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brown is the new white


Brown is the New White is the most hopeful, optimistic book about politics in the US I have read. Phillips’ subtitle captures his main argument, made concrete in his first chapter and backed up by thorough evidence: people of color and progressive white folks are the new electoral majority in the US and, if we organize and take advantage of that majority, we can change the course of the nation, making it a better place to live for all.

Phillips’ prime example is the election of President Obama. Through a careful analysis of the voting trends, he shows that the new majority elected the President and debunks the myth that of a backlash against that mandate in the off-year elections. He demonstrates that the Democratic losses in the US House and Senate were, instead, the result of the new majority not voting in those off-year races, precisely because the Democrats failed to engage progressives on the issues they care about.

In addition, Phillips looks at the history of White privilege in this country and how both the major political parties continue to dedicate the vast majority of their energy and resources to winning the White vote, despite the demographic shifts we are experiencing. He shows how those shifts are rooted in the anti-discrimination, voter rights, and immigration policies enacted in the 1960s, now coming to fruition. And, importantly, Phillips outlines the policy priorities for the new majority, the issues that will energize and bring progressive voters to the polls.

Brown is the New White is not a Pollyanna look at the US — there is chapter entitled “Conservatives Can Count” toward the end of the book that warns the other side is aware of the same trends he outlines and is moving to attract those voters as I write — but it is unrelentingly hopeful. When I saw Phillips speak in person, I asked him how he maintains his optimism in the face of so much cynicism in today’s political landscape. Without hesitation, he explained that 16 million Americans have health care today that didn’t eight years ago, that unemployment is down across all demographics, that life for regular folks all across the country is better today than it was before we elected President Obama. The trends, he said, are up and there is every reason to believe that we can continue to improve.


the curriculum trap

I believe we are, as a society, in the process of reconceptualizing  and redefining what it means to be educated, what it means to get a college degree, and what a college degree means when you have it. Part of that shift is rethinking our curriculum, particularly in traditional academic disciplines such as math and English.

This Sean McFarland video does a nice job of putting this all in context, especially for those of us living, teaching, and learning in California.

The discussion raises all kinds of questions and ideas and I will be posting more on it and related topics in the near future.

Students of the Great Depression

In a May 3rd New York Times Magazine article, David Leonhardt writes about the impact the depression in the early part of the 20th century had on education in the U.S. and tries to draw lessons for us today. Here’s a teaser:

“In her recent speech, [Melinda] Gates spent a few minutes praising the impressive tenacity of the community-college students she has met. She described one who napped in his car between a night shift and a morning class and another who juggled caring for her infant son with studying chemistry. Unfortunately, not all students can manage to be so tenacious and creative. Even more to the point, perhaps, the rest of us have not been, either. The policy makers, administrators and even voters whose decisions shape today’s colleges have come to see a job half-done as an acceptable outcome. Until that changes, it is hard to see how the country will have another great education surge.”

what’s the matter with kansas?: how conservatives won the heart of america

In 2004, it was easy to moan about how strong the neo-conservative movement in the United States was. The war against gay marriage, abortion, and other social/cultural issues was raging and the neo-cons seemed to be winning—witness the fact that George W. Bush was reelected that year on a platform that consisted of almost nothing except the failures of his first term and the idea that he was somehow of the common people.

This is exactly what journalist and writer Thomas Frank does in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), using his home state of Kansas as the poster child of confused, misguided voting in the U.S., voting by the poor and working class against their economic self-interest. His main questions: why, in Kansas (and, by extension, all over the country), would farmers, blue-collar workers, and poor people, in general—historically faithful Democratic voters—vote Republican, supporting the corporate takeover of their family farms, the Wal-Martizing of their local businesses, and the reduction of taxes for the wealthiest? Why would the people that need the most help getting by support reducing the amount of health care, education, and other public services?

The answer, unsurprising to those that have read George Lakoff, is values. Thomas makes the case that the neo-conservatives have used wedge issues social issues like abortion, gun control, and evolution/creationism—racial and xenophobic fear is notably absent from his list, but I would certainly add them—to polarize the traditionally Democratic base. The ironic thing about these reasons for voting Republican, as Thomas points out, is that little is ever actually accomplished on those issues. The neo-cons run on a platform of social outrage and moral uprightness, but spend their time in office busting unions, cutting taxes, deregulating industries, and gutting our public school system.

Thomas is a thorough researcher, but most of the book is an anecdotal rant, a head-shaking “can you believe this really happened?” What’s missing is the kind of organizing scheme that Lakoff provides, a lack that left me feeling little wiser after reading the book. Nevertheless, Thomas makes some important points. Primary among them: “Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.” The lack of clearly articulated progressive vision, combined with liberal politicians’ concessions to Wall Street and the rich, have impoverished the left and the country has paid the price with 8 years of neo-cons in the White House.

A year after Obama’s election, it feels like we’ve started to recover from those dark days. However, the economic policy debates are still largely framed like they have been since the 1980s. Progress on social issues, incremental as it is, is great, but does little, if anything, to change the economic conditions, distribute wealth and prosperity to all people, and improve health care and education. Only by reframing the issues so that most people see real change as beneficial to them and in line with their values can we move forward to create more justice and equity in our society.

Tim Wise on Van Jones’ resignation

No it’s not all about race, but it’s a lot about race. Check out Wise’s writing on the issue--cogent, insightful, and well-researched, as usual.

the political mind

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. He is working in a long tradition of scientists who use their knowledge and skills to understand the world we live in and to change the world for the better, as they understand “better”. His books, including The Political Mind (2008), are a part of that project. I admire him for trying and for the power of his work.

