America’s Less-Than-Smartest Education System

I came across a great talk by Amanda Ripley about her book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. It is from C-SPAN in their coverage of this year’s National Book Festival (see video here).

She compares education systems in various countries. Her purpose seems to primarily be to understand the problems, challenges, and unique qualities of American education. In order to do this, she focuses on some of the best education systems in the world. It is the most intelligent and insightful analysis of education that I’ve come across. She also comes across as intellectually humble, something I always admire.

Here is a short video where she gives a brief introduction and overview:

The C-SPAN video happened to be playing on television while I was visiting my parent’s home. My mother likes C-SPAN. She was a public school teacher for her entire career. She has also been a conservative her entire life. She is critical of many things about public education, but she is still an ardent supporter of it, unlike my more libertarian father.

Amanda Ripley comes across as being somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, probably a fairly standard mainstream liberal. It was interesting that my mother agreed with everything Ripley spoke about. However, after the C-SPAN talk was over, both of my parents brought up the issue of tracking which they see as the solution. As that didn’t come up in the talk, I decided to buy the e-book and do a quick search. She does cover that issue in the book, but it isn’t what my parents would like to see. It doesn’t confirm their beliefs on this one aspect (pp. 137-138):

“Intuitively, tracking made sense. A classroom should function more efficiently if all the kids were at the same level. In reality, though, second tracks almost always came with second-rate expectations.

“Statistically speaking, tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect : Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Of course, it isn’t just my parents who love the idea of tracking. It is a mainstream position in the United States. Even many on the left will argue tracking is one of the answers to educational failure, although those on the right emphasize it the most. Conservatives say that some kids are just low IQ or lazy or untalented. Not all kids deserve equal education, because not all students are equal. In their minds, it would actually be unfair to treat all kids equally.

However, as this author demonstrates, it is precisely because Finland treats all students equally and gives all students equal opportunity that they have the greatest schools in the world. You go to one school in Finland and it is basically the same quality as any other. They direct their funding to where it is needed, not to where rich people send their kids to school.

No Finnish student gets permanently tracked, not even special education students, for in Finland they assume special education is a temporary condition. They have high expectations of all students and so all students improve, unlike in the US. Americans don’t realize how highly unusual is our version of tracking (pp. 138-139):

“When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations. Tracking took different forms in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Norway, and Sweden. But that didn’t mean it was less powerful.

“Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries , including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material.

“Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.”

There are many things that are fundamentally different about the U.S. education system, like so much else in this country. The author notes that the American obsession about extracurricular activities is one of the most unusual aspects.

Americans are obsessed about school more than are the Finnish, but there is a disconnect in this obsession. U.S. teachers give more homework, for example, and yet in Finland students get higher quality homework that demands more challenging independent thought. Finnish schools are laidback by American standards and parents are almost entirely uninvolved, but what they do is heavily invest in quality everything, especially teachers (who get their teacher training in the Finnish equivalent of U.S. Ivy League colleges). They don’t waste their time and money on keeping students entertained with sports, clubs, and other activities.

In most countries in the world, children simply go to school to learn and nothing else. Foreign students who come to the U.S. observe how easy is education here. And U.S. students that travel to the countries with better education systems observe that the students there take education more seriously.

The U.S. is atypical partly because of its dark history of racial segregation. Obviously, this plays into the dysfunctional tracking system that directs most resources to certain students. This leaves a substandard education for the rest of the students, mostly poor and minority. Tracking directly fits into a system of social hierarchy and social control. Those put on the lower track have little expectations placed upon them, or rather a great many negative expectations forced upon them.

Low expectations goes hand in hand with lowered standards and results. This isn’t surprising for anyone who knows about the research on the power of expectations, from the Rosenthal-Pygmalion Effect to Stereotype Threat. Tracking institutionalizes some of the worst aspects of our society, but it isn’t just about the failure of American society. Tracking, generally speaking, is just a bad system in any society.

Lessening the emphasis on tracking has been a wild success in countries all around the world. Americans should take note (pp. 139-140):

“By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived.

“Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world).

“Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

“In Finland and all the top countries, spending on education was tied to need, which was only logical. The worse off the students, the more money their school got. In Pennsylvania, Tom’s home state, the opposite was true. The poorest school districts spent 20 percent less per student, around $ 9,000 compared to around $ 11,000 in the richest school districts.”

Other countries came to realize tracking was ineffective, and so they changed their methods. For Americans, it has been just more cowbell (p. 140):

“That backward math was one of the most obvious differences between the United States and other countries. In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student.

“It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity— a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking— was a telltale sign of rigor.”

Many Americans, especially on the right, would argue these countries are successful because they are small and homogenous. They think that the main problem is that we have a large bureaucratic government that is trying to enforce a one-size-fits-all solution onto a diverse population. That of course misses the entire point of tracking. The U.S. has one of the least one-size-fits-all solutions in the world. Even ignoring that, can U.S. education problems be blamed on the government and on diversity?

To answer that question, I would put it into the context of what Ripley has to say about Singapore (pp. 160-161):

“In Singapore, the opposite happened. There, the population was also diverse, about 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, and 1.5 percent other. People spoke Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil and followed five different faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). Yet Singaporeans scored at the top of the world on PISA, right beside Finland and Korea. There was virtually no gap in scores between immigrant and native-born students.

“Of course , Singapore was essentially another planet compared to most countries. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime with an unusually high-performing bureaucracy. The government controlled most of the rigor variables, from the caliber of teacher recruits to the mix of ethnicities in housing developments. Singapore did not have the kind of extreme segregation that existed in the United States, because policy makers had forbidden it.”

I doubt I’d want to live in Singapore, but it offers an interesting example. One of the points the author makes is that there are different ways to get high education results.

To Americans, Singapore seems authoritarian and dystopian. They have a highly centralized and powerful bureaucratic government. They don’t even have the benefit of a homogenous society.

That is everything that right-wingers use to rationalize America’s failing schools. And yet in Singapore it is the precise recipe for educational success.

It isn’t just about a few exceptional countries like Singapore. Diversity isn’t just that big of an issue. There are a high number of highly homogenous countries (homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc) that are extremely poor, have high rates of social problems, and measure low in their education systems. Sure, systems that work best in diverse societies likely will be different than what works in homogenous societies, but the basic point is that there are ways that both types of societies can attain very high standards of education.

Besides, even breaking down the U.S. education system into homogenous and diverse states still doesn’t explain this country’s low ranking in the world. Even many highly homogenous states (almost entirely white in some cases) don’t necessarily get all that great of results. She mentioned one state (one of the Northeastern states, as I recall) that had about average or slightly below average rankings in international comparisons. Even looking back at the supposed golden age of education during the low immigration mid-20th century doesn’t offer much solace. The U.S. never has had a top ranked grade school education system.

Diversity can’t be used as an excuse (p. 17):

“Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results . In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed for America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.”

Also, it can’t be blamed on poverty, typically associated with immigrants and minorities. Nor can it be blamed on the public schools where immigrants and minorities are concentrated. Ripley makes this very clear (p. 17):

“A student’s race and family income mattered, but how much such things mattered varied wildly from country to country . Rich parents did not always presage high scores, and poor parents did not always presage low scores. American kids at private school tended to perform better, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value.”

It isn’t a matter of whether or not a country has a diverse population or not, but what one does with the population one has. This relates to spending. More funding of education in itself doesn’t correlate to better results. Instead, it is about how that money is used and if it is used equitably to help all students (p. 160):

“The rest depended on what countries did with the children they had. In the United States, the practice of funding schools based on local property taxes motivated families to move into the most affluent neighborhoods they could afford, in effect buying their way into good schools. The system encouraged segregation.

“Since black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids tended to come from less affluent families , they usually ended up in underresourced schools with more kids like them. Between 1998 and 2010, poor American students had become more concentrated in schools with other poor students.

“The biggest problem with this kind of diversity is that it wasn’t actually diverse. Most white kids had majority white classmates. Black and Hispanic students, meanwhile, were more likely to attend majority black or Hispanic schools in 2005 than they were in 1980.

