The Week The Lights Went Out In America

October 8, 2013

Gas station displayed a sign that explained the flag policy during the first OPEC oil embargo and crisis (Oregon), May 1974. March 26, 2013. (NARA via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Gas station displayed a sign that explained the flag policy during the first OPEC oil embargo and crisis (Oregon), May 1974. March 26, 2013. (NARA via Wikipedia). In public domain.

It wasn’t the middle of September of ’08, either. It was the beginning of October ’73, forty Yom Kippur holy days ago. There had been signs for any American who had cared to look at the cracks in the US dominance of the world economy ceiling. Rising unemployment, higher inflation, new monetary control measure, competition from a mostly rebuilt West Germany and Japan. The twenty-eight year-long run America had as the undisputed and undefeated leader of the capitalist world was on its way to a close, and ninety-nine percent of all Americans didn’t know or didn’t care enough to know.

No, the Yom Kippur War between Syria, Egypt and Israel didn’t cause the US to become more dependent on the rest of the world. But our support of Israel against countries from which we imported oil did lead to OPEC’s decision to deny us oil. Up to that point, our government had pretty much done whatever it wanted geopolitically, on behalf of containing Communism and American corporations. It was this week forty years ago, though, that truly began to teach ordinary Americans that there would be consequences for our foreign policy actions without regard for folks who lived at the blunt end of them.

Egyptian forces cross on one of the bridges laid across the Suez Canal, October 7, 1973.   (CIA/Soerfm via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Egyptian forces cross on one of the bridges laid across the Suez Canal, October 7, 1973. (CIA/Soerfm via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I was just a couple of months away from turning four, but I do have vague memories of the week and month from four decades ago. Within a block of where my Mom worked, Mount Vernon Hospital, was a gas station, one that by the end of October had lines wrapped around the block as motorists in their six-miles-to-the-gallon guzzlers desperately waited for some petrol. It was loud and chaotic, from the little bit that I do remember. Fast forward to about a year later, when my Mom took me and my other brother Darren to the old Met grocery store on South Fulton in Mount Vernon. There, she complained about the $2.69 she had to spend on a five-pound bag of Domino’s Sugar ($14.53 in 2013 dollars). I remember her sighing about the high prices and the fact that her paycheck wouldn’t be able to keep up.

It would be years later still before I realized that the last of America’s easiest days as an economic and geopolitical superpower were during my years as a toddler. I did feel secure back then, not knowing about my father’s alcoholism, my mother’s insecurities about being a Black Southern girl living in and around New York City. I had yet to witness the violence embedded in my family, or in my neighborhoods, for that matter. I knew nothing of drug addiction or authentic Blackness, of racism and systemic job discrimination. I had yet to learn that the economic and educational opportunities that had been available to millions of Americans — almost regardless of race and gender — were about to become that much harder to attain and retain as I grew older.

Now, forty years later, as memories of the Reagan and Clinton years have faded, I think of America’s heady days, ones that now seem of lore. I realize that America could have even better days ahead. If we were to acknowledge human involvement in climate change and invest heavily in a green economy. If quality, well-funded universal pre-K to higher education became our reality, without creating one system for elites and another for everyone else. If we as a people finally said it was time to repair $3 trillion worth of infrastructural damage to our bridges and roads, to our sewer and water systems, and to our electrical grid. If we somehow decided to end our expensive wars on drugs and on Black men, on anyone whom we think (but do not know) may do our nation’s interests (if not our people) harm.

Collage of workers placing an F-Series bed onto frame at  Louisville Assembly Plant (Kentucky), 1973. (http://media.ford.com)and a woman carrying a sign past a McDonald's on East 125th Street during a protest by fast food workers and supporters, New York, NY, April 4, 2013. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images via http//:financialpost.com).

Collage of workers placing an F-Series bed onto frame at Louisville Assembly Plant (Kentucky), 1973. (http://media.ford.com); a woman carrying a sign past a McDonald’s on East 125th Street during a protest by fast food workers and supporters, New York, NY, April 4, 2013. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images via http://financialpost.com).

But I know that we won’t have those better days, at least not yet. Not with narcissistic politicians either lining their pockets with money or lining their minds with sugarplum hopes for the Rapture and Armageddon. Not with a media more interested in the political horserace and petty optics than in giving us the full story. And not with an American public more interested in Miley Cyrus than in funding for more psychologists in public schools.

It’s truly depressing to know how far our nation hasn’t come in four decades, virtually my entire lifetime. At least I know, though. For so many born after me — not to mention lacking self-reflection — they may never know what should’ve been.


How Our Politicians See Us

April 18, 2012

Uruguay slaughterhouse with hanging cow carcasses, April 2, 2012. (http://www.meattradenewsdaily.co.uk).

A slightly left-of-center friend of mine from my grad school days at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon has gone off the rails in the past couple of years. At least once a week, he posts on Facebook and The Washington Post his views of the “nice guy…to have at a barbecue,” the “dangerous man” he consistently describes President Barack Obama to be.

