The struggle to define who is worthy: mass incarceration and mass deportation

I just finished watching an interview with Susan Burton, author of “Becoming Ms. Burton” and founder of A New Way of Life, a re-entry program for women of color who are adjusting to their new lives after prison, and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” on Democracy Now!. Alexander wrote the introduction to Burton’s book, in which she tells her story of losing her five-year-old son in a hit-and-run by an LAPD detective (the department never acknowledged her son’s death) and falling into depression, alcoholism, and eventual drug use. The War on Drugs had been powerfully in effect since the 1960s (see here for background, especially as it pertains to the criminalization of antiwar Black activists by the Nixon administration), and poor people of color, as an extension of what Alexander and others describe as the surveillance state, were being locked up for minor drug offenses that often received long sentences. Burton’s initiative is a powerful reminder that the U.S. narrative around this does not break from our generations-long tradition of other-ing Black and Brown people justified under various forms of political obfuscation, policy-making like gerrymandering and redlining, and media depictions that demonize people of color as simultaneously a threat and a problem to be solved.


This resonates powerfully with the parallel track of immigrant existence in this country – to which Black Americans in fact historically belong (slaves were the first immigrants, along with their captors) – which has been threaded into our story as a nation of White, Anglo people. Immigrants then and now maintain a position of lower-status people waiting to adapt and assimilate, often taking up blue-collar and unstable work that includes abuses and exploitation as part of the modus operandi. While this is not news for those of us who read and think on the progressive side of things, the connection made by Alexander in the Democracy Now! interview between the abuse of people of color and of immigrants heartened me. Under the script of settler colonialism, which arranges social relations via the White Western settler-as-savior/Black slave-as-laborer/Indigenous people-as-uncivilized-savage-awaiting-enlightenment, both Black Americans and immigrants are positioned to serve the dominant (White) state-supported control and use of resources inside our national borders. Those resources, recursively, include the labor of these individuals which is poorly compensated or even amounts to indentured servitude under corporate investment in prisons (in the case of convict lease, which some argue still happens today).

Alexander and Burton’s work makes a stunning claim: that we have choices about the way we look at drug use and the individuals who struggle with it. They speak of the ways in which we criminalize people, including poor women of color who have suffered trauma, abuse, and isolation in and out of prison, with the reckless malice which has resulted in the destruction of lives, families, and communities. This, Burton argues, itself is criminal, this seeing people as expendable, consumable, convert-able into fodder for the political fire and brimstone bursting from nativist, racist political pulpits. Alexander adds that immigrants, especially immigrants identified as people of color, are now suffering such similar depiction under the banner of racial politics that discursively justify punitive social controls which result in the dehumanization and division of people from each other:

Today, the enemy has been defined as those ‘brown-skinned immigrants sneaking across the border,’ and, you know, Donald Trump has been banging the podium, you know, saying, we must get rid of them…If we had risen to the challenge of the War on Drugs the way that we could have and should have, the system of mass deportation would not exist today…

And then:

I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we’ll see more coordination and more unity between the movements to end mass incarceration and the movements to end mass deportation, and come to see it’s the same struggle to define who is worthy, who has dignity and value, and who is disposable, and ultimately, we are trying to birth a new America…

This speaks to the powerful need for social imagination, which Marx, Habermas, Stetsenko, and many others offer as a means of engaging with the possibilities always inherent to our realities and authoring ourselves and change through these possibilities. This world and its arrangements are contingent, open to disobedience as Hannah Arendt argued, and changeable.

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now! here (25:18-59:02).

Migration is natural

On May 11th, PBS featured a fascinating story for its “Brief but Spectacular” segment that inspires thinking around (im)migration and identity. Jess X. Snow, a young first-generation Chinese-American artist illuminates her experiences as an immigrant, a child of immigrants, with force and insight:

Imagination is daring to love what is not in front of us. So what then, is immigration, if not imagination given a destination?

Jess describes the recounting of her family story as a young person with a stutter, an atypical way of being that produced unkind treatment by students around her. Jess found freedom in her poetry, in creating beauty in deep engagement with political philosophical questions related to what immigrant identity is under increasing surveillance as well as interrogating Westphalian notions of border drawing as “unnatural.” It’s not bravery that she exhibits, but rather honesty, loyalty to her family, her artistic community, and to her own vision, and the voice of a generation that asks important philosophical questions about political conservatism and nationalism through art and collective meaning-making.

