A call to live out your principles more fully than ever

A call to live out your principles more fully than ever

Don’t forget that it’s up to us, all of it. All of this. If we don’t upend the current state of affairs, who will? If we don’t fight oppression, who will?

We know what we know. I hope that if nothing else, this might inspire you to think hard. If you saw a movie with yourself as the main character, knowing what you know, what you would expect that character to do? What would that character find him or herself doing in the name of living out your principles?

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Starbucks closed its stores today to renew its commitment to... Third Place? Huh. What's that?

Starbucks closed its stores today to renew its commitment to... Third Place? Huh. What's that?

I’m sure you know by now that two Black men were arrested after a Starbucks employee called them in for being Black a few weeks back.

Every Starbucks closed today in response to that incident, and every Starbucks employee in universes both known and otherwise attended a racial bias training this afternoon.

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I'm glad I found this event flyer from Seattle's 'Radical Women' in the street today

I'm glad I found this event flyer from Seattle's 'Radical Women' in the street today

"

I was walking across the street in Columbia City with my younger son today when I saw a yellow flyer sitting face down in the road. It caught my eye for some reason, so I doubled back a couple steps and grabbed it.

Lo and behold, it was about two events being put on by the Seattle chapter of Radical Women. Here's the mission statement from their Facebook page, if you don't know about them. It's one of the best things I've read in ages:

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Let's be clear: 'Brown v. Board' was about school choice as a civil rights issue

Evidently “school choice” is a complicated idea.

I thought it was pretty simple. Parents should be able to choose a good school for their child. Seems it’s easily misunderstood though.

For instance, members of an NAACP task force wrote this week about being "concerned that the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education victory that promised a quality education for all was at risk” because of charter schools and the expansion of school choice.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, even went so far recently as to suggest that school choice’s roots are in racial segregation.

Brown v. Board of Education was not about saving Black children from inferior schools, as Malcolm Gladwell discussed recently on his Revisionist History podcast, even though that’s the version of history we were all taught in our traditional public schooling.

Brown v. Board was about school choice as a civil rights issue. It was also a case of Black children being left on the front lines during a fight between the adults.

 

Act I: Meet the Browns

In the early 1950s, Oliver and Leola Brown’s daughter, Linda, was a student at Monroe Elementary, an all-Black school in segregated Topeka, Kansas. To get to school each morning, Linda had to walk seven blocks and cross a busy street, often in cold winter weather, and then take a bus from there to Monroe. An all-white school, meanwhile, was four easy blocks away.

Some of these details are probably familiar.

At the urging of the NAACP, Oliver Brown walked into that white elementary school one day and tried to enroll his daughter. But it wasn’t, despite the popular narrative, because the all-Black school with its all-Black faculty was sub-standard in some way.

“We didn’t have any bone to pick with our school as far as education was concerned,” said Leola Brown in a 1991 interview, “nor with the teachers, because they were qualified and did what they were supposed to do.”

Leola Brown had attended Monroe herself as a child, so she knew what she was talking about. She gave her supposedly inferior elementary school rave reviews — not only for the quality of the education, but also for the quality of care she received:

“I loved it. I loved it. The teachers were fantastic. We got a fantastic education there. This case wasn’t based on that, because we learned. We learned a lot and they were good to us. More like mothers. They took an interest in you.”

She felt seen and valued by her teachers, which makes all the difference. She also felt they knew their stuff, and history tells us she was probably right. Because most professions were fully closed off to Black people in those days regardless of their qualifications, a huge number of highly educated Black folks became teachers.

The lawsuit, then, was fully a matter of principle. The Browns weren’t trying to escape some ghetto-school nightmare. They just thought they should be able to choose the school they felt was best for their daughter. They thought the school board, which the white principal blamed as objecting to integrated enrollment, shouldn’t be limiting their daughter’s options, especially based on the color of her skin.

The Supreme Court reached the same conclusion. Sort of.

The Court agreed that the Browns should be able to enroll Linda wherever they saw fit, but its reasoning gave birth to a whole host of unintended consequences. Or at least, the Browns didn’t intend for any of them. It’s not clear what anybody else expected.

See, the judicial branch of the U.S. government concluded that segregation was inherently inequitable, but they claimed this was because it was deeply harmful to Black students to be educated separately. Continued segregation, per the government, would continue to “retard the educational and mental development of Negro children.”

That’s a galaxy away from Leola Brown saying, hey, Monroe was a good school, and the teachers were great, but as a matter of principle, we should be able to choose our daughter’s school.

Let’s act it out for effect.

 

The Man: Monroe is a bad school.

The Browns: Uh, no, not exactly. Monroe is a fine school. We just believe we’re entitled to choose our daughter’s school. It’s a matter of principle that we be allowed to decide what’s best for our own children.

