I want to write something poignant and meaningful. I want to offer some deep insight into the latest Israeli offensive against the occupied Palestinian people. I want to say something.
All I can say is that I mourn for the mothers of Gaza.
I want to write something poignant and meaningful. I want to offer some deep insight into the latest Israeli offensive against the occupied Palestinian people. I want to say something.
All I can say is that I mourn for the mothers of Gaza.
Lupita. Lupita. Lupita.
We can’t stop saying her name. Can’t stop commenting on how gorgeous she is. Can’t stop focusing on how glamourous she is. Can’t stop raving about her every fashionchoice. I love her. I can’t find any reason to not think she’s as fabulous as she seems.
We can’t stop saying her name. You get the feeling that a lot of time was put into news broadcasters and red-carpet-watchers practicing Nyong’o. (If you don’t know, you can hear her say it here.) After last year’s catastrophe over Quvenzhane’s, it would have been a crying shame for anyone to have gotten it wrong.
But one thing I haven’t heard people talking about is her acting, at least not as much as they talk about her looks.
I’m not a cultural critic. My expertise lies not in culture as conceived by many cultural critics – pop culture – but in culture as conceived by sociologists and legal scholars. My expertise lies in how individuals live their culture in their every day lives.
More importantly to what I’m going to speak on here, however, is that I am a mother. Of a daughter. A black mother of a black daughter. That’s really all the expertise that matters.
But in case you’re wondering, I am a black feminist. A young, married, heterosexual, highly- and elitely-educated, black, middle-class mother feminist. I own all of that. Please do not get that twisted as you read what comes next.
At first, I thought that comparing the experiences of the slain children in Newtown to the slain black and brown children across this country was insensitive. I thought that it just wasn’t the time to point out the inconsistent treatment of dead children due to gun violence. I thought that no matter the color of the child, the pain to that parent is the same. And I still think all these things.
But as I’ve taken in the media coverage in the past 4 days, I’ve started to get a little annoyed. Angry even. And ultimately unbearably sad. And perhaps that’s my fault for watching the news, and their macabre fascination with death and tragedy. It seems that CNN simply cannot get enough footage to capitalize on the pain and sadness of others. Their camping out in front of churches where children are being buried despite the families’ requests for privacy? I almost want to throw my shoe at the TV. But instead, I just change the channel.
But not before I saw the comfort dogs.
The beautiful golden retrievers dispatched to Newtown to bring some joy to the children of the community. The dogs trained to be gentle with even the most aggressive child. The dogs putting their nose to a 4-year-old’s nose. A shiny golden coat gentle rubbed beside a rosy cheek.
And while my heart broke with the memory of the pain, it also broke at the injustice of the disparity. At the fact that it seems that some kids’ deaths mean more than other children’s deaths.
For where were the comfort dogs to heal the children living in the Florida community of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, children likely traumatized that they could be shot down under the Stand Your Ground laws?
Where were the comfort dogs to heal the children living in Chicago when 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was shot in the back after running from her mother’s candy stand when she heard gunshots?
Where were the comfort dogs to heal the children living in Camden, NJ when a 6-year-old first grader was murdered trying to protect his 12-year-old sister from rape?
Where are the comfort dogs for the millions of children in Philly, Detroit, Chicago and other urban areas who are suffering from PTSD from the DAILY threat of gun violence and death?
I want the children of Newtown to receive all the good things this world has to offer. I want all the well-wishers to send teddy bears, cards, and care packages. I want the knitters to send their handmade monsters to every single child at Sandy Hook Elementary School so that they know we love them.
But I also want the Camden first-graders to get comfort dogs. I also want Heaven’s classmates to get handknit monsters. I want a CNN special for every child who has ever died due to gun violence. I want their names and faces plastered on TV with words about their favorite book and how their smile brought their families joy. I want news vans to stay on the scene for days talking about the senselessness of every child’s death.
Not just for the children who go to school in a “bucolic” New England town.
Not just for the children who go to school in a place that had not seen more than one homicide in the last ten years.
Not just for the children who go to school where the vast majority of them are white.
