Why am I ignoring Nigeria?

By Seth Studer

I take a little exception to the smarminess of certain media’s response to the Charlie Hebdo murders. Last week, they inform us, we witnessed two horrific massacres: the murder of 12 satirists in Paris and the murder of roughly 2,000 civilians in Baga (that’s in Borno, Nigeria). But, they continue, judging from CNN, Fox, and your Facebook feed, only one of these terrible crimes got any coverage. To ask the question “which one: the 12 Europeans or the 2,000 Africans?” is to answer it. While the loss of 12 innocent lives and an implied assault on Free Speech (which doesn’t really exist per se in France) rallies millions across the Great White West, virtually no one is speaking for what Teju Cole calls “unmournable bodies” (an eloquent phrase, although the critical theorist’s habit of saying body when you mean person upsets his essay’s thesis). Cole’s essay in the New Yorker (linked above) is intelligent and passionately argued, and he handles his argument’s underlying ethos – the aforementioned smarminess – with more grace than others (the latter article incorrectly states that Nigeria is south of the equator, a reminder that the many truths revealed by postcolonial theory – e.g., global North vs. global South – do not always square with geographical reality). But in general, I felt scolded for paying more attention to France than Nigeria.

And I probably deserve a scolding. Did mainstream news outlets focus on France over Nigeria as the consequence of a bias toward white Europeans? Absolutely! Was the attack on Charlie Hebdo more frightening and noteworthy to Western audiences than the massacre in Baga because the former represents an attack on the imagined “center” of Western civilization rather than its “periphery”? You bet!

So should 2,000 murder victims be more “newsworthy” than 12 murder victims? I think it depends on the circumstances. 

Anyone who hasn’t been following Boko Haram over the past many months is an irresponsible consumer of world news. The mass violence last week represents the terrifying apex of an ongoing story. We spent much of 2014 preoccupied with the horrors inflicted upon the Nigerian people by this radical group (even Michelle Obama got involved, which got American conservative media involved, etc., etc.). The Charlie Hedbo massacre, meanwhile, fell out of a clear blue sky. Both discrimination against Muslims and Muslim unrest in France are ongoing, but nothing concrete or obvious precipitated this attack. These murders arrived on our screens demanding a context. Hence, the intense coverage.

And for me, intense coverage of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is essential not merely because it reinforces Western commitments to free speech (commitments that tend to get waylaid when they’re needed most). Coverage is essential because France is an important European nation in the grips of a major rightward political and cultural shift, one that could potentially turn more strident, more xenophobic, and more violent. After a half century on the fringes (and apparent defeat in the face of European unification), Europe’s right-wing parties (as opposed to its right-of-center parties) are, ahem, on the march. In the United States, extreme right-wing rhetoric has benefited from decades in the mainstream: a speaker’s racism or xenophobia can be carefully coded and embedded in speeches about tax policy. In Europe, the far right has been far wilder and wilier. They’ve retained their ugliness and wear it explicitly on the surface. (Whenever one of my liberal friends unfavorably compares America’s conservative politics with Europe’s socialist policies, I remind them, “Yes, you like their left wing, but you don’t want their right wing.”) Meanwhile, since the 2007/08 global banking crisis, nationalism in Europe – both right-wing and left-wing – has resurged to levels not seen in decades. Because of their knotted political and economic ties to Germany (or Russia), the peoples of Europe are seeking social and cultural distinction. Secession movements have gained renewed traction in the geographical and political expanse between Scotland and Crimea. Consequently, Germans and Russians are also asserting their national character in ways that, twenty years ago, would have seemed taboo.

This, for me, is the context of the Charlie Hebdo attack, far removed from the bloodshed in Nigeria (admittedly, all things connect in our post-post-colonial world, as African expats like Cole convincingly demonstrate). Note that the above paragraph doesn’t include the word “Islam.” I don’t think you need to dwell much on radical Islam to understand the socio-cultural dynamic that drives millions of French residents into the streets. From a French perspective, however, immigration from the Muslim world underscores every aspect of the current national identity crisis. Thus, when an event like the attack on Charlie Hebdo occurs, you get 3.7 million people in the streets and attacks on Muslims.

This, to me, is a very big story indeed.

Two thousand people died in Nigeria last week, it’s true, but 3.7 million people marched throughout France yesterday – roughly one million in Paris alone. What do those one million want? What do they represent? Many of them are doubtless sympathetic with France’s Muslim minorities. Few among them are likely to be extreme French nationalists (though more of them are sympathetic with French nationalism than Western liberals would like to imagine). Whatever their motives, this represents a good moment to take France’s cultural temperature. The context demands it. Your first response to Charlie Hebdo should be an unequivocal condemnation of the murders and support for free speech. But your second response, given the atmosphere in Europe, should be concern for liberalism in France. Because, contrary to what the news coverage is telling you, continental Europe is not historically an easy or natural home to liberal values. And because a march can be a mob by another name.

Track and Field with Judith Butler

By Amanda Grigg

Earlier this month Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India, was barred from international competition following an evaluation of her testosterone levels.  Chand has a condition called hyperandrogenism, which is characterized by excessive levels of testosterone. The condition puts Chand’s (naturally occurring) testosterone levels in the male range according to the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing body of track and field. Both the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) now use testosterone levels to determine whether female athletes can compete as females. Though they have moved away from the language of “sex determination” testing, and now suggest that their efforts are designed to ensure fairness because (though this is highly contested) having testosterone levels in the typical male range give some women an “unfair” advantage.

Dutee Chand
Dutee Chand via the New York Times

It’s unclear what prompted the request that Chand be tested, which was reportedly made by someone at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in June. In a prominent past case, South African runner Caster Semenya was required to undergo sex-verification testing after she somewhat suddenly improved her times and began winning races. Though Chand has exhibited no such sudden changes, she acknowledges that she has a masculine build, which might have motivated someone to request that she be tested.

