American Violence and Education

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I’ve been asked by Joe Brooks, my editor at Community Works Journal, to write something about the school shootings and education.  It was extremely hard for many reasons, but I’ve tried.  As I sometimes do, I’ll “test” the piece in Medium, first, and see how it runs; I’ll test it here, too.

So here it is: American Violence and Education

It begins thus:

I can’t make things out anymore. I don’t know what we’re doing. American culture is upside down and, as an educator, I have no idea what to do, what to say, how to find “the teachable moment.” I’m lost. I suspect we may all be feeling lost. The world outside the classroom is way too big, too harrowing, too confusing. Death and suffering have become all too common. It seems as if we’re operating in two distinctly different worlds, one is inside the classroom where we theorize, study, calculate, ponder, the other, outside the classroom, that world we dare only glance at from time-to-time, is brutal, relentless in its inhumane insistence that life is cheap.

In a course I’m working through Brent Easton Ellis’ disturbing, post-modern 1991 Gothic novel, American Psycho, giving the requisite warnings about the extremely graphic violence, because students wanted me to do so, differentiating between escapist literature (Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, and so on), and Literature that means to have the reader turn inward, difficult as that is, and examine her life, the lives around her. American Psycho is the latter. Kids, our students, want to feel safe, be safe; they want to avoid “the horror” of it all; they don’t want to reside in the inhumanity outside our neat little classrooms.

But these worlds are clashing.

Continue reading…

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From Newtown to Newark and Back: The Always Ongoing Cycle of Despair

Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.

Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.

There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town — to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.

Why? Why have we come to this?

A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.

But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?

What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.

Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?

When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.

Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.

Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.

As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.

Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.

We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.

Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.

Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.

From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.

When Ideology Reigns, Humanism Suffers: November’s Fundamental Choice

Mitt Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his VP demonstrates a conservative embrace of ideology. Ideological pursuits are anathema to humanism. Ideological pursuits negate the struggle indicative of the human journey towards anything resembling self-reliance, which is, ironically, what Ryan, et al, are suggesting we pursue. Ideologies tend to nurture solipsism and harbor a disdain for democratic decision making. Ideologies silence hope and give voice only to the most dominant. Ideologies establish a vituperative vertical system run by the inflexibly self-righteous.

November’s presidential election is asking that we either abide by a strict ideology suggesting that in times of confusion and insecurity we let in a version of Big Brother, as Whitaker Chamber’s suggests in his elegant review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or about pursuing a humanistic road, with its roots in Socrates and Romanticism, and emphasizing the individual’s drive towards self-actualization. These are our choices: the Republican’s pursuit of a strict ideology or the Democrat’s insistence that we protect self-actualization (they can surely be criticized for not nurturing it, however). How’s that for black and white?

Ideologies require a simple good vs bad dichotomy. So we’re forced to speak this way, as I’ve done, above. Humanism is cloudy, messy and ambiguous because it confirms the existence of “human nature.” An ideological apparatus denies the relevance of “human nature,” arguing that a person can be disciplined into a way of life, a way of thinking. The problem with this, of course, is that ideologies need efficient ways of transmitting discipline. Enter Paul Ryan. And in case anyone missed the point I’m making, Ryan’s appointment has been followed by another: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will speak at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The junkyard dog is being released to bark and threaten, show his teeth. The ideological center of the GOP means business. Mitt Romney is actually rather unimportant at this point, which is always the case when a fine tuned ideology trumps everything — and everyone.

The last, great conservative, when we actually had the semblance of a public sphere in America, William F. Buckley, who, when he died, left a void currently being filled by buffoons, said, on Charlie Rose, that Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is “ideological fabulism.” In Rand’s Atlas, so passionately embraced by Paul Ryan and conservatives, it would be very easy to send anyone to the gas chamber, says Buckley. Fascism follows. And it is a world that, for us right now, as we watch China and other economies begin to scale — and dominate — makes sense; it is, after all, the China model. “The fight we’re in here,” said Paul Ryan following Rand, “is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Any questions? Only individualism doesn’t trump collectivism; in American Philosophy, they co-exist and can actually thrive.