Check out the artist’s work here.

My first publication: The limits of pedagogy: diaculturalist pedagogy as paradigm shift in the education of adult immigrants

I’ve published my first solo article, “The limits of pedagogy: diaculturalist pedagogy as paradigm shift in the education of adult immigrants”! Please find the prepublication “Accepted Manuscript” version of “…” here. Enjoy, share, and give feedback!

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PLEASE NOTE: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Pedagogy, Culture and Society on November 29, 2016, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/…/10.1080/14681366.2016.1263678

Rancière and the role of education in political conformity/contestation

Yesterday I read a paper by Gert Biesta, a professor of education drawing from philosophy and political science whose interdisciplinary thinking inspires those of us like myself who are unconvinced by the all-too-often superficiality and dilettantism of the field of education. (I will write about this this week, as it bothers me greatly that those of us researching and working to improve the education system in the United States seem sometimes to be perceived as the redheaded stepchildren of academia.) Biesta’s paper, entitled “The Ignorant Citizen: Mouffe, Ranciere, and the Subject of Democratic Education,” addresses a little-critiqued assumption in education and political thinking in the United States: that democracy as a political regime is a good thing.

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SOURCE: HTTP://INTERACTIVE.FUSION.NET/RISE-UP-BE-HEARD/VOTING-PARTICIPATION.HTML

He focuses on two authors, Jacques Rancière and Chantal Mouffe, social and political thinkers whose (post-)Marxist collaborations on radical redefinitions of democracy offer a response to the democratic paradox, a conceptualization of the modern democratic state and the messy imbrications of liberalism and democracy as propositions in the question of political  identity, subjectivity, and subjectification. Biesta asks whether our view that democratic citizenship should be a substantive goal of education presupposes a set of assumptions of political conformity that make democracy itself possible, thus conceiving of the role of education as a process of socialization, rather than one of subjectification. Of these two processes, Biesta suggests, the former asks “how ‘newcomers’ can be inserted into an existing political order” (141), while the latter supports a redefining of democracy not as a space of assumed consensus — which proposes a preestablished order into which the political subject is inserted — but rather a producer of “dissensus” in which political subjectivity can be contested and “new ways of doing and being can come into existence.” (emphasis in original, 150)

I find this particularly fascinating given both my own work and the current state of affairs in the United States. Whatever democracy was supposed to be, we must concede, has over the years been weather-worn and worm-ridden with myriad divestments of the possibility of equality, teetering on the values and behaviors of the powerful in the form of casino capitalism and corporate influence in government while variously commodifying and excluding immigrants, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, trans and queer people, women, and the poor. Critical thinking invites consideration of the democratic paradox from our country’s earliest conception. On a more philosophical level, the question of the role of education in the definition and positioning of the political subject is broad and hard to address. My research focuses on “low-status” adult immigrants and their participation in educational opportunities in nonprofit organizations, especially those which provide workforce skills training, and the influences of such educational experiences on their political participation as “new Americans.” Even this term brings a different challenge when we consider whether it refers to democracy as emblematic of political systems which permit participation so long as an individual is socialized into following the rules, so to speak, or whether it refers to a contestation of what participation itself means, of what the individual’s role and possibilities are, of what civic learning is and can be, and so on. Biesta states:

“The ignorant citizen is the one who is ignorant of a particular definition of what he or she is supposed to be as a ‘good citizen.’ The ignorant citizen is the one who, in a sense, refuses this knowledge and through this, refuses to be domesticated, refuses to be pinned down in a pre-determined civic identity.” (emphasis in original, 152)

Can we even conceive of civic learning as an opportunity to access the “experiment of democracy” (152) as it could truly be construed, where the political subject, the individual, can access spaces of dissent and creative generation of new political possibilities, not simply as a sleepwalker through the monolithic set of political norms through which we experience our political selves in the era of Trump?

Getting started

It’s a funny title for a post, since I’ve been writing this blog since 2014. However, what began as a scholarly exercise, to be executed faithfully but unhurriedly, has shifted in my mind. The stream of conversation now, in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, has become a torrent of great anger, anxiety, sorrow, and uncertainty, with smatterings of told you so’s and many predictions for the future. I am writing this now to exercise my voice and to contribute what I can, as a PhD student, a professor, and a reader and writer about immigration and education. As both aspects of the conversation about the future of America very much need defense and advocacy, I commit myself to doing this as much as I can, both here and elsewhere in my work.

