Reviewed: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

pushout_finalA review in 30 bullet points:

  • In 2005, I read David Shipler’s then-new book The Working Poor, where he used people’s narratives to build a case that the American economy was rigged against those who were poor. The beam in his eye, though, is that nearly all of his dozens of stories read like this: “So-and-so dropped out of high school, got pregnant a few times, and keeps getting arrested for drugs and shoplifting and now she can’t even get a dignified job that pays a living wage, people, it’s a nightmare for this poor victim George Bush is evil!” (His hilarious myopia was perfectly exposed here.)
  • Monique Morris uses the same storytelling strategy to make the case for systemic discrimination against black girls in American schools in Pushout, and she does it by making the exact same mistakes David Shipler made a decade ago. A typical example might look like this: “One student repeatedly cussed out the teacher in front of the class and got into fights and suddenly the random oppressors are giving her grief hey everybody this racist system is broken!
  • Of the many stories in this book, zero ever suggest that any trouble a student ever finds herself in is her own fault, not to any degree. Such a message of null responsibility seems dangerous to give to youth, and unethical for a scholar to promote.
  • Morris constantly alludes to “attitude” and “loudness” among black girls (why is such stereotyping OK for her?), and ascribes these traits to a conscious rebellion against a racist system. Again, this is never defended, nor is any alternative explanation ever explored much less refuted (an inexcusable lapse for a scholar!).
  • The girls’ stories are always treated as objectively factual, with nary a shred of skepticism from the author evident. Not to say that the girls are prevaricating–though why wouldn’t they try to look good for a sympathetic interviewer?–but who’s to say that their perceptions of their experiences are perfect? Why is no space ever given for others involved to explain any shortcomings in the girls’ memories? Or is only one side of the story valid? Only one view is privileged here? (Has Morris never seen Rashomon?)
  • A more accurate–and more honest–assessment of the girls in this book would include a more well-rounded picture of their lives. Do they have two parents at home? Did the adults in the family finish high school? Do their families work and obey the law? If the answers to the above are “no” for most of the girls portrayed in this book, that would seem significant–why hide it? If the answers are yes, that would strengthen Morris’s case, so why not advertise it? Her silence on the subject seems telling. (Or are the “no” answers also the result of racist oppression, in a conveniently permanent self-fulfilling loop of begging the question?)
  • Though Morris often throws out statistics like “X% of all suspended students are Black girls,” she never says how much of the total black female student population that percentage represents. A more useful number would be something like “X% of all black girls in America have been suspended.” A large number there would be indicative of a problem, but as it is, she’s looking at a very narrow area of the whole picture. Such obfuscated reporting is disingenuous.
  • The fact is, the vast majority of black girls are never suspended, never in trouble, and never drop out. The vast majority of black girls in America (and I say this after having taught school at several sites around a large and ethnically diverse city for 16 years) do not match the simplified description of them given by Morris. She derides “caricatures of Black femininity,” but constantly indulges in them herself.
  • Her failure to note all of this, much less deal with it, leads me to wonder why she focuses on such a tiny portion of the population; a minority of a minority, really. I suppose it’s because that’s the only way she can make her case for systemic discrimination.

  • Morris never examines, much less proves, her belief that there even is systemic discrimination. Perhaps she feels this book wasn’t the place for it. Perhaps it’s just received wisdom for her, a commonplace article of faith. At any rate, in light of the above point, there’s an enormous flaw in her theory that she needs to deal with: if there is, in fact, systemic discrimination against black girls in America’s schools, then it must be counted as a spectacular failure, for the vast majority of black girls escape the clutches of its machinations completely unscathed. This would seem to be true for all the other trendy brands of proposed “systemic discrimination” out there, also.
  • The author herself is a black woman. I’m curious what her experiences with this “racist” educational system were. Was she ever suspended? Was she ever in confrontational arguments with teachers? Was she “pushed out” by hostile school personnel? Or was she encouraged by the scores of teachers who live to advocate for minorities? Was she given extra attention and opportunities because she was black and female? And did she herself come from an intact, two-parent, law-abiding family? I wonder what the answers to these questions would say about her thesis.
  • I see from her bio in the book’s jacket that she has an advanced college degree and is married with two children. Looks like she could be a great mentor to these girls. I hope she shared with them how she became who she is today.

