Posted tagged ‘race’

Blaming Racism for the Achievement Gap in Our Schools is a Dangerous Road to Take

November 2, 2009

Race and racism are complicated issues in our society that too many people try to simplify; which I believe to be a dangerous road with perilous consequences.

A recent article published by The News Tribune, a Seattle-Tacoma area newspaper, brings up the issue of race and the American educational system. The author, Patrick Welsh, apparently is a high school teacher in Alexandria, Virginia with a high African American population.

The author cites arguments made by educators that the “achievement gap” between white and black students (as if Latino, Asian, and other ethnic students don’t count) is caused by an education system that treats black kids unfairly, which allows white kids to flourish when their darker pigmented peers lag behind.

Calling this problem a “civil rights violation” is a convenient argument, especially when one looks at the numbers. If it is true that white students generally speaking get better grades than black students, playing the race card is definitely a tempting road to take. But Welsh argues that parenting should be more to blame.

He argues that his students weren’t achieving much in the classroom because “their parents just weren’t there for them – at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.”

I agree with the writer that blaming this problem on race alone is misleading, counterproductive, and downright dangerous. Children are impressionable; a fact that is true of children of all racial/cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Imagine the message this sends to our young ones; that the reason why certain kids don’t do well in school is because s/he is black, or the reason why s/he is going to college is because s/he is white.

If kids are exposed to this kind of thinking at a young age, it will develop into deep-engrained stereotypes that will eventually come back to haunt us. If black children grow up believing they can’t do well in school because of the color of their skin, that is just as racist as any of the unjust laws civil rights leaders fought against 50 years ago.

Likewise, if white students grow up believing their whiteness will guarantee them a better chance in life than darker skinned students, imagine the racist attitudes that could be borne out of that scenario. Scary, n’est-ce pas?

 It makes logical sense that exclusively playing the race card in this situation can create more problems than it can solve. If the “educational system” is racist, who then is to blame? Teachers? Administrators? The federal government? Students themselves? The list goes on.

If my understanding of American society is correct, public school teachers are some of the most liberal folks in our country. Teachers’ unions fight for liberal causes. A federally-funded public school system is itself a big-government cause. The argument that educators are at their heart creating a racist system holds very little water.

 Racism and race in America are too complicated of topics to generalize like that. There were those who were foolish enough to believe that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would signal an end of an era in race-relations in our country. That could not be further from the truth. While it is good to see an African American ascend to our nation’s highest office, this is no guarantee that our demons with racism will magically go away. I argued against such naivety shortly after the election and so far I am proven to be right.

Conservatives call this arguing “race baiting” by the left in an effort by liberals to ignore the real questions. I would not go that far, but I do feel they are slightly on to something. Playing the race card is, in my opinion, a tactic that is way overused by certain people, and only further destroys the debate by watering down the meanings of the words “racism,” “prejudice,” and “bigotry.”

We should not blame racism for our problems unless we are completely certain that racism is in fact the cause of whatever problem is being discussed. I do believe that crying “racism” all the time is similar to the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. If we see racism everywhere (in schools, in church, in the media, in our neighborhoods, in our government, in businesses, in our politics, in homes, at work, etc.) and pinpoint every social ill we have on racism, eventually people will stop caring. If we’re all racists, what’s the point of doing anything to stop it?

And, of course, when a truly racist thing does happen, no one will blink an eye because they’ve already been there, done that. It is genuinely the Boy Who Cried Wolf, except it’s the Bleeding-Heart Liberal Who Cried Racism. We should be careful before using the dreaded “R” word.

But far right conservatives are wrong about the notion that racism is a dead horse. Racial prejudice is quite alive in our country; it just takes different shapes than it has before. Blaming racism in our discussion of public education might be one of those examples.

By saying over and over again that black kids are doomed to perform academically at lower levels than white kids, is that not a racist notion in itself? Does that imply that black kids are unable to overcome obstacles imposed upon them by our nation’s history? Isn’t it racist to pound into our children’s minds that their teachers are hateful bigots because test scores tend to be skewed? Isn’t it racist to say that Obama’s white heritage is the only reason he has become so successful? Sounds like it to me.

And what about Asian American children, like I once was? Well, I still am Asian American, I’m just not a child anymore. In many parts of the country, East Asian, Indian, and Arab American students are very successful in the classroom. Especially children of recently naturalized immigrants. Their parents worked hard to come into this country, so they have been taught at an early age to work hard in school so that they can live out the American dream. I suppose parenting does play a part in all this.

