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the new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness

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In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the history of racialized control in the US – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration – pointing out the similarities and differences, particularly between the Jim Crow of the early and mid-20th century and the mass incarceration of African-American and Latino men in the present day.

Jim Crow – which had replaced slavery as the method of reinforcing white supremacy in the US – was a system of laws and practices that made black people into second class citizens unable to vote, to serve on juries, to live in white neighborhoods, to go to school with white children, to use the same bathrooms as white people, or to participate in white society in a myriad of other ways. When it began to crumble in the face of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a period of relative hope for racial equality for African-Americans that included more decent-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and more.

The time of promise was short-lived. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs is the mechanism that was and is used to replace Jim Crow by imprisoning of huge numbers of men of color and reinforcing what she calls the “caste system” in the United States. The War on Drugs was initiated by President Reagan in 1982 despite the fact that at the time “less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.” Money for drug enforcement skyrocketed. “Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,206 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to 181 million.”

Because “police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get ‘consent,’” racial biases have free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selection whom they stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites) – effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.

“Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African-Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” In that same year, African-Americans were admitted to prison at a level “more than twenty-six times the level in 1983. The number of 2000 drug admissions for Latinos was twenty-two times the number of 1983 admissions.” (Emphasis in the original.) By comparison, “the number of white drug admissions was eight times the number admitted in 1983.”

After arrest, prosecutors can overwhelm defendants with extra charges for which they have no evidence in an often successful attempt to get them to accept a lesser, but still felonious conviction. Because of harsh sentencing laws, “drug offenders in the United States more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control – in jail or prison, on probation or parole – than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.”

Predictably, the prison population exploded: “In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million today [2012].” They are disproportionately black and Latino. “One in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control – such as probation or parole.”

This despite the fact that crime rates in the US remained flat or even fell during this time. Moreover, study after study show that crime rates are roughly equal across racial groups. It is not that black and Latino men are more likely to commit crime. It is that they are more likely to be targeted for arrest, more likely to be convicted, and tend to have longer sentences when convicted.

Once convicted, discrimination that is remarkably similar to Jim Crow segregation is legal and encouraged. A system of laws and practices denies felons the right to participate in society, even though they have “paid their debt.” “The vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Felons cannot vote or serve on juries. Felons cannot apply for federal low-income housing. They are not eligible for most financial aid for college. It is legal in almost all states to deny jobs to the formerly-incarcerated, and they are barred from obtaining many licenses to open businesses of their own. Even in states where convicted felons are eligible for some of these right, they are shackled by legal fees and paperwork requirements that make exercising those rights all but impossible.

Alexander is clear and thorough and thoughtful. The statistics she cites are useful and compelling. Her arguments are logical and compassionate. If at times I felt overwhelmed by the book, it speaks only to its power.

Her goal is not to propose remedies, though she does begin to discuss them at the book’s end. Instead, I think her goal is to show how the system of mass incarceration is one of the biggest, if not the biggest civil rights issue of our time. In this, I think she succeeds.

When she does discuss remedies, she brings in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a shift from civil rights to human rights. Alexander, in turn, suggests that we unify across racial lines, not by ignoring our differences or pretending that we don’t see the color of each other’s skins, but by recognizing and acknowledging the humanness that we all possess. We can no longer accept the “racial bribes” we are often given, the crumbs that put most whites, even if they live in abject poverty, above most people of color. Some people of color benefit, too, but at the expense of everyone else. Alexander argues that a more just and better world could exist if we reject those bribes and form a coalition that recognizes the common human needs we share and are systematically denied. Together we could be more powerful and build a society that benefits all the people, rather than just a few.

As I read this book, I repeatedly thought that a similar analysis needs to be done of many of our institutions so that we can understand and deconstruct the ways that all our institutions disadvantage people of color, women, and others. I thought particularly of the ways that higher education pushes out people of color and poor folks, sending them the message that they don’t belong there. Perhaps someone is already working on these books. I hope they are, because I believe that knowing and understanding these issues can help us create a more just society.