The other ideology Ryan embraces is Catholicism, though no one is speaking about it, not critically. In Catholicism, the institution, the Church, speaks for God; it is Christ, it is God, it is everything. The see of Rome. Disciples talk about the Church as if it’s alive, body and soul. Ideological fabulism? Ryan very easily conflates Rand and Catholicism. Rand is the secular Catholic (though embracing abortion because it’s a woman’s right) that is not thinking about universality, rather she’s thinking about allegiance. Catholicism, for instance, would not exist if it wasn’t for poverty — and the allegiance to its doctrine by the poor — and the uneducated suffering; it has an interest in maintaining this imbalance so that it can prey – pray on and for them, simultaneously. This is the slippery slope we’re on — a hall of mirrors. On this Ryan trip, we might see Mel Gibson appointed Ambassador to Israel, just to teach them a thing or two because they’re too reliant on us. Opus Dei might enter the White House’s inner sanctum.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in faith. I have faith — in my journey towards self-actualization, in the sense that I can be better, and in the notion that in these pursuits consistent with self-reliance, I want to be judged by you, another human being pursuing his / her self-actualization. I have a responsibility to myself, my family, my community. I can be better at all of these — without Paul Ryan – Rand. And I also know that a partner in this journey should also be a government that does not obstruct, rather it nurtures, it listens, it enters into a dialog with my needs and my community’s needs. This is the idea of America, words Ryan frequently uses; however, if we want to talk about this idea we have to begin with faith in each other. We have to acknowledge the idea’s Romanticism chiseled from the Enlightenment.

Alexander Hamilton, in the General Introduction to the Federalist Papers, says the following:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

This is conservatism in its most enlightened form. So I wonder: instead of the ideological fabulism of Ayn Rand, made doubly more perverse by Ryan’s Catholic closing of the American mind, why aren’t we talking about Hamilton and the Federalist Papers? That’s our earliest notion of America. Isn’t Hamilton more relevant than Rand’s self-righteous — and nasty — inflexibility? “Were there not even these inducements to moderation,” says Hamilton, “nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

Welcome to America, where candidates swing into battlegrounds to do war. America, as we see everywhere, is not in tune with Hamilton, with moderation. “On the other hand,” says Hamilton, “it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty;…that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.” Real Housewives, reality tv, the Kardashians, the glory and violence of the most popular sport in America, football — all these things trend towards a collective mind set that abides by a stricter, black and white, easily definable morality, even if some have to suffer. This is a gruesome sign that we’re a lost nation as we ping pong back and forth over an ideological net bent on moving us towards the complete control of our human right to determine who we are, each of us.

Hope Springs Eternal Amidst Decline: The Bard College Model

Witness today: the pathetic — and uncannyWashington circus concerning the debt and the debt ceiling crisis; the economy is still moving at a snail’s pace, now reacting even more negatively to Washington’s ideologically based idiocies; evidence of climate change is everywhere around us; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan baffle the mind, forever responding to terror and poor Western management; U.S. public education is in the toilet, put there by more controversial political brinkmanship, and continuing to ensure we live in a bifurcated society; unemployment is stagnant, as a result, and more and more people out of work or working in jobs well below their capacity; production is at a standstill, and in some places, such as Ohio, industry has left town — Main Street is emptying out; children and women, some of the most vulnerable in our society, are without health care; the gap between the richest of the privileged white and Hispanics and blacks is wider than it’s ever been in history; some of our cities — Newark for instance — are being left in the dust kicked up by the materialism of the few.

These tragic items are but the results of our manmade decline. Let me say this again: if you look around — health care, education, finance, industry, the environment, our deteriorating infrastructure, the decline of certain cities, particularly those inhabited by people of color and immigrants — every single problem we have today exists because we’ve made it so. Our educated elite have taken us down.

How can the most powerful nation in history come to this? The answer, I dare, is simple: we’ve educated the elite — politicians, lawyers, doctors, CEO’s, and so on — into beings that have long ago left their humanity at the curb, supplanted by delusions of grandeur, the avarice that so carefully destroys everything it touches. Education has become school for profit and self-gain.

As I’ve said in these pages before, what we have here is a crisis in — and about — EDUCATION, writ large (see here, too). Education has forgotten — or repressed — it’s allegiance to Humanity, its very real purpose of creating empathetic, creative citizens.