Every parsed word, every decision, every breath President Obama takes my friend construes as evidence of the president’s link to the Antichrist and the Apocalypse. My friend has become an unlikely crackpot, willing to see everything President Obama does in the most negative light. To the point where he doesn’t give the president credit for decisions in which few could find fault.

But there’s one thing in which my friend from the ’90s is certain and correct. That if we the people only hold the conservative, reactionary and fascist oligarchs — the GOP and their neocon supporters — accountable, the centrist, not-so-progressive and Wall-Street-beholden oligarchs — the Democratic Party — will be able to get away with demolishing what remains of a sense of progression and fairness in American culture and politics. The two-party system has been broken for a while, rusted out from citizen apathy, a military-industrial complex, and the corruption of money, power and religious absolutism mixed with our nation’s other -isms.

It does beg the question, how do our politicians see us? I already discussed this in my post from last August, “When Politicians Say, ‘The American People…'” But I think moving pictures and good old-fashioned pixels might tell us more about the likes of Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers think of us on a collective scale, courtesy of The Matrix and the meatpacking industry.

Ultimately, we are packets of employment and consumerism, meant to be exploited to the fullest extent that capitalism and our politicians will allow. And if we don’t hold those who may well have our best interests at heart accountable, like President Obama, they too could easily fall prey to those who only see us as carcasses, cash cows or batteries to power their oligarchic lives. Even if my grad school days’ friend is a crackpot.


Simple. Foolish. Thinking. Folk.

December 7, 2011

Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai) music video screen shot, 1997. (http://www.vid81.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of photo's low resolution.

On all sides of the political divide, we bear witness to some of the most unsophisticated thinking that anyone looking back on this time in history could ever possibly imagine.

It’s not just that GOP/TPers like Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry don’t know basic American history or about a constitutional amendment that directly affected their lives as young adults. It’s not just the racial, socioeconomic and gender-based bigotry that Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have given us for months. It’s among supposedly liberal and moderate political animals as well. It makes me question not only the political process. It makes me think that we should recheck the lead content of our water (tap and bottled), our vegetables and our meat.

Gingrich’s statements over the past few weeks are much more than “unfortunate,” as Tony Kornheiser — an eighty-five-year-old impersonating a sixty-three-year-old — said on his ESPN DC radio show Tuesday. No, Gingrich’s statements are ahistorical, flat-out wrong, borderline racist, and downright nasty toward poor Americans and their children.

Say Anything... movie poster with cropped picture of Newt Gingrich at CPAC conference in Orlando, FL (taken September 23, 2011), December 7, 2011. (Quentin X and Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia/Donald Earl Collins). Released in public domain via cc by 3.0.

To a crowd in Iowa last Thursday, Gingrich said, “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday…They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal.” Unfortunate is when you mistakenly drop your flash drive down a garbage disposal. This was so bigoted that it was actually dumb beyond words. And even I thought Gingrich had a bigger brain than this.

This comes only a few weeks after telling the Occupy Wall Street protests to “get a job after you take a bath.” As if getting a college education only to become a $60,000 student loan debt-slave and find oneself unemployed is funny. No, Gingrich, you’re a slime ball, utterly out of touch with America and Americans. At least, any Americans who live in 2011 with less than $10 million to draw from.

But the reactionary right isn’t the only group that has spoken foolery of late, showing us how corrupt our system of politics and government is in our age. Media types of all strips have spoken like simpletons as well. Take Charles M. Blow, visual Op-Ed columnist with the New York Times, who frequents on Twitter as a “pox on both your houses” type. Somehow, though, when people talk about not voting at all, his ability to be rational declines almost as far and as fast as Newt Gingrich’s.

Usually Blow does his SMH sign when he reads 140 characters of what he considers foolishness. Not on November 21. On that day, he tweeted, “I must say that I’m shocked at the number of tweets I’m getting from ppl, seemingly prog, who sound resigned to not voting. Shocked!” Blow followed that with “Voting isn’t just about the right to complain. It’s a demonstration of power. Same as wiggling your fingers in the air, but w politicians.”

The question I have for Blow and voting purists is, what alternative universe do you think we’re living in?

Charles M. Blow, visual Op-Ed columnist, New York Times (cropped), January 18, 2009. (Flickr.com via Arlene M. Roberts). In public domain.

Where money isn’t the key to everything in American politics, and doesn’t determine everything from who runs to literally rigging the system on Election Day? And people considering the possibility of not voting are crazy? Really?

Yes, I know how many people fought and died for my right as a Black male to vote in these United States of America. I’ve been teaching about it for half my life. But that America doesn’t exist anymore. This America, this one where Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry are viable candidates, where progressives with ideas for making our nation better are told they’re being “unrealistic,” is one where normal behaviors often aren’t rational ones. In this case, voting for two sides of virtually the same coin makes no sense to many.