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between the world and me

images.jpgThe pursuit of consciousness about the nature of society in the United States and our role in it is a process that never stops. For me the quest led to Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning book written for his teen-aged son. As a letter, it is personal. As an essay, it is powerful. In sentence upon beautiful sentence Coates describes the deep insecurity he feels, an insecurity founded in the reality that his body, like the body of all African-Americans, is and always has been at risk in our country.

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. . . . So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.

One only needs look at the news for proof. The Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, and Eric Garners speak to us about the value we place on black people’s lives. Now that they are not literally property in our country, we either incarcerate them or kill them with impunity. Their killers are not held to account.

For Coates, this is all in service of what he calls the “Dream” that “people who think of themselves as white” live in and support, whether consciously or not. The Dream is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.”

The Dream is embedded in our mythos and founding documents. Coates admits that “for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been and option because the dream rest on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. . . . You cannot forget how much they took from us and how the transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

The wealth of our country was founded in the theft of land, in the killing of the previous inhabitants, in slavery, and in the exploitation of poor people and the natural world. Everything must submit to our Dream, and we cover those crimes by calling the victims “savage,” “uneducated,” and other euphemisms that mean we believe they are less human than ourselves.

We are captured brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of American. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.

Even education – close to my own heart – is not spared from the light of Coates’ analysis:

It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense – ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistake were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.

But, “this is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

I take this to mean that struggle is important, whether we think will see justice in our society in our lifetimes or not, and I am reminded of words spoken by Cornell West in a speech I saw him give, years ago now, in Oakland: “I am hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”

I do not pretend to truly understand what West meant when he said those words, but I do know what they mean to me. They have become a refrain that I have spoken to myself as both mantra and motivation in the face of the persistent injustice I see in the world. They mean that I don’t expect the world to improve; I don’t expect our country to truly recognize the humanity of all its people and all the world’s people; I don’t expect my people – who we call white* – to stop exploiting the people of the world, including each other, and especially those we call people of color.

So I’m not optimistic, yet I have decided to remain hopeful. I get up each day because I hope to create a little more love. I strive toward justice and humanity for myself and for everyone around me, even as I fall short of these ideals. To stop trying would be giving in to the worst of humanity. For me that would be oblivion, a life I’d rather not live.

The story Coates tells is important for all of us to understand, especially at this moment in our nation’s history when many people feel powerlessness and fear as they look at the world around them. For some, the response is blame and hate. I think Coates’s answer is to look carefully and without illusion at the violence and injustice of our society, both past and present; to acknowledge the apparent impossibility of change; and nevertheless to struggle forward toward change with as much humanity and love as he can find. How much he finds is up to each of us.

I do not mean that we, as individuals, must stop being racist. Coates is not writing about the individual racism he and all black people face every day. He’s writing about the structural racism that is endemic in our educational system, in our justice system, in our economic system, in the foundation of our country. So our responsibility is not just for ourselves, but for the society as a whole. We must look for and root out the systemic injustice that hides in the procedures and policies and ordinances – and, yes, in our hearts.  It feels overwhelming and impossible. But we have seen that change, though difficult, is possible. That is the struggle.

 

* To be clear, whatever ethnic culture my family had was erased in the maw that we call whiteness. I know now that I come from Swiss and probably English and German stock. My mother’s parents immigrated from Switzerland and settled in Chicago in the early 20th century. My grandfather was a second son without inheritance and earned his living as best he could, exercising a hard frugality that stayed with him to his dying day. My father’s people were farmers in Indiana, and before that Ohio, but we don’t know when they first came to the US. My grandfather ran a general store at the crossroads a quarter-mile from his home. Both my grandmothers were homemakers and child raisers. If they ever worked outside their homes, I have never been told of it.

sabbatical project – 1

I am currently on sabbatical till January, 2018. During my sabbatical my primary work-related responsibility is to complete a research project.

In my research project I’m trying to pull together three areas that I have worked in over the course of my career as a community college math teacher: math education, multicultural education, and online education. My initial research has found that, while there is literature in the overlap of pairs of these (math and multicultural, math and online, multicultural and online), there is little where the three areas intersect.