We can learn something from the models we say we follow, in this case, the Greek Stoics. The Stoics had a radical point, as Martha S. Nussbaum tells us in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, “that we should give our first allegiance to no mere form of government, not temporal power, but to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings.” We’ve moved far from this goal, this reality; it’s no longer a compass point.

Of course, the failure of our EDUCATION — the educating for excellence, efficiency and productioneducation focused solely on the means of production and accounting, the creation of cogs on the wheel of mediocrity — is devoid of any moral posture. It is an immoral education.

When morality fails or is oppressed, ideologies spring to the rescue. In every tragic circumstance, we face today, each can be said to be driven by ideologies — not rationality, not dialog, compromise and bargaining, the hallmarks of Democracy.

Ideologies give us a false sense of reality, an artificial view of the world — and ourselves. Ideologies, as we can see today in Washington, scorn knowledge; these are motivated or, better, are narrated by the corporation. Who will win, whether or not the debt ceiling is raised? Who will win if US ratings are reduced? That’s right: the banks, no matter what happens, win. They win the world. (This is, of course, the grand example, the ultimate example of inverted totalitarianism, where the corporations dictate and the witless masses, sleeping away in illusions of plentitude, are lead to slaughter.)

How did this world come about?

Ken Robinson, for instance, in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, demonstrates how uncreative our education has been:

The rise of industrialism influenced not only the structure of mass education but also its organizational culture. Like factories, schools are special facilities with clear boundaries that separate them from the outside world. They have set hours of operation and prescribed rules of conduct. They are based on the principles of standardization and conformity.

Robinson could be describing the modern prison, instead — separate …from the outside world, prescribed rules of conduct, standardization, and conformity.

What schools have done is effectively standardize and conform and, therefore, shut down the imagination, killed creativity, in the words of Ken Robinson. What then can grow from here? What we have, says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, is a “human … reduced to a measurable value, like a machine or a piece of property. We can choose to achieve a high value and live comfortably or be dumped unceremoniously onto the heap of marginality.”

Can we change this? Can we combat this?

Yes, we can. There are examples. One primary example is Bard College. This institution is not held to a separation from the outside world; it is in the world, creatively addressing our culture’s greatest challenges.

Leo Botstein, Bard College President since 1975, is perhaps the best and, likely, the most enlightened of college presidents. He has led this college from prescribed — and accepted — rules of conduct and carefully defined new rules of conduct that follow a moral understanding of our human responsibilities to each other. This is, indeed, for my money, the only real example, today, of a classical liberal arts education.

Bard has embarked on several endeavors: Bard High School Early College seeks to provide an alternative to the traditional high school, a “rigorous course of study that emphasizes thinking through writing, discussion, and inquiry.” Imagine if other elite liberal arts colleges learned from Bard and took up alternatives to high schools like this? What can we do? Bard has announced its collaboration with the Newark Public School System as well.

The small college is involved in the Bard Prison Initiative, creating opportunities for incarcerated men and women to earn Bard degrees. In From Ball and Chain to Cap and Gown: Getting a Degree B. A. Behind Bars, a PBS special story about the Bard Prison Initiative, we can see the essence of the liberal arts education at work.

But Bard has not stopped there.

It has a Masters of Arts in Teaching Program, too, allowing students to be certified in New York and California. It is a program focused on “both rural and urban-high needs school districts.” No one is doing this. Absolutely no one. Bard is in the vanguard.

And if this is not enough, Bard has established an Honors College in collaboration with Al-Quds — the Al-Quds – Bard Partnership, in Jerusalem. Along with St. Petersburg State University, Bard has developed “The Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences … the first Department in Russia to be founded upon the principles of liberal education. It emerged from Smolny College (officially the Program in «Arts and Humanities»), which was created in 1994 by St. Petersburg State University  in close collaboration with Bard College (USA). Bard College’s interest in curricular  innovation  and the reform of international education coincided with the interests of a group of creatively-minded scholars from St. Petersburg State University.” In other words, in the international arena, Bard is not going to the usual places, as all other schools do; rather, Bard has opted to go where there are obvious challenges — and opportunities.