“Populating schools with mostly low-income, Hispanic, or African-American students usually meant compounding low scores, unstable home lives, and low expectations. Kids fed off each other, a dynamic that could work for good and for ill. In Poland, kids lost their edge as soon as they were tracked into vocational schools; likewise, there seemed to be a tipping point for expectations in the United States. On average, schools with mostly low- income kids systematically lacked the symptoms of rigor. They had inconsistent teaching quality, little autonomy for teachers or teenagers, low levels of academic drive, and less equity. By warehousing disadvantaged kids in the same schools, the United States took hard problems and made them harder.”

Once again, dysfunctional tracking in the U.S. is rooted in a history of systemic and institutional racism. Kids are tracked both in the formal and informal sense. Race and class segregation divide up students, and most of the funding is going to wealthier students and white students. It isn’t necessarily that all that extra funding is being used well by those wealthier school districts, but that the poorest school districts have so little money to use for anything, whether used well or badly. Too much funding isn’t necessarily helpful. Too little funding, however, is obviously problematic.

The discussion in America tends to focus only on the average amount of funding for each American child, all the while ignoring the vast disparity of funding between populations. This is how serious attention on the real issues gets avoided. No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, the historical inequalities that are continually reinforced, not just inequalities between wealth and poverty but inequalities of political power and real world opportunities, inequalities of racial prejudice and privilege. These are among the most politically incorrect issues in this country.

As all of this shows, there is more going on here than can be understood in the ideological frame of mainstream American politics (pp. 163-164):

“The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to think that the diversity narrative in the United States— the one that blamed our mediocrity on kids’ backgrounds and neighborhoods— was as toxic as funding inequities . There was a fatalism to the story line, which didn’t mean it was wrong. The United States did have too much poverty; minority students were not learning enough. Parents did matter, and so did health care and nutrition. Obviously.

“But the narrative also underwrote low aspirations, shaping the way teachers looked at their students, just as Vuorinen feared. Since the 1960s, studies have shown that if researchers tested a class and told teachers that certain students would thrive academically in the coming months, teachers behaved differently toward the chosen kids. They nodded more, smiled more, and gave those kids more time to answer questions and more specific feedback.

“In fact, the kids had been chosen at random. The label was fictional, but it stuck. At the end of the school year, teachers still described those students as more interesting, better adjusted, and more likely to be successful in life. As for other kids who had done well in the classroom, but were not chosen? The same teachers described them as less likely to succeed and less likable. The human brain depends on labels and patterns; if a researcher (or cultural narrative) offers teachers a compelling pattern, they will tend to defer to it.

“What did it mean, then, that respected U.S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything else? What did it mean if teachers were led to believe that they could only be expected to do so much, and that poverty was usually destiny?

“It may be human nature to stereotype, but some countries systematically reinforced the instinct, and some countries inhibited it. It was becoming obvious to me that rigor couldn’t exist without equity. Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets; it was a mindset.

“Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too. Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities. That mindset helped explain why Finland had one of the highest proportions of special education kids in the world; the label was temporary and not pejorative. The Finns assumed that all kids could improve. In fact, by their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids had received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary school, so that they did not fall farther behind. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, about one in four Finnish kids received some kind of special education services—almost always in a normal school, for only part of the day. (By comparison, about one in eight American students received special education services that year.)”

This isn’t something unique to particular societies. It isn’t as if we must resign ourselves to a lesser fate in the global scheme of things. There is evidence that high education standards can even be achieved demographically diverse groups of students in the United States (p. 218):

“Unlike most schools in America, including the best public charter schools, these new schools were actually diverse, in the literal sense. Moskowitz wanted a true mix of white, Asian, African-American , and Hispanic students at a range of income levels, and she got it. That is how kids learn best— together, with a mix of expectations, advantages, and complications— according to the hard-earned lessons of countries around the world.

“There are stories like this all over the country: Success Academy charter schools in New York City, the closest thing to Finland in the United States; William Taylor, a public-school teacher who has almost Korean expectations for his low-income students in Washington, D.C.; and Deborah Gist in Rhode Island, a leader who has dared to raise the bar for what teachers must know, just like reformers in Finland and Korea.

“These world-class educators exist, but they are fighting against the grain of culture and institutions. That fight drains them of energy and time . If they ever win, it will be because parents and students rose up around them, convinced that our children cannot only handle a rigorous education but that they crave it as never before.”

It isn’t just that we Americans have low expectations of American students, especially poor and minority students. The real problem is we have low expectations for our entire society. We expect failure at a collective level, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Myth of Weak and Broken Black Families

This further verifies a point I made in an earlier post, Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance. I took a quote from a work I was reading, where someone stated that, “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.” I discussed a passage from another book that showed that black parents have larger social networks of support than do white parents.

On top of that, it appears that black fathers are more dedicated to their children in many ways, despite the social disruption of severe poverty and mass incarceration. The idea of a weak family or a broken family is typically a judgment made by those who lack both knowledge and self-awareness. They are judging others who they know little about and doing so through a very narrow lense that blinds them to their own problems and failures. They can neither see the strength in others nor the weaknesses in themselves.

There is nothing surprising about the self-serving bias, but it is nonetheless important to give clear examples of it. We all easily fall prey to it.

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The Myth of the Absent Black Father
by Tara Culp-Ressler
ThinkProgress,  1/16/4

Considering the fact that “black fatherhood” is a phrase that is almost alwaysaccompanied by the word “crisis” in U.S. society, it’s understandable that the CDC’s results seem innovative. But in reality, the new data builds upon years of research that’s concluded that hands-on parenting is similar among dads of all races. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to bust this racially-biased myth.

The Pew Research Center, which has tracked this data for years, consistently finds no big differences between white and black fathers. Gretchen Livingston, one of the senior researchers studying family life at Pew, wasn’t at all surprised by the new CDC data. “Blacks look a lot like everyone else,” she pointed out.

Although black fathers are more likely to live separately from their children — the statistic that’s usually trotted out to prove the parenting “crisis” — many of them remain just as involved in their kids’ lives. Pew estimates that 67 percent of black dads who don’t live with their kids see them at least once a month, compared to 59 percent of white dads and just 32 percent of Hispanic dads.

And there’s compelling evidence that number of black dads living apart from their kids stems from structural systems of inequality and poverty, not the unfounded assumption that African-American men somehow place less value on parenting. Equal numbers of black dads and white dads tend to agree that it’s important to be a father who provides emotional support, discipline, and moral guidance. There’s one area of divergence in the way the two groups approach their parental responsibilities: Black dads are even more likely to think it’s important to financially provide for their children.

The Unbearable Shame of Being Black

It is impossible for anyone other than poor minorities to know what it is like to live in poor minority neighborhoods. Those who understand this more than anyone else are poor black males, the ultimate scapegoat of American society.

Every fear and hatred is projected onto the black male. That is a burden nearly impossible to bear, without being broken by it. To have an entire society despise you, to have every police officer profile and target you, to have everyone expect the worst from you even when still just a child, that can lead to a despair and hopelessness that is unimaginable by most Americans. More importantly, it leads to shame, a sense of inferiority and failure.

The whole world is against the black male. Even their own communities turn against them. They are pariahs, just for being born poor black males.

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The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Kindle Locations 3311-3391:

For Americans who are not caught up in this system of control, it can be difficult to imagine what life would be like if discrimination against you were perfectly legal— if you were not allowed to participate in the political system and if you were not even eligible for food stamps or welfare and could be denied housing assistance . Yet as bad as these forms of discrimination are, many ex-offenders will tell you that the formal mechanisms of exclusion are not the worst of it. The shame and stigma that follows you for the rest of your life— that is the worst. It is not just the job denial but the look that flashes across the face of a potential employer when he notices that “the box” has been checked— the way he suddenly refuses to look you in the eye. It is not merely the denial of the housing application but the shame of being a grown man who has to beg his grandmother for a place to sleep at night. It is not simply the denial of the right to vote but the shame one feels when a co-worker innocently asks, “Who you gonna vote for on Tuesday?”