This might seem odd (and sexist, and draconian) but it’s actually a return to normal for international athletics. Sex-determination testing used to be required for female olympians, a result of regular allegations that men were posing as female athletes. Testing was, thankfully, phased out in 1999 but in the past several years has come back to international track and field with a bang.

In 2009 then 18 year old South African runner Caster Semenya was required to undergo sex-verification tests after questions were raised “about her muscular physique and drastic improvement.” A description of the testing required for sex verification featured in the NYT suggests that it is invasive and extensive.

The testing done on Semenya takes weeks to complete. It requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender. The effort, coordinated by Dr. Harold Adams, a South African on the I.A.A.F. medical panel, was conducted at hospitals in Berlin and South Africa.

Eventually Semenya was reinstated. By this time her initial test results had been made public without her consent, she had been sidelined from the sport for a year, missing out on an estimated $250,000 in prize money, had been forced to undergo a bevy of tests, and was embroiled in an international controversy. The shift from sex-verification testing to a testosterone standard was in large part a result of the mishandling of Semenya’s case.

Non-binary sex traits are actually surprisingly common. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that in one in 100 births children exhibit sex traits that differ from the standard male or female and that in one or two in 1,000 births children receive surgery to “normalize” their genital appearance. There are also several chromosomal conditions that result in non-binary sex traits which do not become evident until puberty. Anne Fausto-Sterling famously argued that roughly 1.7% of the population is intersex. The figure is disputed based on her broad definition of intersex, but works for our purposes of non-binary sex/sex presentation that would raise the suspicions of the IOC and IAAF.

According to a case study released in an academic endocrinology journal, at least four female athletes at the 2012 London Olympics tested beyond the female limits for testosterone. All four reported an absences of menstruation and were found to have enlarged clitorises and undescended testes. Genetic testing revealed that the athletes had various genetic mutations resulting in XY (male) chromosomes presenting with an outwardly female body.  According to the authors all four athletes expressed the desire to maintain their female identity:

We thus proposed a partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy, to which the 4 athletes agreed after informed consent on surgical and medical procedures.

These women opted to undergo procedures to feminize/normalize their bodies, though purportedly, thanks to the end of “sex-verification” and the instatement of the testosterone standard, in order to compete they were only required to lower their testosterone levels. Similarly women like Chand who exhibit hyperandrogenism are offered the choice of having surgery or taking pills to artificially lower their testosterone levels.

Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya

Problematically, science on the benefits of testosterone does not make it clear that heightened levels confer an inherent advantage. Testosterone is just one part of the body’s complex physiology and the importance of skill, training, and psychology further complicate the potential potency of testosterone. Chand’s case suggests as much. In fact, if you compare Chand’s personal best times to the top times at the 2012 Olympics, she places outside of the top 24 in all three of the events in which she competes (100m, 200m and 400m).

In the case of the IOC testosterone testing is mandatory for all female athletes. In the case of the IAAF, monitoring occurs by request and is thus based largely on physical appearance and comportment, meaning that one’s gender presentation is fundamentally mixed up in observers’ attempts to ferret out the not-sufficiently female athletes. And competitors appear to be more than happy to evaluate one another’s sex based solely on appearance. Speaking to journalists after the initial announcement that Semenya would undergo testing, fellow competitor Elisa Cusma of Italy, said “These kind of people should not run with us…For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.” Russian runner Mariya Savinova told reporters that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test, saying “Just look at her.”

These procedures seem drastic but in fact they mimic and formalize the kind of informal gender policing that plagues women’s sports in the US and often targets women of color. Female athletes tend to challenge cultural ideals of femininity and what female bodies should look like. And the blurring of gender and sex boundaries tends to make people anxious (cue Judith Butler). If these anxiety-inducing athletes fail to counter their nonconformity with adequate kowtowing to femininity and heterosexuality they’re publicly ridiculed. For ridicule in particularly racialized terms and despite regular expression of traditionally feminine traits see Serena Williams. Notably and problematically this often takes the form of accusing women of being trans, as these charming men employing trans-slurs to criticize Serena Williams on twitter demonstrate (I excluded the worst of the tweets, which included more slurs and threats of violence against trans women).


Let’s recap: In order to compete at the international female athletes – and for the IAAF particularly those who appear masculine – must meet an arbitrary standard of female-ness. If they do not, they are required to normalize themselves until they do. If you teach Judith Butler this is like mana sent from the how-to-explain-social-construction-to-freshman heavens.

These procedures have historically been referred to as “sex-verification” but they are irrevocably tied up with gender. They are a great illustration of how closely linked sex and gender are and offer powerful evidence in support of Butler’s argument that sex is both socially constructed and that the binary construction of sex is forcibly enforced (in part because it is vital that it appear to be a clear, pre-existing, natural division from which gender (masculine/feminine) and sexuality (attraction to women/men) stem).[1]

“sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms…”Sex” is thus, not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the “one” becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility.

 Butler, Bodies That Matter p. 4

For those who aren’t fans of academese, here’s Alice Drager, professor medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern on the IAAF’s sex determination processes:

at the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision…And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’

These cases raise all kinds of interesting and important and infuriating issues. First, the emphasis on testosterone in determining sex eligibility is not only scientifically unsound but reinforces the notion that testosterone belongs to men (in fact it occurs naturally in both women and men though at varying levels) and that this inherently male trait is associated with and even the primary determinant of athletic prowess (can you say scientific sexism)?

Second, it is beyond suspicious that the majority of the women embroiled in sex determination scandals have been women of color. In the US, black women in particular have historically been deemed inherently less feminine than white women and in many meaningful ways have not considered to be “women” at all. As noted, in the IAAF, requests for sex-determination testing can be made based solely on an observer’s (coach or athlete)’s perception that the female athlete in question might not be adequately female. Insofar as race shapes perceptions of femininity and masculinity, it would likely play a role in decisions to request sex-determination testing [2].

