Rethinking schools

Rethinking Schools began in 1986 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as an effort to address problems such as “basal readers, standardized testing, and textbook-dominated curriculum.”

It’s since become an international publisher of educational materials, with a magazine and books on classroom practice and educational theory, social justice, anti-racism, vouchers and marketplace-oriented reforms, funding equity, and school-to-work. The publications are written by and for teachers, but speaks to students, parents, administrators, researchers, and community members as well.

I like their vision of the common school:

Schools are about more than producing efficient workers or future winners of the Nobel Prize for science. They are the place in this society where children from a variety of backgrounds come together and, at least in theory, learn to talk, play, and work together.

Schools are integral not only to preparing all children to be full participants in society, but also to be full participants in this country’s ever-tenuous experiment in democracy. That this vision has yet to be fully realized does not mean it should be abandoned.

I highly recommend their publications, including the classic, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which was my introduction. I’ve used several of the books or magazine issues in my own teaching and can say that I’ve learned important things from every one of them.

White privilege

Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack” (1990) provides a very accessible discussion of race/racism, in particular, how whites have trouble even seeing it. She identifies 50 daily effects of white privilege, “conditions that…attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location” per se.

McIntosh predicts that if you’re White you’ll answer “yes'” to most of these, and if you’re Black, you’ll say “no” to many of them. Try it yourself. For example,

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

John Berry (2004) adapts these for the library profession. I like both of these articles, and can imagine ways to use such lists to spark a discussion.

I would have to answer yes to most of the statements myself. Then I imagined it for my time in Ireland (thinking more about nationality, than about race per se). Still mostly yes, but some no’s and some harder to answer. When I thought about my stay in Turkey, there were fewer yes’s. For Haiti, fewer still.

But what was most interesting to me is that even for Haiti, I could still say yes to most of the statements, even though I’m the outsider there in terms of race, nationality, language, culture, and above all, economic class. The fact that I can take myself mentally to Haiti, and still possess White Privilege shows even more to me why it’s such a powerful social construct. It also reveals why it’s so hard to understand and accept that one possesses that unfair privilege.

In a Harvard Law Review article, Cheryl Harris (1993), takes this concept further, arguing that racial identity and property are deeply intertwined. She examines “how whiteness, initially constructed as a form of racial identity, evolved into a form of property, historically and presently acknowledged and protected in American law.”


Health care illogic

Following Rep. Joe Willon’s (R, SC) outburst druing the President’s speech, the Obama administration has scrambled to show that it will guarantee no reasonable means of healthcare for people in the US illegally. That position strikes many people as sensible. But it’s not only cruel, unfair, and unmanageable, it actually undermines the very effort to secure affordable, reliable healthcare for everyone.

No one in power is even talking about government health care for all (that’s a plan that would really work). Instead, the proposal is simply to require everyone to get health care insurance, through a government-managed insurance exchange, employer-provided group coverage, or private insurance. With a large pool of buyers in the exchange, it’s possible that health care costs could be controlled.

Denying undocumented workers and their families access to both the exchange and employer-provided group coverage means that very few will have insurance of any kind. This, in turn, will increase demands on expensive emergency room care, whose costs are ultimately borne by the government and individuals with private insurance.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D, IL) put it this way last week:

So, and remember, we’re not talking about government health care, we’re talking about everybody is going to be required to get health care insurance,” said Gutierrez. “And so as we go to this big store, right, where everybody is required. And this exchange, the health care exchange, where if you don’t have health care you are required to go purchase it. When you go and attempt to purchase it, what does the administration say? The administration says, ‘You will have to prove that you are legally in the United States and have a Social Security number and a right to that.’

Some immigrants, and let me say it – hundreds of thousands of them — who have businesses, who are prospering, who are paying taxes— even when they wish to buy because it’s going to be a requirement to buy it, this administration has told them don’t buy. You can’t. You can’t buy.

via Latino Lawmaker Rips Obama for Making It Harder for Illegals to Buy Private Insurance – George’s Bottom Line

One thing that could make the exchange work is to bring in large numbers of relatively healthy people. New immigrants use 55% less health care than native-born Americans, according to a Harvard/Columbia University study (Physicians for a National Health Program, 2005).

Denying health insurance is foolish and spiteful. It’s also absurd: We should demand that immigrants share the burden of paying for healthcare, not exclude them in a way that ultimately endangers not only theirs, but everyone’s health and finances.

See also The bottom line in health care.