One need not be formally convicted in a court of law to be subject to this shame and stigma. As long as you “look like” or “seem like” a criminal, you are treated with the same suspicion and contempt, not just by police, security guards, or hall monitors at your school, but also by the woman who crosses the street to avoid you and by the store employees who follow you through the aisles, eager to catch you in the act of being the “criminalblackman”— the archetypal figure who justifies the New Jim Crow. 64

Practically from cradle to grave, black males in urban ghettos are treated like current or future criminals. One may learn to cope with the stigma of criminality, but like the stigma of race, the prison label is not something that a black man in the ghetto can ever fully escape. For those newly released from prison, the pain is particularly acute. As Dorsey Nunn , an ex-offender and cofounder of All of Us or None, once put it, “The biggest hurdle you gotta get over when you walk out those prison gates is shame— that shame , that stigma, that label, that thing you wear around your neck saying ‘I’m a criminal.’ It’s like a yoke around your neck, and it’ll drag you down, even kill you if you let it.” Many ex-offenders experience an existential angst associated with their permanent social exclusion. Henry, a young African American convicted of a felony , explains, “[ It’s like] you broke the law, you bad. You broke the law, bang— you’re not part of us anymore .” 65 That sentiment is shared by a woman, currently incarcerated, who described the experience this way:

When I leave here it will be very difficult for me in the sense that I’m a felon. That I will always be a felon . . . for me to leave here, it will affect my job, it will affect my education . . . custody [of my children], it can affect child support, it can affect everywhere— family, friends, housing…. People that are convicted of drug crimes can’t even get housing anymore. . . . Yes, I did my prison time. How long are you going to punish me as a result of it? And not only on paper, I’m only on paper for ten months when I leave here, that’s all the parole I have. But, that parole isn’t going to be anything. It’s the housing, it’s the credit reestablishing . . . . I mean even to go into the school, to work with my child’s class— and I’m not a sex offender— but all I need is one parent who says, “Isn’t she a felon? I don’t want her with my child.” 66

The permanence of one’s social exile is often the hardest to swallow. For many it seems inconceivable that, for a minor offense, you can be subjected to discrimination, scorn, and exclusion for the rest of your life. Human Rights Watch, in its report documenting the experiences of America’s undercaste , tells the story of a fifty-seven-year-old African American woman, denied rental housing by a federally funded landlord due to a minor conviction she did not even know was on her record. After being refused reconsideration, she asked her caseworker in pained exasperation , “Am I going to be a criminal for the rest of my life?” 67

When someone is convicted of a crime today, their “debt to society” is never paid. The “cruel hand” that Frederick Douglass spoke of more than 150 years ago has appeared once again. In this new system of control, like the last, many black men “hold up [their] heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt.” Willie Johnson, a forty -three-year-old African American man recently released from prison in Ohio, explained it this way:

My felony conviction has been like a mental punishment, because of all the obstacles. . . . Every time I go to put in a [job] application— I have had three companies hire me and tell me to come to work the next day. But then the day before they will call and tell me don’t come in— because you have a felony. And that is what is devastating because you think you are about to go to work and they call you and say because of your felony we can’t hire [you]. I have run into this at least a dozen times. Two times I got very depressed and sad because I couldn’t take care of myself as a man . It was like I wanted to give up —because in society nobody wants to give us a helping hand . Right now I am considered homeless. I have never been homeless until I left the penitentiary , and now I know what it feels to be homeless. If it was not for my family I would be in the streets sleeping in the cold. . . . We [black men] have three strikes against us: 1) because we are black, and 2) because we are a black male, and the final strike is a felony. These are the greatest three strikes that a black man has against him in this country. I have friends who don’t have a felony— and have a hard time getting a job. But if a black man can’t find a job to take care of himself— he is ashamed that he can’t take care of his children. 68

Not surprisingly, for many black men, the hurt and depression gives way to anger. A black minister in Waterloo, Mississippi, explained his outrage at the fate that has befallen African Americans in the post— civil rights era. “It’s a hustle,” he said angrily. “‘ Felony’ is the new N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon. In every ghetto you see alarming numbers of young men with felony convictions. Once you have that felony stamp, your hope for employment, for any kind of integration into society, it begins to fade out. Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree . A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.” 69

Remarkably, it is not uncommon today to hear media pundits, politicians , social critics, and celebrities— most notably Bill Cosby— complain that the biggest problem black men have today is that they “have no shame.” Many worry that prison time has become a badge of honor in some communities—“ a rite of passage” is the term most often used in the press. Others claim that inner-city residents no longer share the same value system as mainstream society, and therefore are not stigmatized by criminality. Yet as Donald Braman, author of Doing Time on the Outside, states, “One can only assume that most participants in these discussions have had little direct contact with the families and communities they are discussing.” 70

Over a four-year period, Braman conducted a major ethnographic study of families affected by mass incarceration in Washington, D.C., a city where three out of every four young black men can expect to spend some time behind bars. 71 He found that, contrary to popular belief, the young men labeled criminals and their families are profoundly hurt and stigmatized by their status: “They are not shameless; they feel the stigma that accompanies not only incarceration but all the other stereotypes that accompany it—fatherlessness, poverty , and often, despite every intent to make it otherwise, diminished love.” The results of Braman’s study have been largely corroborated by similar studies elsewhere in the United States. 72

These studies indicate that the biggest problem the black community may face today is not “shamelessness” but rather the severe isolation, distrust , and alienation created by mass incarceration. During Jim Crow, blacks were severely stigmatized and segregated on the basis of race, but in their own communities they could find support, solidarity, acceptance— love. Today, when those labeled criminals return to their communities, they are often met with scorn and contempt, not just by employers, welfare workers, and housing officials, but also by their own neighbors, teachers , and even members of their own families. This is so, even when they have been imprisoned for minor offenses, such as possession and sale of a small amount of drugs. Young black males in their teens are often told “you’ll amount to nothing ” or “you’ll find yourself back in jail, just like your father ”— a not-so-subtle suggestion that a shameful defect lies deep within them, an inherited trait perhaps— part of their genetic makeup. “You are a criminal, nothing but a criminal. You are a no good criminal.” 73

The anger and frustration directed at young black men returning home from prison is understandable, given that they are returning to communities that are hurt by joblessness and crime. These communities desperately need their young men to be holding down jobs and supporting their families, rather than wasting away in prison cells. While there is widespread recognition that the War on Drugs is racist and that politicians have refused to invest in jobs or schools in their communities, parents of offenders and ex-offenders still feel intense shame— shame that their children have turned to crime despite the lack of obvious alternatives. One mother of an incarcerated teen, Constance, described her angst this way : “Regardless of what you feel like you’ve done for your kid, it still comes back on you, and you feel like, ‘Well, maybe I did something wrong. Maybe I messed up. You know, maybe if I had a did it this way , then it wouldn’t a happened that way.’” After her son’s arrest, she could not bring herself to tell friends and relatives and kept the family’s suffering private. Constance is not alone.

Unspoken Connection: Fundamentalism and Punishment

In this passage from Michael Tonry’s Punishing Race, an insight is offered, a key to the American mind. Fundamentalism is a powerful force, especially in the Republican Party, but also in mainstream society in general. Fundamentalism isn’t just about Southern Baptists. It is a larger worldview that seeps into every pore of American society.

Most of the time, crime is discussed ‘objectively’. It is as if one could understand victimization, violence, and mass incarceration simply by analyzing numbers. We Americans love data. We keep records almost religiously. Reality is messy, but numbers are clean and simple. The data, as some claim, speaks for itself. But the data also can hide that which we would rather not see, since data is only as good as the methods for gathering it.

What is the dark shadow cast by this data? What is left unspoken? What is the belief that motivates punitive crime policy?

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Kindle Locations 2271-2296:

The sizable political science and religion literatures on religion and politics in the United States are silent, except in passing, on the influence of Protestant fundamentalism on American crime policy generally. They focus on abortion, women’s and gay rights, and separation of church and state. None of the major recent works includes the terms crime or capital punishment in its index (e.g., Layman 2001; Green 2007). One leading work, however, Religion and Politics in the United States (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2007), explains how and why Protestant fundamentalism shaped American crime control and punishment policies for three decades. Whereas Catholics and mainstream Protestants espouse a commitment to social welfare consonant with their belief in “a warm, caring god,” the fundamentalist “image of a cold and authoritative deity lends support to government’s role in securing order and property” (121). Richard Snyder, a former dean at New York Theological Seminary, explains the fundamentalist vision this way: “If we believe that all persons are essentially corrupt save for the extraordinary intervention of God’s grace in their lives, it is a simple step to think that those who are poor, or sick, or in trouble with the law, or different from us in any way are somehow evil. The redeemed are God’s children; the unrepentant are children of Satan” (2001, 14).