The Man: No, you don’t know what you want. Your educational and mental development has been retarded by your inferior schooling. Someone get a gun and escort these poor Black kids into our hallowed white halls!

Narrator: And then they all watched as most of the Black teachers were fired and most of the Black schools were closed...

End of Act I


 

Act II: The Grass is Browner on the Other Side?

If we’re wondering where all the Black teachers went, well, they got fired in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision, and the profession hasn’t recovered. It hasn’t helped, though, that other reforms and so-called improvements have managed to escort more black teachers out of the profession along the way as well, seeming like a good idea at the time. A large number of Black teachers were replaced in New Orleans, for example, after Hurricane Katrina, primarily by young, well-meaning white folks.

Black teachers being squeezed out of schools is certainly problematic in its own right, but the real trouble here is that this isn’t just an issue of adult discrimination. Our children have been impacted by the ripples for decades. Studies and anecdotes alike indicate that Black students were often faring better academically prior to integration, which seems counter-intuitive. Kind of like how Massachusetts’ literacy rate was 96% in the year prior to compulsory public schooling, and has never been as high since. Is anything what it seems?

Anyway, getting more teachers of color into the classroom is widely known as one of the most effective ways to close the opportunity gap between students of color and their white peers. A study in North Carolina showed that Black male students were 39 percent more likely to finish high school if they had one Black teacher between third and fifth grade. That’s it.

It’s not usually intentional racism that produces these discrepancies. Teachers are often unwitting interpreters, an act that relies heavily on our implicit biases unless we are consciously self-monitoring. Was that kid’s behavior an act of menace or of innocent energy? Whose struggles are due to a lack of effort and whose come from a lack of potential? Which kids just need to be challenged and which kids just can’t handle more advanced coursework? Who gets your attention as opposed to your indifference? Whose culture is reflected in the curriculum and whose is othered? Whose is erased?

Through constant subjective decisions and interpretations like these, teachers have the subtle power to shape a child’s education — and often his or her future. Think about your own experience. We know when someone doesn’t believe in us, no matter what they say. We know when we’re being paid lip service. Having someone take a genuine interest in you as a student can have a profound impact on your outcomes. It’s not that this can only happen with same-race teachers, just that it’s statistically more likely.

“Once you grant this idea that a teacher is a gatekeeper and a child needs a teacher to take an interest in them, it changes integration,” said Celestine Porter during an interview as part of Duke University’s “Behind the Veil” project. “Teachers should have integrated first, then students. Instead, we sent all these Black students to white schools, fired the Black teachers and closed the Black schools.”

Instead, white folks interpreted and implemented integration.

Who, as a result, truly saw the sharp edges and dark corners of integration? Black children.

Who was coddled and allowed to continue in their privileged ignorance? White adults.

Ever since, we’ve had everyone, regardless of race, getting schooled in white, government-run institutions.

Everything is more complicated than it appears.

Let’s act it out again. I think you’ll like Act II. This is where we start to introduce the more fantastical elements of the drama.

Our cast of characters has expanded to include the representative for the white schools and white teachers, whom we’ll arbitrarily name 1950s Randi Weingarten, as well as ageless Al Sharpton as himself. Here we’ll also meet Time-Traveling Mr. T, a spirit being who leaps eternally throughout the web of time pitying the fools who perpetuate racism on the backs of innocent children and occasionally laying the smack down.

 

1950s Randi Weingarten: Well, Black children, ye whose development has been so unfortunately impacted by your perfectly capable and loving teachers and the ill-advised choices of your perfectly capable and loving parents, we have been instructed to allow you passage into our lily-white sanctuaries of learnedness. Black parents, please find an appropriately white manner in which to express your unquestioning gratitude.

Time-Traveling Mr. T: You are a fool. I pity you.

Al Sharpton: The note I wrote to myself on the back of this large check from the white teachers union says that I agree with Randy Wine Garden.

Time-Traveling Mr. T: Reverend Sharpton, I respectfully disagree with your purchased assessment. I’m going to lay the smack down now.

End of Act II

 

Act III: Back to the Future

More than 60 years after Oliver and Leola Brown decided they wanted to choose a different school for their daughter, genuine school integration remains elusive. We continue to battle the demons of opportunity gaps and structural racism. But perhaps most puzzling is the fact that we are still squabbling about school choice. If nothing else, shouldn’t Brown v. Board have put that issue to rest?

Last fall, the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of school choice in the United States, viewing the charter sector as a threat to our hallowed system of public education — as though it’s ever been what it claims to be for Black students and families — and drawing an inexplicable line in the sand between two parts of itself. After all, more than 800,000 Black students attended charter schools in the United States this past school year. That’s more than 25 percent of charter students, even though Black children account for just 15 percent of the total student population nationally.