Please understand me – when I see the face of each and every 6 and 7 year-old who died in Newtown, I see my own almost-7-year-old first grader. I hold nothing against those children or their parents or their community. I just want equity. I just want EVERY child to be remembered. I just want the same outpouring of grief for EVERY child who dies of gun violence. They may not have died en masse, in one classroom, in one community, but they are dying nevertheless. Their parents are hurting nevertheless. Their classmates are traumatized nevertheless.
I want the sports teams and day time TV hosts and churches all over the country to observe moments of silence EACH time ANY child dies from a gun’s bullets. I just want to feel some sense that if my cousin’s children, who still live in Philadelphia, are murdered by gun violence that the nation will mourn for them. I want some sense that if the children who play at the Boys and Girl’s Club in East Palo Alto were gunned down that the nation will mourn for them. I want some sense that black and brown little children matter too.
But I won’t hold my breath.
I’ll spare you the suspense: I think not. Now read on for the rest.
Here’s my position: I’ve never had an abortion. And I don’t think I ever will. I have friends and family who have. I am staunchly pro-choice. I was kind of pro-choice before having children. I am even more so after having children. It’s a responsibility only those who truly want to do it should take on. We don’t support parents in this country. And arguments about all the people who want unwanted kids are BS. Look at how long kids stay in foster care.
So here’s the deal. As I regularly troll the internets for stories about black children and black mothering, I came across this op-ed from Dennis Byrne, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, commenting on the billboards across the country that try to shame black women into not having abortions. Although he is neither black nor a woman (his words), he thought it his (duty? calling?) prerogative to comment on the “high abortion rate among blacks.” Here’s the gist:
Political correctness and ideological dictates discourage discussion of the culture of some black communities as explanative of violence, ignorance, high rates of abortion and other dysfunctions. But for those communities, culture is described by the growth of a matriarchy, as displayed by the many grandmothers raising their daughters’ children. By the absence of men in child rearing. By men who prey on young women who have never learned what to expect from decent, caring and responsible men. By the collapse of the family and the destruction of men’s and women’s traditional, balanced roles in making children strong enough to resist the challenges of today’s broader culture of irresponsibility, casual sex, substance abuse and other plagues.
In this op-ed, Byrne rehashes an old, but reborn, theory: that there is something intrinsic to black “culture,” independent of any outside factors, that accounts for the disproportionate numbers of abortions in black communities.
This makes my blood boil. One, because as a scholar who studies culture, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
First: on culture. Byrnes defines culture as “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group.” Um, not quite, homie. Where do these beliefs and behaviors come from? They don’t just spring forth from the middle of the earth, waiting for people to adopt them. Culture is not “created” nor does not exist in a vacuum. Culture is both responsive to and part of shaping structure; many sociologists, such as myself, explain culture as the opposite side of the coin to social structure. The growth of a matriarchy (which is largely a myth, I believe to demonize black women) and the dearth of men available to actually father their children are events, happenings; they are not culture. Nor did not happen outside of the influences of social structure. Many factors colluded to affect that outcome: collapse of manufacturing industry; subsequent high rates of black male unemployment; mass incarceration; felon disenfranchisement; the crack cocaine epidemic.
Culture reflects options available within a given social structure. Yes, people make choices, and they have agency. But agency is not what we think it is as total free will, ability to choose anything and everything. Culture reflects what one BELIEVES to be their options, what one can do with what one is given. So black “culture” can never be defined as one thing, one way of being, one way of behaving. Because we live in a myriad of structural positions, and some of us have options that are not available to others and vice versa. And among the options, some of us choose #1 and others choose #4 and so on.
The “collapse” of the family structure is less to do with any possible independent effects of culture than with the structural effects of class. As I’ve discussed here before, a class structure that allowed for families of any configuration to make a decent living would have more time for child rearing. A school system that did not grossly and blatantly favor wealthier children over less wealthy children would be one in which all women could be educated enough to take care of themselves, and not fall “prey” to vicious and violent men.
If you want to change how people behave, you need to change their options. You need to change what is available to them. You need to change their structural reality.
