Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale

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The Soft Bigotry of Progressive Intentions

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” ―Frederick Douglass

http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=970

“I wish being a good person was as easy as wanting to help the children.”

 

In the heated summer of the 2000 presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush went to the NAACP Convention in Baltimore and championed education reform, economic opportunity, and racial equality. In reflecting on demographic achievement gaps, the future president famously declared, to applause, “I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

This was a callback to a September 1999 speech Bush gave to the Latin Business Association in which he addressed academic underachievement among black and Latino students: “Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less—the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

It is a tragic irony of Shakespearean cruelty that, in 2016, the NAACP opposes education reforms that are already helping black children and families. In its hostility to charter school and school choice, the NAACP (along with Black Lives Matter) is fighting against black communities and undermining black progress. Given the chthonic horrors of public education (if the intergenerational afflictions of that socioeconomic Tartarus can be so called) in too many lower-income neighborhoods, it surprises nobody paying attention that black voters in several states overwhelmingly support school choice, including charter schools.

Unfortunately, the NAACP has opted to subordinate the needs of the black community to the political interests of another core donor constituency of progressive politics—teachers unions—even though the facts indicate that those progressive donors would rather leave black kids incarcerated in poverty and ignorance than let them be free of union control. In this way, the NAACP has—much like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who forsook her once strident support for school choice to kneel before the teachers unions—melded smoothly into a social justice establishment that exalts the interests of its donor class over those of the people it purports to serve and represent.

Jason Riley sums up the breadth of the maddening reality quite well over in the Wall Street Journal:

Numerous studies employing gold-standard random-assignment methodologies have shown that underprivileged black children with access to charter schools are much better off than their peers in traditional public schools. They not only learn more but are also more likely to finish high school, attend college and avoid drug abuse and teen pregnancy. Inner-city black students with access to the best charter schools regularly outperformed their white peers from the richest suburbs on standardized tests.

Charter-school students with disabilities outperform traditional public-school students without disabilities. The Black Lives Matter activists who fret about racial disparities in incarceration rates and support the NAACP’s anti-school-choice posturing might consider the fact that our jails and prisons are not full of high-school and college graduates.

Blacks are 16% of the public-school population in the U.S. but 27% of charter students. The NAACP is faulting charter-school proponents for targeting the very communities where the demand for school choice is most acute. According to the civil-rights activists, whether black students are learning anything matters less than whether they are sitting next to white students. Never mind the empirical data showing that black children need good teachers and safe learning environments far more than they need white classmates.

This theme of exalting demographics over results hearkens back to an education reform struggle, half a decade ago, in Wake County, North Carolina. In that case, a well-intentioned integration policy aimed at closing racial gaps in academic achievement had the actual effect of masking the ongoing problem while geographically separating underperforming kids from the support structures of their families and communities. When Republicans gained control of school policy in 2010, they understandably moved to allow parents to keep their kids in their own communities while improving those local schools.

This effort had the side-effect of ostensibly “resegregating” some schools—because different areas had higher concentrations of white and nonwhite families—and the allusions to Jim Crow and Brown v. Board came like clockwork. This slander could only work insofar as the self-proclaimed champions of “equality” and “racial justice” ignored or prestidigitated away the most essential fact: the progressive policy ended because it failed to do anything but hide its own failures. In truth, the Wake County reformers gave the lie to progressive assumptions about the realities of the substantive progress due to underprivileged Americans. So of course the warriors of social justice—and those who profit from its failings—cried, “Bigots!” and let slip the whistles of slander.

As I wrote at the time:

Accepting that diversity is valuable and progress is not painless, the benefits of the program were dubious at best—schools were increasingly overcrowded, most black and Latino students were not proficient in reading or math, and only 54% of poor kids were graduating. As a biracial mother of two Wake County students put it, “right now, it’s as if the best we can do is dilute these kids out so they don’t cause problems. It sickens me.”

Even the Republicans-abolish-integration article inadvertently makes a case for what Paul Fitts, a Republican candidate for Wake County Commissioner, would describe as achievement-oriented schools grounded in communal involvement. Namely, qualified poor and/or minority students were underenrolled in advanced math classes under the previous “integration” policy. The kicker: school officials say they’ve known about this problem for years, but many parents were left in the dark. In other words, sending kids to faraway schools stifles parental involvement and allows ongoing systemic problems to fester under the negligent eyes of self-interested bureaucrats.

