Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Systemic Racism

This quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

What might Dr. King say to us today?

In the wake of the holiday that honors him, I’ve been wondering “what might Dr. King say to us today?” The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a man whom many of us consider a moral beacon for the ages. His life ended more than fifty years ago, but we value moral beacons because their guidance transcends their own times.

We certainly could use a moral beacon right now. We’ve just lived through a year of historic tumult and upheaval. The pandemic has disrupted our lives on every imaginable level. We lived through a long summer of mass popular demonstrations against systemic racism. An incredibly divisive political season has so far crescendoed (at the time of this writing) into the spectacle of a thank-God-failed insurrection/coup d’état.

What might Dr. King say about all of this? It’s impossible (unless you believe in séances) to ask him directly. But some of the things he wrote and said point us toward his probable reading of some of today’s major recent events. If I tried to address all of today’s issues with his thoughts, this would be a very long post. Instead, I’ll focus on two top headlines of today.

What might Dr. King say about the insurrection at the Capitol?

Dr. King loved his country. Even though he opposed white supremacists in positions of power, he still could write, “the goal of America is freedom.” In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963) he cited “the American dream,” and the goal of “bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

The white supremacist mob that stormed the Capitol would have looked all too familiar to him. Their (literal and spiritual) parents and grandparents created the Jim Crow South where he focused his resistance work. Of their racist laws, he wrote, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

As seen from directly above, an angry crowd of Trump supporters beat a Capitol Police officer who has fallen on his face on the Capitol steps.
The insurrectionists attacked this police officer with a crutch, a night stick, fists, and assorted poles—including a pole attached to an American flag. (WUSA9)

He also would have condemned their violence. King decried “hate filled policemen [who] curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters,” but his whole life was devoted to nonviolence. He would have unequivocally decried assaults such as the one pictured above.

Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace,” he wrote. Moreover, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

What might Dr. King say about the impact of the pandemic?

I think he would have been most outraged by the stark, enduring, inequalities the pandemic laid bare. The scourge of poverty, and the systemic racism he sought to dismantle all his life, roared into vivid prominence when COVID-19 pervaded the nation.

This chart, based on data from the American Community Survey of county public health departments, shows that rates of infection were much higher for Latinos and Blacks in San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Alameda Counties, and the death rate for Black people was almost double that of any other group. Latinos came in second.
This chart captures a snapshot of data from May 5, 2020 that demonstrates the uneven impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on different racial groups (Todd Trumbull/San Francisco Chronicle)

Unequal access to health care, environmental pollution in poor neighborhoods, and inadequate access to healthy nutrition in “food deserts” had already afflicted communities of color with higher rates of diseases and health conditions that made residents of these communities more vulnerable to the disease and its most virulent manifestations.

In this case, we don’t have to ask, “what might Dr. King say?” because we know he said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We know he advocated for “the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

In 2020, we outgassed a lot of platitudes about the value of “essential workers,” many of whom are Black, Latinx, or Asian. But although they can’t work remotely and therefore court death each day they go to work, they often still don’t have adequate health coverage, and they weren’t in the earliest cohort of vaccine recipients, even though they were supposed to be near the front of the line.

A hallmark of capitalist systems is tiers of access, a hierarchy of who gets how much, of what quality, and when. As King put it, capitalism “has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he said, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

What might Dr. King say about where we go from here?

I think he’s left us plenty of guidance on that question, too. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” he warned. He also said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight,” he wrote from the Birmingham jail.

A Navajo Nation food bank.
Native Americans of the Navajo Nation people, pick up supplies from a food bank. It was set up at the Navajo Nation town of Casamero Lake in New Mexico on May 20, 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images and ABC News)

On a different occasion, he warned, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Let’s not be too late. After all, “The time is always right, to do what’s right.”

IMAGE and QUOTATIONS CREDITS:

IMAGES: Many thanks to WUSA 9, for the horrifying photo of the police officer being beaten by the insurrectionist mob at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. I’m grateful to graphic artist Todd Trumbull of the San Francisco Chronicle for the “Racial Disparities in COVID-19” chart from May 5, 2020. I also want to thank Mark Ralston of AFP via Getty Images and ABC News, for the May 20, 2020 photo of the relief station in the Navajo Nation. Many thanks also to Gecko & Fly, for the header image.

QUOTES: Many of these resources supplied overlapping quotes, while others offered new insights. For a deep dive into the wisdom and sayings of Dr. King, I appreciate Christian Animal Ethics, The African Studies Center of the University of Pennsylvania (complete text of Letter from a Birmingham Jail), Gecko & Fly, Food for the Hungry, In These Times, and Common Dreams.

“The American Dream Game,” 2014 David Horsey cartoon

What kind of environment?

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential?

In last week’s post I explained that I built my fictional Rana Station’s system on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

I first studied this question in grad school. Many of my projects centered on the question of what kind of environment students needed to support their success.

How can students succeed?

Schools traditionally have been held solely responsible for students’ academic success. The last part of my teaching career played out during the devastating early onset of “No Child Left Behind,” so I saw this taken to extremes.

President George W. Bush waves to a crowd. Behind him a sign reads, “No Child Left Behind.”
President George W. Bush waves from a crowd of woman and children, in front of a sign like a chalkboard, emblazoned “No Child Left Behind.” The education “reform” law instituted high-stakes testing, but did not improve schools. (Photo from Reuters, via The Atlantic).