Making arguments about cultures connection to disproportionality makes clear that true intentions are to get rid of the option to abort altogether. For if you are pro-choice, do you even care about disproportionality? Or rather, should you? If you believe that anytime a woman gets pregnant but for some reason – any reason – does not want to go forward with that pregnancy, she should have the right to choose to end the pregnancy, then every abortion should look the same to you. Regardless of the race of the woman. Disproportionality then appears to be that black women are having more unwanted or mistimed pregnancies, but are also using this option, the option to terminate, more than other women.
This can be interpreted multiple ways, but I’ll offer two that I find the most liberating. First is that black women are more aware of their reproductive rights, are more in tune with what they do and do not want, and are more willing to choose to abort. If you are pro-choice, this doesn’t seem to be a problem – black women are, in not the best language, taking advantage of exactly the right Roe v. Wade stood for – the right to make a decision about your body without anyone else second-guessing you or interfering. Calling these numbers a problem feeds into the idea that black women are not capable, or are somehow ignorant (or culturally deficient), of making this decision for themselves.
Second, this can be interpreted as other women – white, Latino, Asian – are not as gender liberated as black women. Bryne in the article above – as do many men – lament the “matriarchy” in the black community as a disruption of “balanced” gender roles. Who said gender roles had to be balanced? Instead of considering that black women are having too many abortions, maybe women of other races are having too few. In other words, women of other races are less willing to have abortions when they actually would choose to under different structural circumstances. Again, with culture as the flip side of structure, women of other races may feel as though their options (culture) are limited, despite Roe v. Wade, given their structural position.
This is not to say that black women do not experience and live under patriarchy. They absolutely do. But the facts are that black women are less likely to marry than other groups. Not being legally bound to your oppressor is sure to make a difference.
Spoken from a sociologist who studies culture: If you want black women to stop having abortions, if that is your true goal, you need to change their world. You need to make it so that there are no reasons for why a pregnancy would be unwanted or mistimed.
A billboard does not change the world. It just pisses people off.
One of the most unconventional findings was that “the darker an African American or Latino student rated his own skin tone, the higher his academic performance, academic confidence, and social acceptance.” This relates directly to the discussion we were just having about colorism, and whether what the teenagers in the video were saying accurately reflected what they thought about skin color and beauty. I’m tempted to want to spin these results to so that they can co-exist with the teenagers reflections being accurate, but I can also see how these can represent conflicting findings.
“In Singapore, the government deposits small amounts of money into an account for each child born, Shanks said. That money can be withdrawn to cover costs such as extra tutoring for children or higher education for young adults. Or it can sit, earn interest and become the sort of nest egg or emergency fund the child’s future family may need. As a result, almost all families in Singapore–regardless of income–own their own homes.”
Yet in this country we act as if people with assets – homes, stocks, etc. – aren’t doing the same thing for their children and grandchildren. When you start life off with a nest egg, even a modest one, the monetary laws of compound interest make it so that the money grows, without you doing a single solitary thing to earn it – no bootstrapping necessary. But for poor black children? We act like their situation actually has something to do with their or their parents’ character, not with historical, systematic denial of the opportunity to build wealth according to race.
“Right now, 12 percent of white children live in poverty compared to 33 percent of Latino kids and 36 percent of black children.” And you think we live in a post-racial world?
On a related note, over at LIE there is an article about money and black babies and adoption. Black babies usually “cost less” in private adoptions because there are more of them than white babies and they are harder to place than white babies. They are harder to place because there are more white adoptive parents than black adoptive parents, and the norm is to match babies within the race. I say this is related to the post above because, as one commenter says, perhaps much of why there are more black babies is due to the poverty that many black mothers find themselves in when it is time to give birth. In any case, transracial adoption is on the rise, for even at “rates” as low as $4,000 for a black baby, compared to nearly $40,000 for a white baby, getting a black baby is a deal. White adoptive parents come to “prefer” a black baby once they realize how much better the black baby fits into their budget. But its a secondary consideration; the White adoptive parents “settle” for the black baby, only after having taken the price of the child into account. Fucked up, right?