Physicians for a National Health Program (2005, July 27). Immigrants’ health care costs are low.

What do Boston & Cambridge have to say to Champaign Unit 4?

violin_may06Ann Abbott inspired me to say more about the connections between the Boston desegregation experience in my last post and that of Champaign Unit 4.

I’d have to say that Boston is a good example of how not to do it. As I said in that post, Judge Garrity made the correct, and only legally justifiable decision, but rulings alone cannot accomplish much if there is widespread resistance, especially from political and religious leaders, school officials, and media. The racism thwarted integration of the schools, and in the process did major damage to the school system and to Boston as a civilized city.

In contrast, just across the Charles River, Cambridge managed relatively successful desegregation during the same period. Cambridge adopted a “freedom of choice” or “controlled open enrollment” desegregation plan in 1981. Parents would specify a list of  the schools they wanted their children to attend. Their preferences were followed as long as explicit desegregation controls could be maintained. There were no guarantees of attending any particular school.

Graham_parksBecause the program was coupled with interesting magnet programs at every school, there were many viable options for families. As parents we almost welcomed the fact that we didn’t have to make the final choice between the Maynard School’s dual language (two-way Spanish-English bilingual) program, Tobin’s School of the Future, with innovative uses new technologies, the Graham & Parks Alternative Public School, with its open education plan (see mural above), or the closer by Peabody, Fitzgerald, or Lincoln schools, each with things to recommend it. It helped that Cambridge did not have the urban sprawl of midwestern cities, which meant that unlike Champaign, Cambridge offered several schools within walking distance.

Although not without its problems, this plan was effective in substantially desegregating Cambridge schools, and maintained public support and involvement with the public schools. It’s not surprising then that Robert Peterkin, Superintendent, was called in as a consultant on the similar plan in Champaign. The story in Champaign is still unfolding (as it is in Cambridge and Boston as well). But if I had to draw lessons today from these three experiences, I’d say that it’s essential for Champaign residents today to avoid the disastrous path of resistance that Boston experienced

champaignThe Champaign school district has been struggling to address concerns such as too many black students in special education and discipline referrals; too few in gifted and honors classes; and black students being bused out of their neighborhoods. Responses such as denying the problems or siting new schools outside of black communities (though still technically north side) remind me of Boston’s response. Everyone would benefit if the school system and residents were to embrace not only the technical details of the Cambridge (or similar) plan, but also the spirit that saw how desegregation could enrich the learning for all.


Don’t blame Judge Garrity for the failure of school busing in Boston

W. Arthur Garrity Jr., the federal judge whose order to desegregate Boston’s public schools triggered mob violence and an image of bigotry in the city that prided itself on being the cradle of American liberty, died Thursday of cancer.

Garrity’s death at 79 came two months after the Boston school board voted to end busing for integration, 25 years after Garrity’s order launched a tumultuous period in the city’s history.

via W. A. Garrity; Judge Desegregated Boston Schools – Los Angeles Times.

garrity1I moved to the Boston area on the first of June, 1974. On June 21, Judge Garrity filed a 152-page opinion, in which he ruled that the School Committee of the city of Boston had “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers and school facilities.” The ruling was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals. It ordered the School Committee to desegregate Boston schools by instituting student assignment, teacher employment, and facility improvement procedures, as well as the use of busing on a citywide basis. When the Committee failed to present an adequate plan the court assumed an active role in in the desegregation, a role that continued for fifteen years, my entire time of living in the Boston area.

The Community Action Committee of Paperback Booksmith, a bookstore in the area, published the decision in 1974 as The Boston School Decision. Publishing a lengthy court opinion may seem like a foolish business decision, but it was in fact a courageous and consequential act to inform the public debate. I still have my well-read copy.

Following the decision, there was resistance, violence, and white flight. When regular drivers refused to drive buses for schoolchildren out of racism or fear for their own safety, brave people, such as my friend Henry Kingsbury, volunteered to take their place. Given all that and the fact that 30 years later, the Boston schools had become even more segregated than before, one might consider Judge Garrity’s decision to be a failure. A persistent myth arose that this was an example of social engineering gone awry. For example, Bruce G. Kauffmann, in “Judge took Beantown for bumpy ride in 1974” describes it as “a liberal judge’s infatuation with experimental social engineering programs.”

school-busBut Garrity was both courageous and correct. The problem was not his, nor anyone else’s, attempt to engineer social relations. For twenty years after the Supreme Court had ruled that the legal maintenance of segregated schools violated the US Constitution, and even more, the fundamental values of the United States for simple justice, the Boston School Committee and other political leaders steadfastly resisted every attempt at incremental reforms. Ideas about placement of schools, magnet programs, voluntary busing, and so on, which might have led to gradual and peaceful integration, were subverted or outright blocked.