If further research confirms that little or no work has been done in these area, then this niche needs to be filled. The importance of better math education is well-documented. As our college student population increasingly diversifies, the need for the still majority-white teaching profession to understand how to better communicate with students of all backgrounds is more crucial than ever. And, though I don’t think technology is the answer to all educational problems, we would be foolish to think that online education is going away; on the contrary, the private-sector is pushing that way, legislatures have visions of the savings it can produce, and students are demanding the flexibility of learning on their own time and from where ever they happen to be.

I’d love to collaborate with others on what I think is a critical confluence of research and practice. If you’d like to work together, or if you know of work in the intersection of math education, multicultural education, and online education, I’d like to here from you. Please comment here or contact me at: hhuntsman@gmail.com.

everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories

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Whiteness is the unmarked signifier of deservedness.
– Michelle Fine

If you’ve read anything or been to workshops on racism and white privilege in the US, you will recognize many of the authors of the fifteen short essays that comprise Everyday White People Confront Racial & Social Injustice. These folks are “everyday” in the sense that they do not necessarily have special talents, skills, experiences, or positions that make them special or unique among their White peers. On the other hand, their collective and individual public stances against racism and other forms of oppression in our society make them far from ordinary. These people have made it their life work to fight for equality and equity across our society. They are to be respected and, to some degree, emulated, even as they would probably argue against it.

I have found it hard to get out from under the strong training in racism I received as a child. I have come to think of my racist mind and heart as my hard drive, but if I consciously install an alternative software, I can at least temporarily respond to the world with a more whole psyche and sensibility.
– Peggy McIntosh

Each of their essays brings a different perspective on ant-racist work. Most tell the story of their upbringing and the privilege they carry because of accidents of birth. Most discuss the ways that intersecting identities put them in more or less privileged positions depending on the social and political context. One of the most effective discussions of intersectionality comes in Jane K. Fernandes’ essay on the intersections of White and hearing privilege. The concrete examples she uses of the White Deaf community responding to her and to people of color in the deaf community bring it home in ways I had not seen before.

Intersections of privilege systems, when they are not unfolded and opened to full view, become a bastion for maintaining White power and privilege. In many cases, they take place out of the view of the majority of people and thus many, even those committed to social justice, do not see or understand the role of intersections in the maintenance of White supremacy.
– Jane K. Fernandes

All of them stress the importance of this work for White people, the responsibility to use the privilege we are born with for good in the world. Or as Michelle Fine puts it, “Our debt to justice is to interrogate our privilege and li(v)es of whiteness.” At the same time we must recognize that “those who are victimized most by racism – people of color – understand it best, having to navigate racism on a daily basis. White people who want to understand racism need to shift from listening to other White people to learning to hear people of color.” (Christine E. Sleeter) We must listen to our brothers and sisters of color, not speak for them, but follow their lead, working together for a more just society.

The concept of being an ally is useful but inadequate. It is not an identity; it is a practice. It is the act of being present, showing up and working with others that defines the activity of an ally. . . When I am not working from a long-term vision ambitious enough to create serious change and led by people most affected by the issues, no matter how good I feel about my work, I am not responding to the magnitude of the challenges we confront. I may be standing for the right things, but I am not standing with the right people as an effective ally in the appropriate struggles.
Paul Kivel

That means, as Andrea Rabinowitz suggests, you must have relationships with the people you are trying to help. Otherwise, you are liable to fall into missionary mode.

Saving People of Color is one of the preferred weapons of whiteness.
Heather W. Hackman

These authors don’t do what they do for money or fame. They have made it their life work because they believe it is that important. They could not stand idly by watching injustice without acting, because, as Kevin Jennings maintains, “Silence is not neutrality; it’s complicity.”

 Standing up for what is right will rarely (if ever) make you popular. Being an ally to a disenfranchised group is often severely punished by those with whom you share privilege, whether based on your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability or any of a host of other categories I could name.
Kevin Jennings

They are racial and social justice workers because they understand that “the oppressor is also profoundly dehumanized by systems of oppression, and there cannot be racial equity unless we are all freed of this system.” (Heather W. Hackman)

They know they are imperfect. They still make mistakes, like we all do. Jennings implores, “it’s important to recognize the need for continuous struggle and to understand one’s proper role in that struggle.”