How is it possible that a small school in Upstate New York can do so much? Endowments of other liberal arts institutions tower over Bard’s, approximately a mere $270 million. How is it possible to do so much with what in higher education is so little these days? It has 1800 students. A faculty of about 224 professors. The cost of attending Bard is comparable to other elite liberal arts colleges, $55 — so what’s the difference? It has a beautiful campus. It has all the accouterments we expect from these schools — the arts, wonderful grounds, athletic facilities, new technologies abound. So what gives?

Answer: imagination and will, a conviction that what we must do in education if we’re going to contribute to the reversing of the tide of malaise, complacency, avarice and the blind pursuit of materialism is not compete, but rather, join hands and cooperate, collaborate, listen and learn by thinking critically, dialog and bargain. Like no other institution for its size Bard is doing more for humanity than most larger — and more distinguished — universities.

Might we jump on this wagon and see where creativity can take us, rather than staying on the ideological tracks to despair?

The Location of Newark in the New World Order: Privatization and its Discontents

I. Newark and the New World Order

Newark is a microcosm of what’s happening across the United States. The city is being isolated by privatization efforts from the rest of America and people are struggling and suffering.  Politicians — Governor Christie and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, his foil — are merely mouthpieces for this effort, though they speak the language of inclusion. But Newark is being disseminated, nevertheless. In this Orwellian nightmare, the children — as they are in war — are the most vulnerable and suffering the most.

The unraveling of civil liberties and social justice is evident in the latest confusion — and fight — about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools. This is an example of a long history of dissemination in Newark. It’s the same old story, one that Newark — and other cities like Newark — have experienced before. On one side of the equation, we have Booker telling Oprah that he’ll include Newark’s parents in the decision making process; on the other we have parents feeling alienated and concerned with Booker’s appointment of Chris Cerf as the a new acting state commissioner of Education, the top post. Cerf heads a commission to double the Zuckerberg donation (they’ve already raised $43 million). Cerf is also a founding partner of a consulting firm for school districts. This is what we use to call carpetbagging, a derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation from outsiders. The feeling in Newark is that Cerf’s approach appears to be a for-profit enterprise, particularly if we take a look at Cerf’s peers that include a venture capitalist and hedge fund managers. This follows a general trend, incorporated by Governor Christie, to put private firms in charge of under-performing schools in Camden, NJ.

What is happening in Newark around education — again a powerful example of inverted totalitarianismis the result of a history of neglect. This is a history replete with structural changes, some racist, some not, that have, nevertheless, resulted in the disenfranchisement and isolation of an entire city and its citizens. These structural forces run together with cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality. The latest confusion and battle about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools is yet another example of how the structural and cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality are exploited for — and by — an elite few. Now, though, tragically so, this too involves black politicians that use race for personal gain. This is not new, but it has now taken on an extraordinarily powerful force — it is subtle and dastardly, it is, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva suggests in his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, a “strange enigma.”

II. From Newark’s Riots to the New World Order

People emigrated to Newark to find the Promised Land – Puerto Ricans, Italians, Albanians, Irish, Spaniards, Jamaicans, Haitians, Mexicans, West Africans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Trinidadians and Portuguese all came with hope looking for new horizons.

Newark is New Jersey’s largest and second-most diverse city, after neighboring Jersey City.  Just eight miles west of Manhattan and two miles north of Staten Island, Newark was founded in 1666 by Connecticut Puritans; it was a model American city until the end of World War II.

In 1922, the “Four Corners” – meaning the intersection of Market and Broad – was the busiest intersection in the United States.  It served as a regional center of retail commerce, anchored by four flourishing department stores: Hahne & Company, L. Bamberger and Company, L.S. Plaut and Company, and Kresge’s.  New skyscrapers were built every year, the two tallest being the 40-story Art Deco National Newark Building and the Lefcourt-Newark Building.  But then tax laws began rewarding the building of new factories in outlying areas rather than rehabilitating the city’s old factories – the allure of short term profit versus the benefits of long term thinking, a familiar American story.  Newark lost its sources of revenue, and it has not been the same since.

Several forces in America began reshaping the concentration of populations, adversely affecting African Americans by denying the opportunity to move from segregated inner-city neighborhoods, William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociologist, tells us in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City:

As separate political jurisdiction, suburbs [also] exercised a great deal of autonomy through covenants and deed restrictions. In the face of mounting pressure for integration in the 1960’s, ‘suburbs chose to diversify by race rather than by class. They retained zoning and other restrictions that allowed only affluent blacks (and in some instances Jews) to enter, thereby intensifying the concentration of the urban poor.’

