Direct Democracy and the Rule of the Mob

I haven’t been able to get back to my review of The Federalist Papers due to work that I need to catch up on, caused by a wonderful trip to Maine, during which I abstained from doing anything other than reading, eating, and otherwise vacationing. I aim to continue the exploration when I get a chance.

In the meantime, I just came across this interesting article on “The Monkey Cage” that demonstrates the danger in direct democracy that Madison warned us against:

July 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans felt that universities should not be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions.  A 2011 poll found most respondents agreeing that Muslims “undermine American culture.”  In the context of attitudes such as these, direct democracy campaigns may not only produce outcomes that constrain the rights and influence of minorities, but may also generate increased animosity toward the group.

The American Antecedents of the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

I don’t think there’s much I can add to what’s already been said on the terrible tragedy that occurred to Trayvon Martin in Florida, but there was a disturbing parallel that immediately came to mind when I heard about what had happened, and that his killer was still free.

As I have mentioned before, I am reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students, and in Chapter IV, Douglass details the gruesome shooting of a man named Demby by (the aptly named) Mr. Gore, an overseer. According to Douglass:

His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation . . . the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michael’s, Talbot county, Maryland, when I left there; and if he is still alive, he very probably lives there now; and if so, he is now, as he was then, as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with his brother’s blood.

I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Douglass then gives another gruesome example, of a slaveholder’s wife who beat a girl to death:

“Mrs. Hicks, finding the girl slow to move, jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life. I will not say that this most horrid murder produced no sensation in the community. It did produce sensation, but not enough to bring the murderess to punishment. There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served. Thus she escaped not only punishment, but even the pain of being arraigned before a court for her horrid crime.”

Douglass spoke from a moment in our history over 150 years ago, but the profound wound of a societally accepted injustice and brutality still stings today.

The difference today is that the outcry that has been rightfully raised has been loud enough to prompt a federal investigation into the shooting. For more on how awareness on the case was raised, read deeper into the MotherJones article.

President Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” demonstrating just how critically important it is to have a leader who can understand and speak directly to those long suffering under a history of oppression, and further demonstrating how today is different than Douglass’ day.

But rightwing punditry backlash against Obama’s commiseration with Martin’s parents demonstrates, on the other hand, just how mired in racial tension we remain.

To pretend that race has nothing to do with this case is to ignore our own history.

Some things have changed, but some things remain the same.

Assaulted

It was a Saturday afternoon, 3:30. I was returning from a long overdue run, a habit I have difficulty maintaining in winter. I could tell something was going on in the courtyard in front of my apartment building, because people were ambling over to it, as people are wont to do when drama is occuring in public spaces. I circled around them and approached around the side. Some guy in a baseball cap was screaming at a girl.

My mistake was in not taking the situation seriously enough. It was my building, after all, on a Saturday afternoon. This guy and his problems were in my way.

These are mere excuses.

Think of how I must have looked to him. A white boy, wearing strange running clothes, my old lightweight jacket much too small. Vibram FiveFingers on my feet. In the midst of the gathering handful of Dominican men, I was the one who stood out. I’ve learned, since moving to NYC, that I am much smaller than the average city male. I was a perfect target in that moment.

In that moment, as men gathered to watch him in his turmoil, his eyes locked on mine. His face was bloodied. He had been in an altercation. He was charged with anger and shame. He was taller and heavier than I.

“What the fuck are you looking at, white boy?”

He charged. I backed up, not quite believing that anyone would just begin assaulting a stranger without any reason. He did.

I ducked and backed up and ran a little bit. Apparently, this was an invitation to him for full on onslaught. On hindsight, the smart thing would have been to run completely. I would have easily outpaced him. But part of me was outraged. This was my building! So I stopped and faced him, as he commenced swinging. He missed most of his punches, but grabbed my jacket and threw me down on the sidewalk and dragged me down to the corner of the street.

I managed to mostly maintain my balance and get back to my feet after landing on my knees, but he was on me, kicking and punching. I was able to avoid any serious blows, but I could sense in that moment that I was utterly overpowered. I was a victim.

“Fuck you, cracker! Fuck you, cracker!” he shouted with every attempted blow. I was the representation for him of everything that had gone wrong in his life. The vessel for his release of anger, shame, and fear.

Before he could cause any serious damage, a couple of the bigger bystanders chased him away.

“Never come back here again!” two of them shouted, as the guy backed away down the street cussing them out.

