Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Price of Speaking for the Hidden

You may have heard that the state of Michigan is paying for the pursuit of a lawsuit by the Detroit Public School District against two of its teachers. And you may wonder, just what terrible thing did the teachers do that justifies the state’s payment of $320,000 in legal fees against them?

They are accused of promoting teacher sick outs.

And why would they do such a thing?

Because they cared for kids.

Such is the price these days of caring for kids.

You see, the sickouts brought attention to the fact that teaching and learning conditions in may Detroit schools were horrendous. As reported in CNN, “Black mold grows in the classrooms of Spain Elementary-Middle School.

Rats and roaches run through the halls of Moses Field School and pieces of ceiling have fallen on the heads of students at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy.

At Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, eighth-graders are housed in the gym and pulled to classrooms for core subjects an hour or so a day due to a shortage of teachers.”
Spain Elementary.jpg

Though there had been a pattern of teacher and parent complaints, nothing was done about these issues until Detroit teachers finally took the action of walking out. This direct wide action generated the publicity needed to draw attention to the fact that we must not forget those children we are leaving behind.

The teachers have been victimized for courageously and persistently teaching under impossible conditions, and now, as result of speaking truth to power, they are having the power that the state can bring to bear on them as a mean of controlling, quieting, and terrorizing.

This is the same state has taken no responsibility for its emergency management of the Detroit Public Schools district that the EM has brought to the brink of bankruptcy.

The New York Times reports, “In Detroit, the schools are on the brink of insolvency after a series of emergency managers dating to 2009 repeatedly failed to grapple with its financial troubles, while also falling short on maintaining school buildings and addressing academic deficiencies. “

So the state falls short on maintenance of buildings, has elementary classrooms full of 45 students, runs out of money to pay teachers, and then spends more money to sue said teachers for making all of this visible?

Understanding requires that we remember who it is happening to. It is those who have been most marginalized- in this case, specifically, the poor and black students of Detroit. Those who are easiest to forget. Those who remain most hidden.

And the message of the lawsuit is that there will be price to pay for those who refuse to allow the lives of the marginalized to remain hidden.

In his incredible book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen shares a tenant of civilization that certainly applies here:

“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often articulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”

Sounds all too familiar.

Photo from TruthRevolt.org

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The Case for Remembering (And the Road Not Taken)

We live in a time that encourages us to erase our history. Our focus is on moving forward, making progress, all the while we congratulate ourselves for how far we’ve come.

We live in times where we look to “disrupt” as a means of “innovating.” Of creating space for newness.

All the while we do so without fully understanding the forces at work that created the need for change in the first place.

We do so without understanding the choices that our history gives us clues to.

In a recent article in the Detroit Free Press, the current Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools, Judge Stephen Rhodes (who calls himself a “Transition Manager” as means of avoiding the historical failure of “Emergency Manager”- see how that works?), along with interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, wrote an op-ed, “Focus on Fresh Start for Public Education in Detroit, Not Blame for the Past,” asking us to wipe the slate clean, forget the past, and move forward in order to do what’s best for kids.

“As a community, we can choose to focus our time and energy on questions such as who bears the responsibility for the problems of the old Detroit Public Schools, whether it was necessary for the Michigan Legislature to launch a new school district to solve those problems, or whether the Legislature should have done more.

As leaders of the new school system, however, we choose to focus on the task of creating the best school system that we can for the city of Detroit. We make that choice because it is in the best interests of the students. All other questions are merely distractions from the goal of excellence in academics to which we aspire. We ask the community to join us in that choice.” (Emphasis added)

As a superficial gesture, I get it. We all want what’s best for kids. Let’s move forward as way of doing that.

However, it raises so many questions that need to be asked. And to call them distractions displays a scary level of callousness for those who have been deeply harmed along the way.

For instance, let’s start with how we define community, who gets to define it, and who has a voice within it.

If by community, we mean a group of people involved in having a voice in democratic decision making, then you are erasing the fact Detroit voters haven’t been represented by a school board since 2009.

Should we forget that?

Of course, the new legislative package that allows for the fresh start that Rhodes refers to will have a newly elected school board. So there’s that. But, “A finance review commission, established after the city’s bankruptcy, would be expanded to provide oversight of the school district, which has been run by a series of state-appointed emergency managers since 2009. “

In other words, there will be a degree of oversight that exists in no other school district in the state of Michigan. Clearly what is meant by community means a community that needs oversight. Control. Surveillance.

Should we forget that?

