I Have a Couple of Questions

Is there a global network of Nationalist terrorism? An innately human system tending toward militant Tribalism? Is there a widely held belief that humanity is genetically designed to live in a world of homogeneous cultures*, isolated from and hostile to other cultures, and entitled to dominate, exploit and destroy other cultures by the virtue of might in the guise of need?
What is the basis for such a system? Are there valid scriptures declaring the intentions of superhuman beings or forces for such a system? Is there historical, anthropological or archeological evidence that demonstrates the relative success of species populations who enjoy better survival status when they break into competing groups – tribes? Is there evidence that localized packs or tribal groups are more genetically stable when they do not incorporate genetic material from outside their tribe? Is there any philosophical, psychological or medical evidence that militant conflict improves the quality of life for the greater number of members of the tribe?
Is there any authoritative documentation, historical evidence or demonstrable rational that supports the superiority of the tribalist world? And if not, what drives such a wide spread and apparently sociopathic delusion?
Oh, make no mistake about it: I have answers to these questions. I think more people need to ask themselves these questions, and be prepared with answers to them.

*Culture: a community of people who share language, traditions and beliefs, which may or may not include the belief in a right to a certain geographic space and a qualification of “racial” purity as defined by certain physical characteristics. Such a community could be called a tribe or nation.

A Tribute to Dr. King

I have just been listening to a couple of African American guests on a talk show. Both, as far as I could tell were perhaps in their 30’s and roughly comparably educated.
The first identified many ways that our U.S. society has been structured to maintain an inequitable and unjust system that uses race as a lever for applying power. He suggested that we must change the culture, and suggested some broad ways this might be done. Our culture – a complex cultural milieu, I would say, as there is no uniform cultural state for all the people – is the ultimate driver of any systemic or institutional change. Changing culture, under the best of circumstances, is a challenge.
The second speaker spoke about the inequities, largely in access to realizing aspirations, and generally economically expressed. Her general message seemed to be that things were worse now than they had been in her past – presumably the 90’s, and that it felt very defeating. Whether she got to what should be done to change things, to stop and perhaps reverse the decline, I don’t know. I was frankly unimpressed by what sounded like a complaint against not having gotten the fortune she deserved from life. This was a seemingly healthy, educated young woman who had recently had a book published, but the closest she came to speaking out for those very oppressed by conditions was her use of the first person plural pronouns.
When I was teaching, roughly half of my students were African American, many from low income or homeless/highly mobile situations. I sought readings by writers whose backgrounds were not unlike my students. I once asked if, in their experience, the students thought things were getting better, worse or staying the same for people of color. I didn’t ask this question again, however. Most of the students said nothing, but a couple took angry exception to having such a conversation.
I didn’t pursuing the topic. It was moving farther from our academic goals, but I wonder now about the reticence. Was I out of bounds for opening this discussion? I enjoy (albeit ashamedly) white male privilege. There are many accidents of birth that burden us with guilt. Or was their reluctance from a sense of pointlessness, bitter resignation to society’s chains? Or was it something else? A fear that it could become an avouchment of the guilt of their “accident of birth?” Was it that, as a representative of the system, I held power, not to be relinquished, and therefore not of any benefit to the African American case, and possibly a harm. Yet I was really, perhaps selfishly seeking affirmation of my observations from outside the situation that things really were, or seemed to be in decline.
Open forums are of course necessary, complex and difficult. But recognizing that a problem exists certainly is a good first step. Better still is envisioning a goal – one that is rewarding, but realistically achievable, generally legitimate and challenging enough to engage thought and energy. Then the problem becomes more clearly definable as what is keeping us from that goal. After that, developing and carrying out a plan to resolve the problem and achieve the goal become the hard work of positive change.
These are ancient algorithms, and on this day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2019, it seems a blind miss not to point to the great leaders of our Civil Rights Movement were by whatever avenue informed on moving against the problems that kept people from that mountain top. It was an historic period of our history as well and a significant and powerful action. Where has it left us though?
Perhaps we should stop worrying about whether things are better or worse; they’re not there yet. Perhaps it’s not so important that life isn’t fair or that the tangibles of injustice spring from the ephemerals of culture. Perhaps having a plan isn’t enough if we haven’t defined and generally agreed to a clear destination. Dr. King moved the plan forward toward a destiny. Yet that plan lost steam when the destination became increasingly unclear, fragmented and divergent. We make our own destinies, but when those are unaligned, we’re on the way to destiny in a bumper car ride.
Right now, it seems like more than anything, we need to get our destiny, which is not just the destiny of Black people but of all people, back to a rewarding, achievable, legitimate, challenging and defined destination. If it holds all of these conditions, its attainment will be so empowering that it could spark the further march to solving some of the even more daunting problems, such as saving the planet. The hardest part will be effectively redefining and agreeing upon our destiny, our mountain top. This will probably require another charismatic leader. When has this not been the case?