In addition to IOC and IAAF policies exposing women to invasive testing and forced hormone therapy and even surgery, the IAAF’s request-based testing would seem to incentivize female athletes to make efforts to present themselves in as female and feminine a way as possible. There is no such incentive or requirement for male athletes, nor is there an equivalent test to ensure that they have adequate levels of testosterone, the right chromosomes, the right genitals. The argument that applying these invasive tests and requiring these life-changing procedures of women and not men isn’t discriminatory is based on the notion that these policies are only required to level the playing field among women, not men. Accordingly, both organizations are shifting away from declaring that their tests determine sex and instead suggesting that the tests ensure that no one has an “unfair” advantage. But if these athletes identify as women, and if the tests no longer claim to prove that they are not women, then the playing field is no less level than it would be if another female athlete had a natural difference that might make her more competitive, let’s say particularly long legs or large lungs. This would seem to be particularly true if, as is the case, women with high testosterone levels are not swamping the medal stands.

There are also compelling arguments that equal access to sports, particularly at the elite levels, is vital for ensuring social, economic and political equality. Thus excluding intersex and non-binary women from elite athletic competitions is a troubling act of discrimination on multiple fronts. And requiring that women alone conform to a certain standard of sex (to pass testing) and gender presentation (to avoid undergoing testing) in order to access this opportunity is equally disturbing.

Finally, we should ask where these policies leave transgender athletes. Trans women who take hormone pills might be allowed to compete, though in light of competitor’s responses to Semenya this would almost certainly lead to controversy over the insufficiency of the testosterone standard. And those who choose not to or who cannot undergo hormone therapy would seemingly find no place in international track and field.

Happily, Chand’s case offers a glimmer of hope. In the past female athletes subject to sex-verification have given in to the IOC and IAAF, “quietly” consenting to surgery to lower testosterone or leaving the sport. Some, like the four identified at the 2012 Olympics, have undergone plastic surgery recommended to further feminize their bodies. This history makes Chand’s decision to fight the ban particularly momentous. According to Juliet Macur who profiled Chand for the New York Times, “Dutee Chand loves her body just the way it is…She believes that the body she was born with — every chromosome, cell and organ — makes her the woman she is.”


[1] This is always the hardest thing to convince undergraduates of when you’re teaching Butler. Or maybe second hardest after convincing them to muddle through her…unique writing style.

[2] In the cases of Chand and Semenya, these requests have come during international competitions and not from competitions within their own country, where they would have both been part of the majority race.


8 Hours in a Struggling School

By Amanda Grigg

Disclaimer: While I have an interest in education policy I am by no means an expert. My experience in this school probably won’t be shocking to anyone working in public education or studying education policy, and probably shouldn’t have come as as much of a shock to me as it did. I’ve read about failing schools, I’ve heard war stories from friends who teach in underfunded schools, but experiencing it firsthand was another matter entirely.

In search of a way to earn a bit of extra money while finishing my dissertation (without suffering the soul-crushing world of retail) I decided to try substitute teaching. In Michigan, the majority of K-12 institutions have outsourced their substitute hiring to staffing companies, so I signed on with one of the two in the area.

In order to substitute teach I had to send in official copies of my transcript, authorize a background check, go to the police department to have my fingerprints done (who knew they charged for that?), fill out a mountain of forms, go through several hours of online tutorials followed by quizzes that weren’t scored, and attend a torturously long in-person meeting. We spent approximately half of the meeting filling out forms together and another half hour being warned not to touch the children or use school computers.  The one interesting thing I learned in the meeting was that by the time students graduate, they have spent an entire year with a substitute teacher.

Classroom_desks_chairs_and_chalkboardI took this to heart, and was ready to lay down some serious knowledge at my first substitute teaching gig, filling in for a high school english teacher. It was the Friday of the first week of school. As recommended, I prepared a backup lesson plan, forced myself into dress pants for the first time since my last academic conference, and arrived at the school a full hour early to make sure I had time to find my classroom and prepare for the students’ arrival. It was still dark when I got to the school. The secretary at the front desk looked at me curiously then laughed when I told her I was a sub. She said I wouldn’t be able to get into my room for another 30 minutes at least.

When the secretary eventually handed me my assignment and asked me to sign in I noticed that I had been assigned to substitute for a Spanish class. I don’t speak a word of Spanish. I told the secretary as much, but she waved me off and picked up a walkie talkie, requesting a security guard to unlock my room for me. We had been warned at the sub meeting that we might be asked to fill in for another position occasionally, and that the staffing company recommended that in these cases we just “pitch in” and help out (and implicitly that we do so regardless of whether we’re equipped to teach in the subject area).

Following the directions of the secretary I made my way through the building, past the cafeteria and several banks of lockers. I paused at a bulletin board listing colleges students might want to apply to. Several were historically black colleges, the rest I had never heard of. Few if any had average ACT scores above 20. None of the major public universities in Michigan were listed.

I found my way to my classroom where I was welcomed by the other Spanish teacher, and then promptly joined by another substitute. Neither she nor the administrator who had ushered her into the room explained why they were placing a second substitute in the class. It turned out that she had subbed in the class earlier in the week, and wasn’t needed in the job she had signed up for for the day. She began filling me in on what they had worked on, and on what was going with this class.

BudgetCutCartoonMiamiHerald1According to my fellow sub, I was about to be the third substitute the students had had in their first week of school because the school had yet to hire a new Spanish teacher. She said that the school had had such low test scores in previous years that they were being looked at closely by the state (this turned out to be mostly true). As a result, they had fired about half of their teachers at the end of last year and had yet to replace them all. In their first week of class, the Spanish I students had learned to count to 10 in Spanish. They had no textbooks or workbooks, because only full-time teachers can request textbooks from the school. There wasn’t a notebook, piece of scrap paper or pencil to be found. When students asked to borrow a pencil we had to ask other students to lend them one. Most of the technology in the room didn’t work. The Spanish II teacher offered us a binder full of worksheets for the students but the school’s copy machine was broken. Earlier in the week they had used the projector to project worksheets about the numbers 1-10 onto a screen, but now the projector was broken and regardless, the remaining worksheets required the students to speak basic spanish. And they couldn’t cancel the class and move the students into classes with full-time teachers because they were required by the state to offer two years of Spanish.