The decision demonstrates conclusively that the School Committee had consistently and deliberately acted to thwart Constitutional guarantees of equal rights, not only maintaining the “separate” aspect of Jim Crow, but failing also at any semblance of the “equal.” Schools designated for Black children were not just segregated, but denied resources in terms of teacher preparation, class size, curriculum, materials, physical plants, and other necessary tools for learning.

Given the entrenched racism, and the clear history of subversion of basic civil rights, Garrity had no choice. Unfortunately, the failure of leadership in Boston, both Black and White, pro-and anti-desegregation, led to undermining Garrity’s decision and the earlier Brown V. Board of Education decision.


Garrity, W. Arthur, Jr. (1974). The Boston School Decision: The text of Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s decision of June 21, 1974 in its entirety. Boston: The Community Action Committee of Paperback Booksmith.

Weinbaum, Elliot (2004, Fall). Looking for leadership: Battles over busing in Boston. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 3(1).

Faubourg Tremé and community engagement

Thinking about Faubourg Tremé and also an earlier post about Cooking up a storm gives me a different understanding of community engagement or civic renewal. Sirianni and Friedland (2005), for example, talk about a broad civic renewal movement in the US in areas such as community organizing and community development, neighborhood associations, civic environmentalism, civic journalism, and healthy communities. They also discuss policies that can foster civic capacity building and problem solving.

Although their survey is useful (I use it in my own course on community engagement), three things seem missing from their picture. The most glaring omission is race. Every one of the areas they discuss is deeply imbued with the history and present circumstances of race relations in the US. The very notion of civic capacity building and problem solving can’t be examined fully without taking into account that there is a legacy of oppression and a lack of understanding about how race has shaped American history and policies.

A second omission is history. Much of Sirianni and Friedland focuses on current movements and tools for organizing, all useful, to be sure. But without a grounding in historical precedents it’s difficult to see clearly our way forward. For example, long before the present generation of civic renewal, Jane Addams and colleagues led the way through their work in Chicago on health care, working conditions, literacy, and participatory democracy. Before that, the Paris Commune built social institutions based on liberty, justice, and equality, with a deep respect for learning by all. Even before that, Faubourg Tremé showed how an engaged community could work together to establish effective civic journalism, work toward racial equality, and build a healthy community.

A third area of omission is art. John Ruskin argues that art and culture reflect the moral health of society. Ruskin influenced Jane Addams, who saw that art in all its forms, including crafts, theater, and cultural practices was essential to community and individual development. The importance of art as a means for a community to find shared values, maintain its own history, and to express itself is striking in both the Faubourg Tremé and Cooking up a storm stories as well. I’m not sure that art ought to listed as a civic renewal movement per se, but it does seem crucial to understand more about what it means for civic health and civic renewal.


Faubourg Tremé

Just to the Northwest of the French Quarter lies a neighborhood that few tourists visit, and many have never heard of, called Faubourg Tremé. Much of the area now appears bleak with Interstate Highway 10 bisecting it, industrial yards, and boarded up buildings. But it’s one of the most important neighborhoods in American history, and still has meaning for today. There are efforts to restore Faubourg Tremé and to learn what it has to tell us.

faubourg_tremeA recent, award-winning documentary tells the fascinating story, made all the more compelling by relating it to the life of a young reporter for the Times-Picauyune. The film is Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. Reporter Lolis Eric Elie leads us in his discoveries about his own city. He and director Dawn Logsdon show the relation between the city’s present and its rich past, enlivened throughout by music, including Derrick Hodge’s original jazz score, the Tremé Song by John Boutté, and a century of New Orleans music.

Viewers also meet Irving Trevigne, Elie’s seventy-five year old Creole carpenter, who descends from over two hundred years of skilled craftsmen, as well as Paul Trevigne, editor of L’Union, the first black newspaper in the US. L’Union and later, the Tribune, were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery, but beyond that, for full citizenship and social equality for all blacks, something most northern abolitionists shied away from. They hear from Louisiana Poet Laureate Brenda Marie Osbey, musician Glen David Andrews, and historians John Hope Franklin and Eric Foner as well.

armstrong_park_Congo Squre cFaubourg Tremé was home to the largest community of free black people in the Deep South during slavery, where they published poetry and wrote and conducted symphonies. It was a racially-integrated community, a model for our own future. It as also possibly the oldest black neighborhood in America, the home of the Civil Rights movement and the birthplace of jazz. (See Congo Square to the right.)