As the population of blacks grew in the North, as did housing demands, there was more of an emphasis on keeping blacks out of communities. These were structural conditions setting up urban poverty. Adding to the housing problem economic forces were also at work. “In other words,” says Wilson, “the relationship between technology and international competition [has] eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system…These global economic transformations have adversely affected the competitive position of many US Rust Belt cities. For example, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh perform poorly on employment growth, an important traditional measure of economic performance.”

Jobs left Newark for suburban tax breaks. Historically — structurally speaking — racist housing practices, globalization (science and technology and the gravitation towards cheap labor) and the move out of the inner city of qualified workers gutted the infrastructure of Newark. Newark lost its tax base; its revenue flew to the suburbs where blacks were not allowed. This reality is most evident in the abandoned buildings and empty lots of Newark; it’s evident in the lack of infrastructure support — hospitals, competitive schools, playgrounds, the lack of police protection and the dismantling of city (and state) workers and their unions. This is ongoing, case in point is the Facebook conflict. Wilson is also instructive here:

Two of the most visible indicators of neighborhood decline are abandoned buildings and vacant lots. According to one recent report, there are 60,000 abandoned and vacant properties in Philadelphia, 40,000 in Detroit, and 26,000 in Baltimore. These inner-city properties have lost residents in the wake of the out-migration of more economically mobile families, and the relocation of many manufacturing industries.

In the seminal study, The New Geography, by Joel Kotkin, we learn that, “The more technology frees us from the tyranny of place and past affiliation, the greater the need for individual places to make themselves more attractive.” But this is an impossibility when there is no revenue. There is no reason to believe that cities, as we know them, will survive these changes — they may not (see also here).

By 1966, then, Newark had a black majority and was experiencing the fastest turnover than most other northern cities.

Evaluating the riots of 1967, Newark educator Nathan Wright, Jr., Episcopalian minister, scholar and poet, the author of 18 books, and a leading advocate of the black power movement said, “No typical American city has as yet experienced such a precipitous change from a white to a black majority.”

At the height of the civil rights movement, Nathan Wright, Jr., was working in the Department of Urban Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. In his Introduction to Ready to Riot, a sociological analysis of the conditions in black ghettos that led to the 1967 rebellions, Wright described the fear of his wife Barbara, a daycare worker, and their 17-year-old daughter, as they drove into central Newark on the second night of what he called “civic rebellion.”

“There was an air of expectancy but not of anger,” Reverend Wright tells us.  “Barbara and Bunky (his wife and daughter) locked themselves in the car and I stepped onto the sidewalk …Almost immediately there was chaos.  The liquor store was ransacked.  Men ran by with bottles of liquor in their hands and under their arms…With a sound of thunder the large plate-glass window of the bank, just a few feet from our car, was broken.  Mrs. Wright and Bunky were in near terror.”

It was July of 1967 and the disturbances spread quickly to other black urban areas.  The National Conference on Black Power was about to convene in Newark, with Dr. Wright as the organizer and chairperson. One of the first major undertakings of the black power movement, the conference brought 1,100 delegates to Newark from 42 cities and 197 black organizations. It called for blacks to build an economic power base with a “Buy Black” campaign, for the establishment of black national holidays and black universities, and broached the topic of black separatism. The conference marked a change in the civil rights movement from demanding individual rights to group solidarity. Dr. Wright was at the pinnacle of his political influence. (It’s also important to note that prior to 1967, Malcolm X, in the mid to late 50’s, as described in the new biography by Manning Marable, A Life of Reinvention, was already following a separatist agenda, advocating for black run businesses, schools, institutions).

The 1967 Newark riots – between July 12 and July 17, 1967 – were six days of rioting, looting and destruction.   Many African-Americans, especially younger community leaders, felt they had remained largely disenfranchised in Newark despite the fact that Newark became one of the first majority black cities in America alongside Washington, D.C..  “Seen as a society boxed into frustration,” Reverend Wright says in Ready to Riot, “the city as a whole may be said to have an ill-tempered tendency toward repression on the one hand and aggression on the other.”  Local African-American residents felt powerless and disenfranchised and felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality; unemployment, poverty, and concerns about low-quality housing contributed to the tinderbox.