But carrot-and-stick approaches such as funding penalties for low-performing schools or incentive pay” for teachers were foolish from the outset.

Why?

Because even without penalties, I’ve worked in schools where we ran out of supplies from lack of funding halfway through the school year.

And anyone who’s been around a good teacher for five minutes will figure out s/he isn’t in the profession for monetary bonuses.

How can we improve kids’ outcomes?

Schools alone can never control enough variables to ensure student success. We found out the hard way that a school-only approach doesn’t work.

The most brilliant teacher in the world can’t make a child pay attention if he’s hungry.

Or if her mouth hurts from an abscessed tooth.

Maybe he can’t see the materials he’s supposed to read. Or hear the teacher’s words.

Maybe she was raped last night.

Those are all examples drawn from my own students’ lives. Many (though not that last one) stem from poverty, and the chronic unavailability of services in poorer communities. Any answer to “what kind of environment could enable students to reach their full potential?” must include health care.

I stopped teaching before the advent of the Affordable Care Act. But even after its passage added millions of new first-time-ever insured, there are still holes in the safety net. Especially in states such as Kansas and Missouri, where Medicaid was never expanded.

This quote from Barack Obama reads, “You look at something like health care, the Affordable Care Act. And for all the controversy, we now have 20 million people who have health insurance who didn’t have it. It’s actually proven to be more effective, cheaper than even advocates like me expected.
(AZ Quotes)

Would better safety nets fix the problem?

Better safety nets would be a great place to start.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatized the gaping inequities in our society. Food insecurity, always a problem, has grown more acute than ever.

In many parts of the country shortages of affordable housing on top of other issues created a wave of homelessness even before the virus struck. Today an eviction can become a literal death sentence.

The logistics of managing “life-support basics” makes even “minor” tasks excessively hard in some impoverished communities. Affluent people easily overlook this.

Remember how people in charge failed to realize it’s near-impossible to follow an evacuation order if you have no transportation, in the 2005 Katrina disaster? That blindness pervades our society on the decision-making level. Clearly, all stakeholders—including members of the community to be served—need their voices added to the discussion.

But better safety nets won’t fix everything.

Equal opportunity for who, did you say?

If you look at students who succeed in school, the ones who end up at the top of the heap tend to be affluent White kids. We all know that’s not by accident. There are lots of reasons, but the most systemic underlying reason is racism. I’m not saying all affluent White folks are racist, but I will categorically say the system is.

This quote from Hillary Clinton reads, “We have to face up to systemic racism. We see it in jobs, we see it in education, we see it in housing. But let's be really clear; it's a big part of what we're facing in the criminal justice system.”
(QuoteMaster)

We are not all born with an equal chance to succeed. Centuries of disempowerment and discriminatory practices have kept minority persons of color from accumulating wealth.

This has fallen especially hard on Black families, but practices of exclusion, redlining, and violent reprisals against minority advancement (such as race riots, started by White people) have affected Latinos and Asians as well. And the entire history of the so-called “New World” has been a long, dreary exercise in conquest and genocide against indigenous people.

The myth of the level playing field

In American society today, no such thing as a “level playing field” exists.

Not even among White folks. Purely by the numbers, there are more impoverished White people than there are people of color. But that’s still only 10% of the White population.

All minorities experience higher percentages of poverty, from Asians, at 12%, to 28.3% of Native Americans/Alaskan Natives.

We must find ways to open up all manner of opportunities. What kind of environment allows all racial and ethnic groups to acquire and build multigenerational wealth? Until we find a way to build such a system, broken safety nets will remain only one part of the problem.

This cartoon shows what looks like a board game. One route, marked “Black” at the starting point, is long, winding, and includes lots of lost turns. Some of the sections say things like “Slavery, lose 100 turns,” or “Denial of Voting Rights, lose 10 turns.” The other route, marked “White” at the start is short, straight, and has sections that say “Free land from Indians, jump 2 spaces,” and (2 spaces later) “Free Labor from Slaves, take another turn.” A young White man near the end turns to his Black competitor and asks, “Are you just slow, or what?”
(LA Times, #142 of 200)

Thriving students come from thriving communities

The bottom line, I discovered, is that thriving students are the natural outcome of thriving communities. Until the entire fabric of the community is vibrant, whole, and functioning well, students remain at risk.

Physical health and the ability to accumulate wealth are vital, but they aren’t the whole story. A truly functional society needs good mental health care, freedom from fear, and actual justice for all.

Solving problems on my fictional space station is one thing. It’s easy to overhaul institutions and rework laws in a story. It’ll be lots harder to do it in real life, especially with the inevitable forces working against us.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? To more completely answer that question, we’ll need to fill additional deficits. Read more about those in future posts.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Reuters, via The Atlantic, for the “No Child Left Behind” photo. I appreciate AZ Quotes, for the quote from Barack Obama on the Affordable Care Act, and QuoteMaster for the quote about systemic racism from Hillary Clinton. And I love the LA Times cartoon “The American Dream Game” by David Horsey, that so beautifully illustrates the reasons why Black and White people don’t start out with an equal shot at life.

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