I, for one, will vote next year, and — barring Van Jones running or something — will vote for Obama. But unlike Gingrich or Blow, I’m not arrogant or traditional (or foolish) enough to believe that my ideas for how people should behave are the only ones worth considering.


Education, A Numbers Game Love Story

September 22, 2011

Craps dice, like the state of education reform via numbers crunching these days, August 6, 2006. (Source/Roland Scheicher via Wikipedia). In public domain.

This could just as easily be titled, “Why your multivariate regression analysis isn’t better than my chi-square test,” because that is the state of mainstream education research these days. I find it stifling, like being wrapped in Saran Wrap covered by a condom lined in sheep’s intestines.

Numbers have their place, but the field’s obsession with crunching numbers for trends that defy quantification has increased as a result of federal mandates like NCLB and philanthropy’s accountability movement over the past fifteen years. What’s the long-term impact of the thousands of studies and the deployment of thousands of psychometricians and research analysts in P-20 education reform (that’s early childhood education, K-12, undergraduate and graduate education combined)? Not much, because our politicians and philanthropists are staking themselves to trends almost regardless of numbers.

It all started for me about this time twenty years ago. I did an independent study with Bruce Anthony Jones,

Linear regression graph with over 200 data points, February 22, 2009. (Source/Michael Hardy via Wikipedia). In public domain.

then an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s ed policy and administration department. In that one semester, I quickly learned that folks in the education field defined research in only two ways: quantitative and qualitative. And by qualitative, they meant soft research, like Carvel’s soft-serve ice cream. What I didn’t know was that many in the field were working to make the qualitative — surveys, focus groups, oral interviews/transcripts — quantifiable.

Today, everything that can be tracked in American education usually has a number attached to it. It’s hardly grades and standardized test scores anymore. Homework hours, time to task on lesson plans to work on a single problem that may be part of a high-stakes state exam, teacher effectiveness, suspensions and disciplinary reports disaggregated by race and gender. It drives me nuts, and I’ve used SAS and SPSS before, during my grad school days. I can only imagine how a teacher who just wants their students to learn and do well must feel about this numbers game.

But if education has become a number game, it most resembles the game of craps. Take the issue of teacher

Michelle Rhee, former DCPS Chancellor, one of many who've taken advantage of education as craps game, Washington, DC, February 19, 2008. (Source/US Department of Labor). In public domain.

effectiveness, often tied to state-mandates around test scores and students meeting or exceeding a percentile at a given school on these tests. Let’s say if a school as a whole actually exceeds the proficiency percentile. They may well receive more money, and teachers may well get a bonus (depending on the state and school district and union contracts, which by the way, may also be part of a statistical formula). None of this actually proves that these students are better prepared for, say, thinking independently or critically, because critical reasoning isn’t tested by most of the high-stakes state tests.

Nor can they show the writing skills necessary for student success later on in their education, as most of these tests don’t test writing comprehension skills either. Most importantly, where does teacher effectiveness come in as a factor? Do we have to account for time to task in comparison to each exam item, like a psychometrician at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) would? Do we factor out home studying/ homework time, parents’ education, income and race, or whether they eat a hearty breakfast the morning of the exam? Or do we continue to simply say, if Teacher X gets Class A to raise its state test score by 25 percent, they get a raise and a pat on the head? Really?

What’s more, whether teacher effectiveness, student success, or free and reduced lunch programs, politicians, parents and pundits hardly look at any numbers beyond any report’s executive summary. We all insist that our school and community colleges and universities get better at graduating students ready for the real world of work. Fine. Then we insist on lower taxes, blaming teachers, destroying unions, complaining about the state of things but not doing anything to make education work for all of our students. Not fine.

It doesn’t take a two-year study from The Education Trust to realize that there’s no one-to-one correlation

Taco Bell's Gordita Supreme, September 22, 2011. (Source/TacoBell.com).

between an effective teacher and higher student test scores. Or a report from the Institute of Education Sciences at the US Department of Education to know that a lunch of murder burgers and suicide fries with ketchup as a vegetable is about as nutritious as a Taco Bell gordita. School districts and many a college have gone without even adequate resources for years. But instead of providing them, we make them kneel in begging for them, and yet expect them to perform Lazarus-type miracles in the process.

We waste time with numbers and spend little time on causes and solutions that make sense in education. I think about that weak +0.4 correlation number that ETS has put out for years regarding the SAT. It’s the likelihood of someone who does well on the exam beginning their freshman year in college with a 3.0 GPA. I scored an 1120 on the SAT in October ’86, not exactly the greatest score. But I did manage a 3.02 average my first year (and a 2.63 my first semester, by the way), and still came within a few days of dropping out because I was homeless at the beginning of my sophomore year.

I dare say the numbers crunchers at ETS didn’t factor that in their multivariate analysis. Or my homesickness or obsession with a former high school crush. Mark Twain is right about statistics — they can “a good walk spoiled (or lies, I think).”


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