you to find a single instance of someone admitting it. So now we have a phenomenon: large numbers of people engaged in racism who refuse to admit it.

The next step is to ask how much of this phenomenon underlies conservative beliefs that impact racial issues. Imagine a republican voter who never actually emailed watermelon or fried chicken jokes, or who went to a birther rally, or held a poster of Obama with a bone through his nose, or intoned “Hussein” when saying his name. Yet at some level they appreciated the sentiment behind those stereotypical and prejudiced attacks. So, when thinking about immigration, Islamic rights, welfare, or affirmative action, or whether poor minorities are disadvantaged while rich white people are privileged, and thus should be obligated to pay more in taxes, these racist appreciations – likely unconscious and not understood – of course would affect other wise “rational” decisions.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Through Birtherism, Darkly

John McWhorter doesn't think that birtherism is really about racism, or about Obama being black, and really a form of political rhetoric.  He compares the flap to the way in which Clinton was attacked in the 90's.  He calls it a "deep-set animus", and that it was simply about politics.

On one superficial level the birther question is perfectly legitimate: is he really a citizen? This is an obvious question, with on obvious answer. Yet the legitimacy rapidly recedes as the question is placed into a context of Obama being black, of his middle name, of his childhood, the non-Christian rumors, the colonialism, etc. All of it overwhelms seriousness - especially as the question had been resolved to a perfectly reasonable standard of evidence long ago.

Yet, all of this "context" goes to the difficulty in identifying prejudice. McWhorter has argued before that it is standard political rhetoric, where the only point is to score points. Yet this is what is so damn tricky about prejudice. You can't put your finger on one specific statement that "proves" its existence. And who among birthers would acknowledge explicitly any racial prejudice?

No one acknowledges racial prejudice these days. And who would expect them to? It is a serious sin. But these tangled patterns, forged over decades and centuries, continue to wind their ways through our unconscious mind. We're left with all of these "tendencies" and suspicions that gnaw at the fringes of discourse - whether on immigration, the "war on terror", Islam, or welfare. And yet we can't talk about them. We can't name them. We don't understand them.

And they are so easy to deny, so deceptively simple and harmless. Each issue by itself can be separated out and a case made that they are perfectly reasonable. Asking whether Obama is an American citizen is reasonable question. But at what point does it become unreasonable? And why? Why exactly? And when a sizable portion of the electorate continues to wonder, what does that say about them? What exactly is going on?

There is nothing exact about it. And in this refuge of uncertainty, of squishiness and vagueness, those who would play upon the oldest, most devilish human tendencies find their safe haven.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Generation's Crankery

I suppose one of my pet peeves is the tendency towards easy, "common-sense" thinking.  In social situations, especially among the like-minded, this often consists of a sort of piling-on session, a mutual masturbation of group think. 

An ancient - likely timeless - form of this, is the tendency of an aging generation to besmirch the up-and-coming, often in terms of qualities traditionally associated with the aged, such as wisdom, selflessness, or hard work.  Around the age of 40 or so, having entered into what Eric Erikson called the Care stage, in which generativity, or concern for one's generational progeny, a generation inevitably begins to become skeptical of the world it has left behind, or specifically, the capacity of those it has left it to to take up the task of caring for it.  Rose-colored glasses are inevitably de rigour, and reductionism and anecdote are driving fallacial tendencies.  It may be the case that the phenomenon is rooted in neurosis, and a repressed fear of self-inadequacy or failure has resulted in projection.  But I'll leave that to others.

My thoughts today are inspired by an example of this in an article in the NY Times titled, A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics.  The author, John Tierney, sets out what he considers the curmudgeonly evidence for what is in essence, the age-old fist-shaking decree -  "Today's kids ain't got no respect!".  The thesis is largely backed up by a study that uses computers to analyze the appearance of certain words in popular song lyrics over recent decades, finding an increasing degree of "narcissism and hostility".  The opening salvo is an interpretation of a Rivers Cuomo (Weezer) lyric that ironically turns a traditional Shaker hymn into something decidedly less sublime.
Where 19th-century Shakers had sung “ ’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,” Mr. Cuomo offered his own lyrics: “I’m the meanest in the place, step up, I’ll mess with your face.” Instead of the Shaker message of love and humility, Mr. Cuomo sang over and over, “I’m the greatest man that ever lived.”
A caveat follows, but Tierney's mind is made up. 

