Our place in history ...

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Education Policy & Mitt Romney's Romneyness

Asked nearly half a dozen times whether or not he would overturn President Obama’s decision to stop deporting undocumented youth, affording them the opportunity to pursue higher education, careers in the armed services, and temporary work permits, Mitt Romney danced around the question as though he were auditioning for a guest role on ABC Family’s new show, “Bunheads.”

Fancy footwork aside, no one has ever called the Republican presidential hopeful, relatable, or accused him of being a smooth talker. His missteps while pursuing the brass ring of politics, (a.k.a. becoming the candidate voters “want to have a beer with”) have plagued him since “Let Detroit go bankrupt.” I wasn’t shocked when the Romney digital team created a free downloadable app for tablets and smartphones entitled, “A Better Amercia,” (as opposed to “A Better America”). Despite an otherwise stellar reputation, when Eric Fehrnstrom, (a.k.a. Mitt Romney’s David Axelrod) totally stepped in it with his “Etch A Sketch” gaffe, I was in no way astonished. After “Corporations are people, my friend,” the $10,000 bet, Cookiegate, the tale of Seamus, the Irish setter, (a.k.a. the dog on the roof) “I like being able to fire people,” “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners,” and other flubs fit for a top ten list, it’s no surprise the Obama campaign has chosen to diffuse its own problematic sound bite by stringing a line of Romney gems together.

That said, I am overwhelmingly confused by Mitt Romney’s inability to get it right when it comes to talking about public education. After Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush attacked organized labor entities representing teachers in an unsuccessful manner, sophisticated anti-union advocacy efforts emerged, like those led by the Center for Union Facts, Heritage Foundation, and Public Service Research Foundation. The work of organizing community groups to pressure to organized labor leaders into negotiating concessions has been done in Illinois, Washington, Colorado, and most recently Massachusetts by nonprofits like Jonah Edelman’s Oregon-based, Stand for Children. Michelle Rhee, who founded The New Teacher Project in 1997, dawned the cover of TIME magazine in 2008, and now leads StudentsFirst, has built her entire career on butting heads with anyone who dares to defend policies like “last in, first out.” And Davis Guggenheim’s union-unfriendly documentary, “Waiting for Superman” was so successful at turning its nationwide theater run, promotional screenings, and traveling townhalls into a social action campaign unifying conservatives, progressives, and moderates in the belief American public education needed fixing, that Oprah Winfrey devoted a sizeable percentage of her last year on network television to spotlighting the film’s proposed solutions.

If the Romney campaign wanted to get the public on board by confronting the education policies advocated by organized labor, all it needed to do was quote what has already worked for other folks.

This is not to say that Jonah Edelman, Michelle Rhee, Davis Guggenheim, Oprah Winfrey, or the majority of the folks who already agree with their approach to reforming public education are likely Romney voters, quite the opposite. After all, President Obama has gone “all in” when it comes to positing policy prescriptions for everything from pre-school to post-graduate education. The Romney campaign is at a serious disadvantage when it comes to devil in the details discussions about education policy, especially in areas of overlap with President Obama’s policies on immigration, (read DREAM Act) as well as employment (read STEM jobs).

Nevertheless, President Obama, and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have faced tough criticism for backing performance evaluations for teachers that necessarily require reform in pay, tenure, and seniority structures. In the Second City—ground zero of President Obama’s reelection campaign—98% of teachers recently voted to authorize an all-out strike should collective bargaining negotiations with Chicago Public Schools fail to reach an acceptable agreement. In New York, the battle over public access to the value-added metrics being employed in teacher evaluations went all the way to the State Supreme Court. In California, the Los Angeles County Superior Court just issued a ruling, (that will reverberate far and wide) obligating LAUSD—the nation’s second largest school district—to base teacher evaluations, in part, on student standardized test scores. A decision that arrived when tensions between labor leaders and the Democratic National Committee were already coming to a head as a result of the Obama campaign’s decision to hire a staff member from the union-unfriendly Parent Revolution to serve as their California Press Secretary.

