Monday, November 20, 2006

As "The Twig" Is Bent

When the University of California Southern Branch was established in the 1920's, it wasn't immediately apparent that it was going to have problems dealing with the socially-constructed political notion of "race." In fact, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and Delta Sigma Theta sorority chapters appeared on the campus the very same year "the twig," as it was nicknamed, conferred its first undergraduate degrees. Four years later, in 1927, Ralph Bunche (the renowned African-American who eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize) was valedictorian of his graduating class there. So what happened at this school--now known as U.C.L.A.--to result in an incoming freshman class of 4800 students in 2006 with only ninety-nine African-Americans? That amounts to just a hair above two per cent. Out of all the potential students in the United States. Two per cent of the incoming class. Every time I say it or write it or even think it, my head shakes automatically, as if I'm trying to jar the math cells in my brain, which have never been overly proficient and must surely have finally dimmed out unexpectedly and entirely now. Hmmmph.

I might have missed this information in that I don't get around the blogosphere much any more and that used to be where I got my news, by and large. But Friday, one of my colleagues mentioned it casually in passing and I've been gasping ever since. What?! I keep saying like the poor befuddled student in "Pulp Fiction" just before he gets shot by the hit man because he keeps saying "What?"

What?! Ninety-nine out of 4800? What?! Does not compute. Does not compute...

Not surprisingly, the chancellor of the university, along with the faculty, the administration, the students, and the alumni are all calling the situation a "crisis." Well, no kidding. Garbage stinks, even fresh garbage, and this blatant manifestation of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism is far from fresh. I remember one time in my childhood how shocked we all were, standing around the kitchen in the giant old house we had just moved into, when several sizable rats leapt out from under the sink all at once as the cupboard door was opened. Looking back, there's no way a house that big and that old wouldn't have rats, but we were all still shocked.

The situation is being blamed on Proposition 209, the constitutional amendment passed nine years ago in California to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity. It's so obviously racist as to be embarrassing even to generally oblivious White folks. But it passed with 54% of the vote. Ain't power grand? And here we are with exactly the kind of result that was intended: shutting African-Americans off from the benefits privileged people have always been able to take for granted.

Well, gosh, say those who support Proposition 209 (which has been doggedly ignored by many private institutions and employers and the subject of a number of lawsuits), what could be more fair than letting quantifiable merit decide everything--right? Yeeeeaahh...on the surface...but there are several glaring problems with this practice.

First of all, quantifiable merit is not in and of itself all it's cracked up to be as a performance predictor, which is well recognized by college decision-makers. I mean, I've got a fairly good brain (for example) and handily dispatched most of my Ph.D. level courses, but I only scored 500-something on the math section of the GRE (the graduate-level standardized exam typically used to determine admittance to grad school). Was that good enough to get me into FSU? Apparently. Because my verbal score was pretty high. But let's face it now, there are people who manage to hit 1400 with their combined scores. So if FSU hadn't taken into consideration my straight A's at the Master's level, my maturity (simply for being born earlier than others), and what they called my "creativity" (a very non-quantitative commodity), I would have never made the cut.

So, what's wrong with that? If we're only going to be educating the creme de la creme (oui?), then other folks--of whatever skin tone--will simply not be educated...or employed...or whatever.

But wait. How did the creme de la creme get to be that? Are they all just born geniuses? Actually, even a genius who doesn't get a good solid preparatory education is not going to fare well when the die is cast.

When I transferred from one middle school to another, for example, I told my school advisor that I didn't like math (even though I had been taking advanced math at my old school). The advisor, probably in view of the fact that I was a girl and therefore, of course, not a "math mind," said, "Okay. Just take chorus instead." I never took another math course until I faced statistics in graduate school. And while I passed it--somehow--I couldn't understand it because I had no context into which to put the information. I was taking third year Spanish, as it were, after skipping the first two years. Memorizing the syllables might get me through the course, but I wasn't learning the language and wouldn't use it after the fact.

How does this story relate to Proposition 209? Well, if I'd been a boy back there in middle school, the advisor would more than likely have said, "Look, you don't have to like math. Just learn it. You're going to want to go to college one day and you won't be able to pass the SAT if you don't know math." And I would have taken it and been prepared when the time came years later for me to ante up in grad school. But I wasn't, all because I was born with one set of genitalia instead of another. And sex, if you'll recall, is one of the factors they can't discriminate against any longer in California.

Still, I didn't start out talking about gender, did I? No, but it's the same dynamic. Public elementary, middle, and high schools in poor neighborhoods tend pretty graphically to be so underfunded and loaded with social problems of all kinds due to poverty and its attendant miseries that even a genius might be hard put to wind up well enough educated to compete with those who don't live in poor neighborhoods. And this would be only a class issue, rather than a race issue, except that African-Americans and Latinos are far and away more likely to live in abjectly poverty-stricken locations and be "educated" in settings that would drive White folks into the suburbs, which is exactly where they have gone.

So little Jamal and little Maria reach college age, but not necessarily college capability. And, because they haven't been prepared to compete, they are summarily excluded, no matter how bright they may actually be, given half a chance and a modicum of assistance. How handy for the White kids who have not only had the necessary educational preparation, but have a clearer path since they're virtually the only ones on it.

Of course, Proposition 209 doesn't seem to keep the star African-American athletes out of U.C.L.A., even though only 27% of them manage to graduate (a rate even lower than Louisiana State). And one can only be glad that young White men like George Bush will still get into Harvard and Yale, just as he did (even with his C+ grade point average), because they sure as hell wouldn't get into a school where quantified merit made the decision. And then where would we get our future leaders?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

It's An Honor And A Privilege...

