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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

S/he Had it Coming: Rules, Resistance and Retribution

He had it coming, he had it coming
He only had himself to blame
If you'd have been there, if you'd have seen it
I betcha you would have done the same


From the song “Cell Block Tango” in the film Chicago

Statement #1  “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”


Statement #2 “We had asked several times, politely” for the man to relinquish his seat before force was used.” 

I am seeing a pattern here.

The first statement is a quote from Senator Mitch McConnell defending the invocation of a rarely used Senate rule to force Senator Elizabeth Warren to sit down and to bar her from any further speech during the remainder of the debate on the nomination of Jeff Sessions as United States Attorney General. 

The second statement is a quote from a United Airlines spokesperson that defended the forcible removal of a passenger that refused to give up his seat when told to do so by the airline.

Both statements offer defenses for very public, heavy-handed and rare rebukes of behaviors that are normally taken for granted—speaking on the Senate floor as a senator, and taking a seat on a plane as a passenger when you have reserved and paid for that seat.

In both cases, defenders of the rebukes call upon “rules” to support the actions. McConnell, a public actor, used a public law norm in a public law setting (Rule 19 of the United States Senate ) in order to accomplish personal and political goals and to achieve immediate retribution for what he deemed inappropriate behavior. Individual United Airlines employees ostensibly represented their private institutional employer when they relied upon private law norms (conditions of carriage ) to achieve immediate retribution for an alleged breach of the norms, and used members of a public police force to compel immediate compliance.

In both cases we see different forms of violence, the first discursive and second physical. While discursive violence of the sort to which Elizabeth Warren was subjected is sometimes dismissed as the lesser of the two forms of violence, very often discursive violence generates broader public permission for physical violence. As scholar LynneTirrell observes, when we license bad behavior in the form of egregious speech acts that threaten or silence others, we loosen the reins on social behavior more generally.  


In loosening these bonds we promote conditions in which individual actors take on and off at will the mantle of state and or non-state corporate entities, or some hybrid of the two, in the process of enacting vengeance/justice/rule compliance.  In this blurring of lines between the individual private actor, the state, and non-state private institutions, legitimacy and accountability are the first to go. The rule’s the thing, to rephrase Shakespeare; an allegedly innocent and neutral regulatory scheme that cannot on its face be challenged is used to achieve a targeted and decidedly partisan result. In these cases we often see the conflation of demands supported by rules and demands that are converted into rules. 

Even governmental entities charged with protecting citizens' rights sometimes become blithe and willing delegators of their own rules and enforcement mechanisms. Regulatory regimes such as laws and other norms are subject to being reinterpreted, reapplied, and rewritten in the service of the powerful, thereby making both discursive and physical violence less visible, mere “incidents” concerning "oversales rules" to be addressed after delegation, as this statement by the Department of Transportation suggests:

The U.S. Department of Transportation confirmed it is looking into the incident to determine “whether the airline complied with the oversales rule.”

“The Department is responsible for ensuring that airlines comply with the Department’s consumer protection regulations including its oversales rule. While it is legal for airlines to involuntary bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities”

And if not “incidents,” such acts of violence are “situations” to be dealt with via "established procedures," as per United CEO Oscar Munoz:

"Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this," Munoz told employees. "While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right."

 
-->Drawing on United's "fly right" slogan, CEO Munoz apparently exhorts passengers to fly right and to comply with the rules. If Munoz understood one source of the term "fly right," an old Brer Rabbit tale in which a treacherous buzzard offers rides to hapless animals, then throws them to their deaths and devours them, he might think again about using it.  In the tale, a clever monkey gets the better of the buzzard by wrapping his tail around the buzzard's neck and choking him while demanding that the buzzard "straighten up and fly right," and take the monkey safely back to the ground. United Airlines as a rapacious buzzard conquered by a resistant monkey on his back is a disquieting corporate image. Ah, but maybe what is needed here is just such a potent consumer resistance allegory.

Where discursive and physical violence become more acceptable and cloaked in rules, coercion is framed as choice, and resistance becomes more futile as summary retribution becomes a right. Resisting victims are responsible for their own harm. Indeed, in such circumstances tables are turned and perpetrators are seen as victims of the alleged rule breakers' persistence. There is no dialogue, only monological imperatives to sit down, shut up, get up, move or be moved. When these alleged rule breakers are summarily judged, found wanting, and have punishment executed upon them, they have it coming, we are told. 

We are living in troubling times indeed.

Friday, April 7, 2017

#Blackwomenatwork: Personal is Political

As I shared with one of my classes the other night, over my years in academia, on a fairly regular basis, white students have said to me, "I am afraid of black people," or even,"I don't like black people." 

When this happens, I usually start by gently but firmly reminding such students that I am actually a black person, and that their comments offend me. I think that my familiarity with many of the cultural touchstones that are parts of their lives causes them to forget a little bit. Or rather, I'm not sure if they forget that I am black, it's just that they think that I am a "safe" black person to whom to say these things.  Or they think that as a professor, I must be there for them, a neutral, unfeeling service provider whose job is to be stern, caring, instructive, sin-absolving, and healing all at once. Some people's idea of casting directions for my job call for a combination of a butt-spanking black mammy, an avuncular, scholarly parish priest, and a disease-eating magic Negro à la Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile.

These "I am afraid of black people" students are not wrong in some respects about who I am to them. While I certainly do have feelings and am subject to the hurts of racial insults like anyone else, to be successful (aka to remain in and survive the job) in my line of work has often meant tempering those hurt feelings. Indeed, I frequently take on a "post-racial" pose with such students just to draw out their anti-black feelings. It's not a trap. I do it because I sincerely want to help. 