If the raison d'être of the Romney campaign were to foment disappointment and discontent by fanning the flames of President Obama’s enthusiasm gap, then these are the sorts of wounds they could’ve rubbed salt in.

Instead, the Romney campaign backed proposals to reduce grants to fund higher education by 25% and eliminate 48% of the K-12 education and training budget. Mitt Romney told a high school senior in Ohio, “I’m not going to promise that [help to pay for college]… And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt you take on.” He stood in front of the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington D.C. and called for cutting Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funding, in order to pay for a voucher system intended to promote private-schools above their publicly funded counterparts. And followed up that (opposite of tour de force) performance by getting into an argument with teachers at the Universal Bluford Charter School in Philadelphia over class size. In front of every camera and reporter imaginable, Steven Morris, one of eleven handpicked educators and school leaders selected to join Romney at a roundtable discussion said, “I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I have been teaching—13 years—who would say that more students [in the classroom] would benefit. And I can’t think of a parent that would say ‘I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids and only one teacher.’ So I’m wondering where this research comes from.”

These moments were all awkward. But none was the pièce de résistance in the rollout of Romney’s education policy proposals.

On June 8, the GOP nominee was in a position to knock one out of the park. Both the Romney campaign, and the Republican National Committee, hit President Obama with ads highlighting an incredibly poor choice of words, exactly mirroring the ones that kneecapped John McCain during the 2008 campaign.

Romney could’ve stepped up to the microphone and said, “If the private sector were doing just fine teachers wouldn’t be losing their jobs, high school students wouldn’t be afraid of borrowing in order to pay for college, and recent graduates would walk off the stage diploma in hand, and set off on their own. Instead there are no jobs for teachers, or their students, and young men and women who should be setting off on their own are coming home, and their parents have to decide whether to pay the underwater mortgage, the credit cards, or to feed, shelter, and transport their kids so they can compete for an unpaid internship that may or may not lead to the paycheck they need to leave the nest.”

He didn’t say this, not at all. There was no joy in Mudville—mighty Romney struck out at bat:

[Obama] wants to hire more government workers… says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers… Didn’t he get the message…? It’s time for us to cut back on government!

George W. Bush did not win a majority of voters of color. But he did successfully use the passage of No Child Left Behind, (NCLB) as a lever to win over greater support from African American, and Latino voters in 2004 than he enjoyed in 2000. Facing sizeable deficits with Latino voters, unmarried women, and African Americans, the Romney campaign could have embraced a reinterpreted form of compassionate conservatism, and embraced an all-encompassing, commitment to combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations” found in America’s schools through the reauthorization of Bush’s federally decreed, but locally administered act. This would have been well received by civil rights groups concerned with the educational wellbeing of the socioeconomically poor and children of color, who are currently seeking bipartisan support for such a move.

Not only did Romney flub an unprecedented opportunity to label President Obama as “out of touch” on pocketbook issues, in one fell swoop, he undid all of the work his supporters undertook to make education a winning issue for him in the 2012 campaign.

Insert the sound of a sad trombone here.

After several years of working as a teacher, I left my Title I public school classroom and began a career as a political staffer. On the very first day, of my very first job, I asked a lead campaign consultant a “why” question during a private aside. In as nonchalant a tone as anyone has ever used in offering a one-sentence response, I was told the following: “The answer to that, and any other queries that pop into your head during this race—or the next one—is, despite what they pay folks like me, campaigns always adopt the flaws of the candidate.”

Never before has this adage seemed so true.

As conservative curmudgeon, George Will, put it, “We all thought the big problem for Romney might be his Mormonism and it might be the Massachusetts healthcare plan. That’s not it. Mitt Romney’s problem is somehow his ‘Romneyness.’ That is the fact that people are just not connecting with him.”