Let’s be clear about a few things: I am not advocating for segregated schools, by any means. My son attends our “low-performing” neighborhood public school specifically because of its exceptionally diverse student body. And I understand that schools, in our capitalist present, are often where people make connections and build social capital. Schools are power hubs, like it or not.

I’m also not strictly “pro-charter,” to be frank. I’m also perfectly opposed to for-profit charter schools, and I do not support charter schools that are just more of the same — schools that claim to be different, but are run by white adults who don’t understand what’s at stake and don’t genuinely know how to educate kids of all races.

Honestly, I’m not pro-charter any more than I’m anti-traditional public school. My bone to pick is with the status quo, the one that has been perpetuating discrimination against kids of color and, thus, has led to inequitable outcomes. The status quo the unions are paid to protect. I’m opposed to bad schools and the bad propaganda that perpetuates them. I’m opposed to dogma that limits dialogue and progress. I’m opposed to ignoring the truth about our public schools.

See, I’m not saying I have any answers, but goddamn do I have a lot of questions. And instead of sitting in our respective corners waiting for the next bell to ring so we can knock each other’s lights out over nothing, why not sit down and have a conversation about some of these big questions? Why not talk through some of these real issues and strange truths and move forward together?

We’ve not only been wasting our time and money and resources in a fruitless argument, but we’ve been gambling with kids’ lives in the name of this intellectual debate about the minuscule difference between public charter schools and traditional public schools.

Enough already.

I’m calling for a moratorium on petty bullshit, on self-righteous adult egos getting in the way of what’s long been settled as a fundamental right for children and their families.

Let’s act it out one more time.

 

Matt Halvorson: Dear government and your compulsory schools. Dear teachers unions and your compulsory memberships. Dear NAACP and your pointless bought-and-paid-for squabbles. First do no harm. Then I will be open to your opinions.

Crickets: Chirp.

End of Act III

 

Dear fellow fragile white folks: Sorry I'm not sorry for occasionally making you uncomfortable

Josh Barro published an article this week in Business Insider contending that liberals will regain political power if they can just stop being so annoying and morally overbearing. Basically, according to Barro, liberals seem worried about — and critical of — just about everything.

As in, oh, you’re going to have some chicken for dinner with your family tonight? Well, that’s not cool because the chicken was factory farmed.

Oh, you’re going to drive somewhere? Using gas? Don’t you know what oil drilling is doing to the planet? You can see fracking sites from outer space.

Oh, you’re banking with a for-profit big bank? Don’t you know what awful things they support? Don’t you know about credit unions?

Oh, you’re sending your kid to private school? Or a charter school? Or a public school? Or whatever? Don’t you know about the opportunity gap? Don’t you know that you’re gentrifying the neighborhood? Don’t you know you’re the problem? Don’t you know we’re critical of your choices?

Typical voters, according to Barro, “do not like being told to feel guilty about personal choices.”

Well, sure. I get it. That's not a thrilling experience for anybody. But here’s the problem with all of this: all these things deserve to be criticized. In fact, marginalized communities often urgently needs us to be critical of the status quo. Nothing we're talking about here is beyond reproach, yet we find it unbearably annoying to be reminded of why reproach might actually be appropriate.

Why? How did we get here?

For one thing, our egos are fragile and we don’t like feeling criticized, let alone being told that our decisions and actions are having a negative impact on groups of people, on the environment, on anything. We don't like being asked to consider that we might be the villain, at least in some ways or from some perspectives.

But it runs deeper than that. We’re not irrational creatures. When we make destructive choices, we’re not usually making them simply for the sake of destruction. We tend to behave in ways that we believe will reward us. When we instead act in ways that run counter to our overall best interests — when we make decisions that are unhealthy, or short-sighted, or dangerous, let’s say — or when we act in ways that hurt our neighbors, or that go against what’s best for ourselves or the community or the Earth, there must be a reason.

So, the question is this: why, right now, are we acting against our own self-interest, both personally and planetarily? Why, in other words, are liberals feeling the need to be so annoying to folks like Josh Barro?

I think it’s because the society we’ve constructed is based around one fundamental question: can I make money doing that? That’s the crux of capitalism. The man-made economic system around which we base our entire everything doesn’t care if something is “good,” so it doesn’t necessarily reward it. It doesn’t care if something is “bad” either. It doesn't care about fairness or equity or love. Something only needs to be profitable to be encouraged into existence.

That means that when someone comes up with a way to more efficiently harvest living animals, for instance, it doesn’t matter that the animals are suffering — not to the system, not if it’s a moneymaker. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, that the more-efficient process will do damage to the atmosphere and the Earth. It doesn’t matter that most frozen chicken breasts are injected with water before they’re sold to increase the weight and the price. It doesn’t matter that this water almost always has measurable amounts of feces in it. It’s profitable, so it continues. And it’s cheap, or it’s convenient, or it’s available, or something, and so we continue to consume it.