This is the mettle of structural oppression: A constellation of social justice do-gooders fretting over race relations and “the children” while consigning underprivileged (mostly black and Latino) children and their families to mediocrity and malign neglect. This is how intergenerational poverty and underachievement are reinforced through the doublespeak of talking a good game about equality.

The war on black children extends all the way to the White House. The Obama administration fought tooth and nail to undercut school choice, from Louisiana to Washington, D.C. The government ignored the objections of black parents, who overwhelmingly benefit from and attest to the profound benefits of having options already available to the wealthy.

In the exceptionally odious Louisiana episode, Eric Holder’s Justice Department argued explicitly in a court of law that empowering black students to escape dangerous, failing schools—and the dependent cycle of poverty and ruin—would “impede the desegregation progress” from the Civil Rights Movement. This is how the administration chose to misrepresent the fact that the state’s vouchers, available only to low-income kids assigned to low-performing schools, overwhelmingly go to poor blacks who manage to beat the growing wait-list for limited spots.

It takes a special kind of legalistic depravity to invoke the hard-fought, blood-soaked triumphs of civil lights leaders to secure the best educations for black children as a vehicle to drive today’s black children back into a stultifying ocean of despair. (It’s worth noting that Bobby Jindal, the then-Governor of Louisiana who vigorously championed the academic emancipation of black youth against a hostile federal government, was the first nonwhite person ever elected to that office. Likewise, the Mayor of Washington is black, as is a large chunk of the city council.) This depravity is no less damning for carrying the imprimatur of America’s first black attorney general in service of the first black President of the United States.

By contrast, Gov. Jindal won reelection amid his campaign for education reform with a historic two-thirds of the vote, sweeping every parish in the Pelican State. It’s not clear if any data exist on the demographic breakdown of the 2011 electorate, but Jindal won a majority of the vote in several majority-black parishes, including MadisonSt. JamesSt. John the Baptist, and Tensas, even as 80 percent of black voters are registered Democrats.

Down the Gulf, Florida Gov. Rick Scott championed school choice, merit pay, and other academic reforms, and he campaigned heavily on them in his reelection bid to win over black voters. Subsequently, he managed to grow his support from among the black vote to 12 percent. That may seem paltry, but it amounts to double his showing among black voters compared to 2010, while black turnout increased by three points. That’s a difference of 61,000 black votes in an election Scott only won by 66,000 votes.

But that actually undersells it. Had Scott’s 2014 black vote total languished at the six-percent share he won in 2010, with the Democrat’s share holding anywhere near 2010’s 92 percent, the final tally would have been 95,000 votes more Democratic. That means Rick Scott’s margin of victory was entirely contained within his improved share of the black vote. I repeat: the Republican Governor of Florida is only in office today because a growing black electorate decided to grant him reelection after he gave them good reason to do so.

Since then, Scott’s continued fight for education opportunity for the underprivileged has kept him at odds with the state teachers union and NAACP chapter. But the governor retains a solid core of support within the black community. In January, Martin Luther King III came to Tallahassee after the holiday for his father to stand with black families and Gov. Scott against the regressive machinations of the progressive establishment.

This dynamic of Republicans pushing for education reform and winning support from black voters but hostility from progressive activists is by no means restricted to the South. In the Northeast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expanded school choice his very first year in office. Democrats who buck the progressive establishment on education even credited him with “launching the school-reform movement throughout the Northeast,” as he fought for vouchers in an election year. Thereafter, Christie won reelection with double his previous share of the black vote (from 10 to 2o percent) and nearly half of Latino voters.

These stories abound, and they provide a robust array of evidence that black voters value expansive education reform more than progressive donors can pay to stifle it. But that is a precarious equilibrium that can fail at any time. Fortunately, in Florida as in Louisiana and Washington, school choice for underprivileged children is winning, for now, and progressive opposition to progress seems to be collapsing.

That’s not to say all charter or private school options are fantastic or even better than all traditional public schools. Some programs are struggling and bad schools have been or will be shuttered, as the system rightly demands. Other reforms are propelling kids to the once-inconceivable heights of college and upward mobility. Ultimately, a system that gives families workable options encourages the kind of policies that can provide life-changing benefits to disadvantaged kids. But in any case, school choice options ought to be measured by the results, not by how staunchly the progressive donor class finds them contrary to its political and financial interests.