The slippery nature of whiteness and the incessant seduction of White privilege demand that I maintain a level of critical self-reflection and accountability as I do this work (at times, even my saying “I’m no expert” was an unconscious attempt to buffer a sort of false humility and gain racial justice credibility.)
Heather W. Hackman

They speak to the importance of interrogating whiteness and our role in it. Understanding the cultural erasure that being White promotes has motivated me to learn about and claim my heritage (Swiss and probably English, German, and French). I also must admit the ways in which I perpetuate and benefit from white privilege, as well as other accidents of my birth.

Privilege and White normativity have made [our] lives seem racially neutral, and thus [we] have never had to consider what it means to be White. . . I define whiteness as the combination of White privilege (the system that grants concrete and life-sustaining advantages and benefits to Whites) and White supremacy (the ideology that says we deserve them because we are superior.
Heather W. Hackman

Programs, laws, and policies are not enough, because people implement them. Hackman explains, “Policies are enacted to redress systemic inequalities, but because there is no corresponding internal transformation across this society, the desired result is not fully achieved.” And, “charity is useful and necessary, but it doesn’t change the system. We do need soup kitchens, I’m sorry to say, but we also need to be changing the system at the same time so we don’t permanently need soup kitchens.” (Alan Rabinowitz)

So, what can we, as White people, do? Christine Sleeter answers, “In order to learn to work against racism, White people must first recognize its everyday existence.” Second, the very a question “has the effect of distancing ourselves from the problem by assuming that we stand outside of racism rather than being complicity with it.” (B. Applebaum as attributed in Sleeter)

Further, White people learning to work against racism must come to grips with their own position as ongoing participants in and beneficiaries of racist systems that shield us from awareness of racism. . . although White people cannot escape participation in a racist system, we can learn to become “anti-racist racists.”
Christine E. Sleeter, quoting J. H. Katz

To conclude:

We need this book because it is a self-help manual for recidivist Whites, those of us who exercise our privilege as repeat offenders but are willing to try to change our ways as individuals, in our families, at work, in social movements. Read these chapters and think through your won biographies of embodying, enacting and resisting whiteness and bearing witness. You may periodically relapse into White privilege, but you will develop the muscle of reflexivity, of double consciousness that Du Bois so eloquently described for African Americans.
– Michelle Fine

We are all not finished yet.
– Maxine Greene, as quoted by Michelle Fine

what’s so important about algebra?

Every student in the US has to learn algebra. If this statement is an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. Almost all students take at least two years of algebra before graduating from high school and millions take it again in college. In addition, algebra skills are required in most science, engineering, and other course. But as technology evolves and what it means to be an educated person changes, I think it’s time that we think about why we teach algebra and the way we use it in education. In particular, I think it’s time we stop making algebra skills a barrier to success in college.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love algebra. Really. It’s a beautiful achievement, solving problems that challenged humanity for centuries. It’s also fun, and, as a math teacher at a community college, I enjoy supporting people as they learn algebra’s intricacies. I hope algebra is always available for those students who want to study it. However, if we’re honest about the knowledge and skills needed by 21st-century graduates, workers, and citizens, algebra does not rank high on the list. Even in the technical fields, I seriously question how often algebraic skills are actually required.

The issue is especially relevant in the community college setting because large percentages of incoming students are placed into developmental algebra courses, or below. These are the same courses most of us took in high school, but students have trouble retaining the algebraic skills they learned, especially if those skills aren’t related to their majors. As a result, many students struggle to learn algebraic content that, if they’re not going on to calculus, they don’t need for their next courses – topics like factoring polynomials and solving rational equations with variables in the denominator and synthetic division. The data reveal that students who place into algebra or below are very unlikely to ever pass college level math. And because first-generation college students and students of color are placed disproportionately into low-level math courses, the algebra barrier perpetuates educational and economic inequities.