There is a lot going on with cocoa mamas in the news every week, so I’ve decided to set aside Mondays to talk about a few of them. Here’s what’s up this week:
Apparently over a quarter of all women who have two or more children have these children with two or more men. For black women, this rate is 59%. And, according to the article, the trend is across demographics of income, education and marital status – even married women who work and are not poor have more than one father for their children. But what irks me about this title, and the rest of the article, is how mother-centric it is. It does take two people to make a child, does it? I mean, if this is true for women, mustn’t the same be true for men? Why isn’t the title “Many Parents Have Kids With Different Partners”?
I’d never heard of Almean Lomax, and I think that’s a damn shame. This trailblazer was a journalist unlike any other, who is notable not just because she started a black newspaper of incredible importance to black folks in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but because she was unafraid to do what others would not.
“She was a terrific writer…the only one of all the black newspapers at the time who really was fearless about exposing things as they were. She didn’t soft-pedal anything,” said veteran civil rights lawyer Leo Branton Jr.
Not only was she fearless in her writing, she was fearless in her life. After her divorce in 1959, she moved her SIX kids – ages 4 – 16 – from L.A. to the deep South so she could cover the height of the Civil Rights Movement from the ground, much like war reporters do now. According to the article and her children she regretted it later, because of the trauma that such racism left on her kids. But I admire her willingness to get in the trenches, so to speak. Often I wonder about the impact we can make from the outside looking in. While we want to protect OUR children, are we losing something – being selfish even – by not being in physical solidarity with the most oppressed among us? Or is our selfishness justified, as long as we use our outsider status to the utmost in service of those in the war? What does that utmost look like?
I don’t read The Root on a regular basis, and this article* is an example of why. The article is about a report that supposedly debunks a myth that racial disproportionality in child abuse statistics are largely driven by racism or racial bias. The report is supposed to say that instead black parents are disproportionately more likely to be cited for child abuse because black parents are more likely to be poor.
But the problem with this Root article is that it never tells you how the report debunks the myth. How did the researchers get from “there is no racial bias in how professionals judge was is/is not abuse” to “it’s all about poverty”? The article gives me no reason to believe the report, except that the Root says that the report debunks the myth. Isn’t the point of the news to digest the information for me, so I don’t have to read the report? The Root has this kind of shoddy “reporting” and writing consistently; I really cannot understand why black folk continue to read it or take any stock in what they have to say. I understand that media outlets for black news are few and far between, but we have to be able to do better than this.
Do you all have any news about black mothering or black childrearing to share? Send it to me or post it in the comments!
Have a great week,
*I actually have a lot to say about the report itself, but I’m going to save it for another post, later this week.
After years of black motherhood being equated with abandonment and neglect, it was pure joy to see the Obamas walk across that stage to accept the nomination and then the results of the election. Those nights – and those ever since – have been an affirmation for those of us who were what they are: A strong, loving, playful, and spirit filled African American family. The Obamas, of course, are not the first nor will they will be the last, but they are in the here and now, tangible and concrete. It is important to note the Obamas – including Marion Robinson, First Lady Obama’s mother who has been hailed by both of them as being instrumental in the development of their daughters – deserve every bit of praise. It is clear that they not only are extremely devoted to their children but also to their own relationship. If there were to be a soundtrack for the Obama family, it would be Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me off My Feet”.
They are the flip side to the many single black women – grandmothers, aunties, sisters, and every other in between – who are indeed mothering under siege. These examples seem to be the only dots on the spectrum. For those of us who seem to embody the Obama model it can be a lonely, isolating and conflicting experience.