“In the mind of the distraught black community there was a growing sense of frustration, brutality, and repression,” said Wright.  Are we at this point, again?

The riots are often cited as a major factor in the decline of Newark and its neighboring communities; however, the actual factors include decades of racial, economic, and political forces that generated inner city poverty, which helped spark race riots across America in the 1960s. By the 1960s and ’70s, as industry fled Newark, so did the white middle class, leaving behind a poor population.  During this same time, the population of many suburban communities in northern New Jersey expanded rapidly.

The remnants of legalized discrimination that brought about the riots have left their mark on Newark, the poor and the very poor, and the young people among them without a community to sustain them.   For sustainability to be successful, nourishment and the necessities of life are the ground floor – the peace President Obama spoke about in Oslo. “It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security,” said President Obama. “It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, December 11, 2009. But in Newark the self-destruction that accompanies the psychologically oppressive weight of poverty and hopelessness – unemployment twice as high as in white communities, higher crimes, mortgage defaults that tract higher, and the malaise and pessimism that only benefits liquor stores and drug dealers – holds people from below and drags them down.  This is not the path to freedom. It remains, as it did in 1967, a path to destruction.

“The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies,” wrote Kenneth Clark back in 1965 in his seminal work, Dark Ghetto.  “Their inhabitants are subject peoples,” he wrote, “victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.” Has anything changed?

III. Newark and the New World Order — Tomorrow’s Promises

The confusing dilemma around the Zuckerberg Facebook 100 million dollars to improve Newark schools is the result of this structural-cultural history. One of the most dastardly cultural results is that Governor Christie and Mayor Booker believe that the citizens of Newark — and the citizens of poor communities in New Jersey — cannot be trusted to re-build their communities. They are completely left out of the equation. If there is going to be rebuilding, it’s going to be outsourced. We see the reality of this already. This perspective and attitude figures largely in a myth about poverty and the inner-city.We must again turn to Wilson for a cogent explanation:

…there is a widespread notion in America that the problems plaguing people in the inner city have little to do with racial discrimination or the effects of living in segregated poverty. For many Americans, the individual and the family bear the main responsibility for their low social and economic achievement in society. If unchallenged, this view may suggest that cultural traits are the root of problems experienced by the ghetto poor.

We have to challenge this perspective. It’s held quite obviously by Christie and Booker — this is why we see the problem with the Facebook money; this is also why we see the complete dismantling of all services in Newark and New Jersey proper, if we look at the poorer communities. Don’t let color fool you, Booker is first a politician — and politicians are always about changing color.

Finally, Homi K. Bhabha, in his by now classic The Location of Culture, gives us a warning shot across the bow:

The recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each others, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.

That we are disoriented, is obvious. That we are also divided, this too is quite evident, particularly when black politicians further the alienation we sense. And the fact that the private and the public are one and the same, something that Cornel West has also argued long ago, further confuses our sense of place, our histories.

Who are we?  Who and what do we want to be?  Who decides?

We have us to blame in all this, the malaise we’re in, though we’re quick to blame political figures. We have us to blame because we don’t examine ourselves, locating ourselves in this history of oppression that is quite readily available to us for our critique. As I’ve said before, just the other day in a post, I’m merely one voice — among many, I believe — who see these things like, nevertheless, I relegated to  the shadows, the boundaries of culture, to use Bhabha, again,  marginalized and disenfranchised l, and thus speaking only into silences.

The Politics of Newark: The Miller Street School and Hope — Part 5


During one visit to the South Ward, Maria Ortiz found out that Newark’s Mayor, Cory Booker, would be attending a local school “holding meeting” that the mayor schedules monthly and consists of many 10-minute face-to-face conversations with individual members of his constituency. The purpose of these meetings is to show the community that the mayor is indeed one of them, that he cares and he’s listening, though he comes from the kind of privilege completely that is completely unimaginable to most of the city’s population.