Sunday, June 10, 2012

No Longer Found @ http://www.dartmouth.org/affiliated/DALA/index.html

Originally published circa 2003 in the newsletter of the Dartmouth Association of Latino Alumni.


"The fact is that those who have gone in search of identity have gone about it in the wrong way, by engaging in a search for common properties. The reason they have done this is that they have understood identity in essentialistic terms: identity implies the same essence, and essence consists in properties. But not all identity need be understood essentiallistically and in terms of properties. In particular, the ethnic identity of groups of people and individual persons themselves is not to be understood in these terms. History is against this view because history involves change, and groups of people and individual persons themselves are historical: they are not static or stationary; they are not immutable. On the contrary, their reality is precisely founded on change. The search for the identity and identification of Hispanics/Latinos, then, should begin with this fact. Not all identity is founded on commonality. Identity can be, and most often is, founded on historical relations that create historical families. If one begins with this assumption, then it becomes clear that some regional, national, and supranational categories are not just possible, but justified. Moreover, it also becomes clear that those categories of identification that are justified, serve to enlighten us about those they encompass in a way that we would miss if we did not use them ... My thesis is that Hispanics/Latinos constitute such a historical family and, therefore, that identifying ourselves as such is not only justified but useful." Jorge J.E. Gracia-Samuel P. Capen Chair and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Immigration cannot be our unifying issue-all Puerto Ricans have been United States citizens since the Congressional passage of the Jones Act in 1917, many Mexican Americans have ties to the western US dating back to before the 1948 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and it is in fact true, Latino/Hispanics fought and died for the cause of independence in the American Revolutionary War. Race cannot be our unifying issue-all of the countries of the Iberian Peninsula are comprised of multiple races, Latin America is nothing if not the embodiment of interwoven racial/ethnic diversity, and it must be noted, Latino/Hispanics have been a key ingredient during those years when being encouraged to simmer in the "melting pot" translated to the intermixing of races, cultures, ethnicities, religions, languages, and socioeconomic strata. We do not all share the same class-level, education, language, political or religious beliefs, experiences, or family/community traditions.

Yet we share the need for loyalty to, and solidarity with, one another.

Five minutes of research will reveal that Latino/Hispanics are the most numerous and most impoverished of America's "working poor." Latinas are three times more likely to become pregnant in their teens than their "white" counterparts, and comprise the fastest growing "new population" devastated by the HIV/AIDS virus. Both male and female Latino/ Hispanics are the most likely to drop out of all of America's "at risk" school-age populations, and the least likely to attend college (much less earn any kind of graduate degree). It is easy for those of us whose talents and good fortune translated to acceptance into an Ivy League caliber institution of higher learning, to waste our time and energy explaining to non-Latino/Hispanics how we do not fit the popular stereotype of a "spic," "greaser," "beaner," "wetback," and/or "hot blooded/morally questionable Latin."

We concern ourselves too much with labels, and are much too quick to assume that our efforts to be recognized as "Boriqua/Nuyorican," "Cubano," "Dominicano/Quisqueyano," "Centro Americano," or "Raza/Nahuatl/Mexica/Xicano" advance the position of all those who are supposed to be able to find a spot under the umbrella term Latino/Hispanic. Likewise it is both insensitive to all of us, and a waste of time, to insist that we are not like "them." (e.g. "My mother/father/grandparent is from country X, but I am an American, speak English, didn't grow up eating "ethnic foods," and have never been to that country). Many a discussion in college deals with the issue of "association." Many "box checkers" don't want to attend meetings for "ethnic organizations" because they deem them "militant" and "separatist." The Latino/Hispanic minority, responsible for planning, promoting, and executing all of the events for these organizations, label the non-participatory majority, "sellouts." Both groups spend years rolling eyes at one another despite being sheltered by twin glass houses.

