American Tragedies and American Dreams
Decades ago, I taught at a community college. The bunch of us treated our shared office as if it were the neighborhood bar. We'd hang out for hours. That beat going home to our cheap apartments or our parents' basements and watching TV, which was all we could afford on the pittance adjunct professors are paid. James was a jazz musician. Mo's nose was always to the grindstone. Patrick was enthralling. I wish I had had a video camera recording our every conversation. His words glittered.
Melvyn was only a teenager. He was a new kind of person – a computer nerd – on the cusp of a revolution that would enrich many. Education was just beginning heavy reliance on computers. We profs were luddites. We would fumble with the computers – accidentally unplug them with our feet – and squeal that this was a sign of the end times. Young Melvyn to the rescue. Melvyn had a bouncy step, a perpetual smile, and a know-it-all air: that combination of goofy youthfulness and superior impatience exhibited by a hundred other computer geeks on a hundred other campuses. Melvyn's hours seemed to be pre-dawn through midnight. Young Melvyn was the computer demigod.
Now, decades later, James is near retirement as the president of a better community college. Mo is still plugging away, at a higher-paying university. Patrick, brilliant Patrick, never landed the tenure-track, Ivy League position that could match his outsize intellect. He drank. He was homeless. He died.
The last anyone had heard of Melvyn, he was in jail. He had been stealing computers. Melvyn was the one member of our group who was born at the right place and the right time to parlay his freakish natural gifts into the best-paying job and the cushiest future. He destroyed all that with stupid, unprofitable, recklessness.
Melvyn was black. The scuttlebutt was that Melvyn had felt uncomfortable being the computer demigod of an academic setting, accepted by whites. Stealing computers restored his sense that he was authentic. He was in solid with his homies. He was sticking it to the man. The man who liked, trusted, and relied on him.
James is just as black as Melvyn. Mo is an immigrant with the kind of facial hair seen on many an FBI wanted poster, a foreign accent and a name that sets off alarms – Mohammed. James and Mo were able to build comfortable lives in America. Melvyn could not. But then neither could Patrick, a tall, handsome, heterosexual, Irish-American.
I've been thinking a lot about American tragedies and American Dreams in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury verdicts. I've also been thinking about my current young students' futures.
I walk to work through Paterson, NJ, a post-industrial, high-crime, majority-minority city. My commute helped change me from someone who once voted communist to someone who now shocks herself every time she pulls the lever for a Republican.
As I walk, I pass healthy African American men in the prime of life who spend their days smoking joints and gossiping on streets littered with trash that no one but the rain ever removes. The day of the Trayvon Martin verdict, I was stopped by police cars, flashing lights, and yellow tape. I actually hoped for civil unrest. Something to show that Paterson still had a pulse. In fact one of Paterson's former silk mills, a three-story brick structure, had completely collapsed. The bricks that sprawled chaotically, good only for blocking traffic, once surrounded industry founded by Alexander Hamilton and workers that gave Paterson an international reputation as "Silk City."
There are facts, and there are stories. Impersonal forces like gravity, chemical bonds and time create facts. Humans create stories. Facts are objective. Stories are subjective.
It is a fact that police kill a disproportionate number of black males. What is the story one builds around those facts? For me, the pressing question is: what story is most likely to condemn my students to jail terms alternating with de facto incarceration on garbage-strewn street corners? What story will empower my students to become like James, an African American college president?
Here's the story Della Kurzer-Zlotnick is telling. In December, 2014, Kurzer-Zlotnick, an Oberlin student, posted a letter to her professor on her Facebook page. In her letter, Kurzer-Zlotnick asked that her final examination in statistics be delayed.
"Students of color, particularly Black students, have suffered significant trauma," she wrote, "due to the Grand Jury decisions" and thus they "are not at all in a place to take their final exams right now." "Black students" are "struggling and feel traumatized because of the recent and day-to-day acts of racism in this country. Black students and other students of color have to focus on their survival." Kurzer-Zlotnick herself identifies as "a white, middle-class person" who has "to [sic] privilege of being able to step away from these events and put enough energy into schoolwork and finals to assure that I will pass my classes." But, she says, "Just because the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown do not seem to threaten the survival or safety of white people does not mean that they are not severely affecting students on our campus." Those students, she reports, "are tired, they are hurting beyond belief."
Kurzer-Zlotnick describes herself thus,
"I'm 18. My biggest passion is social justice and community organizing…At my synagogue, Shir Tikvah. I had the social action position when I was 15, and I didn't really know what that meant – I just knew I cared about social change and progress."
According to Forbes, the total annual cost for a student to attend Oberlin is $62,000. Five percent of Oberlin's student body is black. Thirteen percent of the overall American population is black.
