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Friday, August 27, 2010

Manifest Destiny Revivalism


By Sikivu Hutchinson

During the 19th century the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States was one of “God-ordained” expansionism. African slaves, indigenous peoples, Mexican nationals and other “non-Europeans” were deemed aliens and enemy combatants, anathema to the democratizing force of America. Using that “old time religion” to shepherd the flock on the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington Glenn Beck’s “Divine Destiny” revival deftly mines this history. Beck’s decision to hold the event on the March on Washington anniversary has elicited outrage amongst civil rights organizations who accuse him and the radical right of hijacking the legacy of the civil rights movement. Reeking of sulfur, hubris and the visionary charlatanism of 1920s revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson, Beck claimed that the Divine Destiny event will provide “an inspiring look at the role faith played in the founding of America and the role it will play again in its destiny.”

Decrying the cultural primitivism and backwardness of the Muslim world, twenty first century Christian zealots seeking to preserve human rights as the province of white supremacy continue to put the lie to American exceptionalism. Over the past week the Islamphobic vitriol of demagogues like Beck, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have paid off in cold blood. The recent stabbing of a Muslim cabdriver in New York and the hate attack against a Fresno, California Islamic center (by an organization calling itself the American Nationalist Brotherhood), are the tragic but all too predictable results of the nationalist chest beating that masquerades as empathy for the victims of 9/11.

In a climate in which the militant right wants to dismantle civil rights freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, Beck’s evocation of “divine destiny” is all of a piece. Throughout American history, recourse to the transparent word of God has always been the last refuge of scoundrels wielding the Bible and the bayonet as protections from the ungovernable horde. Thus, it is fitting that this naked evocation of the language and legacy of Manifest Destiny comes during a period when the right has launched a campaign to repeal the 1868 14th amendment, which was originally initiated to confer citizenship onto freed African slaves. As Kevin Alexander Gray writes in Counterpunch, “in the Reconstruction period, as now, racism and white supremacy loomed large in public debate. Back then, opponents of the amendment talked about ‘public morality’ being threatened by people ‘unfit for the responsibilities of American citizenship.’’ Now the self-appointed defenders of public morality have come full circle, drunk on a cocktail of xenophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria and jingoism.

Vaulting ahead of the pack, former Republican Congressman Nathan Deal, one of the staunchest critics of the 14th amendment’s provision of birthright citizenship, introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009 into the House. The statute would deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented women, stripping away yet another civil right that ostensibly distinguishes the U.S. from fascist governments. Deal’s legislation is a reminder of the connection between slavery and expansionism. In the 1840s, the concept of manifest destiny was used to justify the U.S.’ brutal occupation of Mexican territory. Cultural propaganda demonizing and dehumanizing indigenous Mexican populations provided American imperialism with the aura of moral righteousness. Commenting on the U.S.-Mexico War, it was no less than “radical” poet Walt Whitman who stated: "What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!"

Back in the good old days of docile slaves and vanquished savages, there were no ambiguities about who deserved to be accorded rights. God ordained the universality of European American experience, civilization and moral worth. Non-white peoples either submitted to the Enlightenment principles and values of the culturally superior West or were extinguished. States rights were citizens’ last vestige of protection from the trespasses of big government. So it is no mystery then why the ideology of 19th century expansionism and evangelical Christian revivalism has gained fresh currency amongst a “reloading” white nationalist insurgency. As the freshly inked graffiti on the vandalized Islamic Center in Fresno proclaimed, “Wake up America, the Enemy is here.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Friday, August 20, 2010

High Stakes Teaching and the "Value-Added" Sham



By Sikivu Hutchinson

In one of the more ham-fistedly symbolic episodes of the 1960s Twilight Zone series, a Kafkaesque tribunal declares people to be “obsolete” based on their allegiance to "outmoded" cultural practices like literacy and critical thought. Operating in the same vein, the L.A. Times’ recent publication of the so-called “value-added” assessments of Los Angeles Unified elementary teachers was another “legitimizing” victory for the destructive regime of high stakes testing and a blow for "outmoded" practices like literacy and critical thought. Puppets in a virtual tribunal, LAUSD educators who have spent years creating classroom environments that challenge and engage students suddenly woke up one morning to find themselves stamped “ineffective” or “effective” based solely on their students’ standardized test scores.