Politics is, according to W. Lloyd Warner, the process through which services and benefits are allocated among competing sectors of society. Taking that definition, politics is, to a certain degree, central to the dynamics of Latino/Hispanic identity. Ethnic-conscious political behavior is tailored to gaining access to resources, especially in urban settings. Latino/Hispanic identity, in other words, has much in common with what some academic types call "political ethnicity"-a mechanism used to gain advantages or overcome disadvantages in society. Political scientists often cite the following quotation: "One need not be a Marxist in order to recognize the fact that earning a livelihood, the struggle for housing, higher education, and for other benefits, and similar issues constitute an important variable significantly related to ethnicity."

For me the bottom line is: Why won't we get it together? Taking away ties to the two major political parties, Latino/Hispanic organization on the national level is questionable at best. Despite sizeable numbers of Haitians/Nicaraguans in Cuban Miami, growing numbers of Mexicans/Dominicans/Colombians in Puerto Rican New York City, a plethora of Central Americans in Mexican Los Angeles, et cetera, Latino/Hispanics have zero organizations with established roots and real strength in each and every major population center. Our unity would produce tremendous benefit, especially for those who need national advocacy. Too many children live in poverty. Too many families are denied their rights because of where they live or the language they speak. Too many communities live in fear of violence at the hands of xenophobics/racists, INS/police raids, and criminal organizations/street gangs. What prevents us from acting collectively?

I think its racism; if not over racism, a serious case of prejudice entrenched in stereotypes. I think Central Americans resent the size of the Mexican population in the USA. Students in several of the classrooms I have taught in with roots in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala have gone so far as to express "hatred" for their Mexican peers. They do not want the first assumption of those they interact with to be, "your name is X, and/or you look a certain way, therefore you must be Mexican." The wish not to be associated with Mexicans is not unique to Central Americans, however. Many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans living in NYC for instance, describe Mexicans using the same negative generalizations utilized by anti-immigrant extremists-despite or perhaps because of the fact that the Mexican population in NYC is smaller than either one of those two. I think Mexican prejudices against non-whites prevent cooperation with Caribbean populations. Many Mexicans without any ties to Veracruz, Guerrero, or another sector of the country where African influence in the country is obvious, deny categorically that black Mexicans exist. Further, the general level of prejudice against persons of African decent in Mexican culture is high. Caribbeans have a degree of self-prejudice similar to that which has plagued the African American community-concern about hair type, nose shape, and skin pigmentation. But Mexican prejudice against persons of African decent is far more similar to the prejudice white Americans had against blacks during the days of minstrel shows, mammies, black face, and sambos.

The evolution of an all-encompassing identity among college and some high school students has not reached the general Latino/Hispanic population. For example, it may be fashionable in some Puerto Rican circles to claim Taino/indigenous, (West) African, and sometimes Asian bloodlines, but it is still far more common to claim European ties, as Rita Moreno's character in the movie I Like It Like That, and many of the parents of my Dominican and Puerto Rican friends have done. Similarly, many Mexican Americans are quick to not only claim Aztec/Maya/Toltec/Olmec ancestry like their brothers and sisters in Mexico, but also make sure to claim allegiance with the indigenous people currently living and struggling to survive in Chiapas/Oaxaca/Sonora/Michoacan/et cetera. However, the majority of Mexican Americans, reject this stance and base their identity not on pre-Colombian ties, but on colonial and contemporary ones. It is much more important to remain Catholic or become evangelical; ("convertirse en un cristiano" as many around here call it) much more important to support the right soccer team, wear the right kind of clothes, drive the right kind of car, and listen to the right kind of music. Knowing the legend of Quetzalcoatl doesn't win you as many points with many Mexicans as listening to banda.

Latino/Hispanics are blessed with the skills and abilities of several cultures but we are equally cursed with the prejudices of at least two.