As soon as students began filtering in I realized that the vast majority of the students were black. This might not be surprising in a school district that’s predominantly black (or if you, unlike me, hadn’t forgotten how segregated Michigan is) but the population of the school district this school is in is only 20% black. According to schooldigger.com the student body is 77% black.

We spent the first two periods of the day doing as much as we could with uno-diez. By the third period an administrator brought what they thought was a dvd for us to play for the students. But that turned out to be a software disc. Eventually they brought in a set of beginner’s spanish dvds.

At the start of every period the students, without fail, asked if I was their teacher. At first I said yes until I realized what they meant, “No, are you our real teacher?” When I said no I could see the (completely justified) frustration on their faces. Early in each period the students humored us. They knew their work was meaningless because there wasn’t even a “real” teacher for it to be turned into, though the second sub assured them several times that it would be carefully guarded and passed on once they had a real teacher. Their patience didn’t last long. They asked us whether we spoke Spanish, how they were supposed to learn anything if we weren’t actually Spanish teachers (fair points), complained that the first week of school had passed without them getting a real teacher, and joked that they were going to call the “Problem Solvers” (our local news station’s investigative team).

Throughout the day students regularly left the room without saying a word and returned halfway through the period or not at all. Students from other classes wandered in to visit with friends (greatschools.org reviews of the school suggest that this is the norm). When I followed a couple of students into the hallway to ask them to come back they ignored me and continued walking. The school has their own security but neither they nor administration ever ushered a student back into my class. A young woman interrupted class to ask where she could charge her cell phone. Several students got into a mostly playful yelling match, standing up in the middle of class to shout at one another.

There were also students who dutifully filled out the meaningless worksheets, asked questions, had us check their work. Students who volunteered to write on the board or share their answers with the class. And there were students who ignored the work who were clever and funny enough that I had a hard time not laughing at their jokes, students who walked out of class but returned to offer to help us fix the broken projector, students who I was sure would have been engaged if they trusted that their work was meaningful and their teacher was qualified. The students who spoke fluent spanish corrected the videos where they were dated – explaining that no, they don’t refer to e-mail as the spanish equivalent of “electronic mail.”

During lunch the second sub and I went to the teachers’ lounge, where she told me a bit more about the school. She predicted that at least half of the new teachers wouldn’t stay on past their first year, “the kids will break them.” Thinking back to the staffing meeting I worried aloud that we hadn’t taught anyone much thus far and she said “Don’t worry, they don’t expect you to teach them anything here. As long as they don’t hurt each other they’re happy. When I go to [a predominantly white school] I’m expected to teach but here, no.”

In 2012 just 1.3% of the school's students met standards for math proficiency. As of 2014 this number had reached 3%.
In 2012 just 1.3% of the school’s students met standards for math proficiency. As of 2014 this number had reached 3%.

I met a handful of other teachers, including two of the new teachers. When I mentioned the difficulties we were having they conspiratorially admitted that they didn’t have anywhere near the support or materials they needed. A new math teacher told us that she had been hired late in the summer and told to take the first week of school off as a professional development week, to get to know the school, prepare her materials, etc. She stopped into her classroom halfway through the first week and asked the substitute what her students had been working on. The sub said “Oh, I’m a health teacher, we haven’t been doing any math.” She came to work the next day. Several teachers came in to use the copy machine only to find that it was (still) broken. One mentioned that things might be easier once the students received the Nook tablets the school would be handing out soon. I assumed that they were part of some company promotion or technology grant, otherwise why in the world would the school invest their limited funds on tablets when they can’t keep teachers in the classrooms or maintain their existing technology?

By the end of the day the students were restless. A young man on one of the athletic teams (easily identified by his dress shirt and school-color striped tie) spoke Spanish and was clearly fed up with the week of sub-par Spanish. He rushed his fellow classmates through the work, chastising them when they couldn’t copy down the vocabulary words quickly enough. A student came in late with a sucker, then asked to leave class to go back to the cantine for more candy. His classmates made fun of him for eating so much, and he managed to look both hurt and humored by them. He later began yelling that a fellow student’s purse had been stolen. The young woman in question seemed unworried, and when I asked her what was going on she smiled and pointed to the boy who had hidden it, who quickly returned it to her.

I turned to look at my own purse perched on the teacher’s desk and realized that my cell phone wasn’t where I had left it (in a pocket of the purse). I had taken it out earlier to check the time because, of course, the clock in the room wasn’t working. I looked for it behind the desk, in the depths of the bag, in my lunch bag, to no avail. The other substitute walked over and I said, “I can’t find my phone,” and (not wanting it to be true) said, “no one would have taken it would they?” This time it was her looking at me in disbelief. “Of course they would.” The next 30 minutes sped by. The second substitute announced that my phone was missing and asked if anyone had seen it. The students let out a collective “oooooh someone’s in trouble” noise. An administrator and a security guard were quickly summoned to the room. They demanded that the phone be returned. The security guard asked me to call my phone, it went straight to voicemail. He announced to the students that he was leaving to review the video of the hallway outside of our room to see who might have left with the phone during the hour (you might not be surprised to learn that the cameras weren’t actually on at the time). Two of the students who were dressed for game day stood at the door, telling the administrator (their coach) that they were making sure no one left the room. The student with the candy stood up and began yelling that he had to leave the room to make it to his community service on time, “Lady, you better let me out of here!” The administrator came back and a security guard escorted the student to the main office. The security guard asked me to show him where my purse had been, what kind of phone I had, when I had last seen it. He explained that cell phones “unfortunately” go missing pretty regularly in the school. A few students stood in the hallway talking to their coach. Later the student athlete who had been frustrated with his classmates (and guarding the door) came into the room, took me aside, and explained what was going on. At this point it felt a bit like the students were taking care of me, shaking their heads and explaining that this happens all the time, offering to let me use their phones to call my cellphone company, asking whether I had Find My Phone turned on. The student athlete told me that a friend had seen the person who took my phone, and that they were in the process of searching him. He didn’t have the phone on him, so they let him go, and I left a number with the security guard and headed home.