I am a 34 year old mixed race woman – Puerto Rican father and African American / Cherokee mother – who identifies herself culturally as an African American- who mothers 2 amazing little girls: my daughter, 8, and my niece, 9. I have been married to an awesome guy for 10 years and on our second wedding anniversary our daughter was born. I work in pharmacy, a profession where there are more women than men. Because of this, I would find myself in conversations with the pharmacist- sometimes white but frequently themselves or their families hailing from the Middle East or South East Asia – about parenting. There was almost always a look of surprise and wonderment when I would talk about the regular every day struggles of mothering. I could almost see the thought bubble: “Oh my God she is just like me!” Usually at some point in time they would admit to being pleasantly surprised at how devoted I and my husband were to our girls. I was different, you know, unlike “those other” parents. Meaning “regular” black people. I would insist that every mother regardless of race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socioeconomic or marital status wants the best for her child whether they have the resources or not, and I was not, in fact, an anomaly.
But I admit that I do feel invisible. There are very few mediums where black mothering is normalized. Normalized brings to mind for many a two parent, heterosexual, often Christian family. That is not what I am talking about. I mean I want to see black and brown mothers in advertisements for safety systems, breastfeeding campaigns, and educational enrichment pitches. I want to see sensitive portrayals of black and brown women as being nurturing, caring, responsible, patient and concerned about their children. I would no longer have to endure a picture of a black child automatically followed by these or any combination of words: challenge, crisis, chaos, dangers, death, neglect, and dysfunctional.
To black and white people I did right. I got married then had children. “You are a good mother” they nod approvingly. It’s like because I married when I married that I automatically get 500 points on the SAT’s of parenting. Why should that be? There is so much discussion concerning the ills of out of wedlock mothering in spiritual, economic, and emotional terms. Single mothers have their actions shredded apart. People feel it is justified by pointing to the high incarceration rates, poverty, violence etc. but is it any more right for a married woman to have a baby to save a relationship? Is it right for a married couple to bring a child into a household where the father is emotionally distant or even cruel because of their own unresolved demons? There might be a temptation to point out that society “pays” for out of wedlock children but don’t we “pay” when children are conceived under the matrimonial fairy tales that don’t work out. But there are a whole lot of ways to pay for a baby.
There seems to be a concerted lack of nuance in the discourse in both white and black spaces. If white spaces don’t acknowledge my presence black spaces insist only on the respectable. In a way I can’t say that I blame them. Slavery did not allow for slaves to be recognized as humans much less families. Even if an enlightened slave master allowed for slaves to be married, it was never legally binding. At any time these two people, who chose each other despite the pure hell of slavery, could be separated and sold along with any of their children or told to mate with another salve who had their own family or did not and simply had no desire to breed. When freedom was won the majority of slaves legalized their marriages. They may not have had much but they had each other. Literally.
So against that backdrop it is no wonder when pastors look out into the pews of their church and see the couple sitting next to each other, an arm draped across their partners back, maybe with a child or two on either side, maybe in between, they are not necessarily seeing patriarchy and submission. What they see is a stone in the eye of the naysayers who use charts, polls, and studies to prove that these people sitting in church on a Sunday morning don’t exist. There is no doubt that something pulls at you when you see a couple married for 40 plus years helping each other put their coats on. It is pride, love, joy, hope, an abundance of every bit of positive energy in the world. It is also tempting to stay rooted in that energy. It is so warm and wonderful. It makes me believe that I too will be in that number. To believe that this is the right way, the only way, the best way. But I can’t and I won’t.
Poor mothers do not automatically equate poor mothering. The No Wedding, No Womb and Marry Your Baby Daddy/Mama movements although conceived with good intentions have left so many important threads blowing in the wind and it seems like few are interested in catching, examining and then tying them together. Lack of comprehensive, fact based sexual education, the denial of mental health services (both in idea that it is needed and actual services), the lack of safe spaces or even language for men and boys to discuss their own feelings that are not steeped in patriarchy and the sustained unwillingness to deal with the effects of physical, mental, sexual and emotional abuse and how that affects interpersonal relationships all impact both parents and children alike.
The first step to correct this is the insistence that black women take back their own maternal narrative. Take it back from whoever is mishandling it, whether the person is wearing a three-piece suit, a black dress with pearls, pastoral robes or jeans and t shirt. This is your story. You and your child’s. There will be laughter and tears. There will be slammed doors and cuddles on the couch. There will be fear and certainty. There will be clarity and bewilderment. These things will happen at different times or maybe all at once. Doesn’t matter really. When you tell your story I will sit down and make myself comfortable, ready to listen to you.
