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

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“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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A Mass-Murderous Mind

“Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad…we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.” –John le Carre

“The difference…is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging.” –Orson Scott Card

“…it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.”

Why do we forgive?

Some will talk about healing and maturity. Others may reference human brokenness and the need for second chances. There will probably be citations of divine mercy and justice. In particular cases, some may apologize for the rascal or censure perceived hypocrisy in the victim. The specific situations, people, and implications of the decision to forgive—or not—vary as much as DNA. But in the end, forgiveness is about how to acknowledge and manage an inherently broken world. I do not forgive because someone else deserves it. I forgive because I want to be the kind of person who believes it is better to solve problems than spite the devil.

It is a similar principle at play in responsible attempts to map the wilderness of troubled minds. I’m no more sympathetic to “troubled childhood” excuses for lawlessness or terrorism than your archetypal Republican congressman. But as some point, if we are to mitigate the crueler demons of our nature, we have to understand the pathology behind them. To this end, David Frum’s recent series recounting an anonymous young man’s haunting solidarity with mass shooters is uniquely insightful.

At the acknowledged risk of enabling the infamy of “disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basement”, the author presents a roadmap for understanding the kind of factors at play in producing monsters. In retaining his anonymity, (a critical step up from Liza Long’s otherwise thoughtful essay), this gainfully employed East Coast fellow keeps the focus where it belongs: on what are essentially broad and impersonal discussions of culture, policy, and systemic problems with profoundly personal impact. In this regard, much of the backlash—in which commenters denounce the author for, among other things, narcissism, sociopathy, sensationalism, and shameless attention-seeking—has been as insightful as the original piece.

To the people inclined to dismiss the author as an empathy-deprived monster: how does that solve the problem of how to stop people like him? That is a serious question I suspect few of us can credibly answer. The solutions offered by those who want to obsess over the immorality of the killer are almost all retroactive: ‘He should have been locked up.’ ‘He should have been medicated.’ But there are millions of psychologically wounded people in this country, many of them medicated. We’re not going to be locking up the problem of mass violence in a padded room. This anonymous series is a vivid portrait of the Joker as a young man. Are we going to use it as a tool to assemble enduring resolutions to future violence, or will we disdain even engaging with it in a grotesquely self-congratulatory posture of moral superiority?

If the author wanted attention, he could have easily written under his own name. Long has already bought her fifteen minutes of fame at the expense of her son, and she could probably write a New York Times bestseller if she wanted. Imagine how much more intense the interest would be in the narrative of someone who almost committed a tragedy, complete with a tearful mother and numerous not-murdered classmates to imbue a troubled past with salacious contour? We are a society addicted to moral outrage, with a fetish for abattoir noises. If the man wanted fame, you would be hearing his name on your daily commute and seeing his face on cable news. But you do not.

The truth of the matter is the identity of this man—like those of the actual shooters that have inspired him—is completely irrelevant. If you don’t believe his testimony is an accurate portrayal of all killers, fine. But if you suspect he opens a rare, promising window into deep and lonely chasm on the far side of the soul, then consider what we might learn and accomplish should we commit to devising the resources to breathe humanity into beasts. The point is not that would-be killers are special people deserving of extra sympathy or apology. Such a notion is repulsive to those of us who believe actions have consequences. Rather, it is far more productive to understand and sublimate incipient evil than react in grieving fury to tragedy obtained.

Part of this proactivity might ought to include an uncomfortably frank discussion of America’s schizophrenic relationship with intelligence. Namely, we so resent the notion that some people are smarter than others—than us—that every frank reckoning with intellect is fodder for caveats and derision. The anonymous writer painted his own intelligence in astringently clinical light—it served as an accelerant for mental illness, a hindrance to talk therapy, and a disorder generally comorbid with socially alienating eccentricity. Nevertheless, the mere mention of his mental capacity prompted inferences of a fiendish narcissism rooted in invidious moral and cognitive deficiency.  To put it bluntly, the mention of the author’s intelligence, like the rest of his epistolary musing, is not about challenging the egos of insecure minds. It serves to illustrate an element of commonality between a would-be monster and his infamous peers. The reality of a backlash for such an honest observation presents cause for concern in its own right.

When I read the young man’s ruminating on being “socially isolated and…smart”, I think of the many ways in which our failing education system caters to mediocrity at great expense to gifted students. I also ponder the unique difficulty of trying to reform the misbehavior of people who are, as my father would put it, “too smart for their own good.” Namely, it is nigh impossible to talk down the insanity of someone either invincibly stupid or demonstrably smarter (or cleverer) than you. And the most terrifying villains—from some of the shooters to international terrorists—are infernally cerebral. Yet somehow we must find a way to defuse them.