School-to-Prison-IllustrationI didn’t hear from the school again until Monday afternoon. During the final period of the day they got a written statement from the student witness, which they said allowed them to call the parents of the student they now referred to as “a credible suspect.” Though I was still working exclusively with school officials, the language was entirely that of the criminal justice system.

Sidenote: they told me that the student had probably sold the phone for $30, which is apparently the going rate for stolen iPhones.

On Tuesday the student’s mother told the Dean of Students that she hadn’t seen him in two weeks, and that she had just reported him as a runaway. The Dean had already suspended the student for stealing the phone – a punishment thatI have never understood and which seemed particularly counterintuitive in the case of a runaway. He hadn’t turned up in school on Monday anyway, probably waiting “until the heat died down” about the phone. According to the Dean of Students, the student’s mother said that she was fed up with him and hoped that I would press charges. I told him that I wasn’t planning on doing so, that I was only interested in getting my phone back and saw no point in tying this kid up in the criminal justice system when he clearly needed help that it couldn’t and wouldn’t provide. He said he understood but urged me to press charges, saying that this wasn’t the first time the student had been in trouble, he’s done things like this before etc. He told me that if the student returned to the school they would hold him there because he’s been reported as a runaway, and that they would contact me if and when he does. I haven’t heard from them in two weeks.

I’ve done some research on the school since I left. I learned that enrollment has been declining over the past seven years and that white students are leaving the school in droves. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of students declined from 1357 to 651 and the percentage of white students went from 23% to just 5.8%. Meanwhile the number of students eligible for free lunch has skyrocketed – up from 29% of students in 1999 and 56% in 2002, it’s held steady above 80% since 2006. On the upside, graduation rates increased from 54.9% in 2012 to 67.6% in 2014.

Test scores are certainly poor enough to warrant attention from the state. In 2014 the school’s test scores ranked worse than 82% of schools in Michigan. In the 2009 Michigan Merit Examination (MME)  only 14.5% of students met the state standard for english language arts proficiency, compared to 28.4% in the district and 52.1% in the state. In 2014, 29% of students were MME proficient in reading (compared to 39% in the district and 59% in the state). In the same year, just 3% of students met the state standard for proficiency in math and science (compared to 14% in the district and 28% in the state).

In 2010 the school was one of 28 Michigan schools awarded a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) as part of a recovery act program targeting low-performing schools. Only the bottom 5% of schools in each state were eligible. Michigan received $115 million in funds in the first round of SIG funding, $5.3 million of which went to this school. The school district opted to implement the SIG “transformation plan” which is likely what my fellow substitute referred to when explaining the recent changes in staff.  According to the technology associate at the school, they spent roughly $1.5 million – a fifth of their grant – purchasing a nook tablet and ebooks/subscriptions for every student in the school. The Nooks arrived at the school last year and will, as another teacher mentioned, be handed out to students later this month.

Reviews on greatschools.org offer more examples of the day to day life at the school. A parent explains that “everyone is frustrated and burned out.” Another sub says they were “shocked by the behaviors of students. Each class had only 4-8 dedicated students while the rest of the class kicked chairs down, called me names, ripped up assignments and threw the remnants on the ground. I called security, and no one came.” Another parent says “in my opinion this is a terrible school for your students to go to.”

Three of the six student reviews call for greater parental involvement. One review is particularly heartbreaking  “For the adults who claim that there is no hope for our school, this shows how much support we have. I am a student who has earned my 4.0 gpa and I don’t believe that because there are bad apples in the bunch we should all be classified as hopeless children.”

I finished writing this from the Starbucks I frequent. It’s coincidentally next to a high school that’s less than 3 miles from the school where I subbed. This high school ranks in the 98th percentile of schools in Michigan, fewer than 10% of students qualify for free lunch, and the student body is 90% white. In 2014, 68% of students met standards for MME math scores and 60% met the standard for science (compared to 3% each in my sub school). Students regularly stop in Starbucks after school or during their free hours toting Macbooks, the girls outfitted in Ugg boots and NorthFace jackets. I’ve seen their mothers replicate a J Crew catalog outfit down to the bracelet. The girls next to me at the moment are reviewing for a quiz – “Who was John Winthrop? He was the city on a hill guy, the Puritan leader. Who was Montezuma? Umm. Who were the Aztecs? Why are we learning about this?” I ask them if they know anything about the school where I subbed, “I have no clue, I’ve never been anywhere near it…but I’ve heard it’s really different.” That’s one way to put it.


If you need to laugh after this (I know I did) here’s Key & Peele’s “substitute teacher” sketch












Stop Praising Mandela! Keep Burying Apartheid!

Enough with the white-haired sage: I want more of this guy.
Enough with the white-haired sage: I want more of this guy.

Watching the Mandela coverage – obits, eulogies, reflections, quotes – pour over my Facebook feed yesterday, I had one single reflexive thought: “Fuck apartheid!”

To listen to the majority of the obits, you’d think Mandela’s greatest accomplishments were becoming president and meeting Bono (they conveniently leave out his and his successor’s role in crafting a devastating AIDS policy). Yes, the fact of his presidency was historic. Yes, the fact that South Africa did not become, say, Zimbabwe is near-miraculous, and Mandela’s work for peace and reconciliation before and during his presidency were part of that (I give most of the credit to the millions of South Africans he inspired).

