Race , Diversity, and Experience
Since the 1960s, many educators have foregrounded race—primarily black and white—in their fight against inequity in society and in their struggles to address unequal outcomes at school. In this process African Americans have often been taken as a model for poverty and not just race, thereby confounding race and class. Not only educators, but many others, have also taken African-Americans as the “model minority” and assumed that the changing demographics of the United States—where a variety of different “minority groups” will be become the new majority—will benefit the Democrats since other minority groups will vote primarily Democratic as African-Americans do. This would, indeed, be bad news for the Republicans (and they seem to be tempting their own demise in the way they treat immigrants and minorities), but it is an assumption that is now being questioned (http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/the-emerging-republican-advantage-20150130).
Much of how we talk about race and culture in Education is a product of the world in which the Baby-Boomers (like me) grew up. But the world has changed. In the 1960s we had a massive middle class, an under-class locked out of it, and a fairly invisible over-class. Today we have an ever diminishing middle class and an over-class that has engaged in the largest upwards redistribution of wealth in our history (Stiglitz 2013). We still have an under-class, but with many more people joining it or in danger of joining it, people of all different colors.
We are returning to, and in some respects surpassing, the levels of inequality and degradation of work, wages, and unions last seen in the Age of the Robber Barons in the 1890s. Segregation is as bad or worse today than it was in the 1960s. The literacy gap between black and white kids has not come close to closing, but for the first time in American history the literacy gap in terms of class has surpassed the one in terms of race (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/08/when-class-became-more-important-to-a-childs-education-than-race/279064/). Obama’s presidency has shown the still virulent racism in the United States. Ironically, our world today is different from the world in which the Baby Boomers grew up because, in some respects, it is moving backwards and becoming so much like the world before the Baby Boom came on the scene, the world before Roosevelt’s New Deal, albeit with a new cast of minorities, immigrants, and downwardly mobile, formerly middle-class people (Fraser 2015).
Under the guise of being “critical”, educators have sometimes tended to see people as “liberated” when and only when they talk, value, and feel like the critical theorist. Consciousness raising has often meant (sometimes uncritically) adopting the critical theorist’s language and consciousness. Such critical work effaces diversity (albeit in the name of social justice) when it attempts to privilege the voice and language of the theorist as the litmus test of correctness.
White privilege has sometimes been foregrounded without much nuance for the fact that white people losing their homes and their futures in our current casino capitalism don’t much feel their privilege amidst their woes, however much they may have it. It does not seem a good coalition building strategy to harp on the perfectly true fact that even at the bottom of society there are haves (whites) and have not’s (blacks). And, often too, these perspectives are pushed by privileged tenured academics safe from sharing the fate of their black or white comrades’ race to the bottom.
It does not seem that our long-running educational theories of race, class, culture, and multiculturalism—however true and well-intentioned they may be—have impacted the world all that much. As we in Education have (correctly) damned deficit theories and white privilege, more and more people of all races, groups, and classes have been impoverished, drowned in debt, and left with little sense of control and active participation in society.
Today, the United States is made up of a myriad of groups of all shades of brown, black, and white, speaking 60 different languages. Not all brown and black people are poor, not all white ones are rich. A Black-White binary lens on today’s world—even if used merely as a “model”—may not be as helpful for any of us as it seemed in the 1960s.
Perhaps, it is time to change approaches. I would argue that we need new theories of culture and diversity, ones that do not “fix” “black” people as the definition of “diversity”. We need theories that see “black”, “brown”, and “white” diversity not just in terms of “culture”, but in terms of human interests, passions, experiences, and coalitions. We need to start actually honoring diversity.
I am not, by any means, intending to efface the politics of race. All language and all texts are political in the sense that we cannot speak or write without accepting and communicating (overtly or tacitly) what we take to be normal, appropriate, right, good, fair, or not. In a society like ours, with ever higher levels of inequality, all groups and institutions are warped, as are their relationships with each other. Indeed, there is evidence that when people feel they do not count as respected participants in society, they get sick in mind and body (and health care costs rise dramatically). There is evidence, as well, that even the rich in highly unequal societies have less good health than the well off in more equal societies. We are all sick and getting sicker; inequality is a disease that weakens us all (Pickett & Wilkinson 2011).
Both liberals and conservatives tend to use race in a totalizing way. Race becomes a macro-level category that defines non-white (prototypically black) people and effaces all other aspects of their lived experience and diversity. This is for me precisely the great sin of racism: to efface any person’s wealth of lived complexity in the name of a category, label, or stereotype. We cannot combat racism by engaging in the same removal of personhood and personality from other people as racists do. So I want to start not with race, but with lived experience and move from there to race, class, and gender (the unholy trinity) and then return again to lived experience.
I want us to talk about Eric Garner as more than a black man killed (again) by police, but as a person whose blackness did not exhaust who he was, no matter how much racism and media try to make it so. Look at the picture below: Don’t you want to know WHO he was, what he liked and didn’t, what made him unique as a person, what interests, passions, foibles, and excellences he had constructed as a human being from all his experiences in life? I want to know WHO the police killed, not just what category the “victim” fell into.
Without any doubt, many people—under the rubric of our society’s race, class, and gender impositions—are too often forced to background the diverse array of their feelings, talents, interests, and experiences to fly a single flag in solidarity with others in the fight for justice. But we must celebrate all their flags and they must be free to fly them all or we all lose in the fight for a new world where we can all survive.
In our efforts to foreground race and gender we have sometimes left out the actual complex people that make up (socially constructed) races and genders and thus lost the very thing we should value most, that is, diverse expressions of being human rooted in our different journeys through the multiple experiences that compose our lives.
I am not remotely suggesting that we give up our rage against the machine. Much of my own career has been filled with both personal and professional rage against disdain. Real rage against injustice is non-negotiable. But WE cannot win if we reduce humans (pitifully frail things, after all) to bloodless abstractions.
While I am not smart or strong enough as an old man to show the way forward, others have begun. Here is small reading list of books populated by diverse (racial, class-based, gendered, aged, and differentially abled) people with real blood and guts and multiple identities and talents flowing through their veins: Scott Barry Kaufman, Ungifted: Intelligence redefined, Basic Books, 2013; T. Cooper, Real man adventures, San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2012; Andrew Solomon, Far from the tree: Parents, children, and the search for identity, New York: Scribner, 2012; Joe Bagent, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s class war, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007; Katherine Boo, Behind the beautiful forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, New York: Random House, 2012; Wes Moore, The other Wes Moore: One name, two fates, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010; Jeff Hobbs, The short and tragic life of Robert Peace: A brilliant young man who left Newark for the Ivy League, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014; and Roz Chast, Can’t we talk about something pleasant? New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. And the grandparent of them all: J. Anthony Lukas, Common ground: A turbulent decade in the lives of three American families. New York, Knopf, 1985.
Fraser, S. (2015). The age of acquiescence: The life and death of American resistance to organized wealth and power. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Nielsen, M. (2012). Reinventing discovery: The new era of networked science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Pickett, K. & Wilkinson, R. (2011). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury.
Stiglitz, J. E. (2013). The price of inequality: How today’s divided society endangers of future. New York: Norton.
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