I mightily doubt President Obama, his black attorneys general, or well-meaning BLM activists mean any harm to lower-income families who just want a fair chance at success. (If you insist on the utmost charity, we can add teachers unions to that list.) But at some point, the progressive establishment must be made to understand that good intentions do not substitute for good result and cannot balance out actual harm. The pernicious effects of structural bigotry are not any less asphyxiating because those who sustain them practice the correct platitudes about social justice.

As things stand, today’s leaders must choose between the actual welfare of the downtrodden and the union-funded oppression of the  Elizabeth WarrenBernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

May they choose right and true.

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Rage Against the Correctness

“You can’t get anyone to agree with you if they don’t even listen to you first.” –Sally Kohn

If progressives want to burn bridges, who am I to judge?

If progressives want to burn bridges, who am I to judge?

In the aftermath of the battle royale of articles, tweets, blog posts, and other responses to Jonathan Chait’s infamous (and more than a little hypocritical) rally against the sinistral arts of political correctness, I considered adding my own vernacular garrisons to the fray. However, a friend went ahead and offered a guest post employing most of the essential points I would have marshalled and spared me some trouble. But in maneuvering through the battlefield of what has largely been internecine wrangling on the Left, it may be worthwhile to offer some comment as one disadvantaged by the intersectionality, as progressives might say, of several measures of privilege.

There is the curious phenomenon of encountering white (usually heterosexual and often male) liberals from affluent backgrounds and elite educations who are all too willing to lecture me on the profundities of the multimodal oppression that black, gay, and working-class Americans face in this country. I will spare you, my audience, a Terri Lynn Land moment and just note that this recurring phenomenon tended to derail my attempts at having reasonable conversations with some people about how the Ferguson riots attacked black lives far more than the violence and vandalism “disrupted” any “paradigms” or “systems” of oppression. (Curiously enough, most of the black people in my social orbit somehow intuited this reality.)

To be sure, one does not need to be a member of a given underprivileged class to offer pragmatic insights into pertinent social issues. Indeed, non-members of minority-x might occasionally, possibly, maybe offer more insightful—dare I say, better—solutions than some (though certainly not all) members of minority-x in some circumstances, because societal groups and situations, liberal caricatures aside, are not monoliths. As such, though I have many disagreements with the first half or so of J. Bryan Lowder’s progressive attempt at an evenhanded critique of Chait, his broader analysis rang true on the following point:

“The problem with identity politics—in this particular manifestation, anyway—is that it assumes that just because a person claims a certain identity label, that person is necessarily empowered to be judge and jury on all issues pertaining to that category. The truth is, identity grants experience (and experience should be valued to a point); but it does not automatically grant wisdom, critical distance, or indeed, unassailable righteousness. To forget this is to turn individual people who possess a range of intelligences, backgrounds, self-interests, and flaws into two-dimensional avatars for the condition of humanity in which they happen to share. And, by corollary, to assert that it is impossible on some fundamental level for those who don’t share that condition to ever relate or speak to that person as merely another human being with ideas and opinions.

That logic is real, it is ridiculous, and it is truly tiresome. It deserves all the criticism it gets.”

But there is something insidiously unhinged about the self-aggrandizing fury in which many expressly “outraged” voices of “social justice” seem (perhaps ironically, if not surprisingly) more eager to comminate skepticism of progressively dystopian worldviews rather than seriously engage a broader range of perspectives and concerns (e.g. that #blacklivesmatter should extend to the black livelihoods immolated in the riots). In short, as even many progressives have noted, there seems to be a driving force underlying the worst abuses of P.C. culture that seeks to antagonize, conquer, and eradicate what are viewed as insufficiently progressive “problematic” strains of thought, by whatever means necessary and possible, casualties be damned.

To put it more bluntly, there’s a whiff of vengeance and exploitative power-dynamics about the whole exercise that approximates a mockery of the fight against ubiquitous hatred, fear, and power-inequality that avatars of social justice purport to represent. In this regard, Michael Brendan Doughtery seems to have grasped a key reality (his emphasis):

“Political correctness conflates normal slights, sincere disagreements, thoughtless cracks, and the verbal miscues of the uninitiated with actual oppression. In extremely crude terms, political correctness engenders (or really, embodies) extreme sensitivity to status. The victims of historic oppression were accorded a low status by their oppressors. Imposing a low status on a group is a way of granting yourself permission to abuse its members. And so some of the normal rough and tumble of human interaction can be mistaken (or willfully misconstrued) as an attempt to replicate the very hierarchies that cause oppression and genocide. A real ‘P.C.’ blowup leaves one person crying and feeling misunderstood and ‘othered,’ while it leaves another person feeling both defensive and offended that the crying person appears to be trivializing real oppression.