 If the system works against minority students, how do you explain the success of a good number of Asian American kids? Dumb luck? Maybe their culture of hard work has something to do with it.

Parents who had to fight hard to come into this country are more likely to teach discipline and the importance of an education to their children because they know how hard it is to succeed in life. Welsh is right that absent parents play a much larger role in the educational “achievement gap” than most people are willing to admit. Will making the school days longer, as President Obama recently argued, make our kids get better grades? I doubt it. We don’t need to urgently fix our schools. We need to fix our culture.

We need to bring back to our kids a sense of urgency at getting a good education. We need to teach them not nothing in life comes free, and that your race should never be an excuse for performing well or poorly. We need to bring back the “culture of learning” where reading books and enlightening ourselves are more important than watching reality television and other trashy pop culture garbage.

It all starts in the homes, not the classrooms. Teachers try the best that they can (at least most of them do). No teacher wants their students to fail. So why should be put all the blame on them? Besides, if racism truly is the problem in our schools, how do you propose we fix that? Should we require our educators to attend more “racial tolerance” seminars? Should we ignore all white students and focus more on minority students hoping that will somehow make our problems go away? Not bloody likely.

If any of you can successfully convince me that racism is the sole cause of our school system’s “achievement gap,” please inform, counter-argue, and persuade me and I will definitely write a blog post recanting everything I have said here. If not, then maybe we should tackle our larger problems instead of making up our own ones.

Equality is a Myth, Ugly People Suck, and Other Inconvenient Observations

October 17, 2009

Disregard whatever you’ve heard before: we are not all created equal.

No man, woman, or child is equal to any other man, woman, or child. This is a tough reality to face, especially in a democracy like ours. We would like to think that all men (or women) are created equal, and that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Have you heard this somewhere before? You probably have.

But the truth is a little more brutal than that. Granted, we do live in a society where most people are given equal rights under the law, but the buck pretty much stops there. Anyone can go to school, enroll in college, and apply for a job. But will anyone hire them? That depends on a multitude of factors.

Some of those factors are innate. Others are biological. And others are dictated by society. Let me explain.

Americans like to believe that every citizen can make something of themselves if they just try hard enough. But those on the left will argue that factors like wealth, family prestige, and race/gender/sexual orientation help give certain people an advantage over others. Their observations are quite right. There is an old saying that in America, anyone can grow up to become President of the United States. But it sure helps if your father is named George H.W. Bush and you come from an oil rich family.

There are countless studies arguing that men have an advantage over women in many areas in life, that white people have an edge over racial minorities, and that gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered people have hills to climb that their straight counterparts do not. All of these problems are true. And thankfully, society is making progress (as slow as it may seem) to make amends and truly treat everyone as equals.

But besides demographic handicaps, there exists other factors that give people a significant advantage over others. And there is no way to stop it.

Intelligence is one. Smarter people, supposedly, are more likely to succeed than not so smart people. The exception might be found in the world of sports, where brainless jocks can make millions only because they can catch a football better than any of us.

But consider intelligence as an inherent characteristic that gives people an edge when it comes to making money, scoring high paying jobs, and getting into good colleges. No dummy can get into Harvard or Yale (unless, of course, you come from a rich family); never mind survive it for four years. Or get a degree.

It should come as no surprise that intelligence runs in the genes. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I am very inclined to agree. But intelligence doesn’t always guarantee success, of course. There are plenty of lazy people out there who are very bright, but aren’t terribly motivated. They made a choice, and they are living out those choices. And, naturally, there are smart people who choose careers that don’t rake in the big bucks. I am willing to bet that most starving artists are very intelligent people; they’re just not very rich. But money and success don’t always mean the same thing, right?

Then there’s the case of smart people not getting the breaks or opportunities that others do. If you’re an intelligent person who lives in a poor neighborhood, your odds of getting into college or attending a decent public school system is lower than those who live in a wealthier city. This would be what is known as “untapped potential.” There are millions of kids out there who could be potential Noble Peace Prize winners if they just lived in better conditions. What a shame.

Another uncontrollable factor is natural talent. Some people are born with better physical abilities than the rest. No matter how hard I try, I will never become a better basketball player than LeBron James, or a better hitter than Ichiro Suzuki, or a better quarterback than Peyton Manning. They are born with natural skills, hand-eye coordination, and physical bodies that I am not blessed with.