None of this adds one iota of sympathy for any miscreant fallen beyond the moral event horizon, and I have no forgiveness to offer. Instead, I wonder how we can create a world of better options for people who are currently inclined to hurt us. How can we provide our schools and communities the necessary resources to work with gifted and struggling students? How might we improve mental health services and resources? Should involuntary commitment be a viable option? What all do we still not understand about how we might better discern problems and resolutions? These are the questions we should be asking and answering, and to such an end, Frum’s series is, I hope, a promising catalyst.

There are certainly limits to this kind of thing. The author, whoever he is, has a particular story and set of circumstances that will not hold for many other troubled youth, and we should be wary of extrapolating too much from any one or group of narratives. As my friend Leah Libresco is fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. That observation holds as strongly for the shooting itself as for the attempts at postmortem. There are no easy answers or panacea ahead—only a long, tough road of struggle and pain. Whether we can see the job through will be a question for the ages.


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Dispatches from Dixie: Education in Virginia

When I was a teenager, I wanted to attain some practical knowledge in addition to all the history, chemistry, and other fascinating topics I would never use in life. My high school in Northern Virginia happened to offer classes in computer science and business, and I happened to want more (read: any) understanding of business and computers. It was like an educational match made in heaven.

I never took any of those classes.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has one of the most celebrated public school systems in the country, ranking fourth overall and sixth in math and science among the 50 states and D.C.  More so than most of the country, Virginia tends to get a good return on its investment in education. But the problems in the Commonwealth are as insightful as the successes.

I’ll certainly never forget that “advanced” history teacher who was glaringly ignorant of basic constitutional facts or the existence of the Holy Roman Empire. (She claimed, in one of our many arguments over elementary details, that her expertise was in American history. How that was supposed to excuse her saliently false statements about the U.S. Constitution remains beyond me.) But the beast that stung most invidiously was the whole matter of standardized tests, which are at the core of federal mandates in No Child Left Behind and Virginia’s internal assessments—the Standards of Learning (SOLs).

When I moved to Fairfax County from a U.S. Army base in Germany, I was starting tenth grade. The only major change I anticipated was the switch from the Advanced Placement track to classes geared towards the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Instead, I found Virginia standards gloriously rigid, and I had to jump through more complex—and less useful—hurdles than my peers to get even the Advanced Diploma, let alone earn IB honors.

In particular, I had to take classes that were blatantly beneath my skill level simply to meet some state requirement. One year, I was literally taking two versions of the same history class—one for the IB Diploma, the other for an unavoidable and exclusive SOL requirement. Shockingly, I learned practically nothing in one of those classes; I’ll let you guess which. And all of this was after my guidance counselor (who was a truly wonderful light in a bureaucratic nightmare) fudged as many rules as she could.

Lest you think Virginia standards are more reasonable than they are, I offered to test out of my remaining SOLs—and no one doubted I could pass easily. Apparently, that was not allowed. I had to sit through redundant classes and waste time that could have been spent learning computer science, business, or psychology—or taking even more challenging IB Math. And by senior year, I still needed to sit an extra period after school to get my diploma.

You would think a state with one of the highest concentrations of military personnel in the country—complete with the largest naval base in the history of civilization—would be more accommodating of the dependent children seeking quality education within its borders. You would think a place with a bipartisan commitment to academic excellence would be more flexible to all kinds of student needs. But sadly, stories like mine were commonplace among my military friends who were whisked to Virginia from overseas.

In shocking news to no one, most military people live in the South or West.

And again, I got off easy. My friends who started in later grades or had less heroic counselors were often forced out of an advanced diploma track because of requirements designed to promote mediocrity in the name of “excellence”.

In the end, I got my IB Diploma and went off to Yale. And all it cost me was the opportunity to take a challenging set of supplementary classes offering skills I did not possess. I’m no expert on education, but I suspect something is seriously wrong when a reasonably able student must choose between an advanced diploma—which many top colleges look at in their decision processes—and useful electives that could actually deliver marketable knowledge.

All these years later, I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been if these kinds of decisions—whether a student can test out of a “necessary” class or which outsides credits should count toward graduation—could be made closer to home, where they would be more responsive to different situations. I do notice that the federal government continues to aggressively mandate education standards from on high, and people continue to live different lives in different situations.

Perhaps one day we’ll start putting major decisions back in the hands of the communities affected by them and give families more options for success, instead of merely passing. Maybe then, regrettable stories like mine will become less common.