Cory Booker is the son of African-American trailblazers Cary and Carolyn Booker who were among the first African-American executives at IBM. He was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in the predominantly white, affluent town of Harrington Park in Bergen County, New Jersey; he went to Stanford University, earning a B.A. in political science and a M.A. in sociology. He played varsity football — made the All–Pacific Ten Academic team — and was elected to the council of (four) presidents. After Stanford, Booker won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he was awarded an honors degree in modern history and became friends with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. At Boteach’s direction, Booker, a practicing Baptist, became president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society, an Orthodox Jewish student group, to the chagrin of the Chabad-Lubavitch leaders. L’Chaim was controversial. Initially the society was part of the Chabad movement; then it evolved to become an inter-faith group. Rabbi Boteach, however, was not a member of the Oxford faculty; he was simply a person free to set up an inter-faith group outside Oxford’s domain. Rabbi Boteach and the Chabad-Lubavitch organization in England did not agree on all the issues regarding how to teach Jewish students at Oxford and the role of non-Jewish students. This tension grew when Booker was appointed president of L’Chaim, and Rabbi Boteach left the organization. Rabbi Boteach was further criticized by the British government after an investigation showed that he was funding a lavish lifestyle from charitable donations. Booker went on to graduate from Yale Law School where he operated free legal clinics for low-income residents. He lived in Newark during his final year at Yale, making his way into the political scene, and served as staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center in New York. He became program coordinator of the Newark Youth Project after graduation.

In 2006, Cory Booker was one of the last remaining tenants in Brick Towers (after living there for eight years), a troubled housing complex in Newark’s Central Ward, where he organized tenants to fight for improved conditions. He has since moved to the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue in the South Ward. In late 2009, Booker was criticized for not owning property in Newark, choosing to rent. The Brick Towers were razed in July, 2008.

Barack Obama, Corey Booker, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Deval Patrick – none of these political figures of color emerged from any social movement; they joined their party of choice during college; but they moved quickly up the ranks, and are not race rebels. None of them represent a threat to the power structure of America. Is Corey Booker too good to be true? Is he an honest advocate for the poor and marginalized or just another politician?

Maria Ortiz and I drove to the Luiz Muñoz Marin Middle School in the North Ward, a facility distinctly better than the Miller Street School – grass and open fields, large auditorium and gym, trophy cases. We placed our names on the “meeting roster” to speak with Mayor Booker, then waited in a large auditorium facing a wide stage where cheerleaders practiced their routines. Eventually, we were called and walked down a wide corridor lined with student lockers and were ushered into a classroom with long tables stretched end to end. Mayor Booker was working the room, sitting next to one person, then another, patting people on the back, shaking hands while an aide wrote things down.

Cory Booker is a big, athletic man sporting a bald head, a signature look; he resembles a forward on a basketball team or a tight end in football. He’s charismatic, easy with people, soft spoken but direct and has a wonderful smile. He’s a media darling.

He recognized Maria immediately and asked how she was, and we shook hands. Between Mayor Booker and me sat Jennifer Stone, a stern looking black woman, who didn’t show a hint of a smile when we introduced ourselves. She is the South Ward liaison for the mayor’s office.

I leaned forward and asked the mayor, “What are your plans for the South Ward?”

He leaned forward, too, resting on his elbows on the table, and clasped his large hands. Looking puzzled, he said incredulously, “That’s what you want from me?”

I couldn’t tell whether his reaction was because of the question or whether he was expecting to hear about the usual things – corruption in Newark, the plan to combat homelessness, violent crime that his office says is down but still unacceptable. My question was oddly out of the context.

“Yes. What are your plans for the South Ward? That’s all I want to know.”

Mayor Booker didn’t respond. He looked over at Jennifer Stone as if signaling her to intervene, which she did.
“We have meetings. We put out flyers. We ask people to come. No one shows,” she said. “I’ve lived in the South Ward for 38 years—I just moved out—and I can tell you, it’s the people (her emphasis). They don’t come out. They don’t trust us. They don’t participate. We try everything, and they just don’t participate.”

Mayor Booker stepped in again. “Please schedule a longer interview with Mr. Vila. Have Desiree schedule it.” He then got up from the table, shook my hand, and Maria’s, and said, “Thank you for your interest.” And walked to the next table.