Long before Rosa Parks, Tremé residents organized sit-ins on streetcars leading to their eventual desegregation. But on June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy from Tremé deliberately challenged the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act, by insisting on sitting in a whites-only car on a commuter train. He was arrested, tried, and convicted and eventually lost in the infamous Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. The resulting “separate-but-equal” decision legitimized segregation throughout the US for the next 62 years, and was a major blow to Tremé.

Following later assaults from urban renewal, Interstate Highway 10, and then Hurricane Katrina, it’s surprising that anything remains in Tremé. But one thing that has survived is a sense of history, embedded deep in the music, dance, architecture, social relations, and stories of the community. It is this history which holds a promise for the renewal of Tremé and perhaps of the larger US Society.

The film is a must-see, telling a story that is simultaneously informative, uplifting, and disturbing.

Guns against tyranny?

douglassA recent political cartoon showed an ayatollah in Iran pointing a gun at an unarmed citizen, who feebly tried to respond with a pointed index finger. It implied that if Iranians had gun rights they’d have a better chance of standing up to tyranny. The implication was that our Second Amendment had been written for a similar purpose: to protect ordinary people from governmental oppression.

But whatever merits or problems one might see in the Second Amendment today, it’s worth remembering that it was not conceived to enable people to stand up to government, but for precisely the opposite purpose. James Madison wrote the Second Amendment to reassure Southern states that Congress would not disarm their militias, which they deemed to be necessary for slave control. Thus, the amendment ensured that people in power could continue to oppress, not the other way around. For Iran today, this would be akin to guaranteeing that the ayatollah shown in that cartoon would always have a gun, while the citizen did not.

jamesmadisonCompromises to ensure ratification

The Constitution required ratification by at least nine states. Eight had ratified it, but anti-Federalists in other states held sway. Virginia was divided, with George Mason and Patrick Henry arguing against ratification. They raised the specter that Congress might refuse to call forth the militia to suppress a slave insurrection or could even disarm the Southern militias.

Although the Federalists prevailed, James Madison’s career was damaged. In order to resurrect it, he promised that he would support adding a bill of rights including this provision: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Carl Bogus (1998) shows that Madison wrote the amendment for the specific purpose of assuring his constituents that Congress could not use its new powers to deprive the states of an armed militia. Their primary concern was not that Congress would disarm the militia and thereby prevent hunting, self-defense, national defense, sport shooting, or resistance to governmental tyranny. Instead, it was that disarming the militia could bring an end to slavery. Despite later revised interpretations, the amendment did not grant individuals a right to keep and bear arms for random purposes, but instead for “well regulated” militias whose essential purpose was to prevent a slave rebellion, as happened in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) just three years later.

As in any political arena, there were multiple interpretations and motivations at the time, as well as misunderstandings due to making sense of these more than two centuries later (Amar, 2005). A major concern in 1788 was of course the war against England and fears about future invasions. But it’s also clear that a driving force was the desire to preserve the institution of slavery, thus using guns to maintain tyranny, not just to resist it.


Amar, Akhil Reed (2005). America’s Constitution: A biography. New York: Random House.

Bellesiles, Michael A. (2002, July). Constitutional meanings. Common Place, 2(4).

Bogus, Carl T. (1998, Winter). The hidden history of the second amendment. UC Davis Law Review, 31(2).

Douglass, Frederick (1881). Life and times of Frederick Douglass, his early life as a slave, his escape from bondage, and his complete history to the present time. Hartford, CT: Park.

Mencimer, Stephanie (2008, March). Whitewashing the Second Amendment. Mother Jones.

Spitzer, Robert J. (2000). Lost and found: Researching the Second Amendment. Chicago-Kent Law Review Symposium on the Second Amendment, 76.

Juneteenth World Wide Celebration

Yesterday was the Juneteenth World Wide Celebration, the commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. As you can see in President Obama’s statement below, it’s based on the actual, as opposed to the mandated, freeing of slaves in Galveston, Texas in 1865.

I remember the celebrations in Texas when I was young, and it’s good to see those events being recognized more widely. That’s not because Juneteenth marks the completion of America’s struggle against racism, but because understanding our past can help us begin to deal with the reality of racism today.