Monday, February 1, 2016

A short reading list on the intersection of race and class for parents

Some parents at school requested good readings on the intersection of race and class in the US.  The guiding question was something along the lines of "Does economic success cushion African Americans from racism" or perhaps, "Isn't class more important than race?"  If you hang out around the blogosphere, people are constantly having this conversation and are pretty tired of it.  The answers are "somewhat, but not as much as you would think" and "It kind a depends where and when but again, not as much as white folks tend to think."

One of the most important books in this field is Black Wealth, White Wealth:  A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.  (It's worth it to get the second edition with the most recent data).   Basically, the book argues that wealth matters more than income.  The reason is that wealth leads to multi-generational cushions and margins of error.  In other words, while income helps pull a family up, wealth keeps a family up for multiple generations and black families simply don't have the same wealth as white families.  What that means is that the children of upwardly mobile African Americans are not necessarily uppwardly mobile and they don't have family wealth to cushion their downward economic mobility.  There's no grandparent paying for their kids' summer camps or private schools, or enrichment programs because the grandparents simply didn't accumulate enough wealth even if they were high earners. 

Similarly this book (which I haven't read but was well-reviewed) points out the same problems and identifies the same sources although it comes with policy proscriptions for fixing them.

Where this inequality comes from is very well-documented but the most accessible answer is found in Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations.  Regardless of how you feel about reparations, Coates compellingly synthesizes decades of work by historians and social scientists to show how African Americans were systemically denied the opportunities that helped pull white families out of poverty from the Great Depression on.  Redlining practices, school segregation into the 1970s, legalized racial discrimination in housing until 1968, all functioned to help white families accumulate wealth while black families were systemically prevented from accumulating wealth, or worse, had wealth destroyed.  And that doesn't even get into the systemic racial violence, employment discrimination and so on.  An example that many people don't think about but is illustrative of the larger conversation.  For many white families, the generations that went to college between the end of World War II and 1980 or so were able to do so while accumulating almost no debt in an era when a college degree guaranteed access to middle class and higher living.  For those that didn't attend college, they had access to high paying union jobs (that largely discriminated based on race despite the work of folks like Walter Reuther to prevent that) and suburbs that gained in value.

When African Americans finally gained access to the University they did so at a time of lessened state support and increased tuition requiring higher levels of debt.  When they gained access to the suburbs, they did so at a time of higher interest rates (thanks to the great inflation) and then only to move to inner ring suburbs that required higher taxes to maintain services and at a time when deindustrialization was gutting the corporate tax bases of those suburbs.  This is pretty much the story in places like the St. Louis suburbs of Ferguson and the surrounding towns.

Still, this is the type of stuff that private school parents of similar class positions look at and say, "what does this mean to us? We are past middle class striving.  At the highest levels, does class matter?"

It's hard to get past anecdata (anecdotal data) at this level ("Hey, I couldn't get a cab last week either!")  But even at the highest levels, the literature agrees (as summarized for a lay audience here), that racism takes a health toll on African Americans of all class levels.  To simplify greatly, the day-to-day experiences of racism make African Americans sicker and they die sooner than whites of the same class position. 

Of course, we need to pay attention to gender too, and the intersection between race, class, and gender, isn't pretty.

For private school families, and for African American families who move to "the best" school systems, their struggles are just beginning.  In this fabulous book review, sociologist Tressie McMillian Cottom points out that merely attending a good school isn't enough because of disproportionate discipline, academic tracking and :
Lewis and Diamond argue similarly to others that “well meaning” white parents use their superior cultural and economic capital to divert school resources to the high tracks where their children are disproportionally enrolled and the school rewards white parents’ cultural and economic capital as superior to black parents’.

But go read the whole thing.  And follow her on twitter (@tressiemcphd)* for fabulous accessible writing on race, academia, and popular culture as well.

*twitter handle fixed!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Butler and Bowie

Video for david bowie snl 1979 tvc15Video for David Bowie SNL 1979I suppose I was predisposed to like Judith Butler's Gender Trouble because I was a huge David Bowie fan.  In retrospect, I would have gotten it a lot faster if she had just held up a ton of Bowie pictures and been like "This!  I'm talking about this!"
▶ 3:15

and this

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Hypocrisy Amok or How Did Purgatory become an Intellectual Fashion?