Nationwide, many teachers oppose the value-added model on the grounds that it reduces teacher performance to one decidedly narrow, politically and culturally suspect criterion. Test scores measure how well students can master the culturally prescribed knowledge assessed on standardized, norm-referenced tests, not their critical thinking skills. The regime of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has institutionalized the practice of teaching to the test, such that culturally responsive approaches to curriculum and instruction are few and far between.

In light of this dynamic, the Times article was noteworthy for its egregious omissions — namely, its failure to provide an analysis of the concrete specific teaching "methodologies" that supposedly inform student testing gains. By smearing one empathic, engaged and highly regarded teacher from Third Street Elementary School as “ineffective” because of her low test scores, the Times undercut its ostensible motive for this expose. Publishing the value-added results has been defended as a way to “empower” parents, yet the reductive criterion of success in high stakes testing tells us absolutely nothing about whether a teacher is critically conscious about how students’ differential access to power and privilege influences their learning outcomes. It tells us nothing about whether a teacher has tailored her instruction to value and incorporate the cultural capital, lived experience and cultural knowledge that diverse students bring to the classroom. Moreover, it tells us nothing about whether or not that teacher has organized her class to creatively affirm authentic student voices, develop her students as leaders and foster an environment in which cooperative non-hierarchical learning strategies are privileged over drill and kill intellectual taxidermy. Time and again studies from such organizations as Californians' for Justice, Harvard Civil Right’s Project and UCLA’s Institute for Democracy have demonstrated the danger of relying upon standardized tests as the sole criteria for student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The strongest determinant of whether a teacher’s practice is effective is how well they develop culturally respectful relationships with students, create a caring yet rigorous atmosphere for critical inquiry and critical literacy, connect with students’ home cultures, and employ multiple teaching strategies such as instructional conversation, sparing use of lecture, extensive group work and creative and expository writing.

Yet, the Obama administration’s fetishistic emphasis on test scores as the major barometer of teacher effectiveness, a linchpin of its “Race to the Top” initiative, is especially insidious for students of color. For example, the disproportionate suspension of African American students is a national epidemic that has been exacerbated by the NCLB high stakes testing regime. Disengaged from school curricula in which they are not meaningfully reflected, African American students have become ensnared in a public school disciplinary apparatus that fuels the nation’s prison complex. In some LAUSD schools the percentage of African American students who have been suspended is often two and three times greater than their percentage in the general student population. According to the 2001 Indiana University study “The Color of Discipline,” black students were disciplined more harshly than white and Latino students who committed similar infractions. Students who are repeatedly suspended are more likely to drop-out, and are in turn more likely to be funneled into the prison pipeline. A recent report by the Los Angeles-based Advancement Project concluded that the intersection of high stakes testing and zero tolerance discipline policies have created a perfect storm for black and brown students already deemed expendable by teachers and administrators. Wedded to the bottom line of generating better test and Academic Performance Index (API) scores, schools are increasingly motivated to move “problem” students along to alternative schools and GED programs. Indeed, “zero tolerance and high stakes testing have followed the same path on the way to being…frequently substituted for real education reform.” The value-added sham won’t help parents and communities of color struggling to achieve educational equity for youth who have already been intuitively assigned a jail cell by a public school culture marching in lockstep with the teach to the test ethos.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Angels and Innocents


By Sikivu Hutchinson

I have a vivid memory of the first time I became aware that children could die. It was early evening in the leisurely dusk of summer, and after eating with my mother at a local coffee shop, we passed by a newspaper vending machine outside. A child victim, kidnapped, murdered and disposed of like garbage, stared ominously out at me from the front page of the paper in grainy black and white. I remember my sense of horror when my mother told me that the child, who was approximately my age, would never see his parents again. Associating death with old people, I was stupefied by this seeming contradiction. Although raised heretically in a secular household, I had been corrupted by the prayer-saturated social universe of waxen blue-eyed Jesus’ plastered on my friends’ living room walls. Alone in my bed that night, I wondered how “God” could have countenanced such unspeakable evil.