Political correctness looks like grasping aspirational privilege. Related to the above. The right not to be offended, or the ability to punish those who offend your finely tuned sensibilities, is a form of privilege. Without having conducted a detailed sociological study, my anecdotal impression is that ‘politically correct’ styles of engagement are most popular among a class of people that is in a similar position to the old petite bourgeoisie:college students and strivers whose primary class consciousness is not their relative privilege over, say, Appalachian whites or people in the developing world, but their lack of power and status compared with the haute bourgeoisie, which is composed of everyone from crass GOP-affiliated lax-bros that want to go into finance to the polished and tamed ‘liberal’ graduates of Sidwell to the real inheritors of privilege like the Bush twins.”

It is a straightforward exercise in experience, empathy, or simple imagination to concede that an amorphous morass of systematic biases and (dis)advantages have accrued over time into what has come to be known as “privilege.” It likewise follows that the parameters of this privilege shift across various ethnic, cultural, geographical, socioeconomic, and other lines that impact different people in unimaginably complex ways. It is from this very complexity—and our avowedly universal belief in the value and dignity of individuals as such—that we ought to understand and accept that different experiences afford a broad array of perspectives that might not have occurred to us but perhaps should have. Some of these perspectives are more worthy of engaging than others, but where folks are wrong, it is generally worth considering that errors come from ignorance or misunderstandings than from malice. This is what is generally meant by the principle of charity, as my guest author noted.

A key ideological problem with the radical leftists whom Chait criticizes, some of Chait’s critics in turn, and even Chait himself is precisely this lack of charity—either in argument or in “live and let live” activism. You do not shout down or vituperatively impugn people whose views, motives, or reasoning skills you fundamentally respect. But once political opponents, or even skeptics, are deemed evil and perpetrators or abettors of evil—be it racism, sexism, classism, or whatever other forms of conscientious bigotry or stupidity are often ascribed to conservatives or the insufficiently progressive—then the desperate, venomous tactics of total-war activism become as natural and justifiable as the merciless socioeconomic quarantine we righteously impose on the most blatant antagonists of societal pluralism, from David Duke to Donald Sterling. Except, of course, people like Duke and Sterling are not remotely the norm.

In other words, the very folks who would have you believe that all their political or social theory critics—let alone actual opponents—are agents of animus, intolerance, and self-serving power dynamics (whether by pushing grannies off cliffs or promoting Taliban-style theocracy) are probably the same folks you should most suspect are projecting their own ignoble biases or motivations for their own agendas. Be wary of the activists and writers who demand that you heed their perspectives but have no use for anybody else’s. That is not to say that outrage is never good, reasonable, or worthwhile. Rather, those who demonstrate a sustained incapacity to refine rage at an ever expanding pandemonium of ills into a productive, conciliatory force that compels skeptics into constructive understanding instead of defensive recoil, are probably not going to be winning many wars you want to be part of.

Years ago, I wrote on the need to commit to the long-suffering project of tolerating those whose views we find abhorrent on even the most pressing issues of life and politics. In a similar vein, my friend Leah Libresco, a liberal Catholic blogger at Equally Yoked and The American Conservative, criticized the firing of Brendan Eich as a entropic salvo in a disturbingly segregationist trend of totalizing ideological warfare that threatens to transmogrify every aspect of our lives. That we are both openly LGBT people defending compassion for and patience with gay rights opponents whose views we would never want to see prevail is perhaps why those articles resonated across social and political divisions. The vast majority of Americans want to hear from and engage with those who manage not to believe the worst of them. The project of empathizing with sociopolitical detractors can at times leave even the best of us ineffably verklempt (to employ one of my boyfriend’s favorite words). Yet those situations in which empathy is the most elusive are precisely the ones in which it is most essential for all involved.

No, it should not fall on those afflicted by societal injustice to suffer the grating learning curves of those more privileged. Yes, engaging people where they are, defending the same colloquial liberties and philosophical charity for them that we would want for ourselves, and figuring out how to get them where we want them to be is the very mettle of social progress.

All that said, if you’ve read this post and happen to be an incorrigible progressive Democrat, feel free to ignore everything I’ve written here. Winning hearts and minds is probably racist anyway.