Now that I'm on a roll, I can't seem to slow down. Yay! And as I revel in my return to the blogosphere, I'd like to present for your continued enjoyment, a triad on privilege:

The Angry Black Woman offers Things You Need To Understand #4.

Kendall Clark's Defining White Privilege on, which is apparently defunct now, is still pertinent, so pertinent.

And bringing the noise for a resounding finish, BlackAmazon nails it (once again) with her Cover the Basics.

God, it's good to be back!

Let's Have Some Fun

If you're looking for something from me as to why I haven't been here for five weeks, I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. Of course, I'm busy. Of my 79 students, I've had in-depth sessions with a third of them. I started a Sociology Club on campus in the attempt to get the pot off the floor and back onto the stove with a fire under it. I'm kicking off a Sociological Film Series (for the same reason) and did my homework to host a series of sociological speakers for the spring (myself included, of course). I'm on campus five days a week and doing a new prep for a course I'm making up as I go along (which means lots and lots of reading). I'm already working on my courses for next semester (choosing books and such). And I've started learning Spanish in my spare moments so I'll be ready to visit Mexico in the spring. But it wasn't being busy that shut me up. And I wasn't sure what it was.

That is, I wasn't sure until I got a hint on Friday when I met a man named Pat button-holing people outside the library on campus. With the energy of a big city street hawker, the face of a grandad, and the attitude of a circus clown, he only let go of the couple he was talking to before me once he had taken me hostage. And you know it ain't easy to take me hostage. I have a way of either extricating myself or returning the favor. I latched on.

It turned out that Pat had once been a monk--for considerably more than a decade--and he lives somewhere off campus now and just putzes around getting into mischief. He serves as a liaison between two schools ("I represent each to the other, so I wind up talking to myself.") He quickly beguiled me (and when you're being beguiled by an Irishman, you're being beguiled) with tales of successfully picketing with migrants to win union concessions, organizing students into doing loving acts for no pay-off (my favorite!), and founding orphanages for boys in trouble. "I had fun doing this for a while," he would say, "and then I had fun doing that for a while..." And everything he does is fun. A lot of it.

I found myself pausing ruefully to admit that I had begun to see everything I was doing as work. And I was reaching a point that I didn't like any of it any more.

"You gotta have fun!" he bubbled (the man bubbles, I tell you--it crossed my mind when he first captured me that, angel or not, he must be manic or something, but after awhile, I no longer cared--if that's manic, I need me some). By the time he let me go, some thirty or forty minutes later, I felt different.

And here I am. I've read. I've watched videos (on capitalism, for classes). I've studied Spanish. I've sniffed the internet for a position at a new school next year (oh, yeah! I wanna do this again!) And here I am. Swilling coffee so late, it's probably gonna keep me up all night long. But here just the same. Writing. Re-connecting. Dancing, as it were. Having some fuckin' fun. Yes, indeedy.

See, the thing is: when I came to this new campus, I was under the impression that I had to prove something to somebody. That I was somehow inadequate to the task. That I had to make up for lost time. That I had to "figure it all out." Yesterday. And it was not fun.

Then, a few students that I wouldn't have liked at any school showed up in one of my classes and since I was busy trying to "figure it all out," I thought I had to "reach" them. I know damned well you can't teach a pig to sing. But I thought I had to. Somehow. What a bummer. And so unnecessary.

Anyway, the students won for a while. I let them steal my joy. I mean, I've seen these self-righteous, little over-incomed/super-entitled/madras-wearing lacrosse players before. But normally, I just tune 'em out. That is to say, normally, I manage to tune them out. This time, they were so in-my-face, so bitter, and so unapologetically closed-minded, that I let them become every establishment authority figure I had ever been cowed by. (I know, I know. It doesn't seem as if I'd be easily cowed. And I'm not. I've faced down some real scary people. But that was always fighting for somebody else. When it came to fighting for myself, I didn't always--or even necessarily usually--have what it took.)

I knew I had the ultimate upper hand. Eventually, the ring-leader humbled himself to the point of admitting that he was willing to "do whatever it takes" to pass the class and even mentioned, by way of explanation, that he doesn't agree with the things I say, so he blocks out what he needs to be learning. I told him I could work with that, but it didn't make me feel any better.

Then, that afternoon, walking across the campus, which is beautiful, wearing my red and black argyle sweater in the sunshine, it occurred to me. Of course, they buck. I'm flying in the face of everything they think their future is founded on. And they could be right. They've never been forced to really consider this kind of stuff before, let alone forced to be graded on whether or not they got it, and here they are. If I think I'm miserable, just imagine how they feel, I thought.

Then, I remembered the juvenile delinquents I used to work with down in Miami and the way I used to train others to work with them. "Watch their feet," I used to say. "They'll grumble and mumble and call you names, but in the end, if they head generally--however slowly--in the direction you've indicated, then let 'em grouse. What difference does it make? They have to save face. They're giving up their power. You're winning, so can't you afford to let the silliness slide?"

All I have to do, I thought, walking toward the library in the sunshine, is just lighten up on the rein a little and ride the bull the way I know how. And then Pat reached out and grabbed my hand and said, "Hi, how are you today? I hope you're having a wonderful day." And by the time we parted, I was. And I have been all week-end. And I expect to be tomorrow. And I can hardly wait until Thanksgiving when I have a whole nine days to call my own. You better look out. I'm back. ;^)