I think it is all absurdly reductionist. The willingness to find easy interpretations in the Rivers Cuomo lyric said it all. Computer analysis of verbal references in popular songs?

We ought to begin with the very question of what narcissism means. We should then ask what the art is attempting to express, or what transformations it has itself undergone. What does music mean to us today compared to decades ago? How has the music industry changed?  Those would merely be the tip of the iceberg, but crucial to laying the groundwork for any project so vast (and possibly hubristic?) as the psychoanalysis of a generation based on music preferences.

None of this is to say that the thesis isn't true. But a serious thesis needs serious thinking. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So far, what has been presented seems largely ad hoc, tailored to fit assumptions in an area - generational criticism - traditionally fraught with bias.

Skepticism vs. Denial

Often, those who deny the science on anthropogenic global warming fashion themselves "skeptics", as if that label and the cold objectivity it implies would somehow make them seem more serious.  Yet scientific skeptics they most definitely are not.  From wikipedia:
A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding. Most scientists, being scientific skeptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some form of the scientific method.
What I think people find especially galling, is the extent to which AGW deniers are denying science. And by "science", I mean the established system upon which we all depend - especially as laypeople - for objective measurement of reality, the process of peer review and consensus building.

What I find peculiar, is the willingness of people who are not experts in climate science, to assume themselves qualified to be "skeptics" of scientific consensus. While not necessarily conspiratorial (although the climate gate thing basically went there), the phenomenon is similar. The assumption is that a bedrock component of authority, the global scientific body, is untrustworthy (likely because of personal bias), and therefore can be discounted.

This is how conspiracy theories work. The first thing you do is discount the established authority, whether the media, government, academia, or science. Once that is accomplished, you basically have free reign to argue whatever you want, facts having been "relativized". You find this again and again in a variety of areas, where quackery thrives because of a dismissal of the only established authority. Therefore, unless one is personally an expert, reality for all intents and purposes does not exist. The conversation has been removed into a vacuum of ideology.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Question of Leverage

A basic underlying disagreement between the right and the left is the concept of taxes.  Specifically, the right resents the idea that the wealthy should be taxed at a higher rate.  So too, do they resent the idea that a portion of those taxes ought to pay for government services for the less-well off.  This ultimately goes back to fundamental questions of human agency and social capital. Just as financial capital is leveraged for profit, so too is social capital.  The left sees this reality and uses it as a frame for understanding how to not only measure, but create more fairness in society.

We live in a society filled with opportunities, many of which go unexploited. Why is this? The basic premise of science is that there are causes to most everything. This is the premise of social science. We look at society and see causes. We look at billionaires and poor people and we see causes.

Yet this basic premise is denied. Why? While opportunities exist to be exploited, why do we we assume that everyone can exploit them? If one does not know how to exploit them, how can he? And if another knows how to exploit them, why would he be expected to have done otherwise? Social capital is a causal factor.
But so if you correct for social capital, and luck, what do you have left? From where does human initiative come? This seems to me the final question. The billionaire and the pauper in Mc Donalds are two completely different people, who’ve had different life experiences, and – specifically – had different levels of access to social capital. If the two could be said to have possessed the same social leverage in their lives, one single price, or one single tax rate would be fair. But they clearly had not. The billionaire cannot claim to have earned his wealth apart from the leveraging of opportunities beyond his control. Likewise the pauper.

Marx had the insight that the leveraging of inequities in financial capital creates inequities in society. So too inequities in social capital, whether by birth or by family learning and culture, are leveraged by degree. Society is an organism that cannot be separated and reduced to the pseudo-scientific conception of actions that are free from temporal or spatial causality. We are society, warts and all. To deny this basic reality is not only a scientific error, but one that serves to prop up and excuse the most egregious forms of inequity, those that are inevitably exploitative and corrosive to the conception of the human right to freedom and self-realization.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Balancing the Budget on the Backs of Babies

Apparently Detroit, among multiple school closings, is shuttering one of the few schools in the nation designed solely for teen mothers.  Parents and teachers are protesting.