And talent cannot be learned. No matter how many hours I spend in the gym, or how many world-class coaches I work with, or how many years I spend practicing, my jump shot will never be as good as LeBron’s. His genetic make up makes him a superior basketball player than 99 percent of the world’s population. I, on the other hand, live among that 99 percent, not that small elite 1 percent.

There is proof that athletic ability is genetic and not a learned art. It has been said by medical experts that certain athletes are able to return from ligament surgery quicker than the rest of us because their bodies are so coordinated, that when the nerve endings in essence “rewire” themselves after surgery, it happens quicker in them than John Doe. John Doe (or Jane Doe) needs more time because his/her nervous system is not nearly as well tuned as that of an NFL player.

This might explain why soccer moms or baseball dads who punish their kids with hours of practice in hopes that they will become the next future hall of famer in their respective sport might be wasting their (and their kid’s) time. Making your little Billy practice fielding for three hours after school will not guarantee that he will become the next Derek Jeter.

Maybe this explains why so many “children of famous athletes” like Ken Griffey, Jr. (Ken Griffey, Sr.), Matt Hasselbeck (Don Hasselbeck), Lofa Tatupu (Mosi Tatupu), and the Manning brothers (Peyton and Eli have a famous father in Archie Manning) have made it big over the years. Talented athletes give birth (or father) to more talented athletes. Is this a miracle? No, it’s scientific.

Natural talent goes beyond physical abilities. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could write symphonies before most of us could do our times tables. He was blessed with a musical ear and an endless fountain of imagination that most of us do not possess. There is a reason why his music is still listened to and played today.

But could any Tom, Dick, or Harry replicate the musical achievements of a Mozart, or Beethoven, or George Gershwin? Probably not, unless our standard of excellence dramatically falls all of a sudden. I doubt that will happen any time soon.

And, of course, there is another category where some people are considered superior to others. It is a category that we notice everyday. We are reminded of it every time we walk into a grocery store. Children as young as 5 or 6 can be teased about it on the school yard. Today there are people who spend thousands of dollars to improve it.

Have you guessed what it is? If not, that’s okay. The category that gives certain people an edge over others is beauty. Physical looks. This has nothing to do with intellectual capabilities, hard work, or learning. Some people are born better looking than others. Yes, there are ways to enhance beauty (some strategies are as modest as the simple application of makeup to the more extreme road of plastic surgery), but either you got it, or you don’t.

Beauty and physical appearance do give people an unfair edge over their more homely friends. Good looking people are usually served quicker at restaurants. They might be more likely to beat out a speeding ticket. An employer might hire a beautiful person over a less attractive person; especially if the job requires dealing with the public (does Abercrombie & Fitch ring a bell to anyone?).

What about jobs that just require being beautiful? Modeling is an industry created specifically for the more aesthetically pleasing in our society. So has most anything in the entertainment and media business. It is no mystery that women are discriminated against in the businesses where being featured on camera is involved. Do you ever wonder why all “weather girls” are perky, pretty, and shapely?

Discrimination against less attractive people has been going on for centuries, as well as the backlash against it. People are upset because putting beauty on a pedestal only makes life difficult for the rest of us, not to mention more costly, time consuming, and frustrating. If girls as young as 10 or 12 are starting to use makeup, then we have a problem.

All this is to prove that there are factors in our society that go beyond race, gender, socio-economic status, and religion in deciding who is “superior” to others. This is not a uniquely American thing, either. This practice has been going on since time began. But all this seems more upsetting considering we live in a “free society” where anyone can achieve anything if they just try hard enough.

Which is not to say that we don’t live in a free country where self-determination is still the name of the game. It is to a certain extent, but we have to realize that no matter how you spin it, some people are “more equal” than others. Sound Orwellian to you? Not really. Sounds more realistic to me. These standards aren’t unconstitutional, of course, but they do seep into our every day behavior.

People with higher intelligence, natural talent, and beauty do have an advantage over everyone else. But is that necessarily a bad thing? What’s wrong with using your God-given gifts to your own advantage? Pragmatic self-interest never hurt anyone (just ask the infamous political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli). As the old saying goes, if you got it, flaunt it.

But our egalitarian mindset tells us that this is all wrong. Everyone should have an equal chance in life, regardless of what cards they were dealt with. Being dealt a “superior” hand should mean nothing in the long run. But it does, doesn’t it?

Maybe there is no answer to this. Maybe we are all born unequal and we should just accept it. Why bother to change something that is so deep rooted in our collective culture? Or can we change our culture and perspective regarding human worth? That is a question I leave to you.