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Posts tagged ‘race’

North Carolina County Celebrates Banned Book Week By Banning Invisible Man

Book banning always struck me as a special kind of terrible. Not necessarily because of direct harm done — a student forbidden from reading, say Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is not a different end result than just not having that book on the syllabus — but because of the principle. There’s no greater insult to the very idea of education and to the discerning capabilities of young minds than to say, “You students can’t handle this book. You need to be protected from it.”Captainunderpantscover

Once a year, the American Library Association hosts Banned Book Week (Sept. 22-28 this year), a way to spread word about which books are being challenged or removed as a way of informing the public about its ongoing battles against censorship. The ALA will compile a list every year of books with the most objections. The “winner” for 2012? That great spoiler of childhood innocence, Captain Underpants.

Last week, a North Carolina county school district decided to start the celebrations early by pulling Invisible Man from the curriculum and the shelves. Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a man struggling to find his identity in a world intent on using and abusing him as a tool for personal and political gain, not H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel about an invisible man.

Invisible_ManInvisible Man would unquestionably make my personal list of top ten favorite novels. It’s a book that has proven itself more meaningful each time I’ve returned to it. It pulls off the nearly impossible feat of perfectly representing a specific moment in history (racial tension in the mid-20th century) while asking universal questions about defining oneself as an individual, not just as a part of a uniform group or ideology. This is all achieved through a lightly surreal lens which makes every magically realist metaphor indelible.

So needless to say, I think this is a pretty worthwhile book for high schoolers to read. It has the potential to carry a lot of personal significance, as it did for me, for young people looking to define their role in the world. It’s an easy book to digest with a lot of meaning to unpack, depending on what you bring to it.

It’s also a book about which one North Carolina education board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.”

If you can’t find literary value in Invisible Man, you have no right to be ruling on what students should or shouldn’t be reading. It’s a criticism that I simply don’t believe. There’s no chance that board member actually took issue with Invisible Man‘s literary value, this was simply a matter of objectionable content. The book has sex, violence, and racism. You might be able to get away with one or two of these, but all three? Forget it.

The challenge to the book’s “literary value” is a cop-out. What good is literature if it can’t address difficult topics like racial violence and sexual politics? What good is education if you’re shielding 18 year olds from discussing these sorts of painful real-world issues through the lens of literature, where it can be analyzed and discussed in a structured setting?

 

Opinion: Supreme Court Makes the Right Call on Affirmative Action, Pleases No One

A photo of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

This morning, the Supreme Court kicked off its summer blockbuster season with a long-brewing case on affirmative action. We first talked about the case last October, where an aspiring college student named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas: Austin for discrimination after not being accepted.

The Supreme Court’s call was agreed upon 7-1. (There were only 8 votes since Justice Kagan recused herself.) To make a long ruling short, the Supreme Court sent the case back to lower courts, saying that they didn’t scrutinize UT-Austin’s admissions process closely enough before sending the case along.

If that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, well… it is. The justices said quite a bit on the nuanced topic, but decided on very little. But all things considered, that was probably the best thing they could have done. Any sweeping decision on affirmative action — for or against the policy — could only have resulted in lots of unfairly disenfranchised people.

A nuanced topic needs a nuanced ruling, and the Supreme Court’s non-decision only reflects the pointlessness of the question “Is affirmative action good or bad?” It’s both and it’s neither. Kicking the case back down to the lower courts just shows that if you want the Supreme Court to give you a straight answer, you need to ask them a more specific question.

Race-conscious admissions discriminate unfairly. Race-conscious admissions help establish and maintain a diverse academic community. Both of these statements are undeniably true, meaning we can’t entirely get rid of affirmative action, even if we haven’t figured out the best way to do it yet.

Personally, I’m more sympathetic toward the UT-Austin administrators trying to establish a balanced admissions system (even if the end result is deeply flawed) than I am toward a single student who didn’t get into her first choice of school. That being said, I’m glad these sorts of cases get brought up, because affirmative action should be scrutinized heavily. It’s the only way to develop, over time, a system better than what we currently have. Delaying a decision was the right call. This topic needs more time to evolve.

Supreme Court Reviewing Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could potentially change the way our country handles affirmative action.