One of them made sure I was OK, and continually assured me that this sort of thing doesn’t happen around here (unfortunately, not entirely true. My neighborhood isn’t exactly the pinnacle of peace. My wife witnessed a man stabbed in broad daylight last year). I nodded and shook his hand. I wasn’t all that shaken up, all things considered. In my last 2 years in the classroom, aggression and violence were unfortunately somewhat common, so perhaps I wasn’t as prone to getting emotionally aggravated (at least, not immediately). I was bleeding in places, but otherwise intact. He seemed to have landed a kick or punch to the back of my head, and a few on my body, but nothing on my face.

It turns out that he had been in some kind of fight with his “friends” who lived in my building, and had been beaten up with a glass bottle (hence the bleeding face).

Later that night, as I lay in bed, I kept reliving those moments in my mind. “Your heart is racing,” my wife told me.

This was the worst aftereffect of senseless violence, the replaying, over and over. Asking myself why I didn’t immediately attack. Angry at myself for letting myself get into the space of a person who was obviously in a heightened state of aggression. I recognized that if this hadn’t happened in the middle of the day, I knew that I would have been seriously hurt.

I could tell myself that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the fact is, I let my guard down and I walked into a situation without better assessing the danger. This could have been avoided.

Lesson learned.

Thoughts on ‘The Shame of the Nation’

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in AmericaThe Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I don’t agree necessarily with some of Kozol’s perspectives on education, such as his obvious horror of standardized testing and other accountability measures, I do think that his ultimate unveiling of the United States educational system as one based on apartheid as devastatingly accurate. Any educational reform, whether a Race For The Top or a No Child Left Behind—anything, essentially, short of equitable integration—will continually fail to bridge the “achievement gap.” There will be only those children already poised to succeed academically by the nature of their parent or community resources, and those children largely destined to fail academically by the nature of their family or community poverty. And it must be clarified explicitly that those children destined (statistically speaking) for academic failure are predominately black or Latino. There is a prevalent perspective based on fundamental racism in our country—all the more insidious because it is rarely voiced outright—that black or brown or just simply poor people will never really amount to anything because they just aren’t smart enough. And should thus be kept out of schools with gifted white children destined for true achievement. This racist perspective is not only insidious due to its covert nature, but furthermore because it is an often subconscious distillation of policies, lifestyles, and the nature of our current economy. The form in which it is considered does not appear immediately racist when it does come into public discussion. In this form, it arrives as something unfortunate, something so deeply ingrained that it cannot even be challenged. As an example, think of the middle class white parent who wants to get their child into a “good” school. They may move in order to be within the zone that will most likely get their child placed there. They may buy their child special instruction in order to meet the testing and interview requirements for the school. They may borrow money or dip into savings in order to pay the large tuition. And the school we may be discussing might only be pre-school. This competitiveness, in which parents positioned with resources may most easily navigate and triumph, seems at first sight to be based somewhat fairly on our democratic and capitalistic notion of merit. There does not seem to be any overt racism there. Who would deny a caring and savvy parent their right in garnering the best possible opportunities for their children? But upon further examination, it becomes evident that the only children who get into these “good” schools come from families or communities with resources. Meaning, in effect, the white children of the middle or upper class. As Kozol painstakingly reveals, the reality of this results in an educational system more deeply segregated than in the years immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Ed supreme court decision. And all of the reforms that have been enacted since that time address only achievement, not equity nor integration. The failure of such educational reforms can be examined, as Kozol does somewhat here, historically, or simply by looking at some recent news. New York has come under criticism due to the revelation that its standardized test scores have been inflated over the last few years. Scores from this last year were then accordingly scaled down, revealing that barely half of NY city students are considered even “proficient” in math (already a pretty low standard to achieve), and well less than half are capable of reading at grade level. This sobering news may for a moment make some would-be reformers want to throw up their hands. It also reinforces the quiet racism that lurks at the back of people’s minds, such that they think “Why should we even bother trying to raise the achievement of these children? Why waste the money?” But the problem is not the reform movement per se. There are achievements that have been made in instructional delivery and research-based assessment that I don’t think should be played down. The effort to improve achievement in the face of entrenched poverty and ingrained racism and ghettoized city policy has been noble. But nothing–as Kozol so despairingly portrays in his book–will vastly improve until children of all races and classes are given equal opportunities to learn in the same schools.