Similarly, we’ll dismiss potentially innovative ideas in education because we can’t fund them, or more often — and more subtly — because they will upset the status quo that is paying so many, many salaries.

You don’t have to reach far for examples of all shapes and sizes. For-profit prisons, for instance. Anything made of plastic or styrofoam that wasn’t utterly necessary. Just about all advertising. The fact that we’re quickly emptying the Earth of its bees, fish and buffalo, to name a few. The factions that continue to withhold school choice from families who can’t afford it, forcing them instead to send their children into schools that will discriminate against them.

We wouldn’t do these things if we weren’t being tricked into it by a faulty reward system. Imagine a world in which it is just not profitable to sell chicken breasts that have been augmented with shit water. It wouldn’t be done. It wouldn’t happen. People don’t tend to love letting raw meat soak up poopy water for the inherent value of the activity, I don’t think. But when watering down those chicken breasts will be rewarded with extra money in a system built on fear and perceived scarcity, suddenly we can convince ourselves it’s a reasonable idea.

We’re locked into a system that truly judges an idea’s merit solely on its potential to get you paid or to get itself funded. We have to look around and be willing to change our minds. America’s collective consciousness has to shift such that we look at the same world and reach different conclusions, that we are given the same opportunities and start to take different actions.

We can’t just legislate our way out of this. Not within our current parameters. Our values have to change — and not just what we say we value, but what we show that we value. We have to change what we do as a society. We have to change the structure through which we function.

That’s why liberals, I think — as well as those of us who find ourselves much further left than liberal, or maybe not on this linear spectrum at all — are finding themselves backed into this role of being moral police. It’s not illegal to factory farm chickens under truly horrific conditions, and it’s going to be really damn hard to make it illegal. So we find ourselves trying to encourage you to not want it, even though it’s out there fitting all the criteria. That's no easy task. We have to try to convince you to act against your own self-interest within the game of capitalism. I want you to not seek the reward we’ve been conditioned to seek. I want you to make up your own rules and your own game instead of chasing the money all the way to hell, but I can’t coerce it.

There’s an old idiom that says you don’t change a racist’s mind by calling him a racist. Michael Petrilli’s version was to tweet that “The ‘check your privilege’ stuff doesn't work.” Sort of like how a person doesn’t immediately become less of a butthole after you point out that he’s being a butthole. We're more likely to get defensive. It's natural.

But at the same time, if you’re perpetuating racism, you might not know it until someone tells you. We all need to be reminded from time to time. Sometimes we need someone to wake us up and tell us we’re being a huge ass, even if it’s not super fun to hear it. Even if it takes years for the message to sink in.

So, that’s why I do my best to call out inequity without pulling any punches. That’s why I keep ranting about capitalism: because I have to convince you that the reward you’re chasing isn’t worth it. That it’s not even real to begin with.

I can’t make it illegal to eat bad chicken. I just want you to not want to buy it. I can’t seem to force anyone to change the name of the NFL team in Washington DC, or the baseball team in Cleveland. I can only hope folks change their minds and do my part to encourage them to do so. I can’t make it illegal, it seems, to turn a blind eye to the discrimination and inequity in our schools, so I just have to keep pestering you to pay attention. If I don’t, through my silence and inaction I’m part of the problem, and nothing will change. And we’ll all just keep eating chicken shit.

Sorry I’m not sorry if that’s annoying.

Laying Bare the Must-Ignore List

It used to be each day the sun
Just rose up in the sky
And after arcing gracefully
Just fell back down at night
But slowly we’ve replaced our lives
With numbers signifying
Every moment, every breath
The judgment magnifying
Till without ever really trying
We'd digitized in code
Every second of our lives
A dam where time once flowed
A burned-out car to block the road
But we don’t notice we’re confined
What’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine
It messes with your mind
Fear will keep the local systems in line
Convinced that there’s not enough
Until we lilies of the field
Are twisted ‘round our neighbor’s trunk
Each groping for the sunlight hung
Like a carrot out before us
Hoarding, hating, guarding, waiting
Our anxious angel chorus
Before long our must-ignore list
Has grown several light-years long
And we’ve fully convinced ourselves
That nothing’s really wrong
So, I’ve annotated each complaint
In a format organized
To be quite quickly understood
By human and snake alike

Number 1:
Too many lies
That keep us all in prison
Birth to school to work to death
The dream of capitalism
(But far from honest living)

Number 2:
See Number 1

See?
It’s a flaw in the very system
Nothing within it to be done
We’ve been set up to run and run
And run and run and run
And run and run
And run
Until our days are done