Decades later there is an aching space where this child’s life would have been, his personhood “frozen” at abduction. Violent death by homicide at an early age is a grim reality for many youth of color. Gangsta rap romanticizes it and dishes it up for the voyeurism of white suburbia. Mainstream media ignores it or relegates it to social pathology. Every semester when I ask my students if they’ve had a young friend or relative die violently at least half will raise their hands. Their tattoos, notebooks and Sidekick phones are filled with vibrant mementoes for the dead. It is not necessary to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other theatre of American imperialism to experience the devastation that the killing fields of disposable youth inflicts. Yet, God takes care of children and fools, or so the shopworn saying goes. In the midst of sudden death there is refuge in the belief that the Cecil B. De Mille epic doomsayer of the Old Testament must have a special place in his heart for this tender constituency. Pied Piper religionists pat children on the head and whisper into their dewy ears that the murder of an innocent child is part of some grand design. They dish up the concept of divine providence like hard candy. They lure sweet-toothed youth with a ready “antidote” to the quandary of trying to make sense out of the senselessness and randomness of evil. The Wynken, Blynken and Nod bedtime story of grand design is chased down with the simple carrot of eternal reward for slain innocents. The inexplicable is assimilated. Senseless evil, evil that befalls the good and stalks the innocent, is legitimized as part of the divine’s hardscrabble boot camp for the living.

If it can be understood, it isn’t God, said Augustine. In ambiguity then, prayer is the great equalizer and potential redeemer. As American children we grow up with recurring images of kneeling girls and boys, hands clasped solemnly in prayer. These images propagandize faith as a normal, natural phenomenon. The magic bullet of prayer is trotted out as an escape hatch from the small indignity to the unspeakably cruel act of wild-oats-sewing youth. Bad kids pray obsessively for forgiveness. Good kids pray strategically in crisp starched pajamas for family members, friends, and Fido to be delivered to the top of God’s check list. Sinful thoughts can be defused by requesting a special audience with God. Good thoughts can be “deposited” into one’s virtual piggy bank of moral worth.

Blasting the hypocrisy of this brand of yo-yo morality in the Doors’ song “the Soft Parade,” Jim Morrison bellows:

When I was back there in seminary school, a person put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer…You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!!!

Morrison’s fierce monologue highlights the absurdity of prayer as a form of negotiation. Clearly, the more meditative personal and intimate benefits of prayer can be therapeutic to the believer. Yet, the assumption that prayer can be a bargaining chip in moments of crisis merely allows individuals to refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Children who are indoctrinated into this escape hatch mentality are forced early on to reconcile an out of control, evil, morally rudderless world with the illusion of a forgiving tailor-made God that they can summon like hocus pocus. Picking and choosing morality and dividing the world into the Christian “us” and the immoral, unwashed secular/Muslim/Hindu/“them,” “faith-based” children are socialized to see and enforce hierarchies of personhood rather than embrace fellowship.

Since God sees and “forgives” everything that is petitioned, the moral universe of children is a tiny, confining funhouse of mirrors. In communities where death at an early age is considered unremarkable by mainstream media and policymakers, the deferment demanded by faith is an insurance policy against social oblivion. When death is near, it is easy to arm a child with the “faith” that their 15 year-old cousin, killed in a drive-by shooting, has gone on to a “better place.” When death is near, the fear of retaliation for being a “snitch” compels crime witnesses to remain silent. As a result, homicide cases remain open indefinitely while perpetrators walk around free and clear in the same neighborhoods. Yet faith allows victims and witnesses to rationalize this seeming contradiction. God will take care of the evildoer in the afterlife, whilst granting the departed everlasting peace and deliverance in heaven.

And for the parents of a dead child it is said that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Having lost a child to a congenital disease, this is bitter refuge and rank fraud. This reductive homily has been especially tailored to domesticate and seduce women, saddled with a thousand obligations, the primary care of children and infirm relatives, dead end jobs with marginal pay. It is God’s will that you be eaten alive by the “womanly” stress of always being expected to defer, sacrifice and persevere. And it is God’s will that you must bite back your Eve-bequeathed rage in silent complicity.

In my infant son’s final hours, I stared down at the phalanx of tubes that separated him from death. Soon, they said, he will be an angel. I could feel nothing but the obscenity of divine providence, the mockery of robust babies whisked from the delivery room to pink and blue splattered nurseries without incident, innocent of the antiseptic drone of the neonatal ICU.

But then, there is the stripped-to-the-bone eloquence of women waiting for deliverance; like that depicted in a story I read recently about a homeless Haitian single mother’s heartbreaking quest for permanent shelter. Desperately she waits for God to “put something into her hand,” to perhaps give her a sign that she won’t be like scores of parents fated by this rudderless God to outlive their young children.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.