Here’s the bare-bones facts of the case. Abigail Fisher, a student whose application to the University of Texas was rejected, sued the school for discrimination. She’s white, and arguing that if she had been a racial minority, she would’ve been accepted.

This isn’t the first time a case dealing with affirmative action has appeared in the court. 1978′s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke declared that a quota system, that is, saying that a certain number of spots are reserved for people of a certain race, is unconstitutional. 2003′s Grutter v. Bollinger, regarding the admissions policy at the University of Michigan, upheld affirmative action by arguing that a school has an interest in diversifying their student body, and should be permitted to consider race as a contributing factor in admissions.

Like most Supreme Court cases, Ms. Fisher’s experience will ultimately not have much to do with the debate. That’s doubly true in this case, since she’s already graduated from a different university. Her circumstances aren’t particularly complicated; she just attended Louisiana State University instead of Texas.

Instead, the case could become an argument over how we can decide when we’ve had “enough” affirmative action. At least, that seems to be the direction the justices were steering the conversation. In other words, at what point will the country decide that schools and other institutions are “diverse enough” and let the policy be race-blind?

That may be a loaded question, but it’s hard to talk about affirmative action without using loaded questions.

Florida Approves Setting Different Academic Goals for Different Races

The Florida State Flag

In its official strategic plan, Florida’s Board of Education projected its goals for the next few years. The document set targets for the percentages of students the board hopes will be at grade level in the near future. But then it further breaks down those targets. By race.

Take a look below (or view the full document here):

 1.3	  Percentage of students  scoring at or above grade  level on statewide English  Language Arts, science,  and mathematics  assessments by subgroup  to reduce the  achievement gap   Current  (2011-12 unless noted) Reading:  • American Indian 55%  • Asian 76%  •	 Black/African American  38%  • Hispanic 53%  • White 69%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 46%  • English Language  Learners 33%  • Students with Disabilities  29%  Math:  • American Indian 58%  • Asian 82%  •	 Black/African American  40%  • Hispanic 55%  • White 68%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 48%  • English Language  Learners 41%  • Students with Disabilities  32%  2017-18 Goal  Reading:  • American Indian 82%  • Asian 90%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 81%  • White 88%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 72%  • English Language  Learners 72%  • Students with Disabilities  78%  Math:  • American Indian 81%  • Asian 92%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 80%  • White 86%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 78%  • English Language  Learners 74%  • Students with Disabilities  72%

Now you can see right there in the chart that this was driven by good intentions. In terms of raw percentages, Florida’s plan is an ambitious one, looking for around 20-30% boosts in each subgroup. And while the differences in projected percentages between the different subgroups is disturbing, the differences in the current percentages is much, much more disturbing. Clearly the people on the board thought that by pointing out the harsh realities of the achievement gap, they’d be better positioned to fight it.

Now, I can understand why you’d want to point out the numbers in the second column. Those are terrible numbers. 38% of African-American students in Florida are at grade level for reading. That’s tragic. What I don’t understand is why we need that second column. It follows up the first awful statistic with, “…therefore it’s OK if we can only get 3 out of 4 students up to par.” How does that help anyone?

The closer you look at the projections, the more troubling the discrepancies become. African-American students currently have a 9% higher rank than students with disabilities in reading, but the board’s goals are to bring the students with disabilities 4% ahead. What data could that possibly be based upon?

It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to see how this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? It states the greater the expectation placed upon a person, the better that person will perform. Conversely, the lower the expectations, the worse the performance.

The problem with this plan is that it doesn’t simply tell teachers, “hold everyone to a much higher standard.” The document says “92% of Asian students and 80% of Hispanic students should be at grade level for math.” So the teachers hear, “the Asian students will be better at math.” If the public school system sends out documents lowering teachers expectations of certain groups of students, the teachers will project those lowered expectations on to the student. And, according to the Pygmalion effect, students being held to lower expectations are more likely to underperform.

For the record, this has nothing to do with teachers, or even the members of the school board, being bigots. It’s an institutional form of bigotry. It’s setting up a system that places a lower value on the success of certain students. It’s just hard to see that when it’s buried beneath good intentions.

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