Dear Commissioners: I need a little help

   From top down, I see leadership in this country being interpreted as holding and wielding power rather than working in the service of those being led. This seems a kind of mindless dictatorship, where the most persuasive is put into power, and it defeats true democracy where people choose the leaders who will advance their interests. This dichotomy and its current lopsidedness pervades our institutions and therefore all facets of our lives.

    Since this difference hinges between people’s informed ability to make good decisions for themselves on one side, and their susceptibility to persuasive showmen on the other, the distinction rests on deeply held, early years’ development of individuals’ perception of themselves in their world. I am convinced that the key to restoring any reasonable balance lies in providing good early childhood and family education. Children must learn from early on to be self-directed decision makers not obedient followers. If children are typically told what to do, and seldom told why or how they should do that (e.g., choosing right from wrong, good from bad), they will grow into adults who depend on external direction for their actions, rather than those internally motivated to strive and excel.

   Each generation must understand that it can only build on the previous generation, and each is responsible for passing that understanding along. Only through such building over time will substantial change occur. Consequently we must explore individual’s cultural and familial histories to understand how to support corrective measures in early childhood development, most of which takes place in the family home. I understand that different populations bring different resources and different cultural histories to the situation. Still, I believe the County may have the greatest access to influencing change. The State is too mired in money politics and the schools, beholden as they are to state funding, simply mirror their much more powerful benefactors. I want to help right the ship of reason.

   So to my request: Is there anyone in the county that I could meet with to discuss these ideas, with the possibility of starting a broader discussion? I would hope such a discussion might lead to policies and actions that would begin to understand where people in Hennepin County are “coming from,” and how we might strengthen their efforts to bring their children and their children’s children to a higher level of democratic – not just academic – success. We must get beyond “rearranging the deck chairs” and get about spotting and avoiding icebergs. Yes, it is a Titanic task. It must start, to ever have a hope of finishing.

(Adapted from a recent letter to a county worker of my acquaintance, jcr)

White Right!

There is something I find intolerable: white nationalist, right wing racists. The very idea that anybody is better than anybody else is simply the arrogance of ignorance. But to compound this perspective with the acceptance of violence as an expression of that blatant distortion is frankly bestial. I have long held an intolerance for the intolerant, but the rise of supremacist organizations and threats to more, and sometimes less, recent immigrant people re-plumbs the depths of inhumanity which genuine Americans and indeed all fully human beings deplore.

Whose place is this anyway? The first whites arrived as invaders to a relatively sparsely occupied continent. Later they were joined by other immigrants, and captive or coerced African slaves and Chinese laborers who were brought here, generally against their will and then nearly universally refused repatriation. Simultaneously, the real original occupants were being systematically exterminated through officially sanctioned genocide, or imprisoned onto reservations.

Using the white nationalists’ argument, white, black and yellow people must all pack up and leave the place to the scant few remaining native Americans. But where should we go? Our original homelands are now overcrowded. I suggest other planets, preferably unoccupied by sentient life, lest we wind up booted off those planets too, in three or four hundred years.

Or we could accept that we are all humans living on one planet which we should all be trying to save before we face global self-destruction.

The Problem with the “Achievement Gap”

Words carry baggage. A gap in a society has a near side and a far side. We put people on one side or the other. “We” are of course on this side and “they” are on the other. So a gap forms groups, absorbing individuals into one group or another. “Gap” and “group” are constructs imposed on reality, not derived from it.

If the separating measure used in creating a gap is achievement, it ignores the fact that achievement occurs on a continuum. So “gap” is a false construct, which not only does not accurately reflect reality, but which must serve some other agenda as well.