Fundamentalists are “characterized by a quest for certainty, exclusiveness, and unambiguous boundaries” and attempt “to chart a morally black and white path out of the gray zones of intimidating cultural and religious complexity” (Nagata 2001, 481). In its 1995 Contract with the American Family Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition accordingly called for increased penalties for convicted criminals (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2007, 351). A year later Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters (1996) produced the fullest elaboration of fundamentalist crime control policy analysis ever published.

The near absence of crime control and punishment from the politics and religion literature is odd. The nexus seems self-evident. The Republican resurgence of the past forty years is attributable in large part to the Southern Strategy. The political influence of the religious right on Republican politics is well known (e.g., Green 2007). As one major review of the literature on fundamentalism and conservative politics observed, “The [religious right] enjoys something like a veto power in the Republican Party” (Woodberry and Smith 1998, 48).

By contrast the criminology literature, though small, has ferreted out the connection. Unnever, Cullen, and Applegate’s examination of attitudes toward capital punishment concludes that those fundamentalists “who have a rigid and moralistic approach to religion and who imagine God as a dispassionate, powerful figure who dispenses justice are more likely to harbor punitive sentiments toward offenders” (2005, 304). A slight but fascinating article based on a representative survey of Oklahoma City residents showed that Protestant conservatives viewed nearly all crimes as “very wrong” and thus did not differentiate among them in terms of seriousness (Curry 1996, 462). This finding goes a long way toward explaining why traditional ideas about proportionality in punishment are irreconcilable with many modern three-strikes, mandatory minimum, and life without the possibility of parole laws.

Blacks Became Whites

The following passage is about Sundown Towns. It is from a book by Elliot Jaspin, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. The standard story is how black populations disappeared from towns all across the United States and ended up seeking safety in numbers in the inner cities.

Sometimes a token black person would remain in these towns who became symbolic of the “good black”, supposedly unlike all the blacks who were forced to flee for their lives. In other cases, blacks disappeared by no longer identifying as black. They all of sudden identified as white, a magical transformation of race.

One assumes these were light-skinned blacks, but even so it is interesting that the local white population apparently accepted these local blacks turned white. It was a forced assimilation that seems to have gone along with a collective denial. No one talked about it.

These blacks passed as whites, not because they were fooling their neighbors who knew them their entire lives, but because it was convenient for everyone to pretend they were white. It avoided the ugliness of racism. It avoided the shame and guilt of what happened to all the other black people. They could go on pretending to be good neighbors, just as long as they ignored the obvious. The power of denial is immense.

This is a theme of Sundown Towns, a silencing of what happened. Some blacks took advantage of this silencing by pretending to no longer be black. It was a racial conversion.

* * * *

Kindle Locations 3617-3662:

In most racial cleansings there is some sudden and violent event in the county’s major town or city that is followed by an ultimatum: Leave or die. The black population closest to this epicenter, like the one near Salyersville, all but disappears. Most, but not all, move to another county and are never seen again. However, some blacks, hoping to hang on to whatever life they had, settle at the county’s periphery like the Meadows District. These refugees from the city or town join black farm laborers who are being protected by their white employers. When the next census arrives, the white population has remained steady or risen slightly while the black population has been at least cut in half. In Magoffin County the white population rose by about 1,600 people between 1900 and 1910 while the black population dropped to fifty-four. For those hiding on remote farms and settlements, life becomes increasingly problematic. Barred from the major trading center, mundane tasks like buying farming supplies or clothes or getting medical care become major logistical headaches. If the black church was in town and is still standing, it is now off limits. Shared experiences that give meaning to life like funerals, weddings, religious education, and social events are curtailed. Two decades after the cleansing, census figures show the black community is either reduced by half again or disappears altogether.10

Magoffin County fits this pattern but only up to a point. When the census canvased the county in 1910, it found something very strange: Between 1900 and 1910, several black people became white. People who said they were black in the earlier census now claimed to be white. The entire Nickels family, for example, who had lived outside of Salyersville, went through this amazing transformation. In the 1900 census they were black, and in 1910 the six family members became white. In total fifteen people experienced a racial conversion. All, save one, became white. Sidney Gipson, nineteen, became an Indian.11

The most remarkable pilgrimage was taken by Sambo Gipson. Although he does not show up in the 1900 census, you can find his other family members. They are black. In 1910 Sambo and the rest of the Gipson family become white. In the 1920 census Sambo reverts to being black. But when he died in 1945, his death certificate said Sambo was a white man.12

As strange as the racial transubstantiation of Magoffin County may seem, the truth is that race in America has always been fungible. Races come and go like fall fashions and people are moved from category to category depending on who is doing the counting. One year Hungarians are of the “Mongol” race and another year they are white. Some whites—Italians or Jews—are less white than other whites while some white people become black because they have “protruding heels.” (That was how one witness in a trial said you could tell if a person was a Negro.)

Ironically, it was in the course of trying to codify race that its malleability came most clearly into focus. The strange story of Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker illustrates the point. In 1912 Dr. Plecker, a native son of the Old Dominion, became the head of Virginia’s Registrar of Vital Statistics, a seemingly innocuous post, unless, of course, you were Dr. Plecker. A humorless and aloof man, Plecker was convinced that the white race faced disaster from “mongrelization.” When the different races lived near one another, Plecker warned, there would be interracial sex. And the only result of interracial sex would be “the final deterioration or complete destruction of the white or higher civilization.” Faced with this apocalyptic vision of the future, Plecker and his supporters convinced the Virginia legislature in 1924 to pass the Racial Integrity Act. The law prohibited a white person from marrying anyone but another white person. Since by state law every person’s birth certificate had to list their race, the man who would decide which people could legally marry was Dr. Plecker.13

That was when the fun began.

A Lynchburg woman who listed her baby’s race as white got a curt letter from Dr. Plecker. “This is to inform you that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white.” On another occasion, he spied twins in an orphanage. Although they appeared to be white, Dr. Plecker tried to get them evicted. He reasoned that, because they were born out of wedlock, “chances are 10-1 they are of negro blood.” He decreed that anyone in Amherst County with the last name of Adcox, Johns, Branham, Hicks, Hamilton, or Redcross should be classified as Negro. Because there was no appeal, in the end your race was whatever Dr. Plecker thought it should be.14

What drove Dr. Plecker was the fear that his race would be “destroyed.” By the same token it is possible that what drove Sambo Gipson was the more immediate concern that he would be destroyed. Gipson may have changed his race because he thought he could “pass” in a hostile white world. From his death certificate there is evidence that he could have been light-skinned. On the census rolls his mother and father are listed respectively as white and mulatto.

But in a county of only about 13,000 people, how easy would it really have been to “pass”? Perhaps there is another explanation for these cases of racial transformation. If Magoffin was anything like Sharp County, people may have been conflicted about what happened. In that context either Gipson or sympathetic whites might have decided that it was better for everyone concerned to pretend that he and his family were white. When time and the danger had passed, the charade could be dropped.

The truth is that we do not know. Unlike in Sharp County, there are no newspapers or contemporary accounts that describe what happened in Magoffin County at the turn of the century. Until something surfaces, we are left with the fact that the black population collapsed, and of those that remained, a number chose to become white.

Broken Records: Arguments About Race

Broken Records.