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The Infinite Apology Continues

My kids discovered Tom and Jerry last year, so we go them a DVD.  This disclaimer runs at the beginning.  Our obsession with publicly “washing our hands” of every shred of anything in the past that might be interpreted as not in harmony with our current sensibilities is very sad.  It’s neither healthy nor productive.  It starts as a dog and pony show, and ends as a witch hunt.  I wish this society would grow up and be more innocent.

tom

The Talk: All Races Version

Just before the weekend, John Derbyshire published an essay that can only be called racist.  His advice boils down to making snap judgments, based on fear and faulty assumptions, and avoiding black people in general.  It’s awful.  It got him fired from National Review.

In the last few days, it has become understandably controversial.  Many parodies are going up.  I just finished my own version.  It’s not a parody.  If anything, I hope it’s a clarion call for clear thought and open hearts.  I believe the two go together.  It’s a draft, but I think it’s useful.

Derbyshire’s essay was about what white parents supposedly tell their children about blacks.  Mine is meant to be ready-made for people of any race in America to use with all other races.  Derbyshire said that his essay is what he tells his kids.  This is what I tell mine.

 

(1) You’ve noticed by now that there are a lot of colors of people out there.  You’ve probably also noticed that many people place a lot of value in those colors, both their own and everybody else’s.  What you need to know is that people have a right to claim pride in their heritage, including you.  You don’t have to do anything special to acknowledge the feelings of others, but you do have a social obligation to be polite.  If someone else has intense feelings about their race, don’t disregard it.  If they have no feelings for their race or others’, don’t disregard that, either.  If someone has strong feelings about another race, though, their opinion probably isn’t worth listening to.

 

(2) Don’t be obnoxious and make your own feelings an issue for those around you to deal with, though.  It’s rude.

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What Was the Mark of the Curse in the Book of Mormon?

A comment on a news article last week called the Book of Mormon racist because of its references to dark skin in conjunction with a curse.  I responded with the usual explanation: the curse is spiritual separation from God (2 Nephi 5:20), and the dark skin was just a useful way to distinguish those who’d been cursed.  However, the more I looked at what I’d written, the less satisfied I was.  I felt like I was missing something.  I went back to the text.

I don’t think the Book of Mormon references to dark skin are literal anymore; I think they’re only a poetic idiom.  Subsequently, I now have a different theory for what the mark of the curse really was.

The Controversial Verses

First, look at the relevant text.  There are three passages in the Book of Mormon that specifically mention dark skin as the mark of a curse (in 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, and Alma 3), and a fourth that bears on them (3 Nephi 2).  Here are the most controversial verses:

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Logical Fallacies and “Asians in the Library”

An excellent teaching moment came my way yesterday.  My English 101 class spends the last half of the semester doing a unit on persuasive writing, and the textbook has a whole section on logical fallacies.  In addition to a dry review of them last night, I ended class with something a little more unique and practical. 

I told my classes about the already-infamous “Asians in the Library” video that a girl at UCLA did a couple of weeks ago, and then showed it to them.  As we watched, we stopped it often so we could identify specifically which logical fallacies she was committing.  It was hilarious, controversial, and really drove the point home–the world is full of people who make stupid arguments, and we have the tools to deflate them. 

On a more serious note, for someone like me who truly believes that racism is a thing of the past, a relic that’s been relegated to only the most extreme fringes of society, no matter how loudly some professional grievance-mongers continue to crow about it, it’s really disturbing to hear something every now and then like this that shows us that there really is still some serious racism out there.  I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t think of any way to view this video with a charitable explanation–this young lady just simply comes across as an ignorant bigot. 

My notes on her logical fallacies are after the jump; see how many you can spot!