For all these reasons, in 2010 I partnered with a colleague to develop a new course designed to prepare students who were going on to take college-level statistics. The fact is that relatively little algebra is needed to learn statistics and we thought we could help students succeed in statistics using a different kind of course, a course containing only the algebra students would need for statistics. We hoped to help the majority of students who aren’t heading toward calculus and who need statistics to complete their associate degrees and transfer to four-year colleges.

Fortunately, we were not the only ones working on this idea and we learned a lot from professors at other community colleges already trying this approach. (Learn more about the “pre-stat” community at: http://accelerationproject.org/.) With their help we were able to create our course, called Preparation for Statistics, and piloted it in Fall 2011. In the course, we asked students to engage with real data, using statistical ideas in an interactive and constructive teaching and learning style. We even helped them create their own surveys, collect data, analyze the data, and present it to their classmates. It was work to teach this way, but it was also the most fun I’d ever had in class.

Most important, it worked. Data from our college, combined with other colleges teaching similar courses, show that students from pre-statistics courses are successful in college-level statistics and that they are much more likely to complete their math requirements than students that who took the traditional algebra sequence. The evidence also suggests that the courses helped close achievement gaps for underrepresented students. (http://rpgroup.org/system/files/CAP_Report_Final_June2014.pdf) At our college, the evidence was strong enough to expand beyond the pilot stage. Each year we were helping hundreds of students reach and succeed in statistics.

If taking algebra in college is not necessary for success in statistics, what about other math courses? What about science courses? Isn’t algebra the mathematical foundation of modern science?

Questions like these got me thinking about mathematical prerequisites for general education science courses. These are the science courses that non-science majors usually take to satisfy the science requirement for their degrees, things like astronomy, biology, geology, geography, and basic chemistry and physics. I looked for studies of math prerequisites in courses like these, but have yet to find one (if you have one, I’d like to see it). The marked lack of statistical evidence that either supports or refutes the need for math prerequisites in science courses (or any courses, for that matter) is telling. At my college, most of these courses do not have math prerequisites, precisely because they want to attract non-technical majors to the courses (some of the courses advise completion of algebra, but don’t require it).

I did find some unpublished data, collected at my college and two other California community colleges that offer pre-statistics courses. Aggregating the data from all three colleges, students who took pre-stats courses before statistics were almost exactly as successful in their general education science courses as students who took the traditional algebra preparation for statistics (84% vs. 83%). Even disaggregated, the difference between the success of students at each college was never greater than 10 percentage points and the college (my own) with the lowest success rate for pre-stats students in GE science courses was still 72%, compared to 78% success for their traditionally algebra-prepared peers.

These results beg the question of how students without as much algebra are doing so well in general education science courses. One answer, suggested and bemoaned by some, is that instructors of those courses are reducing the mathematical content of the courses to accommodate students who haven’t had algebra since high school. Another potential answer is that, since almost all students took algebra in high school, a little reminding and prompting enables students to use algebra to the extent that they need to solve the problems.

While both of these are possible, I have yet to see any data that support those answers or any other. In the absence of evidence, I think it much more likely that the real skills needed to do well in general education science courses are things like numerical literacy, critical thinking, the ability to connect evidence to an idea, and academic skills like going to class, reading your book, taking good notes, turning in your homework on time, and, perhaps most important, belief in your ability to succeed. All these skills are taught in both algebra and pre-statistics courses; my experience is that more attention is paid to them in pre-statistics courses than in algebra.

But, what if it were true that science instructors have reduced the algebra content of their classes? Would this be a problem? I say, no. From my perspective, science classes exist to teach science concepts, not to test students’ algebraic knowledge. If, indeed, science teachers are making science concepts more understandable for students with less algebra experience, that would be a testament to the quality of their teaching ability. As I like to say, it’s easy to make an idea complicated and hard to understand; the difficult task is to make ideas simple and clear.