Broken Record Arguments:

  1. Having a Broken Record Department is unfair, it amounts to censorship!
  2. Not all whites are what you say. Whites are individuals!
  3. Whites are not uniquely evil.
  4. Blacks are just as racist if not more so.
  5. Racism is dead.
  6. I don’t like your tone. A post of yours made me upset!
  7. Your talk about race is divisive. You need to kiss up to whites.
  8. You see racism in everything!
  9. Black crime statistics
  10. Black rape statistics, particularly the DOJ crime victimization numbers
  11. The average African IQ is 70
  12. Black American IQ
  13. The Bell Curve is right!
  14. The BET Fallacy: Using BET, Chris Rock, Rented Negroes or hip hop videos to prove something about black people
  15. Africans sold their own into slavery. The Arabs traded slaves too!
  16. The bootstrap myth: If Jews or Asians or my grandfather can make it in America, anyone can. Blacks are just a bunch of layabout whiners.
  17. Black pathology: Blacks are their own worst enemies.
  18. There is some truth to stereotypes.
  19. Racism is universal, natural, part of human nature.
  20. The White Inventor argument.
  21. “Your blog is anti-white”
  22. Race is a fact of science
  23. The black-on-black crime argument
  24. The race baiter argument
  25. The Broken Africa stereotype – Africa is a hellhole

Future Broken Record Argument posts:

  1. Take Japan, for instance…
  2. The higher black crime rates proves that blacks have greater criminal tendencies than whites.
  3. Affirmative action
  4. You hate white people: Criticism of whites can only come from hatred or racism.
  5. Whites do not benefit from racism, past (slavery, genocide, Jim Crow, etc) or present.
  6. Making general statements about whites is racist.

See also:

Paranoiacs With Guns: Violence and More Violence

I was contemplating the irrationality of violence. People turn to violence out of a desire for safety. Yet violence in the end makes the world a less safe place for everyone, not just for the supposed bad guys.

I can’t stop thinking about one piece of data. The US doesn’t have the highest rates of all kinds of crimes, compared to other similar countries. What makes the US crime rates stand out is that for Americans crime is more likely to involve violence and so more likely to result in injury and death. Why is that the case?

It occurred to me that criminals are more violent because our society unintentionally incentivizes violence. We have a heavily armed population who are trigger-happy. It isn’t always clear who is and isn’t a criminal. You only know a criminal after they commit the crime. Americans are a paranoid people, seeing criminals everywhere. Cops regularly shoot people who they mistakenly thought had guns. So do regular citizens. To a paranoid mind, a bag of skittles or a cell phone looks like a possible weapon.

The criminal is also in a paranoid state. Knowing so many people carry guns, the criminal isn’t going to mess around. He is more likely to shoot someone, if he has even the slightest reason to think the victim might pull a gun. Also, because our criminal system is so harsh in its punishment, the criminal is more likely to kill all witnesses to decrease the probability of going to prison. Our desire to protect ourselves from bad guys backfires and creates a less safe world.

Even mass incarceration just makes everyone worse. It has been convincingly argued that prisons have become schools for criminals where people come out the other side more dangerous than when they went in. Incarceration destroys lives, destroys families, destroys communities, destroys social capital. It makes our society worse in every possible way. We are surrounded by people who are the victims of our demented compulsion to punish at all costs. Some data shows that at least 6% of people in prison are entirely innocent of all crimes charged against them. Over the past few decades, that would amount to millions of Americans who have been falsely imprisoned and had their entire lives destroyed for no reason. These are the walking wounded, the desperate and hopeless, the victims of a society that betrayed them.

On a larger scale, our entire society has become militarized as our country increasingly has embraced its role as a police state and a military empire. The US has become the militarized policemen of the world. The Cold War, the War On Poverty, the War On Drugs, the War On Terror, all of these first and foremost have been wars on people which includes American citizens. We’ve made our country and the entire world into a war zone.

In lowering the standards for recruitment, the military allowed people with criminal records into service. This unintentionally led to the military training of criminals who in many cases were gang members. So, the gangs in this country became militarized, using military tactics and military weapons against both other gangs and the police. At the same time, the police have militarized and our country is beginning to feel like a military occupation with police who look like soldiers, with guns being pointed at innocent citizens, and with military vehicles on American streets.

This creates a state of fear and paranoia. From right-wingers to minorities, people are arming themselves as the society becomes increasingly dangerous. American citizens aren’t sure who to trust anymore. Not even the police seem to be entirely on our side. If we can’t trust the police, as minorities and the poor understand all too well, then the only other choice is to defend oneself, to defend one’s family and community. Americans have started forming militias and are training in preparation. Even gangs in many ways are simply the poor person’s militia.

In our paranoia, we’ve projected our violent behavior onto the entire global society. In acting like Big Brother, we’ve simply become yet another authoritarian bully. All of the US war crimes and atrocities make us less safe as a country. These include: wars of aggression, long-lasting occupations, assassinations, overthrowing democratic governments, arming and training militant groups, mass bombings and drone strikes that kill innocent people (often women and children), funding Israeli’s genocide of Palestinians, allying with authoritarian governments in the Middle East and Latin America, and on and on.

As many have pointed out, the 9/11 attack was blowback from all that our government has done. When we do horrible things to others, they feel motivated to return the favor. It becomes a vicious cycle of violence. It creates and entire mentality and reality tunnel where everything is seen through the lense of violence and where violence is seen as the solution to all problems.

This is social dysfunction brought to its extreme. It is a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-destruction.

Substance Control is Social Control

Substance control is social control. And social control always targets minorities first. The minorities targeted sometimes change. The methods remain the same.

Many Americans say, “But I’m not a minority”. What short memories we have. Those minorities of the recent past, just a few generations ago, were the grandparents and great-grandparents of most Americans today. They were ethnic Americans, what the likes of the KKK disparaged as “Hyphenated Americans”. They were German-Americans and Irish-Americans and many other ethnic ancestries as well.

Besides, it never is just about minorities. That is simply where it begins. The tactics of oppression used against minorities, in time, are used against the entire population. Social control is about controlling all of society, not just keeping those minorities in line. Other people’s problems are our problems, that is what history demonstrates, and yet we never learn from history.

Many Americans in the past supported Prohibition because it was sold as targeting those other people, the ethnic Americans, immigrants, and Catholics. In the generations following, the War On Drugs was sold as targeting blacks and Hispanics (at an earlier time, Chinese were targeted with the early prohibitions on opiates; also, interestingly, the Scots-Irish in places like Appalachia who in the past were targeted by the Whiskey Tax and Prohibition also now are targeted by the War On Drugs, as Appalachia has become a major center for the growing of marijuana and the production of meth). It is true that these were the primary targets, but in the end all citizens became targets. It is the same as with the Cold War and the War On Terror. When the government gains that much power, it never ends with the original justification. This is how police states are always formed.

Ignoring that, everyone knows Prohibition was a failure. It wasn’t a secret. It was one of the worst public policies in all of American history. Yet the War On Drugs was started several decades later, as if this time substance control would be different. Actually, it was an extension of the same substance control policies for the earliest drug prohibition began in 1914, five years before alcohol prohibition began. As the minorities targeted change, so do the substances prohibited. Nonetheless, the fundamental pattern is the same, repeating the same tactics and problems, and in the end failing the same basic way.

Repeal always happens when it is found too many white people, especially middle class white people, are getting harmed by the policies intended to only harm the minorities and ethnics. When these policies are formulated, those in power try to protect those of their perceived group, their demographic, their class, race, and ethnicity. During Prohibition, for example, the ban wasn’t on consuming alcohol in one’s home but rather the making and purchasing of alcohol. An important distinction. The wealthy had or built large cellars prior to Prohibition and filled them with alcohol. All alcohol bought before Prohibition began was legal to drink in one’s home. Besides, it would have been near impossible to prove when some rich guy bought the alcohol in his cellar and certainly he was given the benefit (i.e., the privilege) of the doubt. Rich white people weren’t the target.

Anyway, few revenuers would have been stupid enough to target the politically well connected. If they did attempt that, their careers would have been short. The same is true now with the War On Drugs. The police target poor minority communities, even though the wealthy do plenty of illegal drugs and even though whites use and carry drugs more than blacks (not to mention more likely to carry illegal guns). There wasn’t much attention given to the police confiscation of property in relation to drug crimes, until they attempted this on some wealthy and well connected people.

There is another interesting angle. I’m not an anti-tax libertarian or anarchist. Still, I can’t help but notice that there is a connection between tax laws and social control. Taxation isn’t just about procuring the funding for government and its activities. This also relates to why there are so many tax lawyers and tax loopholes that help the rich. Almost any category of law mostly targets those least able to avoid and defend against government oppression. Social control is the greatest tool of the privileged and wealthy, a tool that they use mostly against the most undreprivileged and disenfranchised (and, in the case of jury duty, targeting of underprivileged minorities just disenfranchises them further which is the entire point).