Europe slaughtered indigenous peoples and drove several cultures to extinction and several others to the brink of extinction before the Valladolid debates determined that "Indians" had souls and could be saved. Europe shipped thousands upon thousands of African slaves to the Americas, and treated these human beings like disposable commodities; like so much chattel. But Europe is no longer responsible for the belief that indigenous people are weak and African peoples are worth less than European ones, we are. The United States of America behaved like an imperialist power and pursued wars of territorial expansion: one that allowed the conquest of half of Mexico, and another one that allowed for the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The United States of America actively encouraged de facto and de jure segregation. David Montejano's research proves that Jim Crow laws affected higher numbers of Latino/Hispanics than African Americans in certain areas of the South. East Los Angeles and Spanish Harlem were born and remained segregated communities not because of happenstance. Until fairly recently, the majority of farm workers lived on the fields they worked, directly under the streams of pesticides corporate farm owners would spray on their crops throughout the growth season. It is not a coincidence that the majority of Latino/Hispanics in the DC area live beyond the reach of the district's metro system. It was not an oversight that the stories of Latino/Hispanics that lost their lives in the events of 9/11 received less coverage than those of "whites."

Japanese internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act are but two examples of the USA's tendency to label Asians as "dangerous and pestilent foreigners." Because of small numbers compared to other segments of the US population, it is easy to understand why Asians-both East and South-have a small public presence in business, mass media, and electoral politics. With nearly twice the population of the African American census group, Latino/Hispanics can only blame part of our invisibility on prejudices and obstacles originating in other populations. We are mostly to blame for the lack of progress we have made. Jennifer Lopez has not opened doors and created opportunities for Latino/Hispanics in mass media. Linda Chavez has not opened doors and created opportunities for Latino/Hispanics in electoral politics. I can't even think of any Latino/Hispanics in business that haven't made their fortunes selling almost exclusively to our population-Goya, Herdez, Telemundo, Univision.

We have not demanded enough for ourselves. We have not cooperated with one another in advancing our similar political goals. We let the Jennifer Lopez's and Benjamin Bratt's of the world get away with being apolitical. We don't ask them to do more to advance the cause of Latino/Hispanics in mass media. We waste our time attacking their "latinidad"-criticizing a Nuyorican woman for playing a Mexican American, and criticizing a Peruvian man who grew up in California for playing a Nuyorican. We allow the major political parties to nominate "white men" for the highest offices, and do not demand that they draft women and people of color into Senate/gubernatorial candidacies and Presidential primaries. We don't do enough to support Latino/Hispanics that enter politics-Latino/Hispanic communities have abysmal turnout rates, and push less for citizenship drives, voter information in languages other than English, "amnesty" proposals, and adequate polling places during election years when anti-immigrant sentiments run high. I wonder if a Latino/Hispanic candidate for the Presidency would enjoy equal support in all Latino/Hispanic communities, or if a Mexican would be received coolly by the Puerto Rican population, and vice versa.

It is time to move beyond the patterns which we have grown comfortable with and embrace radical change. Miami can no longer be seen as a conservative-Republican "white" Cuban city. There must be room for Central Americans, Haitians, and South Americans of all religious and racial backgrounds in our definition of that Latino/Hispanic community. Los Angeles can no longer be referred to as the capital of Aztlan. The city has a sizeable Cuban population and Puerto Rican population, and the number of Central and South Americans in the city is growing exponentially. Organizations like MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) should seriously consider changing their names to broader and more inclusive titles. Magazines like "Hispanic" and "Hispanic Business" should do everything in their power to make themselves more available to those persons with a "Latin American" background who are uncomfortable with that label-especially Brazilians, Portuguese, Haitians, West Indians, et cetera.

We must stop trying to explain to ourselves and to others what a "Latino/Hispanic" is; where "they" are from, what languages "they" speak, what music "they" listen to, what foods "they" eat, what religion "they" believe in, and what political philosophy "they" subscribe to. We need to recognize that there is a population of people that will not receive a fair share of the USA's resources without "Latino/Hispanic" organizations working toward goals benefiting "Latino/Hispanics," and get to work.