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COALITION OF IMMOKALEE WORKERS PROTEST ON MARCH 10, 2012
SOURCE: HTTP://WAGINGNONVIOLENCE.ORG/FEATURE/WHY-IM-WALKING-200-MILES-WITH-THE-IMMOKALEE-WORKERS/

Last night I read a Truthout article about the increasing influence of big donors on public education. Entitled “Are Wealthy Donors Influencing the Public School Agenda?“, the piece detailed the shifts in education policy at the local and state level that have occurred more and more via the donation of big money from wealthy “reformers” (the discursive construction of the term reform will be the topic of a future post.) These philanthro-barons come to the proverbial table with disproportionately loud voices, silencing participation from smaller (read: less well-funded) participants on decisions relating to educational policy taken by local school boards. Donations from such “education reformers” — who are often not members of the communities to which they donate — have influenced the ways in which school board elections come out, using the power of media representation to undercut messaging from competitors with smaller coffers. Aside from skewing the democratic election process, the influence of wealthier, more powerful donors brings the increasing presence of the values they espouse, which, according to the article’s authors’ background research (see here and here), differ significantly from most people in the United States. These donors tend to hold neoliberal perspectives rooted in market-driven solutions like “school choice” (code for controversial voucher programs and the increase in the number of charter schools, which are meant to provide alternatives to struggling district schools and compel those in existence to ‘step up their game’) and “accountability” (code for highly problematic data-driven decision-making which supports funding cuts and staff reductions for underperforming schools).

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CAT WITH A CIGAR BY LOUIS WAIN, COURTESY OF WIKI COMMONS

The issue resonates with the 2016 presidential election for me, not because of the “fat cats always win” crowing I’m doing along with many other folks. Instead, I see this as part of a conversation we in the United States need to have about the role of the media and messaging in shaping our public discourse. The Truth-Out article includes the story of a local school board candidate who, like me, works in the education of adult immigrants. He states the following:

It [money] changes the discourse…their [the reform candidates] message is the only message. Not just the dominant message anymore. It’s the only message people are hearing.

Why is this the case? Are parents and communities literally unable to get access to a diversity of perspectives in decisions about education? Is it the fact that we are so overloaded at work, so wrapped up in the latest Netflix series that we can’t find the time to talk to the other people on our street or on the bus or subway? The blinding and deafening of corporate media blitzing, which likewise draws strength and influence from the strategic controls of wealth, may have something to do with this. The news tells me the schools are struggling, teachers are not doing their jobs, students are innocent and must be saved, our families are under fire, and other messages that induce panic. We must make change. Enter…reform. Exit community togetherness, dialogue with equal sharing of the mike.

Money massages us into forgetting that we don’t need saving by outside angels. We forget that we have our own tools. Can we recall that in a democratic country all voices should be equal, not some “more equal than others” because they come from throats swathed in silks printed in glossy campaigns that inundate and lure us away from critical thinking and connection to our neighbor?

What immigrants are good for

It’s an interesting question. A crude parallel can be made between this question and the question of bilingualism. Both enrich the host country (the former, the U.S. or any other literal receiving nation; the latter, the “host” of the speaker’s brain/cognitive function), both contribute various forms of diversity, benefitting the economy in the former case and one’s ability to think creatively and adapt to new situations (see here, here and here for examples of associated research), and both add resources in times of deficit and change.

But if you’re not connected to immigrants or a variety of languages through your work or your social environment, why should you care, really? The trope espoused by Donald Trump and others, that immigrants are here to steal work from and violate the native-born, has been soundly defeated by solid research over the years, and yet threads through an American consciousness increasingly clotted with fear and anger as powerlessness and disaffection rise. The brown people he indicts publicly in his displays of chest-beating become a fearsome enemy to be inspected for benefit, briefly, before the doors are shut and walls are built. Demographically overlapping at times though not synonymous with “immigrants,” speakers of languages other than English tend to be found in urban centers, far from the safe belts of White conservatives whose “authentic American” thinking is referred to as politicos and pundits haggle over issues like “political correctness” in critiquing decisions about gender-neutral bathrooms or trans-friendly policies.