Zimbabwe. While Mandela was in prison, Zimbabwe, then a brutal colonial state called Rhodesia, was torn apart in a bloody civil war for independence that resulted in three decades of violent, inept African dictatorship. This happened for one reason: apartheid. Apartheid violently oppresses until it inevitably foments violent resistance: it is good for nothing else. And apartheid is not receiving sufficient attention in the wake of Mandela’s death. Which is to say: apartheid is not the central focus of the coverage.

Apartheid is why Mandela is Mandela. Apartheid is why he spent nearly three decades in prison. (He was president for only five years, but that’s practically all we’re hearing about.) Apartheid is why a man who is now being compared to Washington and Lincoln was, for the majority of his life, compared to Castro (and why he, in turn, admired Castro).

Comparisons to Lincoln are particularly stomach-churning because they simultaneously overstate and understate Mandela’s achievements. They conflate or too easily link slavery and apartheid. Lincoln waged a horrific war to dismantle a slave economy, which was then replaced by an apartheid-style society[1]. Lincoln’s program was not wholly anti-racist. Mandela briefly fought, was jailed for, and came to symbolize the international fight against apartheid, which is in so many ways more difficult to exorcise than slavery (we’re stilling learning that in the United States). Mandela’s program was almost completely anti-racist.

The praise is doubly sickening because it pulls a curtain over the very recent past. Throughout the 1980s, most of the former colonial powers and the United States not only approved of the apartheid government, they supported it. In the U.S., one political party deserves the brunt of the blame. Sam Kleiner (linked above) writes:

Officially, the goal of the Reagan administration was to end apartheid. But its behind-the-scenes work revealed a startling degree of comfort with the South African regime – or at least ignorance of how apartheid worked. For a July 1986 speech to the World Affairs Council in Washington D.C., Reagan rejected a moderate State Department draft and instead instructed his speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, to draft a version arguing that Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) employed “terrorist tactics” and “proclaims a goal of creating a communist state.” (Buchanan later dismissed Mandela as a “train-bomber” and defended the hardline position.) Reagan himself never seemed to really understand the moral repugnance of apartheid. He described the system in a 1988 interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson as “a tribal policy more than … a racial policy.”


Some of today’s most recognizable political operatives also played a role in pushing the apartheid government’s agenda. In 1985, following his term as national chair of College Republicans, Grover Norquist was brought to South Africa for a conservative conference, where he advised a pro-apartheid student group on how to more effectively make its case to the American public. While there, he criticized anti-apartheid activists on American college campuses: Apartheid “is the one foreign policy debate that the Left can get involved in and feel that they have the moral high ground,” he said, adding that South Africa was a “complicated situation.”

The praise for Mandela has also pulled the curtain over apartheid. Its particularities, its history, and its horrors – a truly totalitarian system that imprisoned black South Africans within their own communities – have not been mentioned in the past 36 hours nearly as much as Truth and Reconciliation or Mandela’s pleas against anti-white racism. In American terms: we’re hearing too much Dr. King, not enough Malcolm X.

Further, the whole concept of apartheid is being ignored. The word, like fascism, has an historically and politically local origin, but just as governments beyond Mussolini’s Italy can reasonably be called fascist, so governments beyond pre-1990 South Africa can reasonably described as apartheid. The United States was an apartheid nation from 1863 until…well, take your pick. England ran a global apartheid empire throughout the 19th century. There are apartheid governments in the world today.

Mandela was not Gandhi. Mandela did not shy away from the option of armed revolt. Mandela believed in African autonomy. Mandela fought against apartheid, colonialism, and white supremacy, and he was jailed because the South African government feared (rightly) that he’d make good on his word. Almost the entire Western world was against him; he was against it. But to read the obituaries and eulogies, you’d think he was an activist without an enemy in the world. Enough! Mandela had enemies in 1955. He had enemies in 1962. He had enemies in 1985, 1990, and 1994. And he still has enemies today. Let’s name names.


[/1] History has weighed against the word “segregation,” but I don’t take a totally dim view of all segregated systems, at least not in theory. Throughout the 20th century, many black activists advocated segregated institutions to help form a separate, thriving black society, a “nation within a nation.” Jewish society was frequently cited as a model. But Southern governments would not allow such institutions to thrive, and integration became the best option in the minds of most black leaders. But even today, many scholars and students of black history believe the separatists may have been right.

The stuff feminist reality is made of: Michelle Obama, feminism and the raced meaning of motherhood

By Amanda Grigg

Politico is jumping on the “lean in” bandwagon and upping the ante by dragging Michelle Obama along for the ride with their Friday cover story, “Leaning Out: How Michele Obama became a feminist nightmare.”

I guess it depends on what you mean by “feminist nightmare.” I’m a feminist and my most terrifying recurring nightmare is that I’m back in undergrad during finals week and I realize I haven’t been to class all semester. I usually have it when I’m under a deadline so…try to figure that one out Freud.

Anyway, the author Michelle Cottle (the other Michelle) suggests that feminists are disappointed that Michele Obama has focused on being “mom in chief” rather than wading into more significant (and controversial) policy debates. Cottle highlights an earlier critique by The Root writer Keli Goff and criticism from Linda Hirschman (of National Prospect “Homeward Bound” fame) and suggests that Michelle Obama’s policy-avoidance might be particularly unnecessary following Obama’s re-election – there’s no need to worry about an active first lady turning off voters (the Hillary Clinton factor).

The New Republic and Slate both featured articles defending Michelle Obama and tweets from prominent feminists which suggest that the “disappointment” is not widespread. And Cottle includes quotes from defenders in her piece as well, largely they’re “choice” feminists arguing that any choice a woman willingly chooses represents a win for feminism (a debate that could launch a million posts but suffice it to say, there’s more to feminism than that).