If we forget history, and just move forward, then we can rest assured that the status quo remains intact. History, you see, is messy. And it may not make us look so good.

In fact, history can be pretty ugly.

And the recent history in Detroit Public Schools, very simply, is part of a long history that involves the erasure of black voices and black bodies. These are the ones in need of oversight. Control. Surveillance. I know, this sounds pretty serious. And it can be scary to bring up race. But trust me, it’s way better than avoiding it. (So stay with me.)

Instead, we go through all kinds of gyrations. Detroit, a city that is 80% black, has not had any voice in school governance since 2009. It has been run by the state under emergency management. And yet, the heavily Republican Michigan House calls the most recent bill that allows for Rhodes’ “fresh start” a “bailout” for Detroit rather than the state. This is a common headline, “Michigan Legislature Oks $617 Million Bailout for Detroit Schools.

What?

The context of the article points out that, “The financially and academically ailing 46,000-student Detroit Public Schools has been managed by the state for seven years, during which it has continued to face plummeting enrollment, deficits and, more recently, teacher sick-out protests.” (Emphasis added)

And yet, this is a “bailout” for DPS?

We’ve already forgotten that we are bailing out the state, not DPS.

But the headline leaves the old narrative intact: We are coming to save those poor black people who can’t run their own district. In , Democracy in Black: How Race Still Governs America’s Soulscholar Eddie Glaude puts it this way: “The ritual act of disremembering became a ritual of expiation: the sins of our racial past gave way to an emphasis on individual merit and responsibility. Racial inequality was not seen as the result of deeply ingrained habits, racist policies, or actual discrimination but, rather, as the result of culture of pathology, which produced bad, irresponsible black people.” In the absence of the context of actual history, we are left only with the narrative that the people of Detroit are the problem, who thus created the need for a “bailout.” Structural, systemic causes are unable to be accounted for or addressed. So it becomes a people problem. A Detroit people problem. A black people problem.

See how that works?

We’ve just disremembered the facts and the freed ourselves from the highly racialized context of these facts. We’ve erased ourselves from responsibility for this mess. We’ve forgotten a history of disinvestment in infrastructure, white flight, and the abandonment of those left behind.

Glaude  writes about what he calls the “value gap.” This is the gap between the value that we place on white lives, versus the value that we place on black lives. He says that, “We talk about the achievement gap, we talk about the empathy gap, we talk about the wealth gap, and the value gap is this: the belief that white people matter more than others. And to the extent to which that belief animates our social arrangements, our political practices, our economic realities, under different material conditions, as long as that belief obtains, democracy will always be in abeyance in this country.” (Emphasis added)

usa-police-protests

This is a story that is writ large in the history of Detroit. And one that is fundamental to the disinvestment and the abandonment of the children of Detroit, in spite of the thrown bone of $617 million “bail out” created by the state of Michigan. A “bailout” that as Rep. David Knezek says, “assures failure.”

Should we forget that?

But most egregious is the way that the voices of the Detroit Black Caucus were erased in the vote proceedings for this “bail out.” These are the people who are elected to give voice to those directly affected by the passing of the bill. And yet, in an embarrassing and concretely literal example of white supremacy, the caucus was intentionally ignored in its pleas to speak to the legislative body as the vote was about to be taken. “As the House debated legislation pertaining to the saving of Detroit Public Schools, Democrat Leslie Love from Detroit was refused permission to speak. Even as her colleagues amplified her request, at one point chanting, she was ignored.” (For a chilling and heartbreaking video, please, please see this from Eclectablog.)

I suppose we should forget that too.

I suppose we should forget the erasure of these black voices so that we can start fresh.

Historian Kahlil Gibran Muhammad says, “…my whole point in telling the story is that we always have a choice. And the choice is not to be prisoner to the past, not to be prisoner to the existing myths that shroud us, but to make different choices. Because looking back, the benefit and the beauty of history and hindsight is to see the roads not taken. And there are too many roads that we’ve chosen not to take consistently in this country — yet, self-righteously, as if we’re more evolved, better, faster, more efficient, you fill in the blank.”

We can choose to move incredibly efficiently on the wrong road bringing us a future we are all too familiar with, or we can pause to try to truly understand our past, and move towards something better.

We can choose to search through our history for the roads not taken.

They are abundantly available.

Like Rhodes, I want all of us to move forward too. But the way move forward is determined by our understanding of our history.

The lives of all of our children require us to have the courage needed to remember.

(Image from New York Daily News)