– on the occasion of attending my first Donna Brazile talk and moments before composing tomorrow’s lecture on Sade
In 1988, at the tender age of 9, I campaigned for Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Nomination. My brothers and I, 11 and 7 themselves, went door-to-door in Perth Amboy, New Jersey registering people to vote, and chiefly, amusing the hell out of them. If pre-pubescent little black kids are not enough to convince you to fulfill your civic duty, I don’t know what will.
My son, twenty years later, voted for Barack Obama on nick.com. I must admit that no matter how special I thought it was when Mekhi declared, “Mom, don’t you think Barack Obama looks like me!”, in the ’08 season, I still have my reservations about our often conservative first gentleman.
Tonight, Donna Brazile stated that the reason she does not want to run for political office is like the reason why she doesn’t want to be married, because it requires staying in one place. And she likes to be, “on the go!” Though I traditionally do not believe in qualifying oppressions I can’t help but think if I had to choose between working in the white house or working as a house wife, WHICH I, OF COURSE, DO NOT!!!!, give me the suburban soccer mom, every day of the week.
It is so painfully obvious that I am from this country, not only because I am here, with my black family, simultaneously at war and in line with our nation’s political agenda. So many of us, even those not from this country, participate in this American narrative. My children however like to pretend they are from some other place. My oldest in particular has no clue he is “African-American.” I like to blame this on his educational environments and his penchant for White televisual media. In one of his four public schools there was a banner that read, “this is America; everyone reads!,” and in his most recent they celebrated “diversity,” with the book (and participating feast) “Everybody Cooks Rice.” For the latter he brought in rice pudding which I had to convince him was his great-great-grandmother’s dish.
Today, I am feeling particularly angry about not only the post-racial politics of today’s presidential aura, I am also frequently miffed at the government control over our bodies and families. The first time I almost wrote off Barack Obama was following his problematic “Father’s Day” speech in Chicago. Now, with the inability to promote national legislation legalizing gay marriage, the still-inadequate health insurance and the lack of access to safe abortions and contraception, etc., I am wondering where all my Cocoamamas stand. Granted we chose a right to have at least one child. However; I know that does not “safely” box us into right hetero-normative agendas?
In the era of education standards and accountability, the debate regarding the potential of charter schools to reform American public education, particularly for children of color, has heated up. Against this backdrop, several films have recently been released about charter schools. In anticipation of a classroom discussion I intend to conduct about one of them, I recently watched the “documentary” The Lottery. In this case, the quotation marks are intentional, because boy, was this one shoddy piece of documentary work.
My critiques of The Lottery are numerous, but I’ll start with data, or the lack thereof. Sackler, the film’s director, did not attempt to provide viewers with any data about charter school performance compared to traditional public schools. But then again, I don’t blame her. If she had, she would have had to admit that the most comprehensive study of charter schools to date found that fewer than 20% of the schools provided its students with better educations than public schools, almost half offered comparable educations, and more than a third offered their students inferior educations. Talk about your inconvenient truths.
But the absence of useful data was just one of many failures in the film, with unfair portrayals of the major players in education reform being the next problem. The Lottery shamelessly demonized teacher’s unions without bothering to interview even one union rep or pro-union advocate in defense of the organizations. This, despite the director’s decision to interview, almost exclusively, pro-charter advocates, some of whom likened unions to thugs and mafiosos. Now, I understand that there are plenty of villains to cast in the education reform debate. Even if, however, the unions are every bit as obstructionist as the movie suggests they are, and are dumping bodies in the river to boot, it is only fair to give them the opportunity to voice their perspective. If the director’s intent was to pin blame for public school failure on teachers, that’s fine, but she then shouldn’t have called her film a documentary. She should have called it propaganda, because that’s what it was.