When the government couldn’t get bootleggers on their bootlegging, they implemented tax evasion laws. That is reminiscent of why the government went after the Whiskey bootleggers after the American Revolution. And it comes back to the War On Drugs, when tax evasion charges are often added on top of charges of possessing and dealing drugs. Of course, these tax evasion laws in their use toward substance control have disproportionately impacted minorities, yet more social control for non-WASP Americans.

That is also one of the weaknesses of substance control. Once the government makes the tax evasion argument, the public might start wondering why we don’t legalize the substance and just tax it (even many local government officials start asking that as well, when their tax revenue is negatively impacted). Economic hard times brings home this realization in the minds of Americans. Government oppression often becomes less tolerable when the general public is also experiencing economic oppressiveness.

On a positive note, I was considering some past thoughts I’ve had on minority communities. The focus of mainstream media, a majority white perspective (and a professional upper class perspective at that), reports on such issues with particular frames and interpretations. Even mainstream academia often fails on this account. There is a social capital that exists in the most poor minority communities that people not living there can’t see or even comprehend. It is entirely outside of their sense of reality.

I have two examples in mind that I’ve recently made note of: family structure and socioeconomic class, often portrayed in terms of “broken families” and “welfare queens”. On the issue of marriage and family, here is some commentary I made in my post Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance:

Blacks and women, most especially black women, are among the poorest people in America and in the world. Being poor, in some ways, makes them more likely to act in ways that are considered caring and humane. To be on the bottom of society, an individual is more dependent on and interdependent with others.

This could explain why middle and upper class people, both black and white, don’t understand the family structures and support systems of the poor. All they see are marriages under stressful conditions, calling the families weak or broken, but they don’t see the strength of communities surviving under almost impossible conditions.. The ignorance of this judgment from privilege hit home for me when I read the following passage from Stephen Steinberg’s “Poor Culture”:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Those rich in wealth are poor in so many other ways. And those poor in wealth are rich in so many ways. It depends on what you value. People can’t value what they don’t see and understand.

And on the issue of poverty and unemployment, I explained an insight I had in my post Working Hard, But For What?:

These people believe in the American Dream and try to live it best they can, under almost impossible conditions. They aren’t asking for handouts. They are solving their own problems, even when those problems are forced on them by the larger society.

Take gangs, for example. Most gangs are what white people would call militias. When the police fail in their job, gangs do the job for them. If you are a black who is targeted by the police and everyone you know is targeted by the police, you’ll organize in order to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your neighborhood.

That is how community forms when all of the outside world is against you, when life is difficult and desperate, where daily living is a fight for survival. When there are no jobs available, poor minorities make their own jobs. When there are no police to protect them, poor minorities police themselves. When the larger society is against them, they make their own communities.

There is a strength that comes from adversity. This was demonstrated by ethnic immigrants in the past, such as the close-knit bootlegging community of German-Americans in Templeton, Iowa. People who have had histories of disadvantage and/or oppression sometimes learn amazing skills of social adaptation and survival. They develop forms of social capital that those more privileged lack. If the economy really tanked or our society fell into disorder, the present American underclass would handle the challenges a lot better than the more well off whites would.

This directly relates to why the American Dream has always had life breathed into it primarily by immigrants. They actually believe in the ideals of our country, whereas most native-born Americans are too cynical to take it seriously. When the Templetonians illegally sold alcohol or now when the poor black guy illegally sells weed, they are working harder than most upper class white people. Those upper class white people have no fucking idea what hard work really means. It means doing whatever it takes to make a living, to pay the bills, to support one’s family. Sometimes that means working in the black market (not just selling drugs, but also taking cash for doing yard work or car repair), and at other times it means working two or three legal jobs (when such jobs are available).

Social control ultimately fails because it makes those at the top lazy and weak, while forcing those on the bottom to become ever more innovative and persevering. Some people become so dependent on racial and class privilege that it becomes both a personal weakness and a moral hazard. They see their position in society as a strength when in actuality it is their Achille’s Heel. If we are to look for positive change in our society, we need to look further down from the top.

Journalists, Employees of Media Oligopoly

From Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism by Thomas E. Patterson (Kindle Locations 1270-1317):

“If truth were the test, the machinery of news would grind to a halt. Whole areas of public life would be walled off to reporters because judgments about them are speculative. When Woodrow Wilson said he had spent much of his adult life in government and yet had never seen “a government,” he was saying that government is a concept and not an object. 23 How can journalists claim to know “the truth” of something as complex and intangible as government? Political scientists spend their careers studying government without mastering the subject fully. How can journalists with much less time and specialized training somehow accomplish it?”

A very good question. The best journalists know a little bit about many things, but rarely do they know a lot about anything in particular. They aren’t experts in knowledge. Their expertise is simply in communicating, which means they translate and filter the knowledge of other experts. They are middlemen. Most of the time they don’t even understand what they are attempting to communicate, but they must always speak with the authority of the experts they claim to speak for.

“Journalists are asked to make too many judgments under conditions of too little time and too much uncertainty for the news to be the last word. “When we expect [the press] to supply a body of truth,” Lippmann wrote, “we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news [and] the illimitable complexity of society.” 24 3.”

The one thing journalists have little training in is how to communicate complexity. Most of them don’t even try. However, without complexity, there can be no truth.

“Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. 25 The claim is not that journalists lack knowledge or skill, for that is far from true. Nor is the claim an entry into the perennial but ultimately fruitless debate over whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession. 26 The claim instead is a precise one: Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment. 1

“Medicine, law, and the sciences, even economics and psychology, have disciplinary knowledge that guides practitioners’ decisions, narrowing the choices and reducing the chances of error. Journalists have no such advantage. Although there is a theoretical knowledge of journalism, it is not definitive, nor is its mastery a prerequisite for practice. 27 Although a majority of journalists have a college degree in journalism, many have a degree in a different field and some have no degree at all. 28”

I’m constantly shocked that so many news reporters (I’m not sure the fancy word of ‘journalist’ applies to most) are seemingly ignorant about what they report on. Doesn’t curiosity ever get the better of them? You’d think they’d feel some moral compunction to inform themselves first. Instead, it seems like it is just a job to them. They go to the office and someone hands them a script. Or else they wing it and try to appear intelligent.

“Journalists are often in the thankless position of knowing less about the subject at hand than the newsmakers they are covering, a reversal of the typical situation, in which the professional practitioner is the more knowledgeable party. Only rarely do clients know more about the law than do their attorneys , whereas newsmakers normally know more about the issue at hand than the journalists covering them. During the Persian Gulf War, journalists who visited the Pentagon press office were greeted with a sign that read, “Welcome Temporary War Experts.” 29

“The knowledge advantage that newsmakers have over journalists is not simply that they are privy to what’s said in closed-door meetings or contained in briefing papers. 30 They are assisted by experts. The president would never rely on his own instincts across a host of issues without the advice of policy specialists; nor would any congressional committee chair, top bureaucrat, or lobbyist. To be sure, journalists acquire expertise as a result of being on the same news beat for lengthy periods, but this form of expertise does not compare with that of most professionals . Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are masters of their own house in a way that journalists are not.”

In some ways, it isn’t the fault of journalists. They are being asked to do the impossible. No one can know everything or even most things. That is why the author suggests that journalists should specialize and only report on what they are experts on.

“Journalists’ knowledge deficit does not appear to be a major concern within their profession. In 2008, the Knight Foundation created a blue-ribbon commission aimed at strengthening journalism so that it could better serve communities’ “information needs.” None of the panel’s fourteen recommendations spoke to journalism’s knowledge deficit. 31 Yet the public has a sense of it. In a Freedom Forum study, journalist Robert Haiman found that although the public “respects the professional and technical skills [of] journalists,” it feels that journalists “don’t have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they have to explain to the public.” In the five cities where he held public forums (Nashville; New London, Connecticut; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon), Haiman heard repeated complaints from local civic and business leaders who questioned reporters’ preparation. “We heard stories,” he writes, “about reporters who did not know the difference between debt and equity, who did not know basic legal terminology used in a trial, and who had little idea of how manufacturing , wholesaling, distributing, and retailing actually work and relate to each other.” 32”

Journalists know little about even the wealthy and powerful they report upon. It isn’t their job to understand because that might mean questioning. If the corporate owners and management of newsrooms wanted informed intelligent journalists, they would hire such people. The point is that news is about business, not knowledge and understanding.