Is Kurzer-Zlotnick's letter telling a true story? Are African Americans so burdened by murderous police that they can't function, and do they need rich, white liberals, who publicly admit to their own cluelessness, and who live in white enclaves, to make excuses for them and to lower standards for them? And is this the route to a better tomorrow for all?
Here are some more facts, and a different story told by a different teller. One of my students, Terry, is an African American. Terry had a difficult semester, too. Terry was traumatized by life events too personal and too crushing to recount here, but please imagine the worst. Terry never asked for special treatment; in fact Terry never initiated disclosure. I noticed that Terry was depressed and I asked why. Terry never missed a class. Terry produced work so far superior to that of others that I asked to display it as an exemplary model.
And here is yet another story. After the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury verdicts were announced, a concerned friend emailed me. "Be careful," he warned. "They are predicting black rage."
In the days subsequent to the Brown and Garner verdicts, my black neighbors are saying to me what they usually say. "Good morning … nice weather … my kid is giving me a hard time … my dog wants to go for a walk." Al Sharpton called for protests in Paterson. I saw no protests in Paterson.
Other news is claiming our attention in Paterson in December, 2014. There are, of course, the usual drive-by shootings, heroin busts, and deadly fires. But lately we've learned that in the entire city, only nineteen students scored high enough on the SAT to be deemed "college ready." This while sixty-six employees in Paterson schools earn at least $125,000 annually. Paterson teacher Lee McNutly went public to allege that his school was nothing but a chaotic "indoor street corner" where teachers were coerced into falsifying records in order to ensure six-figure bonuses to administrators. Paterson school #20 displayed a large sign for a week that contained multiple misspellings, in spite of parental complaints. All these local stories demanded more attention than alleged "black rage" over the Garner verdict.
And yet Jesse Jackson insists that it is inevitable that black people "explode" in riots. In late November, 2014, after riots in Ferguson, Missouri, CNN's Don Lemon interviewed Jesse Jackson. Lemon, who is black, said that "Lawlessness and violence should not have happened and there should be no excuses made for it." "If people need jobs," Lemon asked, "why would you burn down a store where you could possibly get work? What does one have to do with the other? What does lawlessness have to do with lack of jobs?"
Jackson responded. "There is a body of people who after a long train of abuses simply explode…Pain can lead to irrational conclusions. To be locked out of police departments, fire departments, contracts and schools. Those factors matter."
Here's another story. A youtube poster calling herself Honestly Speaking posted a video entitled "The Mike Brown Fiasco" on December 2, 2014. Two weeks later, it had over a million views and seven thousand up votes. Honestly Speaking looks into the camera and shouts. She shouts that Mike Brown was a "disrespectful" thief, "asshole" and someone who "don't contribute nothing to society" "who started the trail that lead him to his death. Just because he is black does not change the fact that he committed a crime." She denounces protests as "bleeding heart bullshit." Honestly Speaking is a black woman.
I am a former leftist and I know how facts are spun. "Truth is that which serves the party." Ideologues will insist that black people like James, who became a community college president, are statistical anomalies, that black people like Don Lemon who push back against Jesse Jackson are sellouts or self-hating blacks, "house niggers" or Uncle Toms. Ideologues will insist that my black neighbors who did not riot after the Eric Garner verdict suffer from "false consciousness." Ideologues will insist that African American students like Terry who do well within existing institutions are pawns whom The Man allows to succeed at the expense of their oppressed brethren – it's all a conspiracy. In this spinning of Terry's story, Terry's success only delays the inevitable and necessary revolution. Ideologues reserve their most toxic vitriol for outspoken and admired black women like youtube poster Honestly Speaking. She's already responded in a youtube video to being called a "race traitor."
The left claims women and minorities. When women and minorities resist the left's lure, we receive the harshest punishment. Witness what the left does to Sarah Palin, Deneen Borelli, or even Juan Williams.
Here are some facts. My coworkers describe hiring committees that decide that only African American candidates will be considered, even though that policy is not stated in the job description. Whites will apply, but will not be considered. My students and coworkers, who often are members of minority groups themselves, gossip angrily of others, including family members, who slack or claim preferential treatment because of their skin color. Maureen describes to me her volunteer work as a mentor for African American interns at a Fortune Five Hundred company. It maddens her that these interns need to be trained in basics like arriving on time, dress and comportment. I see monies, positions, programs, scholarships, that have been designated for African Americans, go begging, because they lack appropriate applicants. I see extended hands that reach out to emptiness. I see highways to success with no traffic on them. I see, in short, many Melvyns.
The past is prelude. We've seen these riots before. Jesse Jackson excuses them; implies that they are the way that African Americans can get jobs they would not otherwise get. Is that true?