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Myth: The Constitution Is Racist

My letter in today’s Las Vegas Review-Journal corrects a popular old myth: that the U.S. Constitution is racist.  I even remember this faulty interpretation of the passage in question being used in an episode of The West Wing

To the editor:

In his otherwise excellent Wednesday letter, Robert Gardner does make one mistake. He repeats the old fallacy about the Constitution being racist, suggesting that Article I, Section 2 says, “blacks are … considered three-fifths of a person.”

Not true.

That section is about counting population to determine how many representatives we get in government, which is why we have the census. That count was to enumerate “free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons,” meaning slaves. Free blacks were counted as a whole.

The language isn’t meant to determine someone’s worth as a human being, but merely to reduce the total count. The strength of a state’s presence in government was determined by this count. Northern states didn’t want slaves counted at all; Southern states wanted them counted as a whole. The point of the three-fifths compromise was to reduce the South’s power.

Ironically, for those who see this part of the Constitution as racist, this rule did what it was supposed to do: It contributed to the eventual end of slavery. With Black History Month right around the corner, it’s important to set the record straight.

Censoring Huck Finn Dilutes Power

The new, redacted version of Huckleberry Finn (replacing all instances of the n-word with “slave”) is still a major topic of discussion, which is impressive enough, and more so as this hasn’t exactly been a slow news week, with the Arizona shooting.  Clearly, this event has brought out a lot of passion and opinions.  Much has been said about honoring Mark Twain’s intended language, about the nature of reality in the period that Twain wanted to depict in all of its ugliness, and about revisionist history (and censorship) as narcissistic navel-gazing.  All of that’s true, so I won’t labor the points here, but I think I have two good ideas to add to the discussion.

1)  There’s already a high school in a predominantly black part of my town where Huck Finn has been under a de facto ban for years, as the staff is worried that its use of the n-word will inflame the community.  I hope the community’s maturity would surprise them, but their worry exists with good reason for, as our attorney general has noted, when it comes to race, we are a nation of cowards.  We’re afraid to discuss race for fear of being offensive.  If a group of white people is talking about race, and a black person is present, the mood changes, and everyone tiptoes on egg shells.  Whatever your race, you know this is true.  This isn’t because we’re all secretly hiding some bias, but because we’ve been trained to see racism everywhere, and we’re paranoid about our peers being suspicious.  Isn’t this sad? 

Censoring the n-word in Huck Finn will only make such problems worse, because it implies that there’s something wrong with the text, and if there’s something wrong with the text, it must be racism.  One of the problems with our society is its growing inability to see shades of gray, and this censorship will only reinforce the tendency to say that if something is frank and realistic about race, it must be racist.  The irony of this tragedy is that in Huck Finn (which is about racism, but not racist itself), the poor, oppressed black man is the ultimate hero (see below).  In a setting that Twain filled with white idiots, Jim is one of literature’s earliest black heroes. 

2)  Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?  Of course you do: Goldilocks goes exploring and finds a cottage in the woods.  She walks on in and, finding the place vacant, helps herself to their porridge and beds.  She falls asleep until the three bears come home and find her, whereupon she runs off.  The end. 

Ever realize just how pointless that story is?  That’s because that isn’t the story–like so many of our old fairy tales, our storybook version has been edited to protect us.  In the original, the bears come home and eat Goldilocks.  This ending carried a clear moral to it: straying too far from the established path into a wilderness, by yourself, is dangerous (also, breaking and entering is bad).  The edited ending not only “protects” us from violence, it renders the whole story meaningless. 

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The Brown Herring

I haven’t yet commented on the kerfuffle over Arizona’s illegal alien law because it was so fractious that I wanted to let the dust settle, and I wanted to collect my thoughts before writing.  Sadly, the first isn’t even close to happening yet, so neither is the second.  But especially since so many in my own community–Latter-day Saints–are voicing opposition to this online, I need to contribute.