These journalists live in their own media bubble. They know even less about those who aren’t wealthy and powerful. As a college dropout, I know more about many issues, from poverty to racism, than does the average journalist. Having a good looking face and speaking clearly, for the job of journalists, is more important than being informed and insightful.

“If journalists are, as has been claimed, “the custodians of the facts,” 33 their armament is sometimes akin to that of a palace guard. It is difficult to protect the facts in those instances when someone else commands them. 4.”

That is the whole point. Journalists, generally speaking, aren’t independent actors. Most of them are employees. And most of them are employed by big business. They work for corporations that are subsidiaries of a few holders of all of mass media. They are part of a media oligopoly.

“When it comes to a subject of more than average complexity, the truth in news typically comes from outside of journalism. The news media, Lippmann argued, “can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion.” 34”

Journalists are just extensions of the organizations and mouthpieces of the institutions they are enmeshed in. Why would we expect anything different from them? Demanding higher standards of the employees of corporations is only meaningful if we demand higher standards of the corporations that employ them. The first higher standard we should demand is a breaking up of the media oligopoly.

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

“Europeans immigrated to British North America to gain religious, economic , and political independence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they built their freedom on the labor of slaves and on the land of Indians whose independence they stole. In London, meanwhile, kings and queens, imperial ministries, and members of Parliament believed that the colonists harbored treasonous ambitions for independence from the very founding of the colonies, and they described them pejoratively as “independent,” by which they meant chronically rebellious.”
~Thomas P. Slaughter, Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution, Kindle Locations 72-75

Independence, that is the central theme of American society, according to Slaughter. I tend to agree. As he explains, independence is a theme not simply because it is a cherished value, but also because it has been a regularly betrayed value. It is the frame by which we understand and judge our society, including our failures.

Unlike most other societies, liberty is our ideological watchword. It is a ambiguous term, no doubt; but it obviously means something very different than, for example, fairness. David Hackett Fischer associates this difference, in Fairness and Freedom, with the era of the founding of the United States. Freedom and liberty was in the air and it left a permanent imprint.

This wasn’t just about the English colonists declaring their independence from England. Early on, “as the colonies ’ domestic economies and population grew, as they geographically expanded and became ethnically heterogeneous , the colonists developed identities independent of the one that tethered them to the British Empire” (Independence, Kindle Locations 83-84). It was probably a two-way response to changing demographics, as I’ve speculated. America has always been ethnically diverse. This was noted centuries ago by the likes of Thomas Paine, about which I wrote:

Most interesting to me is his focus on the diversity of the colonies. What did it mean to speak of attachment to England as a mother country when colonies like New Netherlands weren’t originally English (with laws and a population that remained largely Dutch) and when colonies like Pennsylvania and New Jersey consisted only of a minority of Englishmen. This kind of thinking seems radical to many conservatives today as it did to conservatives back then. The only difference is that the conservatives back then were British Tories.

What ever returns to my thinking is how often the arguments against Britain would now apply to our federal government. The argument against both, respectively by the Revolutionaries and the Anti-Federalists, was an argument for freedom, for democratic self-governance. The American Revolution wasn’t fought for patriotic conformity and ethnocentric nationalism, for authoritarian subservience and centralized statism; but the complete opposite. The Revolution never ended and we continue to fight for those Revolutionary ideals.

It is hard to believe that the British aristocracy back in England didn’t take note of this obvious fact about the colonial population. This probably would have been alarming to their English identity, for they had not yet come to terms with what being an empire entailed. Their politics were firmly grounded in being English and the same was true for most of the ruling elites in the colonies, as I’ve explained in another post:

One of the conflicts colonists had with the British government was over the rights of Englishmen. I wonder if the reason the British government was so uncertain about the colonies was the fact that there were so many colonists who weren’t Englishmen. I could understand as the ethnocentric ruling elite of an empire that they were wary of equally offering the rights of Englishmen to people who weren’t Englishmen. Those are the kinds of problems that come from empire-building. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in the colonies were also mostly Englishmen. So, they took quite seriously their supposed rights as Englishmen and took offense at their being denied.

American colonists weren’t just seeking political independence, but cultural and religious independence as well. Many of these early Americans were less concerned about assimilation than we are, for assimilation was at that time identified with the British Empire and its attendant oppression. Most colonists didn’t have the understanding of toleration for all, but that idea had taken root early on with the likes of Thomas MortonRoger Williams, and William Penn.

Immigrants such as the Irish, German, and French understood the need for freedom from oppression to a greater degree than most English immigrants. The violence and persecution they were escaping was at times genocidal. Their choice to immigrate was in the context that, if they had remained in their homelands, they might have been mass murdered or forced to assimilate. They escaped for the very reason they valued their independence and understood all too well what it meant to lose that independence.

These non-English typically didn’t find independence in the urban coastal communities that tended to be majority English in population or else majority English in ruling elite. What they found was xenophobia and new forms of oppression. So, many of them went West, which at the time meant the frontier territory of Pennsylvania and Virgiania. For example, “The 1790 federal census” for Virginia, “provides some information on the size and ethnic background of the region’s populace. About 37 percent were of English origin or descent, 7 percent had Welsh names, 17 percent were Scottish, 19 percent Irish, and 12 percent were German. The ethnic heritage of the remaining 8 percent cannot be determined. The various immigrant groups were not evenly distributed among the western counties. Germans, for example, were the largest single nationality to settle in Bedford County. Non-English settlers predominated in all the western counties, but most strongly in Westmoreland and Bedford. Those of English origin or ancestry comprised 47 percent of Fayette and 43 percent in Allegheny” (Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, Kindle Locations 1340-1344).

Independence for European-Americans was culturally linked to alcohol, the freedom to make it and the freedom to drink it. It was as much a part of their ethnic identity as was the religious practices they brought with them. Germans, French, and the Alsace-Lorraine border people had traditions of beer and wine, in particular. This link existed just as strongly for the non-English British people. Whiskey originated with the Scottish and Irish and later was popularized in America by way of the Scots-Irish. Other ethnic groups such as the Dutch also favored making whiskey.

Their reasons for heading to the frontier even included their love of alcohol. In the 1700s, this mostly meant the Scots-Irish. In her article When Whiskey Was the King of Drink, Mary Miley Theobald explains that,

About a quarter of a million Scotch-Irish came to the American colonies in the fifty years before independence, making them the largest immigrant group of that century. They brought with them a fiercely independent spirit, abhorrence for government regulation, and an affinity for whiskey.

Interestingly, it was the British government that unintentionally helped make Whiskey so popular beyond the non-English British settlers. “The Revolution,” Theobold writes, “meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England rum distillers converted to whiskey. Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain, unlike rum, wine, gin, Madeira, brandy, coffee, chocolate, or tea, which had to be imported and were taxed.”

The independence of American alcohol and the protest against taxation has always gone hand in hand. This continued with the new American government creating yet another tax, this time on whiskey. Small producers were taxed at a higher rate than larger producers, at a time when economic inequality was growing and the power of the wealthy was growing. The small producers were so poor that they barely had enough money to live on, much less pay taxes on the whiskey they were producing to make a living. The response was the same as when the British tried the same tactic. This led to the Whiskey Rebellion (similar to Fries’s Rebellion, it involved many ethnic Americans). The wide protest movement was put down, but resistance continued for it was difficult to enforce. The government was forced to repeal it.

One of the effects of the Whiskey Rebellion was to push many ethnic Americans further West. Kathy Warnes points out (George Washington’s Whiskey Legacy from the Whiskey Rebellion to NASCAR) that, “After the Whiskey Rebellion, many of the rebellious Dutch and Scots-Irish farmer and distillers moved farther west to escape the tax collectors. Many found the right kind of water for whiskey distilling in Southern Indiana and Kentucky.”