When we align the achievement-gapped construct with the long-standing race construct, we simply reinforce the notion of racial difference. In addition to focusing our attention on achievement, one very impersonal aspect of education’s many acculturating functions, it turns our attention away from the broader cultural and institutional aspects of a society that so stubbornly exclude individuals from opportunity and access to full and equitable participation based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

The achievement gap is only a glimpse of the vastly larger culture gap from which we suffer, and for which there is no self-elevated committee, council or cause resourceful enough to correct us, it seems. Even the good news is bad: we are not the only ones. Almost every culture on this planet suffers the same twisted, albeit self-serving, perspective on reality. Markers of “group” difference are plentiful—race, religion, ethnicity—all social constructs that have no basis in essential reality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there may be no solution to a “gapped” world. In the absence of the motivation of six billion plus individuals, there may only be resignation or eternal angst. Given how many of the world’s people will read this article, what are the chances?

Meanwhile of course, we can use “achievement gap” as a political tool for funding and policy decisions, the other agenda.

The More Things Change…

Dickens’ Spirit of Christmas Present said it 170 years ago: if nothing is done to correct it, discrimination and poverty will remain the doom of humanity:

clip_image002“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Some may blame the poor and oppressed for their condition, and thereby justify punishing them further. Or some may use that condition to their benefit, manipulating politics and economics to further separate the victims of poverty and discrimination from resource and power. In just such a way some blame the schools, the teachers and the unions for the outcome of such conditions in education.

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

“Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares,” Motoko Rich, Amanda Cox and Matthew Bloch, New York Times, April 29, 20162

In reality, we have all inherited these poisons to our civilization, and we must all—from the meek and humble to the rich and powerful—join together to rid ourselves from them. We could be the generation of Americans who are truly great enough to face our doom and beat the odds. Yet too often we blame the victims and beat the scapegoats. Meanwhile American’s soul is festering.

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1 The online text: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm#link11 <

2 The interactive graphics show systems that were studied. Find yours. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html <

Humanity is not data-driven

There is much concern about the “Learning Gap.” The learning gap is really two undeniable things: a shame for our purportedly egalitarian society and a measurable fact. The ‘shame’ is in many aspects comforting and the ‘fact’ bears all the weight of the fact that there are three sheets of paper sticking out from under my computer monitor. We choose shame; it’s a feature of our Judeo-Christian cultural origins. We worship facts because they are sure and fixed and immutable. And the Learning Gap is characterized by the gap between the objectivity of the facts—data, and the subjectivity of the shame it engenders.

The ninety-second of the Roman Catholic dogma, one of a set of beliefs treated as fact for nearly two thousand years, states, “Original sin is transmitted by natural generation.(1)” We have been working on our inherent shame, treated as fact, since the conceptions of Cain and Abel. Meaning no disrespect for the great good done by Catholicism toward alleviating pain and suffering, The Church has like so many power structures simply cultivated, if not having actually manufactured, a need that it was prepared to meet for a price. Our hereditary shame, our original sin, deprives us of eternal bliss, but the Church provides an avenue to redemption. We need only do a few simple things: admit our undeserving state, accept the course our spiritual leaders offer and behave as we are told. And it’s not just Catholics. Is it?

We must admit to our sin in creating the Learning Gap. And they tasted of the fruits of class privilege and they knew their sin. We must accept the sanctity of the education reform movement. And on the seventh day they will be tested. And we will be redeemed. And the winged graduates ascended into college. And the “big data”(2) pushers should like this neat pattern correlation too. They ‘discovered’ the Learning Gap correlation, after all.

I say “discovered” because I don’t want to go right to the heart of the problem yet. You see, data are facts, and like the number of sheets of paper on my computer desk, they ‘mean’ nothing. When data are gathered, they can be sorted and arranged to create patterns, which in ‘data-ese’ are called correlations. Just before B goes up, A goes down—every time. Correlative fact, no cause, no opinion, just fact. This is the language of statistics, and we remember what was said about statistics, “Select the data that tells us what we want to know.” Could this be the case with the Learning Gap correlation? Could it be that the reason we find a difference in the performance in one racially defined group students from another racially defined group students is because something is or was going on to cause the difference? No. Because there is no cause to correlations, only data patterns. But we want things to have reasons.