I called Desiree S. Peterkin-Bell, director of communications for the mayor’s office, three times. The first time she asked what publication I was writing for and the nature of my work and told me to call back. I did, thinking that I would receive an audience with the mayor. I was wrong. Ms. Peterkin-Bell wanted to see a rough draft – “an outline,” she said – for the mayor’s office to approve, something she said they had done with Gwen Ifill of the News Hour on PBS and several other writers she did not name. I declined, of course. When I called the third time, they said that if I couldn’t meet these conditions, I wouldn’t be able to speak to the mayor. I wondered whether Mayor Booker’s early move to show his credibility – living at the Brick Towers, establishing legal services for the poor – were meaningful acts or gestures to pad his resume?

What I wanted to say to him was simple. Many of the South Ward residents are Latino immigrants that come from Central and South America where government is seen as life threatening; people are jailed without reason, or worse, they disappear. I wanted to tell him that Miller Street School held a literacy night this past spring and over 200 parents showed up at the school to celebrate their children’s education. I wanted to know if there were plans to create a community to support these parents and sustain these children. Isn’t this where government and the community should come together in a spirit of collaboration? I also wanted to share with him the obstacles that Shakirah Miller confronts while trying to keep hope from becoming ether. And I wanted to tell him about Khalid Tellis, a Miller Street success story.

Khalid Tellis, now a freshman at Middlebury College, was the 2004 salutatorian of Miller Street School. After his graduation from eighth grade in 2004, the Wight Foundation gave him a scholarship, based on merit and need, to The Eaglebrook School, a private boarding school for boys in grades 6-9 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. His mother had her heart set on Science Park High, one of the better public schools in Newark’s troubled system, but Khalid wanted more, something better. He had to leave Newark to get it – he knew this. He also knew that he needed to repeat the 8th grade to be academically stronger, so he convinced his mother to let him go to Eaglebrook. Khalid continued on to the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, thanks to a need-based scholarship; after that, another need-based scholarship allowed him to attend Middlebury. Khalid found a small keyhole in the chaos and pulled himself through it; he learned to find equal footing with strangers from the “other America”. This is the tragedy of the South Ward, and what the Miller Street School works to reverse – one or two students, with plenty of help and lots of luck, make it to a place like Middlebury, the rest remain on the dark side of the American paradox: life and liberty for some, the vicious cycle of inescapable economic degradation leading to environmental degradation that begets social degradation for others. Hope requires escape routes – there are none here, not even one leading through the dim beacon, the Miller Street School.

I wanted to find a way to tell this story and, just maybe, begin to make a difference – but I had no idea how to do it, where to begin. So I gave myself to the school, opening myself up to learn from their experience. I now ask myself how we might work together to ensure other students can attend our colleges and universities.

“Anything can happen in Newark,” Khalid said with a grin across his round face, cradling his books against his chest. In his final essay for our writing class at Middlebury, he wrote,

“As I prepared to write this paper, I thought of two things, freedom and responsibility. Freedom, as I see it, is the opportunity to think about your rights. That is Freedom. You have a voice. There are no repercussions for speaking out and intellectualism is encouraged. Then, I read Obama’s Nobel Prize speech and thought to myself, Obama is right, but his hope is impossible. According to President Obama, “true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” There can never be freedom from want. If so, how could we as a society gauge what is “good enough”…I see peace as possible only after inequalities between those who want can be reversed by those individuals who have lived in both worlds. People like me. I now see where my life is leading me, back to Newark, to help save a new generation from hopelessness.”

I now see that Maria Ortiz was right all along. We can’t reform education from a distance, through contests and slogans delivered by politicians focused on the next election. It doesn’t take much to lend a hand, Maria said to me several times. Miller Street has taught me that I have to be more involved, more engaged outside the ivied halls of academe; it has taught me that Shakirah Miller and Maria Ortiz and Juan Ramos and little Ana have answers – and plenty of questions. No one in the South Ward is asking for a handout; they are asking for cooperation and collaboration. Residents of the South Ward are telling us that they’re relevant and have ways out of the chaos and the depravity. The American paradox is a manufactured reality – we can reverse it, though. But first we have to admit that we’re supporting a “separate but equal” society – and blame those who are deprived access to good schools, health care and work for not achieving what we want. In urban centers, particularly in places like the South Ward, the school of the future will be a community hub. College professors, public school teachers, students and their families have to engage in collective knowledge building to re-imagine themselves and construct this nucleus where hope can be nurtured and secured.