Adjacent to the continuation school I teach at, there’s a similar school – serving maybe 20-30 girls (mostly). They spend an hour I think a day in the nursery, then academics the rest of the time. I have a number of teen moms in my classes (I actually designed a “parenting” independent study, elective credit course with them in mind, with materials borrowed from the “mommy school”). They generally are able to attend high school because a parent or in-law can take the child.

But for many, the dads are gone and mom likely works herself. One of my students (16) is transitioning to home study because she just broke up with her “baby’s daddy” and his mom can no longer babysit all day without pay. I tried to get her to sign up for the mommy school, but despite the acknowledgement that it is hard to study while taking care of an infant home alone, she worries about leaving her son in the nursery.
Many of these girls have very unstable home lives to begin with. The student I just spoke of spent years in foster care, and lives alone with her boyfriend because of her neglectful father. These schools are barely funded as it is. They provide an invaluable source of social capital and support to young girls who already have difficult paths ahead.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Purpose of Education Spending

E.D. Kain points out that Americans spend a lot on the military vs. education.  He asks whether Americans need to understand that in order to get better outcomes, they need to spend more.

I think the first question that must be answered is this: what are we spending our money on? Many people don’t understand why we can’t get better results with the money we do spend.  My answer would be that for what we are being asked to do – to “leave no child behind” – we don’t spend enough money, and don’t put the money we do spend where it needs to go.

If we truly believe in educating every child, then we need to acknowledge some of the serious inequities in society today. Rectifying them will require 2-3x investment in disadvantaged communities. What I would like to see, is a means-based model, where individuals are assessed on a family by family basis, and services are provided accordingly.

I’m not sure how much we’ll ever be able to move needle for many of the more dysfunctional families, but there are many things that we know work, but that we simply can’t afford. In the meantime, we can certainly make the job of teaching at more difficult schools easier, by reducing class sizes and adding support – which will require more funding.

The case for more funding must be made in terms of access to equality, not “education” generally. The latter the public may be weary of, while the former it knows intuitively.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Uncollective

The school year is getting long in the tooth.  Students are weary.  Teachers are testy.  Here in the desert, the temperatures will soon reach a daily average of 100 degrees.  Testing will begin soon.  Our students will fail dramatically.

Today one of the teen mommies told me she and her boyfriend, with whom she lives, are breaking up.  She had been the only one - all of the others had been left long ago.  She's a spunky kid, tough and testy but always relatively positive.  Sixteen, her Dad ran out on the family years back.  Then her Mom "went crazy" and she was sent into foster care.  She then got out, moved in with a relative, and then her baby's daddy, who's 18.  Is it even legal for her to be living alone?  I imagine it is better than foster care.  Today she told me, "Life sucks."

Another young lady - so far unpregnant - was recounting the fight she had the other night, how it began after the partying got too loud for a parent with a heart condition, and then peaked after they spilled out into the street, her and another girl had drunken words, and ended up tussling on the pavement.  She showed me the girl's phone she had made off with.  The girl seemed sad, angry in the pictures.  There was a shot of some guy doing a line of something.

I asked her about her boyfriend, a sometime gang-banger with severe defiance and aggression issues.  At one point they were going to move away together, to live with her mother in another town, far away from the troubled local scene.  Yet that fell through after her mother broke up with her boyfriend, after finding "teen porn" among his things.  When mom asked how he could have such things around her teenage daughter, he replied that he only likes brunettes.  They moved out of his house, taking with them what they could fit in the car.  He refused to let them have the rest of their things.  He had been abusive.  My student rattled off a list - clothes, music, TV, shoes, etc. 

Sometime later her own boyfriend was expelled.  She said things went downhill from there.  He didn't treat her well.  He was jealous.  He tried to hit her but she hit back.  He flipped out when she said it was over.  He chased her for blocks, until she finally dove into a bush and watched him run past.