While I am neither therapist nor racial healer by any means, I think that the world is improved if people confront what are often irrational prejudices. If I don't know that students bear such feelings, I can't begin to talk it through with them. I am actually encouraged that white students even engage in these conversations with me. What  I find sad about such conversations is that I sometimes learn in the course of them that I am one of the few (or only) black people with whom they have ever had an ongoing relationship--academic, professional, social or otherwise. 

My gender becomes a salient factor here because while some of these students have known or interacted with black male athletes during high school or college ("Yay, team!"), they have had almost no corresponding need or desire to interact with black girls or women. It is this raced and gendered interaction gap that causes situations like the recent  public verbal assaults on journalist April Ryan, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and former national security adviser Susan Rice. The very public sallies against these women are no doubt politically inspired. But just as the personal is political, the personal and the political are at all times both raced and gendered. It is far easier to demonize or attack people who are like no one that you know, The hashtag #Blackwomenatwork is an important mechanism for focusing attention on the race-gender lacuna that often leaves black women in a space apart.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

School Choice, Sacrifice and Morality

I think that we can't say, "This school is not good enough for my child" and then sustain that system. I think that that's just morally wrong. If it's not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

This quote is drawn from an NPR piece about how "individual choices" maintain systemic school segregation. The piece profiles a black woman journalist's choice to send her child to a public school near her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn where the students were mostly poor and black or Latino.  

The concluding question above is a very, very difficult one. And as a parent who has attended, sent my children to, and championed neighborhood public schools of varying quality, who has also helped to found a high performing public charter school that my children attended, and who may at some point use private schooling, I don't think there is a single answer. Race, class and gender make the question all the more difficult. 

I am somewhat cynical about the whole public education industrial complex. My cynicism grows out of the fact that this complex is partly sustained by what I call the "originalist" theory of education, a notion that has been stable across centuries of U.S. efforts at providing public education. This is the claim that all public educations are at least roughly fungible and that somewhere, somehow there is value to be gained that can be accessed by all. This has never been true. 

School has always been a local, often highly idiosyncratic concern that is very targeted in its individual delivery and deeply personal in its effect. Standards for teacher training and teacher hiring have always varied greatly. School wasn't even compulsory in some states until the twentieth century, and the ages of that compelled attendance have always varied across jurisdictions. Many children scarcely went beyond primary school in the early days of provision of public education. And even now, large numbers of students fail to complete high school. The latter fact is to be lamented. But far more lamentable is the fact that a sixth grader in some public schools is better educated than a twelfth grader at others. We lament, and yet we do little to address this sad fact. Short of overhauling our entire United States education system into something that looks more like a nationally administered, single curriculum, scrupulously same-resourced system that *also* could assure that all children have access to fundamentals such as adequate food and clothing, and safe and comfortable homes and neighborhoods, I really cannot imagine any significant changes coming to public education across the board.

Yes, individual parent choice may promote segregation and other ills. But the choice to use a local public school is not necessarily a virtuous or selfless choice. In my experience across decades, across school attendance zones and across state boundaries, well-educated middle and upper middle-class parents, especially white parents, *always* manage to extract more even out of ostensibly less well resourced public schools. Even when they don't ask for it, administrators and teachers  give them more. Sometimes this largesse is out of pure individual bias. Other times, perhaps the majority of times, the reason is more systemically pragmatic: savvy administrators and teachers want to keep these families in the local schools.

I don't say this as an accusation against parents whose children receive more educational goods (and education is a good; just ask people who have been charged with stealing it) even from otherwise poorly performing public schools. I am somewhat more inclined to blame school administrators in these instances, but the presence of educated, engaged, well-to-do parents and their children in a school tends to help the entire school. Among other value that they bring, children from more privileged backgrounds tend to do better on standardized tests (testing, testing, 1, 2, 3), and high test scores make public schools look better. So I understand why some administrators do what they do. 

But even while I do not accuse parents who receive high value from less well-regarded local public schools, I am very wary of those parents who claim the moral high ground while attempting to dislodge from that windy bluff any parent who does not also choose such  schools. Some of the very same people who disdain those who seek to enroll their children in public schools in more broadly middle class neighborhoods or who castigate charter schools as private-style education because of their localized control over curriculum or funding seem to have no problem at all raising thousands of dollars for their very own local public schools through private foundations that provide new equipment for classrooms, supplementary books, perks for teachers, trips for students, and other extras that local tax dollars cannot or will not buy. Neither do some of these parents have a problem with "gifted" classes, "enrichment" programs, "advanced" courses, or other educational offerings that function as small, elite, and frequently quite segregated academies in the center of otherwise low-performing, often largely minority-serving schools. 

Just as all public education is not the same, neither are all sacrifices. Indeed, some of what passes as sacrifice is what morality theorist Romano Guardini has described as camouflaged assertion of status. It is a fine thing to choose a local public school where your child is "learning a lot" or "becoming a good citizen." But if none of those things were happening for your child, would the local public school still be a viable choice if the only outcome of that choice was to promote greater good for strangers? That is the test of true sacrifice.

Do my children deserve more than other children? That's not the question for me. I would put it another way: Do my children deserve as much as it is possible for me to obtain for them in the way of education? Yes they do.  And with what I hope will be their excellent educations, maybe they can be a part of overhauling the fiefdoms that characterize United States public education.