“Why,” we ask, “are we here?” not just “Are we here?” Even Church dogma starts out by using the fact that we can ask as proof that there is a reason. Here’s what David Books says, with which I concur, in the New York Times, 16 April 2013:

“…I’m trying to appreciate the big data revolution, but also probe its limits. One limit is that correlations are actually not all that clear. A zillion things can correlate with each other, depending on how you structure the data and what you compare. To discern meaningful correlations from meaningless ones, you often have to rely on some causal hypothesis about what is leading to what. You wind up back in the land of human theorizing.”

Brooks contends that we seek meaning even in the meaningless and cause for the effect, and we do. It is probably deeply rooted in our psyche.

So why is the Learning Gap occurring between white students and students of color? Well, it is: no question about that. But that’s the learning gap: small “l,” small “g.” Why isn’t there isn’t the Learning Gap (capitalized) among rural, suburban and urban students, or between rich and poor students, or among the states or anywhere else that there is a gap? Well, we use race because that gap sticks to our inherent shame, our unresolved racial discrimination that we so proudly – no wait, make that, shamefully – celebrate in this country year after year. So shame can be made useful.

And the policy makers of today, like the Church leaders of the past, know how to leverage their influence and shepherd the sheep. “Close the Gap to relieve your shame.” But it may not be in the interest of that leadership to resolve the Learning Gap; it may be more useful to keep it in play. How much top down management, often in the form of cost containment, has sprung from the Learning Gap Card? Where does the power rest in dealing with the Learning Gap? And here’s the big one – If the Learning Gap were actually closed, what meaningful goal will have been achieved? How will it be more that a statistical non-correlation of data? Will the color lines go away? Will wealth be distributed more equitably? Will opportunity be truly equal? Will the nation become de-Balkanized?

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Those who know me know I have been railing against the obsessive elevation of data, the passionate collection to these completely dispassionate pieces of stuff, often with no prior purpose, and the religious commitment to the value of any correlation divined in the data for years now. I am increasingly convinced that data, as the raw material of the Information Age, can be capitalized, that it can be used to our benefit, or abused to cost. Moreover, similarly to iron or coal or oil, data can be manipulated to greedy ends in this Age of Greed.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the data are indisputable and non-judgmental. The choice of which data to bring forward is certainly disputable and the judgment about which correlations to divine must be highly suspect for hidden causes. Humanity is not data-driven.

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(1)   Loughnan, F. John. Dogmas of the Catholic Church, The Divine Work of Creation, The Doctrine of Revelation Regarding Man or "Christian Anthropology," Revised Feb. 16, 2001. retrieved from http://jloughnan.tripod.com/dogma.htm, 16 April 2013.

(2)   Mayer-Schonberger, Viktor and Kenneth Cukier. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (March 5, 2013).

That We Can Be One Again

I am from golf clubs and carports.
I am from golden woods and rolling meadows.
I am from tall cities and
~   Revolutionary War encampments.
I am from the right way to do things,
~   from our way to do things,
~        from thing we don’t do.
I am from a place of two worlds,
~   a place of white and
~        black.
I am from a place where fathers build fences
~   in the minds of their sons.
I am from a place of fences that,
~   having been built up,
~        must now come
~            down.

The fences that hide us from danger and
~   over which we hurl destruction;
The fences that keep ours for ours and leave
~   theirs for theirs;
The fences that make us into
~   us and not us
~        and make not us
~            into them;
The fences that have cracks that
~   show us slivers of what we want to see
~        of them;
The fences that have rotten planks that
~   reveal views of what being
~        not us has wrought
~            on them
I am from a place of fences that,
~   having been built up,
~        must now come
~            down again.

All fences must now come down
~   that sprung up in the light of day or
~        in the dark of night.
All fences must now come down
~   that fathers fostered in sons,
~        that mothers nurtured in daughters.
All fences must now come down
~   that make us different, separate, apart,
~        cut off, left out,
~           alone.
All fences must now come down
~   that keep us us and
~        them them,
~            us and
~                not us.
All fences must now come down—
That we can be whole again.