So this nonsense is making the rounds on twitter as if it's the real grown-ups talking and all those kid protesters are just spoiled brats with feeeeeeelings.  Just tell those pussies to man up, to paraphrase a comment I saw in a facebook feed.  Other conservative sites are praising the manliness of President of Oklahoma Wesleyan's President and his idea that "Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn."  But it's not a place to learn.  At least not learn a lot of unsafe things if you are a Christian.
They have four goals, according to their website:

The Primacy of Jesus Christ…as the incarnate Son of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, who is the lens for all learning and the lord of our daily lives.
The Priority of Scripture
…as the inerrant and authoritative written Word of God that guides us in all matters of faith, learning, and living.

The Pursuit of Truth …as an objective, attainable reality grounded in the person and example of Jesus Christ and anchored in the Bible.
The Practice of Wisdom …as the goal for all members of the university community, who work to promote healing and wholeness in a broken culture and hurting world.

So you don't have to worry about learning about evolution at OKWU because according to their course catalog science majors must :
demonstrate an understanding of the natural sciences as a human approach to God’s truth; articulate an appreciation and respect for the Creation as a direct outcome of the wisdom and glory of the Creator; and, as appropriate, integrate present scientific understanding of the “book of nature” with a Wesleyan understanding of the Bible.

Want to study history?  Best do it from a providential stand point because you have to:

demonstrate knowledge of God’s work in history, particularly in the formation of Christian civilization;

Needless to say if you want a job there you need to have the following qualifications: 
–A personal and vital Christian faith is required.
–Evidence of commitment to the integration of Christian faith and living with the theory and practice of education is expected.

Yeah.  Basically the whole place is set up to be a little safe haven for Christians where they never have to encounter ideas that might challenge their faith, but by all means sir, please tell me how to be open minded!

Dr. Piper is right.  His school isn't a day care but a place where in his words students:

repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them.  
So it's a place for repentance.  That's not a university.  That's purgatory.   

Monday, November 30, 2015

Teaching African History

My students, of all people, have complained that I am not blogging enough.  The recent personal unpleasantness left me behind in grading and what not, and fall is just generally busy.  In an effort to spend more quality time with family, I've tried to cut down on my computer time.  And on top of that, current events have had a way of making me want to avoid my computer of late.  (Side note:  as the ever wise family matriarch says:  there are three ways of telling history:  the world is going to hell in a hand basket; the world is getting better and better; and, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  You can guess which one is foremost in my mind right now.) 

Anyhoo, another reason I've been blogging less is because I have two new preps which means I'm doing a lot of work.  One of these is Ancient World History, which I've taught a lot but always to Honors and never to College Prep kids.  Since it's been a while, it's a chance to reinvent the course somewhat.  But that's not too bad.  The course that is kicking my butt is a course in African History for Honors 10th graders.

I got the assignment last spring.  The last time I studied African history in any systemic way was 1988.  The last book I read on African History was The World and a Very Small Place in Africa which was published in 1997 (although I think I read the M. E. Sharpe, 2nd edition).      So I was going to need help.  I reached out via Facebook to Tim Burke who helped me put together a pretty decent outline of a syllabus.  The first quarter involved an introduction to geography and some historical methods.  Our first real unit was on the Bantu migrations and our guiding question (or EQ which in school speak is essential question) was "How can historians do history in the absence of written sources?"  We looked at three approaches to the first.  First, the students used an older account of how to do linguistic research.  Second, they looked at how an archaeologist used ceramic evidence that was somewhat newer.  (Sorry, both those links behind JSTOR paywall).  Finally they looked at some very recent genetic research.    This was very tough going for the kids.  They had never read an academic journal article before so we had a lot of reading together in class.  I did a lot of interpretation.  We also talked about how to find the cheats in the articles:  the linguistic article had an abstract at the end; the ceramics article had great topic sentences, the genetics one had a popular write up that summarized the findings and so on.

But the kids were burnt from reading, and the illustrations on the ceramics article were crappy and hard to understand.   So, to get a better understanding of what the article was talking and to take a break from intellectual heavy lifting while working on the papers, I contacted our ceramics teacher for help.  She had her advanced ceramics kids teach my African History kids (some of whom were the same kids) the various techniques depicted in the article.  You can see some pre-fired examples of the work below:  

One of the important points that the article made was that although techniques might be shared among different ethnic groups, styles were not.  Ethnic groups repeated the same styles and did not adopt new ones.  Rather, they might create new variations using new techniques but in terms of motifs, usage remained endogamous.    On their practice slabs, however, my students mixed both techniques and styles.  After firing the slabs looked like this: 

All in all it really helped both the students and me understand the work that archaeologists did in tracing migrations using ceramics and it also gave us a very small taste of  how long it would take Africans to create even the most basic of ceramic wares.  I think it was one of the more rewarding projects I've done in a while and not something I necessarily would have known to plan for at the beginning of the year.  Thankfully, my schedule is flexible and I have awesome colleague and mentors.  And none of this would have been possible without the help of my friendly local academic librarian who helped me find the articles to use in the first place.