Almost all of the argument against the Arizona law amounts to one paltry thing: they’re racist!  They’re doing it because they hate Hispanics

Haven’t we lived with political correctness long enough to see it for the desperate, transparent attempt to stifle freedom and restrict discussion that it is?  Individual racists still exist, but are few and far between, and certainly any broad social consensus on a policy issue such as this is based on the honest good intentions of the citizenry, not some sudden massive throwback to the Jim Crow era. 

I’m happy to debate the pros and cons of this law, but people who base their position on the idea that those who disagree–regardless of what they say, no matter what other information they bring to the table–are really doing it because their black evil hearts are just filled with hate, are indulging in the worst possible vices of civic discourse: lying, stereotyping, refusing to listen to others with the benefit of the doubt.  They’re changing the subject, sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting, “La la la!  I can’t hear you and I don’t have to because you’re just a dumb meanie!  La la la!”  No constructive conversation can come from such an intellectual disconnect. 

I encourage anyone who supports Arizona to engage in discussions with those who disagree with us, but to present this understanding to them up front: if you’re going to insult millions of people and boil our principles down to ugly slurs, this conversation is over and I will walk away. 

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A Pair of Pessimistic Political Predictions

I’m not saying that these things will happen, but the way our society is going, I think it’s likely that they might happen. 

1.  Any straight people who get married will be seen as inherently oppressing gays who can’t marry.  This came to mind as I heard recently about a growing slew of celebrities who refuse to get married, saying they won’t do it until everybody can do it.  The logical end of that train of thought will be stigmatizing anybody who doesn’t get in on this “boycot.”  Cohabitation will explode even further as marriage rates drop drastically.

2.  The concept of nationality will come to be looked down on as narrow-minded, old fashioned, and akin to racism.  Under the guise of embracing all of humanity and “celebrating diversity,” many will decry those who assert that being an American–or any other nationality–has some intrinsic meaning.  Valuing your country over other countries will be the new “racism,” as the more “enlightened” among us will disavow their allegiance to any one nation and declare themselves “citizens of the world.” 

I know, I know–the seeds of both of these are already well sown into our society.  My fear is that they will become far more prevalent, that within a decade they will be the mandatory mantras of the mainstream, the same way that gay marriage, amnesty, and socialism suddenly became orthodox doctrines during the last ten years.

The Use and Abuse of Barack Obama

Which argument is better?

A) The world is round because, you know, it just like totally is and everybody knows it.

B) The world is flat because, if perception is reality, then we must acknowledge that most aspects of our lives are based on an understanding of the world being flat: we don’t see the curvature of the Earth with any regularity, so we are comfortable with two dimensional maps and measure the fastest travel routes over land, not through the ground. 

While the premise of argument A is true, argument B is superior.  Ideally, we want arguments that are both true and intelligently defended, but that is neither here nor there.  My point is that too many people today are comfortable with the first kind of thinking, and such logical sloppiness can only lead to trouble. 

Sadly, this is the case with the election of Barack Obama. 

I don’t have anything against President Obama personally, nor do I wish ill for him or his administration.  I hope he turns out to be the greatest president we’ve ever had, because that would be good for the country.  This is not a criticism of him, but it is absolutely a criticism of many who voted for him.  I don’t fault anyone for voting their conscience, and anyone who voted for him because they considered and prefered his politics has my respect, but just as I cannot respect someone who says the Earth is round because “it just like totally is,” I cannot respect the vote of someone who elected a man for the wrong reason.

Barack Obama became president of the United States not because of his experience, policies, or vision, nor even his character.  Barack Obama won the election because he’s black.  Besides the fact that fully 96% of black voters opted for Obama, the race factor is baldly advertised with such blatantly racist posturing as Tom Brokaw trumpeting Obama’s election as a slap in the face to “bigots and rednecks,” Joseph Lowery’s scathing indictment of white people during a prayer at the inauguration when he yearned for a time “when white will embrace the right,” and even hinted at when Obama himself pronounced in his inauguration speech that his election was a victory of “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”  (Does this mean that a vote for McCain was a vote for fear?  How so?  And how tactless is that to say?)

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