In my opinion, the best parts of the article are those where Cottle quotes black feminist writers because they do a much better job of illustrating the pretty classic dilemma Michelle Obama faces as a prominent black woman. First up is Rebecca Walker (author and daughter of Alice Walker) who says:

I wouldn’t necessarily say Michelle Obama had to kowtow to some demand that she become a June Cleaver type. I would say she understands the need to help people understand a model that they may not have been familiar with, and to help them learn how to trust something that they may not have been able to in past.

Rebecca Walker is drawing our attention to the fact that Michelle Obama being seen as anything near a June Cleaver type is something new and doesn’t have quite the same meaning as if a white first lady were seen in this way. Why? Because femininity and motherhood have had very different meanings for black women than they have for white women. For more we can turn to feminist scholar and all around badass Patricia Hill Collins:

Two elements of the traditional family ideal are especially problematic for African-American women. First, the assumed split between the “public” sphere of paid employment and the “private” sphere of unpaid family responsibilities has never worked for U.S. Black women.

During slavery, black women worked in what was allegedly the “public” sphere of Southern agriculture, but did so without wages and without any familial privacy. Since the end of slavery, and for a whole host of reasons (including continuing inequality and discrimination leading to lower wages among blacks which in turn require women to contribute to the household income). Because Black men have traditionally been denied a family wage, Black women have been far more likely to work outside of the home. Generally this was not part of an effort to establish themselves as equal to men but to secure sufficient income for their families. Collins continues: 

“Second, the public/private binary separating the family households from the paid labor market is fundamental in explaining U.S. gender ideology. If one assumes that real men work and real women take care of families, then African-Americans suffer from deficient ideas concerning gender. In particular, Black women become less “feminine,” because they work outside the home, work for pay and thus compete with them, and their work takes them away from their children.”

Michelle Obama on the cover of Parenting magazine

Historically, white middle and upper income women have been considered inherently good mothers who are deserving of having more children while poor women and minority women are characterized as unfit mothers, unworthy of or too irresponsible to have more children.[1] This ideology has often manifested itself in state policies that encourage motherhood among well-situated white women and discourage it among poor women and women of color. For example, in 1970, black women were sterilized at twice the rate of white women, and throughout the decade predominantly black recipients of public assistance reported that welfare agency workers had threatened to cut off their benefits if they did not agree to undergo state funded sterilization.[2]  In Welfare’s End Gwendolyn Mink argues that race-valuation of motherhood is evident in the difference in policy design between Survivor’s benefits and welfare programs like AFDC and TANF. Predominantly white Survivor’s benefits are more generous and less stigmatized than Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and they support mothers who choose to stay at home to care for their children. TANF benefits are not only stigmatized and increasingly limited, they also refuse to support poor/black motherhood by demanding that mothers work outside of the home. Mink suggests that these policies send a clear message to poor single and often black mothers that their care is not valued.[3]

So you could argue that by presenting such an admirable (and well-liked) model of black motherhood, Michelle Obama is challenging the historic devaluation of black caregiving and raced assumptions about motherhood and family.
On the other hand, Patricia Hill Collins suggests that rather than trying to explain why Black women deviate from or trying to meet the historically white standards of femininity (which today are pretty much only met on Modern Family/in the public imagination) women should challenge “the very constructs of work and family themselves.” So there’s definitely grounds to be critical of Michelle Obama’s choice to change the meaning of motherhood via replication rather than by rejecting it (the current model of motherhood) entirely.
OBAMA NEW YORKERCottle also quotes The Root writer Keli Goff’s earlier article listing 5 things she would like to hear Michelle “preach” in her husband’s second term, which included her stance on reproductive rights:

Michelle Obama is also on the record as supporting reproductive rights in recent years as Planned Parenthood has been under attack, but she has waded into the issue only tepidly. With African-American and poor women more likely to have unplanned pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births and to raise families in poverty—not to mention the high AIDS rates among black Americans—her voice could go a long way toward making a difference on issues of reproductive and sexual health.

When I read this I immediately thought of Zoltan Hajnal’s Changing White Attitudes Towards Black Political Leadership. Haven’t read it? Well you should, but just this once I’ll summarize. Hajnal studies white attitudes towards black political leadership and finds that:

Once black officials have the opportunity to prove that black leadership generally does not harm white interests, uncertainty should fade, whites’ views of blacks and black leadership should improve, and more whites should be willing to consider voting for black candidates.

Initially this seems encouraging. But, often black communities elect black leaders with the specific hope that they will make significant changes to the status quo, changes that will almost inevitably “harm white interests” insofar as whites have benefited from racial inequality. Hajnal argues that this shouldn’t be the case, particularly if whites continue to become more sympathetic to racial injustices. But either way it suggests that black leaders must strike a careful balance between advocating for racial justice and affirming whites’ fears and thus, their resistance of black leadership.

In the case of Michelle Obama, this likely means that speaking out about women’s issues, let alone black women’s issues, would result not just in the kind of backlash that Hillary Clinton saw, but could also confirm white fears of and dislike of black leadership. If that sounds paranoid spend some time checking out the google hits for “Obama race war” and “Obama class warfare.” Or don’t and just trust me (the internet is a terrible place). This presents a real dilemma. If black leaders are elected in part, because constituents hope that they will change the racial status quo, but will not be reelected (or will negatively affect views of black leadership generally) if they change the status quo, they’re in a real bind.

So when we consider what black motherhood has meant, and what a black feminist first lady would likely mean it’s not surprising and certainly not a feminist nightmare that Michelle Obama has chosen the path of incremental change.

Edit 11/26, a quick addition: Notably the two big issues Michelle Obama has focused on seem to allow her to address problems that are particularly pressing to the black community without invoking race. Childhood obesity and barriers to higher ed for low-income students certainly hit racial minorities harder than whites, but they don’t strike anyone as particularly radical or inherently “raced” issues.