And by the way, the student papers that were written before and after this project? They were pretty darn good.

What projects have you done of late? 

Saturday, October 31, 2015


As I took my kids trick-or-treating, they collected for UNICEF.  We were repeatedly told we were the only folks collecting.  What's up with that?  Since I live in an East Coast City where everybody goes to different schools (neighborhood, charter, private) it's quite possible that my school is the only one doing it.  Has UNICEF fallen off the map?  Are schools afraid to distribute orange boxes?  Do they need the money themselves?  What's going on? 

Friday, October 23, 2015

What happens when form overwhelms function.

This video is making the rounds again on twitter (even though it's from 2011) and I assume it's because it's a school project done in Minecraft.   It's getting the kinds of "look what kids can do if we just let them!" feel to it mojo.  Cue technofuturists, school reformers, blah, blah, blah. 

I admit, the project looks cool.   I'm sure it took a ton of time.  And the kid was good at minecraft.   But the project is about creating a self-sustaining village and on that level, it's a complete failure.  It shouldn't be held up as example of good work, it should be held up as an example of what happens when form overwhelms function and kids (and adults) end up missing the point. 

The assignment was to create a self-sustaining village.  To be a good place to live a village would need a) a food supply b) a fuel supply sufficient to cook food (if they are doing that) and heat homes and workplaces (if they need to) c) a water supply and d) a method of getting rid of waste.  To be self-sustaining they also have to have energy outputs that don't exceed their energy inputs.  (In other words, they need a source of power that they aren't going to use up). 

So let's see how the kid did.  Food supply.  I hope they like bacon, eggs,  and crappy bread because that's mostly what they are eating.  And maybe some sheep's cheese.  The cows will mostly be dead since they won't have anything to eat that I could tell; the sheep will take up most of the grazing and the villagers aren't growing hay.   So it's all pork products all the time.  With maybe some mutton.  To go with that, they'll have plenty of god awful bread to eat. 

But not for too long, the small amount of wood that is left is their sole source of energy and also is used for building materials (and maybe as torches?).  Planting the trees close together will stunt and kill them, by the way.  The folks who live here are going to be in a wood-shortage pretty quickly.  Without wood, they won't be able to preserve the pork (there's no salt anywhere for food preservation which is also going to mean the bread's going to suck). 

Even more pressing is the water supply issue.  There's a well and baths, but no river or sewer system for disposing of wastes.   Most of the folks here will be dead from dysentery right quick.  (And come to think of it, the fields don't have irrigation either.  One drought and they are done). 

Further, the population here is massive.  There's an army and tons of workers to build the cathedral.  They have to extract this wealth from somewhere that isn't this village to support all those folks. 

Even if we assume that redstone and glowstone are basically free energy, there's not nearly enough inputs here to equal the outputs.  Clearly those soldiers are using their archery skills to raid nearby villages for wood and food and slave labor to work those mines. 

And if you think, I'm being overly harsh, this is all middle school curriculum stuff.  For example, I could have pointed out that the well next to the mines means that the mines are constantly flooding and that the drinking water is likely contaminated.  But I didn't did I?  I'm not vindictive.  I'm not trying to beat up on the kid.  What I am trying to do is point out his project isn't very good no matter how creative he is.  Creativity shouldn't be an end in of itself.  It can't be.   It has to serve some other end. 

Otherwise you wind up with very pretty castles, where everybody dies. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

On Utley

I never liked Chase Utley much.  I've always been a Rollins guy (I met him once).  It irked me that Utley never spoke up about the racialized discourse around he, Rollins, and Howard wherein he had "grit" and Rollins and Howard didn't.  They were "athletes." Utley's "grit" cost the team games and likely shortened his own career.  We would call that stupidity.  Dropping an f-bomb in public didn't help. 

 In short, I thought Utley was a bad teammate and a bad person.  When a white guy who has a certain amount of respect in town has the opportunity to speak out about a racialized discourse, especially one that targets his teammates, I think he's morally obligated to speak out about it.  He never did.  

Now Utley did something else really despicable.  He intentionally broke a guy's leg.  I hope it tarnishes the legacy of a good baseball player who was a bad man.