We have been making most science and math courses harder to understand by forcing algebra into them, even though it’s not needed or needed only minimally. For example, in a physics class the height of an object thrown in the air can be modeled quite well by a quadratic equation. Understanding of the scientific principle is demonstrated by setting up the equation. Solving the equation is purely algebraic, but most of the time these “physics” problems aren’t correct until the equation has been solved. In a science class, the science concept should be the primary goal. Solving the equation by hand should be less important, especially when computers with powerful solving algorithms are so readily available.

Here’s another example, from a geometry course:

Solve for x.

The geometric concept being reinforced is that the sum of the angles in a triangle is always 180°. But, in order to solve the problem, you have to perform some algebra. We don’t need algebra to understand the geometric idea, but if a student can’t do the algebra they won’t get the problem right.

We force students to do similar (and often more complicated) algebraic manipulations in chemistry, biology, oceanography, geography, economics, trigonometry, calculus, statistics and many others. In my experience it is algebra that trips up most students in these courses, not the non-algebra content. Limits, differentials and integrals are challenging ideas in calculus courses, but factoring from beginning algebra is frequently the biggest barrier to completing a calculus problem.

Of course, reinforcing algebraic skills throughout the math and science curriculum is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think too often we do it because that’s the way we were taught, not because of any considered pedagogical reasons. The cost of this decision is high because algebra courses and algebra’s continued use throughout the curriculum is, as I mentioned earlier, so often a barrier preventing students’ success.

And, while algebra can teach attention to detail, mastery of algorithms, symbol manipulation, logic, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, numerical literacy, and more, there are other ways to teach those same skills. My experience teaching pre-statistics suggests that we can teach those skills as well or better outside of the abstract context of algebra.

Higher education is changing at an unprecedented pace. These changes are driven partly by increases in the percentage of the population who go to college, partly by pressures from the federal and state governments for more return on their education dollar, partly by employers’ demands for well-prepared, 21st-century graduates, and partly by huge technological advances. In mathematics, the traditional algebra and geometry sequence, familiar to most of us from our own mathematical careers, is being questioned. The algebra sequence, after all, is designed to prepare students for calculus and beyond. But in a world where the most students are not seeking science, technology, and engineering degrees, do we really need to prepare all students for calculus? I don’t think so and I’m not alone. According to the 2015 report Degrees of Freedom: Diversifying Math Requirements for College Readiness and Graduation, “Alternatives emphasizing statistics, modeling, computer science, and quantitative reasoning that are cropping up in high schools and colleges are beginning to challenge the dominance of the familiar math sequence.” (http://edpolicyinca.org/publications/degrees-freedom-diversifying-math-requirements-college-readiness-and-graduation-report-1-3-part-series) These alternatives are emerging because the knowledge and skills needed by informed citizens of the 21st century can be taught as well or better in other ways and because the cost of continuing to insist on algebra is too high.

I’m open to being persuaded that algebra is as important for college students as we have made it. But, to change my mind, you’re going to need to show that the benefits of algebra are algebra’s alone and that they outweigh the costs of forcing everyone to do it.

brown is the new white

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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.

are college degrees worth less than they used to be?

About a year ago, a friend of mine told me he wondered why he had bothered to get an education. He felt that the job prospects and earning potential he had did not balance against the time and money he had invested in getting his Ph.D. He speculated more broadly that college degrees were becoming less and less valuable in our country and asked why we should continue to place such a high priority on college as a nation.

My friend’s thinking, plus the fact that I teach at a California community college, got me paying attention to some of the conversation that our society having about college degrees. In particular, over the last year I’ve been noticing more and more people questioning the value of a college degree. The script for these articles, videos, rants, complaints goes something like: 1) college costs a lot of money and finishing requires taking on significant debt, including some statistics on the amount of debt taken on by college students; and, 2) a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job like it did in the “good old days,” followed by an anecdote about a college graduate’s job search and maybe some questionable statistics.