The National Bureau of Economic Research is the largest economics research association in the United States. It is notable for the number of its research associates who are also winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics. The NBER published two papers in 2004, "The Economic Aftermath of the 1960s Riots: Evidence from Property Values" and "The Labor Market Effects of the 1960s Riots." These papers indicate that the race riots of the 1960s "had economically significant negative effects on blacks' income and employment." It's not just that cities affected by riots, like Newark, became dysfunctional and welfare-dependent ghost towns in the immediate aftermath of rioting. These riots had longer term, insidious, and all but invisible impact. Before the riots, the difference between what white workers earned and what black workers earned was becoming smaller. Black workers began to earn more. The narrowing of the gap between black workers' wages and white workers' wages accelerated during the 1940s – before the Civil Rights Movement. The riots reversed this trend. Researchers concluded that the black workers who suffered the greatest economic blows in the 1970s and beyond lived in cities where rioting was most severe. Riots were also found to depress the value of black-owned property. Rioting hurt black income and black assets.
Yes, white supremacy still exists. That's a fact. What do we do with that fact? What story do we tell? What story will help my students and my city?
There are lots of statistics that could be used in any number of ways. It is a fact that if a woman was overweight in high school, she is statistically likely to earn less than her slender peers for her entire working life, even if she loses weight. It is a fact – one that many leftists would like to bury – that children who grow up in the same home with their biological mother and biological father do better on a slew of life measures, from incarceration rates to lifetime earnings. It is a fact that poor, white Christians are significantly underrepresented on the campuses of elite universities among both students and faculty. It is a fact that recent immigrants from Africa, who are themselves mostly black, are a "model minority" with above-average incomes and education.
What do we do with these statistics? How do we cherry pick among them to weave a story that justifies a riot or encourages a young person to plug away at a secure but unglamorous job?
Jesse Jackson insists that suffering people must explode. But not all suffering people do explode, and not all those who explode are suffering. Terry suffered and did not explode – Terry excelled. Della Kurzer-Zlotnick acknowledges that she is a rich white girl, and yet she is exploding – and urging others to join her.
I would like to assign reading to these activists, specifically Shelby Steele's book "White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era."
Shelby Steele is a black man born in 1946; he knew, and suffered under, Jim Crow. In spite of this, he accomplished much. He lived to see his former white, liberal allies insist that he owed them his "gratitude" because their bleeding hearts, not his hard work, were responsible for his success. In response to their condescension, he says, he felt a murderous rage even more intense than that he had felt under Jim Crow. Steele says that the bleeding heart narrative erased his achievements.
African Americans confronted the Ku Klux Klan. They risked Freedom Rides that ended in beatings and arson. They remained calm as lunch counter patrons poured sugar over their heads. But somehow these same black people are so delicate they need a confused 18-year-old girl to protect them from final examinations in statistics. Kurzer-Zlotnick's enthusiasm for "social justice" must erase the considerable accomplishment of African American students like Terry, who soldier on in spite of personal hardship, and earn A grades. High achieving blacks become some kind of race traitors or freaks, anomalies who can't be acknowledged because their existence threatens the story Kurzer-Zlotnick is telling about white liberal guilt and noblesse oblige.
The harm white liberals do is not limited to their need to erase African American achievement. Kurzer-Zlotnick is a powerful audience. The performance she applauds is explosive black rage. She would probably applaud Melvyn's fencing stolen computers.
In 2006, in the New York Times, Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson, a Jamaican-born black man, wrote that one explanation for young black men's criminal behavior was the applause antisocial behavior earned black men from white youths. Young black men have the highest self-esteem of all ethnic groups, he says, and that self-esteem is not lowered by what many would assess as failure, for example out-of-wedlock births and poor grades. Not only young whites applaud criminality among black men. Corporate America does so, as well, making millions from hip-hop and ghetto fashions. Young whites, Patterson says, know when to turn off rage chic. The young black males who have been duped into providing this performance may not know when it is time to leave the stage. The whites move on. The blacks are trapped.
I would like to invite Della Kurzer-Zlotnick to walk to work with me through Paterson. I would like her to step over broken glass and past shuttered factories. I would like her, simply, to listen to conversations on buses. My neighbors want their kids to do well, and are proud of them when they do. They work difficult jobs; I see them in nurse's aide and McDonald's uniforms, day after day, year after year. Injustices of many kinds are a given; that's a fact. The key is what story one tells about injustice. It might be exciting for an 18-year-old girl to urge protest on one day when she feels worked up. I would like to invite Kurzer-Zlotnick and others to live in cities like Paterson after the protest is over, to see which approach has long-term, beneficial effects.