Monday, May 19, 2008

Conversation Recap for May 18, 2008

We began at 9:15, and went around for our check-in. We were a small crew this morning, on a very sunny morning. It is supposed to be mid-70s today with rain coming in a couple of days. One wonders what else pulls folks away—a couple of people we know are traveling, someone is sick, and other things are just happening.

Today we heard part of Carl’s story.

One question that emerged from his story: How do you describe to a family standing on the front porch in an economically depressed former steel and coal town, that they have benefited from white privilege?

One participant suggested that it takes a relationship, over time, to work with someone on the idea. She recalled an MLK quote, roughly: yes there are poor whites, but poor whites are not poor because they are white.

Another response to the question—go to education. This is a nation with a deep anti-intellectual streak, a hate/love relationship with education and schooling. This is graduation weekend for many college people—and the question we hear at these gatherings is, ‘what are you going to do with that degree?’ Recall Lucius Outlaw’s speech at the Race & Pedagogy conference—that a big part of American education is educating for ignorance, of letting people have a free ride through life without having to confront the divisions among people. The rupture among analysts of the divisions in the US are along the color line. For example, note how we separate race and class—the struggle should be between the poor and the rich, but one can not say that.

We discussed the role of labor unions in doing the work of equality. In the US unions like many other groups, even the more progressive ones, still largely divided on the question of race. And we know what happened during the 1960s, with the Republican “Southern strategy” and the alliance with the rural counties in the United States.

In the discussion, more than one person has a relative who died from asthma and its complications. And, in at least one of the cases a major contribution was the rampant pollution back in the day.

We also noted the effects of class. One described a stark difference in how he was treated when he shifted from a traditional blue collar job to a white collar job.

One participant linked the discussion to institutions, both education and prisons. Some prison people he knows project their future population using dropout rates. And looking at schooling, in the districts with lots of minority students the teacher cadre tends to be overwhelmingly white, female, and young. And these in schools that fail to graduate anywhere between half and 70% of African American students. [This has an obvious connection to the reading today.]

One participant noted a parent’s voice, which several around the room echoed, that repeated the mantra: “if they would just try harder,” or “if they just work hard enough…” In high schools one version of this these days is, “if you study and keep your nose clean, you will get into college and get the scholarships to pay for it.” The mainstream narrative is to

Another answer to the union question—we have unions to thank for the weekend, decent hours and working conditions, living wage, the works. Taft-Hartley was an attempt to break the power of Unions, and it was Ronald Reagan who showed how the modern attack was to work. Why are the people in tough times not blaming Reagan for the assault on unions, and by extension, their opportunities in life.

An observation on American exceptionalism—the notion that the USA has something to offer that no other society has experienced. Plantation societies—much of the US, Barbados, Trinidad—are those that rely on the work of people who don’t have much power. And, of course, plantations are divided on the color line. This led to several observations on the Obama candidacy. The references to nationalism in his speeches are troubling to many of us.

What we do not see is politics framed through an ethic of universal respect for individuals. Politicians have offered a number of categories of who is on top and who is on the bottom. None yet has started with universal respect.

In June we will have a conversation about reading books in the future. One model is to pick one and do a chapter a week. Another is to take a topic, say, American exceptionalism, and read something that will be perhaps a collection of things. We will be having a conversation about it in June.

And we move to the book.

One of the passages we looked at is centered on p. 349, when Barbara was being put out of the apartment, and the description of the crowd-as-vultures waiting for the goods, and the guy with the gun saying “they can’t outrun this.”

A couple of folks who grew up in very different communities than the DC described by Suskind noted that the stability of their surroundings, in the face of poverty, would call up a very different response when one family was facing a crisis. It was “more like a family.” One interpretation offered to compare the situations is to look at the way mobility affects community ties. We have to add into it the availability of housing

It is likely that Suskind does not see the architecture of survival in poor communities, the degree to which cooperation is essential. Look at his stories about the church Barbara goes to—recall the early sections on asking people to give up their last dollar, and how Barbara was asked to put the $20, her last $20, into the plate. Then, about p. 350, Minister Borden shows up with the check that keeps Barbara from being evicted.

We went on to talk about the ways we do not step up to work on the tough systematic problems—note the stories about how Ballou High is doing. Suskind offers next to nothing outside the normal narrative of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. The dominant narrative that bothers to include poverty is about how hard-working, self-disciplined individuals struggle against the surrounding difficulties and rise above them. In that sense Suskind wrote a Horatio Alger book.

One participant noted that in our local schools there is a real reluctance to engage in discussion about race among the faculty, and yet students pick it up and seem willing to engage.
We discussed the underlying story in the book of Barbara, who works at the Dept. of Agriculture and, at the time of the book, made $20k after a good many years, which is not a living wage. Somewhere in the discussion we can get a lot further into jobs and employment policies.

A start of a conversation. We should have a discussion of what to do here, in Tacoma, about the systemic things we have noted about the book. Tacoma is where we live, and we know that the school district has enough difficulties for us to work on. Lots of students are being poorly served.

Here is an idea: There are 30 schools on the District improvement list, for several years now…. it is time to start talking about the possibility of taking those 30 schools and doing something. It might be possible, just musing here, to opt out of the District and to make another where some new things can be tried.

A parent group in Los Angeles, California, sued the school district over similar issues and actually won.

We also mentioned the importance of building a coalition that works on education in Tacoma, and discussed upcoming elections for Board positions. There actually are some efforts going on in that direction. Several people spoke to the importance of building alliances. “We can do this.”