Don’t Demiansplain TFA to DeRay & Other Rules To Live By

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First, there was mansplaining.

Then, there was Damonsplaining.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I feel it necessary to add another entry to the painfully awkward list of ‘splaining terms: Demiansplaining.

The term refers to Demian Godon, a software engineer from Seattle, who likes to attack Teach For America during his free time on social media and on his blog, Reconsidering TFA.

Godon also happens to be a white guy, which is why I found it ironic that he thought it was a good idea to write a blog post on Sunday -“Does Teach for America Leave Black Lives Behind?” – chiding DeRay Mckesson and other Black Lives Matter activists for their affiliation with Teach For America. In the post, Godon asks:

“[G]iven the role of the financial backers of corporate reform and TFA in the growing inequity facing communities of color, should black lives matter activists be partnering with TFA and corporate reformers?”

He then goes on to cite two statements from teachers union-aligned activists who argue (unsuprisingly) that “TFA actually threatens the black lives matter movement.” In short, he’s Demiansplaining to Black Lives Matter activists why Teach For America is antithetical to the Black Lives Matter movement [insert headsmack here].

As a white guy, this is the type of statement that makes you cringe at how clueless and self-righteous other white guys can be. So I’ve come up with two simple rules that other melanin-deficient fellows like myself can follow to avoid falling into the same trap:

1. Don’t use the Black Lives Matter movement to push your personal political agenda

I would have thought this rule was self-evident, but apparently not, so let’s spell it out: If you’re trying to use the Black Lives Matter movement to push your personal political agenda, you’ve totally missed the point. BLM is not about you and your beef with TFA or other perceived boogeymen.

2. Don’t tell Black Lives Matter leaders what’s up when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement

Imagine some random person walks into your house, looks around, and then proceeds to tell you that you’ve furnished the place all wrong. This person isn’t an interior decorator or Feng Shui consultant you’re paying to tell you that your “corporate, neoliberal sofa” doesn’t belong in the living room where you put it. You would probably stand there thinking, “Who in the hell does this person think he is telling me where my neoliberal sofa should go in my house?” Then, you’d promptly boot him out the front door. Get it? Same logic applies when it comes to telling folks like DeRay Mckesson that their affiliation with TFA puts them “on the wrong side” of the BLM struggle.

In conclusion, if you follow these two simple rules, I promise even obsessed Teach For America critics can look (slightly) less foolish.

Public education and the New Jim Jones

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From the sky it looked like a sea of parked cars below. As the plane descended it became clear that the cars were actually a sea of colorfully dressed people. On the ground, the details became more specific: the village floor was carpeted with lifeless bodies, mothers and fathers hugging their babies in frozen poses.

This was late November 1978, a year when television ownership reached 98% of households, and escapist fantasies like Happy Days and Love Boat.

Time magazine explained it this way:

In an appalling demonstration of the way in which a charismatic leader can bend the minds of his followers with a devilish blend of professed altruism and psychological tyranny, some 900 members of the California-based Peoples Temple died in a self-imposed ritual of mass suicide and murder…Not since hundreds of Japanese civilians leaped to their deaths off the cliffs of Saipan as American forces approached the Pacific island in World War II had there been a comparable act of collective self-destruction.

That last phrase clarifies everything. Collective self-destruction. It’s that thing that happens when you lose reason and logic on your way to some hot death that has been meticulously packaged as utopia.

As a kid, I saw Jonestown on the cover of Time magazine and wondered how so many black people believed in Jim Jones. How did one white man convince them to give up everything they held sacred?

Today’s Jonestown

You might not forgive me for this brutal equivalency, but it’s Jones that I think of when I see teacher unionists present black people with an impossibly naive vision to “reclaim the promise” of public education.

They are selling us a disingenuous Guyana where all schools have endless resources; every classroom is perfectly integrated by race, class, and gender; all anti-black prejudice has been addressed in the majority white teaching force; every teacher is equally talented, caring, and effective; and the United States’ institutions love black people as if they are white.

My sour prediction is none of that is happening any time soon. The trends that stratify races and classes will continue. Poor people, especially the black and brown, will continue catching hell. The problem will continue being driven by income, which is driven by employment, which is driven by education. If schools and school staff fail, America fails. Utopia remains afar.

Only Jonestown logic would have us place our hopes in a system proven to miseducate our kids, incarcerate them once the miseducation is complete, and then blame them for their captivity while profiting from it.

My message to poor people is this: only middle-class people with gainful employment can afford the glittery belief in “reclaiming” the system. After 400 years of inedible wooden nickels only a fool yearns for a “promise” in place of a solid plan. That plan must include a militant focus on literacy, numeracy, and self-affirmation; strong teachers and curriculum; expanded options for schooling; and schools or systems that are accountable for real results.

Everything else is fog.

Escape from Jonestown

Here’s my plea (and it’s a desperate one). We can’t move forward until we see our current Jonestown for what it is and start rejecting the Koolaid. We must reclaim the black mind. We must prevent our youth from becoming intellectual wards of the state.

I’m mindful here of the Harriet Tubman quote:

I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.

We must think critically about the nature of our oppression. We must ask what is our evidence that public education, as traditionally conceived, can get us to a place of black independence?

To answer that question we will be tempted to turn to our educated people for answers. But education as an issue presents a confounding irony. The people we expect to fight poorly performing education systems are actually products of that system. They’re not revolutionaries. They are system enthusiasts, which makes sense if you consider they are prepared, promoted, paid and peer reviewed by that system.

Our would-be Paulo Freire’s are tenured overseers for Jonestown. They produce and promote “scholarship” that reinforces the basic faulty premises of public education. As educated gatekeepers they seem chronically and tragically fascinated with the wrong problem statement.

Reform isn’t the enemy. The issue isn’t about people attempting to radically change how schools operate; it isn’t that there are efforts to liberalize how we find, prepared, evaluate, and place teachers; it isn’t that a select few billionaires are investing their wealth in a dogged pursuit of better educational outcomes.

Teach For America isn’t our problem either. The fact that 1,400 colleges of education draw “teachers” from below the average of the collegiate cognitive pool, then send them poorly trained to 14,000 school districts and 98,000 schools where the worst of them end up before children of color who need strong instruction more than anyone.

It isn’t the existence of charter schools or school choice.

And, it isn’t the “privatization” of education either.

Our problem is how badly state-run, bureacratized, industrialized, unionized schooling works for children of color in poverty. It isn’t working.

No, it’s all so much simpler than that.

Our problem is that every morning millions of black children enter expensive and decaying buildings full of people fortunate enough to have a college education, and middle-class job benefits, but lacking in demonstrable capacity to educate marginalized children even to the abysmally low bar of reading and math “proficiency.” The problem is systemic, old, and we should see it clearly by now. It’s the public-ization, stupid.

Because of Michele Alexander we have done a good job of understanding right-wing attempts to perpetuate a new Jim Crow.

But we’ll never be truly free unless we have open throats and straight backs when it comes to calling out the left-wing counterpart, the new Jim Jones.