In the staff lounge, a couple of other teachers spoke of how sick of it they were - the teen pregnancies.   They said they resented their tax dollars being spent so that young girls could get free health care and welfare.  "Most of them do it for the government checks.  One girl has a friend who had 3 of them just for the money!"  This from the libertarian who says she wants universal healthcare, yet cracks at least one "execution" joke a day.  The Reagan Democrat piped in with a story of "some woman" who had nine kids - just for the welfare.  The libertarian complained that her son, making $15k a year, payed his taxes, yet made "too much" to qualify for medicaid, while illegal immigrants and unworking teen moms got all the care they needed.  She was convinced teen moms - or even the out-of-work - ought to have their kids put in orphanages.  The Reagan Democrat offered another woman, this time a friend of hers, who was raised in an orphanages - and liked it fine.  I suggested a few "helpful" remarks.  I referenced human and social capital, pointing out that the teen moms need not be blamed - they are disadvantaged.  "No excuse!" was the paraphrased refrain.

It's April.  The days aren't getting any easier.  The kids still won't work.  They never come to school.  When they do they're often high.  Their parents are often worse.

This evening I ran across a PhD thesis by a man by the name of Tom Healy, at the National University of Scotland, titled, In Each Other’s Shadow: What has been the impact of human and social capital onlife satisfaction in Ireland?  From a chapter describing the nature of social capital:
Social capital refers to resources inherent in self-organised human networks
based on reciprocal
• expectations and obligations (of support, engagement, delivery) [TRUST];
• communication of information, knowledge, informal norms, sanctions
and understandings [VALUES]; and
• belonging [IDENTITY]
that facilitate collective action.  (p.69)
Something rang true in those words in brackets: Trust, Values, Identity.  These students lack social capital, and thus have not been able to develop human capital.  And what is it that keeps them from acquiring it today, in my classroom, as I try and present to them the best social capital I know how?

They do not trust me.  They do not share my values.  They do not share my identity.  So how could I expect them to do their part in the reciprocal dance of education?  There is no collective between us: there is me vs. them.

I have been struggling all year to come to grips with how I might possibly teach these children.  What am I teaching them?  It surely isn't very academic, given the abysmal rate of participation (attendance and classwork).  I have found myself seeking to act more as a mentor or counselor.  I listen to their stories, ask them to reflect critically on their choices and assumptions.  I joke with them.  I try and throw them off their "game".  I try to humanize them.  I try not to get into power struggles, or to "react" in typical ways to their well-honed tactics of defiance.  For the most part it has been very successful.  Kids smile and talk to me in ways that would have been unimaginable months before.  I ask them daily to be better people.  They seem to listen.

But this is what I have been doing all along, without knowing it: I have been trying to build in them Trust, Values and Identity.  I have been trying to break down their defensive walls by showing them love, respect, honor, and thin, yet bottomless trust.  I will be there for them, empathizing and trying to see the world through their eyes.  I want them to see that they have eyes - that there are people in the world that want to see through their eyes, that they are part of a "collective", that there is something out there to "buy into".  I'm by no means making much of a difference.  These stories started long before I got there and they will continue long after.  But I try and think I'm at least "moving the goal posts" a little bit each day.

These are kids who have been torn away from the fundamental forces of social capital.  Opportunities exist for them that they cannot even dream of.  But they are blinded by a sense of isolation and disenfranchisement, confusion and nihilism.  For them to grow again, they must learn to reconnect with society, with their humanity.  And we, for out part, must be there to help guide them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Taming Tigers

Mathew Kahn wonders whether Tiger Mom Amy Chua might have indeed made some parents less strict:
"Will any parents who were revolted by Professor Chua’s story respond by engaging in less “tough love”?  Such defiance is always interesting."

I’ve been thinking about defiance a bit lately. As a teacher of generally defiant students, I essentially go with the “catch more flies with honey” doctrine. It seems to work pretty well for me. However I probably put up with things from my students that would make many blush. Yet I recently had an interesting discussion with a colleague who takes the opposite approach – they get few chances and then “they’re outta there”. We discussed who in the end may be getting more out of their students.

Of course, what complicates the process of teaching – or parenting, for that matter, is personality and temperament. I think my colleague and myself are basically doing what comes naturally to us, and were either of us to try and behave as the other, we would probably fail. Or, it would at least feel very unnatural. On the other end of things, our particular “styles” likely produce different results with different children. I know for a fact that many of her former students behave quite well for me. And likely many of my students could use her more dictatorial approach.

I’ve thought about trying to find a way to quantify and assess the efficacy of our distinct approaches, but there are numerous difficulties. I might at some future data find a way to design an effective model, one that captures what is going on.