 November 2012

 Note:

~   This was written following a workshop with Shá Cage and E.G. Bailey at the Minnesota Humanities Center, St. Paul, Minnesota at their incentive and upon their model. It will be used as part of the identity formation lesson that begins the Latino Youth Development Coalition College Essay Project to be conducted this coming winter. They will start with an I Am spoken-word poem. So, yes, this is intended as spoken-word, though I believe all poetry is meant to be spoken out loud; it is an immediate art, a performance art. Story and poetry are rooted in the oral origins of all literature. All literature comes most alive when read aloud—a hint perhaps that all literature should be read aloud. Writing is, after all, simply a recording of the spoken word.

Girls’ Basketball á la Camus

The gym is only half an arena.

Bleachers are pulled out on one side but not the other.

Maybe the opposing team, because they are in opposition,

Couldn’t send supporters. So they don’t need bleachers.

Or maybe because God is their support,

All they need, and he doesn’t need bleachers.

 

Our girls run out onto the floor,

Black and brown and short and tall,

A couple white; a couple fat.

There are cheers and some clapping hands. Our supporters.

What an unlikely looking team! How can they be contenders?

How can these voluptuous, brash children win?

They see me here and smile.

They are not the stuff of pros.

 

The other girls run out onto the floor.

They are not black or brown or yellow or red.

They are white and blond as straw.

They are tall and thin and only tall and thin.

They come from a small Christian school.

Are all the girls at their school white and blond as straw

And tall and thin? Are all the boys?

Maybe there are no boys at their school,

No Christian boys at their Christian school.

 

They play basketball, these girls, ours and theirs.

More home team fans show up, late.

They are mostly black and brown, but not all.

They do not all look alike.

They do not look at all like me.

They see me here and smile.

 

The girls play basketball.

We score; they score.

We score; they score.

We score; they score.

 

I cheer for our team. I know them and love them.

I call our players by their names.

They see me here and smile.

I don’t cheer for the other team. I don’t know them.

I don’t know their names.

I can’t tell which ones have scored.

They all look alike to me.

I don’t know the name of their school.

They don’t see me and they don’t smile.

 

August 2011

Embrace your cultural identities

The connection between culture – heritage and history – and individual identity is definite. We are our histories, our experiences and how we have been given to understand values. We may reject or deny, but rejecting or denying something still brings it into our existence. Only ignorance can create that which is not. Knowing and understanding our own personal and familial histories is clarifying, if not actually defining of our knowing and understanding of self. Discovering more of our history, the historical context of the place we grew up and spent our formative and the stories of the people who surrounded and influenced those years, expands our knowledge and understanding of self, who we are and how we got to be us. More knowledge and understanding comes from knowing and understanding the further back history of the place we grew up and the histories of the people who came there, those histories that created the historical context of or childhood and youth and peopled it with people such as they were.

All this knowledge and understanding of where we came from and how we came to be who we are, for good or bad, forms the layers of our culture—personal, familial, associative, local, regional, national/ethnic and global. We are to a greater or lesser degree a product of all of this, and the better we know it, the better we understand it, the better we know and understand who we are as an individual in all of this. And the more empowered we are to do something about it if we wish, or not, possibly depending on how comfortably fitted all the parts of our self are.

This knowledge and understanding is also very empowering for changing our relationship to others. We may walk away from some things and toward others. We may capitalize on our strengths and bolster our weaknesses. (Yes, I used that word – humbling, yes but not humiliating and not euphemistic.) We may share what we know with others to help them understand us, and we can better understand others and truly appreciate their differences, differences that can teach and enrich us as encountering new histories and new people do, when those encounters are equitable. Self knowledge is self empowerment. Shared knowledge cast light on the shadow of ignorance. Ignorance, observed a nineteen year old sociology student, leads to fear and fear leads to hatred. Then doesn’t knowledge lead to security and comfort, and don’t security and comfort lead to acceptance and love, love in the sense of loving thy neighbor, love and the binding force in community?

We should study and discover our on histories and heritage and the histories and heritage of as many others as we practically can, certainly those with whom we must live and work and learn. And I think this is particularly true for those in the dominant positions in a society. Whiteness has no privilege when we know its history, class has enormous, too often unmet responsibility when we know its history, and affluence has a counter balance whose history suggests to possibilities of a future price, a consequence. What we don’t know is perhaps what is or will be hurting us. We can start to make a better world when we learn everything we can about the individual piece of the world that we are.

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