During the Civil War, a tax on whiskey was put back in place. Like with the British and with the early US government, taxation on luxury goods such as alcohol was used to pay for the war. This caused a decrease in whiskey consumption, although it remained popular in the South. In its place, beer became the new alcoholic drink of choice for most Americans. With new waves of immigrants, especially Germans, beer consumption really took off around 1900. This coincided with a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. The KKK in the North was mostly concerned with the menace of immigrants and Catholics. Because of this, the Klan was a big proponent of Prohibition, for the same reasons marijuana was made illegal because of its association with African-Americans and Jazz.

It wasn’t just groups like the KKK, though. The KKK at that time was fully mainstream and fully in line with mainstream opinion. Even though most Americans had non-English ancestry, those in positions of power tended to be largely of English descent or if they weren’t they wouldn’t admit it publicly. Being a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant became the very ideal of a true American, according to those with the power to make such declarations (Bryce T. Bauer, Gentlemen Bootleggers, Kindle Locations 550-563).

Like many celebrities across America, preacher Billy Sunday took up the charge against Germany when the First World War erupted— but he did it, as he did all things, with more vim and vitriol than anyone else. He began promoting Liberty Bonds at the pulpit— demanding that his congregants either purchase them or stay away from his tabernacle. And he decided that if America was God’s chosen country— and to Sunday, America was God’s chosen country— then Germany must be the domain of the devil. The Kaiser and the Huns became Satan incarnate, and he spared them no consideration , even going so far as to state, in a prayer before the United States House of Representatives, “Thou knowest, O Lord, that we are in a life-and-death struggle with one of the most infamous, vile, greedy, avaricious, bloodthirsty, sensual, and vicious nations that has ever disgraced the pages of history. We pray Thee will beat back that great pack of hungry, wolfish Huns, whose fangs drip with blood and gore.”

It’s surprising he didn’t add alcohol to the list. For years Sunday had also been linking alcohol with anti-Americanism. In his Famous Booze Sermon, he declared that he was drawing his sword “in defense of native land,” and that he held alcohol responsible for “every plot that was ever hatched against our flag and every anarchist plot against the government and law.” But now temperance leaders throughout the country were using anti-German hysteria to take down booze as well. And they were assisted by the indelible connection in popular minds (as well as in reality) between Germans and the liquor trade.

“We have German enemies in this country too,” one dry Wisconsin politician stated in early 1918. “And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.”

The real purpose of Prohibition, as with the anti-immigrant movement overall, was to destroy the independence of ethnic Americans, to eliminate their culture (language, religion, traditions, customs, etc), and to force them to assimilate. This is why public education and child labor laws were implemented in the same era as Prohibition. All of these were intended to target the non-English and to finally end the independent ethnic communities that had existed in America since before the Revolution. People forget or never learn the fact that the ideal of the Melting Pot is modern and hadn’t previously been so dominant in American society.

It is unsurprising that those who fought back the hardest during Prohibition were the non-English. This was true of the Irish mafia in the Northern big cities, the Scots-Irish that had been illegally making moonshine for centuries, and the Germans across the Midwest. Not all of these were gangsters. Most were just people trying to make ends meet during one of the hardest of economic times.

There was a farm crisis at the time. Small family farmers weren’t able to make enough money from crops. The only way they could avoid losing their farmland was by finding new sources of income. There weren’t many opportunities, besides bootlegging.

This is my family story as well. My mother’s family were ethnic immigrants (mostly German ancestry) who went west to Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Some of the earliest work they did was distilling. During Prohibition, they returned to this family tradition and skill by trying their  hand at the bootlegging business when no other work was available. This included the running moonshine across state lines.

Farming was hard work and it was far from dependable. The Populist Movement was largely built on the struggles of farmers. In the end, many rural people were forced to head to urban areas. Ethnic Americans, in particular, became concentrated in the big cities (and African-Americans as well). My mother’s family likewise headed toward the industrial North. This is how anti-immigrant sentiments became associated with anti-urban sentiments (and why to this day the rhetoric about inner cities is so powerful in the American psyche). There was a movement getting Americans back to nature and making men of boys by promoting hunting and fishing, which is why the Boy Scouts formed and the federal park system promoted. Because so many immigrants were Catholic, this is how cities became associated with Catholicism and so did labor unions, high rates of both existing in the same regions of the industrial Midwest.

Even so, pockets of ethnic Americans remained in rural areas. An example of this is Templeton, Iowa. You might know of it for its famed Templeton Rye, made famous of course during Prohibition. It was a unique place right from the beginning. As Bryce notes (Kindle Locations 146-148),

Templeton was founded in a township known as Eden, in southern Carroll County , which was named after Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence . In their own ways both names, Eden and Carroll, were apt, providential.

It was no accident that it was named after a Catholic of such distinction. Catholic churches are found all across rural Iowa. The difference was that these were a very specific ethnic group concentrated in one place. “Templeton wasn’t united just by its religion, as the author explains (Kindle Locations 168-171) for, “It attracted a specific kind of Catholic: immigrants from Germany, especially the western and southern provinces of Bavaria and Westphalia, who sought the opportunity of cheap land. Only a few places in the country could claim a higher percentage of residents of German heritage than could Carroll County and, specifically, Templeton.”

This town had one of the highest numbers of Germans per capita in the country, and they were almost entirely Catholics from the same region of Germany. They had a lot of common culture and a lot of what would be called social capital. These people weren’t just pioneer individualists. No, like other Germans, they believed in taking care of their own. They were a tight-knit community and they were determined to stick together during hard times.

They would be tested during Prohibition, as this town became one of the most famous bootlegging communities in the country. They weren’t big city gangsters. They were just Germans who liked to drink (Kindle Locations 179-182):

And as the paper also indicated, the German settlers brought with them their traditions, such as a fondness for beer in celebrating family and community. It was just one of many customs associated with people who attached with a hyphen their old identity to their new American one. The German-Americans were hardly alone in their fondness for booze. They’d arrived in a country that already had, by the late-nineteenth century, a well-developed and, at times, fraught relationship to alcohol.

The law came down hard on this town. The only snitch in the community was, of course, a non-German. Otherwise, no one would turn on anyone else. The last safeguard of democracy is a jury of one’s peers. In this county, no jury would convict any of its citizens of bootlegging. Gangsters like Al Capone had plenty people turn on them, but Templetonians were a different breed. They practically flaunted their bootlegging and they couldn’t be touched, within their county. Prohibition was hard to enforce, especially in the big cities, but Templeton was unusual for a dry state like Iowa.

I take their example as an inspiration. “We must, indeed, all hang together or,” as Benjamin Franklin warned, “most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” A jury of peers is a precious thing that we should defend at all costs.

This lesson is more important than ever during this era of the drug wars that target otherwise defenseless poor minority communities. If minorities don’t create close-knit communities that take care of their own, no one else can be depended upon to do it for them. Justice is never given easily by those who benefit from injustice. Indpendence has always required interdependence.

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

What the mob forgot was that the Mafia began as a civic organization, the Black Hand. It was at times violent, as was the KKK, but most of what these civic organizations did was community work. They defended their communities and cultures, their traditions and customs. The Germans had their Bund, which served a similar purpose. Hispanics also have a history of forming tight-knit communities that will defend themselves.

African-Americans, however, have a tougher road to travel. Their unique African ethnic culture, language, and religion was annihalated by slavery. Even Native Americans fared better on this account. The social capital of African-Americans was intentionally destroyed. It has been an uphill battle for them to rebuild it, against all odds. They don’t even have the privilege of a jury of their peers, for the police targeting of blacks and the racial bias in the courts has disenfranchized so many of them from the opportunity of jury service. Many blacks find themselves before a jury of white people and, unlike the Templetonians, they have little hope of being saved from the jaws of injustice.

The War on Drugs will fail as Prohibition failed and as the Whiskey Tax failed. But many lives will be destroyed in the meanwhile. This War on Drugs is in reality a war on specific groups of people. The only way to fight back is to fight for independence as have so many generations before. Independence is what this country is about and that is what the oppressed today must demand. And they should accept nothing short of that demand. It is a war that can only be won by fighting together, communities across the country making their stand together.