I used the phrase “as they understand ‘better’” advisedly. The history of scientists using science to improve the world has been good and bad. Science has been used to eliminate disease, make daily chores easier, and many other good ends; it has also been used—and still is—to further oppressions of all kinds, including racism, sexism, classism, and more.

This is not to say that I dispute Lakoff’s science or even his applications to the political world. In fact, I find the ideas compelling because they help me understand the world and the behavior of people around me. In addition, I like his goals and mostly align with his politics.

But agreeing with Lakoff’s picture of a better world—a picture he outlines in the book’s last chapter—is not important. The science underlying his method for changing the world is important and we should take notice. Lakoff calls that science the 21st century ideas of reason and cognition, which is somewhat self-serving considering that he helped develop the theory. Nevertheless, as I see it the big idea here is that the mind is fundamentally a metaphor instrument (and here we need to note that using the word “instrument” itself evokes a metaphor and one that I don’t think is entirely accurate—instrument implies a tool with a user, but the mind is part of the body and cannot be separated, so who or what would be the user of the “instrument”?). According to Lakoff (and others), we think in and reason with metaphors; every action, every perception, every idea is governed by one or more metaphors that are semi-hardwired in the physical space of our brains.

As I understand the story, our neurons physically form circuits or “frames” or metaphor themes. For example, take a basic action frame: Actor, Action, Acted On. This circuit in the brain is activated by pretty much every action. I could be the actor, writing the action, this blog entry the acted on. Or the actor could be you, reading the action, and still this blog entry the acted on. Every time the frame is activated these roles come into play; my mind is looking for who or what fits the roles. Then our brains take the idea of me—literally another circuit in my brain with an entire frame of associations and knowledge—and binds the actor role with me physically and temporarily.

The binding isn’t permanent, but the more an idea is bound to a role in a frame, the easier it is to do it again. If an idea or person is bound to a role often enough it becomes difficult to separate them because the physical connection between the two brain circuits is now hard to break. This explains, physically, why thinking of yourself as a being in control of your life promotes more of the same. Confidence leads to more confidence, because literally the circuitry that represents you in your brain gets bound in neurons to the circuitry that represents confidence. Of course, the opposite is also true.

This understanding of the brain’s function helps explain and supports lots of ideas about education. Metaphor binding means context is important, that attitude matters, that fun and enthusiasm matter, and that relationships between teachers and students make a difference. Teachers know all this, but now we have a more physical understanding of how it works.

The Political Mind is a deeper exploration and a more nuanced, less specifically political perspective on the ideas from Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant. The basics of the politics are that conservative worldviews are dominated by authority and obedience, while progressives’ central ideas are empathy and responsibility, with protection and empowerment the main roles of government. Lakoff also claims, I believe rightly, that empathy is the foundation of democracy and the philosophical underpinning of our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. The specific issues he focuses on mostly are economics, the environment, health care, and wars; rarely does he address race, prisons, or schools.  Still, it is easy to use the frames he develops for any issue. Towards the end, Lakoff adds a nice chapter that synthesizes the development of cognitive linguistics with the history and traditions of science, math, philosophy, and other disciplines.

The science Lakoff discusses is useful and provocative. His attempt to use it to change the world is laudable and may work to some degree—though don’t think we’ll know for years to come. The kinds of frame changes about which he’s talking are literal changes in people’s minds; that take time, persistence, and even luck. In the meantime, he’s given me a powerful way to think about and understand the world.

race matters

Almost a year after Barrack Obama was elected president the debate about what his being the nation’s first biracial president means rages on. Simplifying and generalizing the arguments (always a precarious thing to do): some say it signifies a step beyond race to some place where we do not have to worry about it, where race has nothing to do with how we see and judge people; others admit the importance of Obama’s election, but also speak of the continued racism that people of color face and to statistics about the disproportionate number of people of color living in poverty, failing in our schools, suffering from toxins in their neighborhoods, sitting in prison, and generally dealing with the very real effects of institutional and systemic racism in our society.

In recent weeks the debate was inflamed by the arrest, in his own home, of noted scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who publicly asserted that he had been the victim of racial profiling. The arresting officer denied the idea and refused to apologize, saying he had no reason to do so. The president weighed in; the papers and talk shows are having a field day. Predictably and revealingly, in a poll, about 3/4 of African-Americans said they thought race was a factor in the arrest; 2/3 of whites said it wasn’t; it is the privilege of the over-class to ignore the world in which the under-class lives.

There is hardly a better moment to read Cornell West’s 1993 classic Race Matters. In essays entitled “Nihilism in Black America,” “Beyond Affirmative Action: Equality and Identity,” “Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject,” and more, West incisively and profoundly analyzes racism in the U.S. His carefully constructed prose elucidates complex ideas and stimulates further thought. He speaks truth to power in a way that is both provocative and obvious, frequently making me wonder why I hadn’t seen his point before that moment.

Among many, the idea that stands out for me at the moment is that African-Americans are intrinsically part of our national culture. They’ve been on the continent almost as long as white people. Our society has evolved with the contributions of both black and white people. To the extent that there is a “white” culture and a “black” culture (categories that clearly include a great deal of variety and individuality within them), they have evolved together, contributing to one another in both many, many ways. African-Americans are as “American” as the rest of us.

It is obvious to me that, as the title to this book suggests, race still matters in the U.S. and around the world. The sooner that white people in the U.S. accept and publicly acknowledge this reality, the sooner we will be able to take true steps to equality.

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