A recent (6/13/11) Time magazine article (“Now What? Mortarboards and diplomas don’t get you as far as they used to. These new graduates are in for a bumpy ride.”) is a good example. Along with anecdotal evidence, the author cites a Rutgers University study finding that 30% of college graduates from 2006 to 2010 didn’t find employment within six months of finishing school (there’s no comparison with unemployment for folks without a college degree during the same time). Further, a Twentysomething Inc. poll found that 85% of “graduates are taking shelter under Mom and Dad’s roof.” (The timeline for this statistic is not clear—is it within one year of graduation? Or two years? Certainly, it doesn’t mean that 85% of all college grads are still living at home for the rest of our lives.) These two stats exhaust the quantitative data supporting the article’s title and it concludes that, although science and engineering majors are more likely to find jobs than their colleagues in liberal arts (U.S. Labor Department data), the nationally high unemployment numbers are promoting choosy employers.

Belying the faux-profound conclusion, the tone of the article is decidedly alarmist, ignoring that fact that people with a college degree continue to enjoy higher employment percentages than people without degrees; more education still promotes greater employment, in general, and graduates know it—the same Rutgers study found that 62% of those with a Bachelor’s degree believe that more education is needed to be “successful.” In addition, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more education tends to increase your income.

More thoughtful approaches to what a college degree means today include Sherry Linkon, at the Center for Working-Class Studies, who discusses the value of getting an education for people headed toward professions such as accounting, education, communications, and social work, for whom getting a college degree is a crucial step on the way to being certified to do the work. At the same time, Linkon points out that colleges force these essentially vocational students into general education classes that don’t seem to have anything to do with their chosen field of work. Importantly, she also discusses the knowledge that working class folks bring to these (and all) professions, much of which is not taught in school.

Then there is a New Yorker article by a college professor who tries to answer his students’ question: “Why do we have to read this book?” He believes that college should exist to educate citizens for democracy, but he’s not sure that’s how our society still uses higher education.

One could legitimately ask if we ever did use it that way. Indeed, self-improvement blogger Brian Kim writes:

Back in the day, everything that was said about getting a degree was true. If you had a degree, you separated yourself from the pack. Not many people were able to get degrees because not many people were able to afford college. It was normally reserved for the rich or upper middle class. And that’s precisely why the degree was so valued . . . because it was scarce. Scarcity creates value.

Like Kim, I think our society has always used college to reinforce the status quo elite, but I also think that in at least the last 50 or so years we’ve also used it for more democratic purposes. The facts are that in the last 50 years, our country has made a college education more available to women and people of color and they have taken advantage of it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women outnumber men in college and in degrees earned. In addition, the number of people of color earning degrees is increasing for every group.

The blog posts and articles go on and on, including a paranoia-inducing video put out by the mysteriously obscure, apparent scam organization “National Inflation Association” telling us that our education system sucks and that we should buy gold and silver to survive the coming economic apocalypse.

At the same time, College Board blissfully continues to tell us that “one of the best things about getting a college education is that you have more careers to choose from” and produces lists of the “Hottest Careers for College Graduates — Experts Predict Where the Jobs Will Be in 2018”

Trying to make sense of this cacophony, I’ve begun to think that its purpose is two-fold: to complain about the loss of privilege for those who used to be “entitled” to good-paying jobs; and, to promote the impression that by continuing to democratize college degrees for more and more segments of our society we further devalue a college degree. It’s not a big leap to think college degrees are being devalued by white men precisely because more women and people of color have them.

But beyond the more or less explicit racist, classist, and sexist agenda, these arguments ignore the issue of what happens to degree earners when they enter the job market. It would be great if jobs were equally distributed across all demographics of the degree earners — that would imply that hiring practices had improved greatly and that race, class, gender, and other forms of oppression in our society have diminished — but I don’t believe that is the case. Instead, as we all know, in most jobs white men continue to be more likely to get hired and be promoted than other people.

That means that the crying over the uncertain job market for college grads is almost entirely a tactic to protect white male privilege and entitlement; that is, it’s the same old discrimination in play. And, the people questioning the value of their degrees — whether knowingly racist, classist, and sexist or not — at least all ignore the reality of the privilege that most of them have. As a white man from an middle-class background, my friend’s analysis of his degree may be accurate for him. But for everyone else, the statistics say that a college degree remains a viable path to a better job and economic improvement.

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