Moreover, I have to defend the unions a little bit on this one. Anyone with an understanding of labor struggles in this country has to acknowledge that unions can and do play a vital role in protecting workers’ rights. Although it is true that union contracts have often enshrined due process procedures that result in the retention of many sub par teachers, it is not true that due process in itself is inherently problematic. Nor do I buy the argument that because these sorts of procedures are “never tolerated in the private sector,” they should not be tolerated in the public. To the contrary, due process is the name of the game in the public sector, and for good reason. Teaching at a public school is a public job, funded by public dollars, meaning that all qualified citizen are entitled to the job. And if, after having given the job to a citizen the government wants to take that job away, there are procedures that must be followed, for the government does not have the right to arbitrarily take away from citizens that which has been provided for only by citizens’ grace. I agree that some of these procedures have gotten out of hand, and that if we are to take the teaching profession seriously, it has to become easier to dismiss underperforming teachers while rewarding effective ones. But we cannot, and should not, get rid of due process. You want the freedom to engage in both justified and arbitrary firings? Go to the private sector.
While conveniently avoiding relevant data and scapegoating teachers and the unions that protect them, the movie lacks any substantive discussion about the real problems with American public education: segregation; funding disparities; poverty; inadequate health care and food insecurity among students. Instead, the film misleadingly suggests that reform is synonymous with charters. And it does so while exploiting black people to make the point. Prominently featured in the film is the contentious battle between a Harlem charter school that petitions to be housed in a soon-to-be-closed-down failing public school, and the black and brown parents who protest the charter school’s petition. Between participant interviews and clips from the heated public hearings on the issue, you walk away with the impression that parents of color are ignorantly opposing the very movement that is going to save their children. Missing from the film is any legitimate analysis of why these parents are so oppositional or what it feels like for a community to have their neighborhood school closed without education alternatives for their kids; most of these parents, after all, will not be able to obtain a spot for their sons and daughters in the new charter school. She never considers what it does to a community when a center in that community–a public school–is shut down. Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate the way in which Sackler’s portrayal legitimated the cultural deficit model that is regularly foisted on black people in this country.
And as if that weren’t enough, I was disgusted by the film’s presentation of the actual lottery. As has become all the rage, many oversubscribed charter schools hold public lotteries, at which anxious parents and their children gather in an auditorium to learn whether their child has won a coveted spot at the school. The parents of students’ whose names are called jump up triumphantly, running to the front of the auditorium, ushering their children towards clapping teachers and administrators who welcome the child to the school. The parents of students’ whose names are not called sit in the chairs despondently, ultimately heading home, clearly defeated by their bad luck. It is heartbreaking to see the looks on parents faces who had pinned their hopes on wining a spot, and the sad faces of their children who realize that their parents’ devastation has something to do with their limited opportunities. These schools say that they hold these lotteries to illustrate demand in poor communities for their services. I say they are exploiting the hopes and dreams of these families, and their beautiful black and brown babies, for a cheap publicity stunt, and that The Lottery was complicit in that exploitation. Not surprisingly, only 1 of the 4 families portrayed in the film won admission to the featured charter school.
In defense of the movie, some say that it at least “started a conversation,” but I don’t think the movie did anything positive to further an honest and realistic dialogue about public school reform in our country. Most people who saw the film are not like me or the other writers on this blog who are knowledgeable about public school education. Most viewers don’t realize that crucial data is missing. They don’t understand why parents in the film opposed the arrival of one small charter school in exchange for the closing of their neighborhood school. Most people sat down with a box of popcorn, were entertained by the drama which unfolded on the screen, and walked away with a skewed understanding of charters as the answer, unions as the devil, and black people as backwards for fighting the closing of their neighborhood school.
When discussing the film with one friend who happens to be an educator, she used the theory of “structural functionalism” to discuss what is happening with public education: poverty and marginalization of many exists to ensure wealth and access for the few. As a person with a B.A. in sociology, I agree that the theory is relevant here. And yet, social science terms can problematically make societal issues seem academic, objective and neutral, numbing us to the real injustice that is operating in the background. I’ve got a better way to sum up what was going on in that “documentary,” the charter school movement, and in American public education in general: this is some racist and classist $hit.