In truth, the reasons why foreign-born participants in U.S. society are “valuable” can indict the interests particular to the person listing them. A video showing the fervent arguments of Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics where I study at the Graduate Center in New York, is a case in point. Kaku asserts that foreign-born students benefit the science community in the United States, which struggles with the shoddy fodder provided by our intellectually deficient educational system (with, Kaku states, its rising “stupid index”), buoying up our economy as it is driven by Silicon Valley and other job creators in business. Importantly, the distinction between “immigrant” and “foreign-born” should be made (as it is unfortunately not in the blog post that inspired me to write). Nonetheless, this expresses the neoliberal ideology that defines how we perceive value and normalcy in education, business, and other human pursuits in the 21st century. The value of foreigners, says this viewpoint, is directly related to how they can contribute to our economy, to our ability to compete on the world stage with other major economic powers. Donald Trump himself could not disagree with this, as low-status Mexican workers helped him build major components of his empire. Thus, we can justify their presence here on such apolitical terms that allay American anxiety over the precarious hold we seem to have over our position as leader of the world in so many respects.

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BY СУБОЧЕВА ЮЛИЯ (OWN WORK) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (HTTP://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY-SA/4.0)], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Is this what immigrants are good for? I can’t answer this question directly but must instead ask another: Would we suggest that our own children are valuable and “good” for the United States for the same reasons, e.g., their fitting into the puzzle of how to remain in our most assumed position of global economic power? What rings as a reductive stance for our innocent progeny seems somehow acceptable for adults who speak and look different from us coming to this country. Kaku may feel passionate about the need to challenge our ignorance of how we maintain global preeminence in science and technology, but his rather romanticized discussion still invokes a discourse that dehumanizes and constrains human potential, agency, and variety in an apolitical and logical course of events. Foreign-born people should not be commodified and sorted according to how much they keep us on top. Arguing from such a perspective reinforces the same neoliberal model in which atomization, dehumanization, and alienation have become commonplace and, worse, increasingly normal.

Silence in education and ed research: taking off the crusader’s cape

I’m reading a book entitled “Perspectives on Silence,” an oldie-but-goodie text on the various constructions, interpretations, and meanings of silence from various disciplinary perspectives. I’m very interested in this topic as it relates to my work on how research involving asymmetries of power influence the construction of knowledge, particularly in interviewing and survey-based data collection. Explorations of this topic by Miller (2010) and others update the conversation as it relates to adult immigrants, especially those who are not first-language speakers of English. Questions include, “How does a researcher’s position of power, in terms of cultural capital and linguistic capital, social class, race/ethnicity and senses of belonging, and symbolic status as a highly educated person, influence the way information is shared?” and “How does silence express more than a speaker’s pause to gather her thoughts?”

I spoke with some of my graduate students last night — all of whom are teachers in New York public schools — asking them about how they see silence in educational contexts. The response I got from several students, all raised and schooled in China, added dimension to the insights from the text. They stated that in their country’s schools, speaking in class, especially in order to challenge a teacher’s authority on a particular topic, was considered to be a sign of disrespect. Further, such a communicative move could open the speaker up to embarrassment and shaming. My students volunteered that even in group settings without an explicit authority figure, it was often the case that silence was a tacit offer of approval to a speaker, even though the listener might ask questions or contradict the speaker in private later. Such interesting ideas, and of course it begs questions relating to cultural difference, as well as how my students, as teachers, evaluated things like fluency or considered questions of personality, which in reality are very much culturally defined (case in point: many ESL teachers will say that Japanese and Korean students are “shy,” which is a self-contradicting comment…if they are all shy, then none of them are shy.)

These thoughts bring me back to my upcoming research, in which I work with adult immigrants who are “low-status” in terms of educational background, social class, language ability, race/ethnicity, gender, (dis)ability, and/or many other reasons, and how my participants could be silent in their interviews or their talk in focus groups. Perhaps I could even silence them in the ways I collect information, through question design and even the ways our socially-based power relationship plays out in a micro environment like a conversation in English. Such questions relate to the concept of interactional dynamics and speak to epistemological inconsistencies in research. Papers by Dodson and Schmalzbauer (2005) and Miller (2011) explore these topics and will shape my work as I move forward toward into the dissertation phase of my PhD. The real preoccupation is the political commitment to what lies beneath the work: to understanding that even the greatest of social crusaders can write over the stories of her participants through unequal power dynamics and assumptions about research participants who are poor, speak and think differently, and have different abilities and literacies than she does.

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