[1] This is in part because black women have historically defied the norms that define motherhood in opposition to wage-work and the public sphere. See Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought  and Dorothy Roberts, “Racism and Patriarchy in the Meaning of Motherhood,” American University Journal of Gender & Law, 1993 Vol. 1: 1-38

[2] Stephen Trombley, The Right to Reproduce (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), 177.  

[3] Gwendolyn Mink, “At the crossroads of race, morality, and poverty, welfare law codifies disdain for poor single mothers as mothers. (121) Welfare law sends a message to poor single mothers, that their care is not valued.

Race Biology Follow Up: Larry Bartels on Genopolitics

By Amanda Grigg

Apparently Larry Bartels and I have mind melded (I think that means I get tenure) because he also posted about genetics yesterday. More specifically, he posted about “genopolitics” which, yes, is a thing.

For those interested, The Scientific American gets into the gritty scientific details in a piece called “Why Genes Don’t Predict Voting Behavior.” 

Back to Bartels, he comes to a conclusion that I think is similar to, if slightly more conservative than my take on the value of certain kinds of genetics. In this case it’s genetic research aimed at predicting political behavior, but I think the argument could apply equally well to my last post about biological race and genetics:

My argument is not that genetic explanations of political attitudes and behavior are infeasible (though they are sure to be extremely difficult to achieve) or illegitimate (though it is easy to imagine them being harnessed to unsavory political ends). It is simply that the real scientific payoff does not look worth the effort.

So for those of you not convinced that race isn’t at least a little genetic, there’s still reason to question the value of (and even oppose) this kind of research. Of course I would add that in the case of biological race and genetics, the acceptance of the assumption underlying the research also does real harm to racial minorities. And, perhaps worst of all, it puts you (at least a little bit) on the side of jerks like Craig Cobb.


*Image credit: Dan Saelinger

Laughing at White Supremacists: Race and Bad Science

By Amanda Grigg

A video has been making the rounds in which Craig Cobb, a white supremacist who was leading the charge to create a neo-Nazi enclave in North Dakota undergoes a DNA test for a talk show, only to find out that he is “14% sub-Saharan African.” As of this post it has 120,000 views on youtube and has been featured on  TheGrio, The Daily Mail, The LA Times and The Huffington Post, where it is described as (maybe) “the best thing ever.”

Of course everyone loves the video. It bears a striking resemblance to what is probably Dave Chappelle’s best sketch of all time, about a blind white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby who doesn’t know he’s black. But in this case it’s a real white supremacist, so there’s the added bonus of social justice schadenfreude at watching him get his comeuppance.

As someone who studies health politics I find this video wildly annoying. Why, you ask?

It’s portraying Cobb as a villain for thinking race is biological and then proving him wrong by using science to tell him what his biological race is. It’s essentially accepting his presumptions of race as biology and racial purity to prove that he isn’t racially pure. But…race isn’t biological. And perpetuating the idea that it is is a way bigger problem than some racist nut out in North Dakota repeatedly being barred from creating an all-white town.

What is biological race? Well, according to the zoological definition, it exists when you can distinguish a group of organisms based on genetic difference. Humans of what we think of as different “races” do not differ anywhere near enough genetically to be distinguished in this way. And even our socially created definitions of race have differed dramatically across time – so a Craig Cobb of 100 years ago might have been even “more” black, because Southern or Eastern European ancestry might have been included in his black tally. As recently as 1930, these results would have made Cobb 100% “negro” according to the US census’s “one drop rule,” which asserted that anyone with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black. Does it seem like this is getting silly? That’s because race biology is.

This isn’t just an issue of bad science, biological understandings of race do real harm to racial minorities, particularly in the healthcare system. Take for example, spirometers, which are used to measure lung function. They’re actually calibrated to account for a presumed difference in black and white lung capacities (with black capacity presumed to be 10-15% lower). Some even have a switch for “race” built in. The problem? These assumptions are based on bad race-biology science and they aren’t accurate. As a result, black patients have to be sicker to get the same treatment, not to mention to qualify for worker’s comp or insurance/compensation for their illness.

Assumptions about biological race can also lead to delayed or incorrect diagnoses, as in the case of a young black girl whose cystic fibrosis – a disease predominantly associated with Caucasian patients – went undiagnosed for years until a passing doctor, glancing at only her x-ray, asked her primary physician “who’s the girl with cystic fibrosis?”

Thinking about race in this way also shapes how we understand the causes of disease. With the rise of genetics, biological/genetic race is increasingly studied as a possible cause or risk-factor for disease. This goes on despite the fact that – and here I have to quote someone who understands genetics better than I do – “the environmental conditions that interact with putative polymorphic variations to trigger the onset of disease, not those variations themselves, would likely be the targets of intervention (or the cause of disease per se).”

Not surprisingly, this focus on genetics can obscure the social and environmental causes of many race-based disparities in health. As Dorothy Roberts explains:

“A renewed trust in inherent racial differences provides a convenient but false explanation for persistent inequalities despite the end of de jure discrimination. It is also the perfect complement to social policies that implement the claim that racism has ceased to be the cause of African Americans’ unequal status.” (Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention, 64)

The acceptance of race biology via genetics also means money is spent on finding race-specific genes when it could be more effectively spent treating the condition or addressing known (often social/environmental) causes and risk-factors. Conditions like hypertension and asthma for example, have repeatedly been linked to racial minorities’ greater exposure to stress and pollution. Still, genetics labs are established purely to identify the gene that’s causing high rates of asthma among black and Puerto Rican youth. Peer reviewed studies in medical journals have linked postpartum depression to poverty, lower levels of education, a lack of social support, and stress, all of which are more common among women of color. So of course in 2013 the National Institute of Mental Health funded a million dollar study aiming to identify the “biomarkers” for postpartum depression in African American women.

To wit, race isn’t biological, let’s stop talking/acting/researching/funding as if it is.

For much much more on this check out one of my favorite books by one of my favorite scholars: Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts

For a shorter read on race Biology, check out this May 2013 article by Merlin Chowkwanyun in The Atlantic