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Color Awareness

There seems to be a direct link for me between insomnia and self-exploration via blog writing, so I will capitalize upon this opportunity while my sleep cycle is being disrupted. I admit that I have been frequently opening up a blank window in order to begin writing, only to find that I don’t even know where to start. It’s not so much that I have a lack of things to explore, but rather that everything inside there is so densely intertangled that I don’t know what strand is worth picking up to examine. In a sense, these past 2 weeks have been a sort of slow uncoiling of my inner and outer worlds as they seek to realign themselves together from out of their disjoint.

My sudden career shift has me excited, while also nervous. Nervous because I know that there are many aspects of indoctrined cultural training that must still be challenged within me; in dealing with systemic racism and socio-economic inequity, I must be able to explore the notion of myself as a member of a group, rather than as a unique individual. It is a group that I have tried, at times, to pretend that I am not a part of, even as I have partook in the privileges of its membership, however unknowingly. That group is the little box that I generally avoid filling in on questionaires, the one that says Caucasian or simply–and rather yawningly–White. Attach onto that the further group membership of Male, and even further than that: Raised in High Income and Highly Segregated Area, and there you go. That’s my grouping in this society, whether I like it or not.

I have been aware of what it means to be privileged for some time, based mainly on socio-economic status. But the fact is that I grew up in an area where people of color were few and far between, isolated into small, distant enclaves. So it was difficult for me to reconcile my awareness of socio-economic status with racial and ethnic inequity, however much I knew that it existed. It existed somewhere else.

When a white person finally has an experience where they are made jarringly aware of the fact that they are White, and that they are therefore Privileged, it makes them extremely uncomfortable. They want to avoid, at all costs, such experiences. It challenges their belief in their innate value as an individual, as a unique, distinct person whose worth in society is based strictly upon merit. I can remember distinctly one of these first experiences, though I’m sure there were many more before that that I have effectively blocked from my memory. It was while I was traveling alone in Peru, and I was taken to a part of Lima where there was a huge outdoor market of secondhand goods, in the middle of the city downtown. I was told that I needed to have a guide, that I absolutely could not go there alone. I was not to carry any valuables on my person, and to be aware of my belongings at all times. This was heavily stressed to me, to the point that I was extremely nervous before I went, though I am fairly adventurous when it comes to being in sketchy situations. And indeed, when I walked through the streets of that market, I suddenly became shockingly aware of my utter Whiteness. In the midst of a crowd of dark skinned people living in poverty, here was this white foreigner. The very fact of my existence in their midst signaled my privilege; that I could even travel there from so far away. I wasn’t wearing fancy clothes, I wasn’t wearing jewelry. I had worked hard and saved my money to travel there. But I knew that I was privileged just by the fact of my skin, just by the fact of where I happened to be born. I felt like an alien. I became aware of how strange it was that in one context—my normal environment—things like a nice watch and shoes are just things you get to fit in; but here in this place, such things were what made you stand out like a sore thumb.

And so what I was experiencing, essentially, was the idea of what it feels like to be someone defined as a part of a group based on immediate appearance. I was an Other. I didn’t belong there. That feeling of unbelonging stung. It was highly disturbing. We white people don’t typically understand how it is to be viewed as a part of a group. We resent being made to be aware of this grouping, not realizing that it is something that people of color have to deal with every single day.

It makes me uncomfortable even to talk about these kinds of things, just as I’m sure that it makes you uncomfortable to read them. Am I a racist? Certainly not intentionally. But my society is racist, and unfortunately, it has embedded its racism in me such that I have to struggle to remain aware of it in order to call it out on its existence. We like to pretend that everything has been put behind us. Slavery is a thing of the past. Segregation has been outlawed. Etc. And things have certainly gotten better. But when you see the statistics of the achievement gap in education, for example, or the statistics on prisons, or just simply journey to any inner city grotto, it becomes hard to deny the fact that we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go.

So this is, conversely, what I am also excited about in my current career shift. I am excited to be able to be actively involved in working to struggle against this systemic racism, even if that might be only just within myself. Being an educator in a “high needs” urban public school means that you will have to struggle not only with how society views your students, but with how your students and their families view you. Who are you? Are you just another one of them? Or are you a part of a grouping that goes beyond such petty distinctions, inclusive of all of humanity? The thing is, you can’t deny where you have come from, nor what you look like. But you can deny the urge to ignore your identity as a part of a group, and to stop pretending that everything is equal, that all the world is just. Because it isn’t. Not yet. But it could be.