Meritocracy, Nostalgia, and the Myth of the Post-Racial School

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I went to high school in northern Virginia. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. A public magnet school, one of the best in the nation.

It is common knowledge that the school has very low numbers of black and Hispanic students. For instance, I think there were three black students in my graduating class of about 450. Hispanic enrollment is slightly higher, but still disproportionately low, with respect to the Hispanic population in northern Virginia.

For many years after its founding in 1985, Jefferson “actively sought to diversify its enrollment, even if that sometimes meant admitting students with lower test scores than others.” This policy was modified in 1997, in the wake of affirmative action policies getting struck down throughout the nation. Black and Hispanic enrollment dropped in subsequent years, and then the school modified its admissions policy again in 2004 “to allow race to be considered as a factor,” without actively requiring it.

As it turns out, Jefferson still has not managed to attract higher percentages of the desired minorities. The new policy was put in place back in 2004, and since 2008, Jefferson has consistently been admitting a plurality of Asian students. Nevertheless, despite this four-year delay (see this chart) and lack of any corroborating evidence, the WaPo and its guest contributors have been quick to establish cause and effect between the 2004 change in admissions policy and the changing face of the student body (See this and this).

They claim first of all that the student body has changed: not just in racial make-up, but in educational background, and in motivations for attending Jefferson. But instead of having a productive discussion about the supposed changes, these pieces attach value judgments to the changes, blame the admissions policy and then descend into hysteria over who does and does not deserve to attend. Ultimately, these articles betray a discomfort with the changing face of the student body.

The narrative varies depending on who is writing. Some commentators have separated the change in policy from the changing racial demographics of the student body. So for instance, the WaPo has published a couple of articles this year about how the new admissions policy can be easily gamed. There was this article about how Jefferson has become soft on math, and this piece by John Dell, a Jefferson physics teacher, about how the new admissions process “is more about memory, language skill, motivation to be successful in college admissions, test prep and just plain luck than the best available indicators of promise as a future scientist, engineer or mathematician.”

We have competing narratives: Jefferson is attracting humanities types, rote memorizers, mere opportunists who want to get into a good college (<– all BAD things). And all this is a result of the new admissions policy. The missing link is: these new narratives do not explicitly connect themselves to the narrative about changing racial demographics. I will return to this missing link.

By the way, there was also this article last year, which was almost refreshing in its blatant xenophobia. It was published in the wake of Jefferson announcing that it would be adding an ESL instructor to its staff. The principal defended the decision by saying that since the school is a science and tech school, it is entirely plausible that Jefferson gets some students who excel in those areas but have trouble with English. The best part, though, was this quote by Gary Bottorff, former director of corporate and community relations for the Thomas Jefferson Partnership Fund. He said he “hope[s] that the administration is ensuring that all of these kids are U.S. citizens.” Oh, Gary.

But let us take these criticisms seriously. I know what that physics teacher Dell is describing: a nebulous sense that the kids at Jefferson these days are motivated by something… different from what he was used to seeing. And that this is a cause for panic.

For what it’s worth, that scary-sounding statistic about a third of entering students needing remedial math help? It seems to concern Jefferson administrators as well, and sure enough, the admissions policy is apparently up for revision now. (Unrelated: I would like more context for that statistic. This article frames it as an issue of middle schools failing to teach students well. At its most benign, it seems like an instance of leveling the playing field: note, the tests seem to have been administered right after the students arrived at Jefferson. Of course, that is exactly what Dell doesn’t want to do: waste time catching people up)

Am I defending the new admissions policy? No. It could be genuinely flawed. That’s not the point. The school should do whatever it thinks best, and anyway, I have insufficient data. But if I have insufficient data, so do these contributors to the WaPo, within and without the school. The new admissions policy underpins so much of what they think is wrong with the school. But at some point, it stops being about the admissions policy. It turns instead into an arbitrary discussion about who does and does not deserve to be at Jefferson.

In one of these narratives, the hand-wringing is over those humanities types who game the system, just jonesing for a world-class public education. In another narrative, the hand-wringing is over people who see Jefferson as a stepping stone to an Ivy League college. In another narrative, the hand-wringing is over the school not only not attracting the desired minorities, but actively attracting the “wrong students.”

And the missing link? These narratives are explicitly connected to one another and to race only a couple of times: in Dell’s oblique references to “other agendas” and “political failure” overwhelming the goals of the “old Jefferson,” in Jay Mathews’ acknowledgment that the school would do better “finding the students who come for the love of math, not prestige.”

But all of them peddle a deeply conservative outlook towards education. They champion meritocracy and blind students to the limitedness of their own cultural context. They encourage that pernicious myth of a post-racial school. All things, by the way, that sometimes made my time at Jefferson miserable. All things that are laid bare in the comments sections of most of these articles.

The hysteria itself is nothing new; but the scale of the hysteria is. Many years ago, one of my teachers at Jefferson told me I didn’t deserve to be there. Based on… what? He didn’t say. It probably was not my race, never my race. We were far too post-racial for that. But perhaps my initial (and very Indian!) comfort with rote memorization as opposed to critical thinking? My eventual realization that I wanted to pursue a non-STEM field? I was guilty as charged on both counts. I was also 14.

Dell’s framing of the issue is seductive because it relies so heavily on nostalgia. Consider his “old” Jefferson, where things were just so… reliable. Where teachers could assume a certain level of knowledge, a certain type of schooling, and the right type of interest in STEM.

His framing of the issue is dangerous because applicants to Jefferson are certainly not that monolithic now, even if they ever were before.

The fact that ideas like his get such prime space in the WaPo is even more disturbing. In any case, it has become the dominant narrative in this WaPo-fueled hysteria over how Jefferson is going to the shitter.

But is this narrative helpful? Maybe the peddlers of this narrative will see their grievances addressed in the upcoming revision of the admissions policy. If the new admissions policy caused all their problems, maybe the newer one will solve all of them. Maybe Jefferson will once again start admitting only the right students, who come for STEM and only for STEM, who have no thoughts of prestige, who speak English fluently but not too elegantly for a STEM student, who just get critical thinking and come from middle schools that already encourage it.

Hell, Gary, maybe they’ll even all be citizens.

JAINSPOTTING: The Mindy Project

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This is the first Jainspotting post!

Jainspotting is when you spot a South Asian person in, like, pop culture and stuff! The person does not have to be Jain, although man, the day we actually see a Jain in American pop culture, this label will come in extra handy.

Anyway, Fox has greenlighted Mindy Kaling’s show The Mindy Project for its fall 2012 line-up. From the WaPo’s Lisa de Moraes:

“Fox says she plays a skilled – thank goodness or it would not be a comedy — OB/GYN trying to pursue her dream of becoming the perfect woman, finding the perfect man and getting her perfect romantic comedy ending.”

Check out the trailer here: Read the rest of this entry

Via Racialicious: NYC Conference about Reproductive Justice

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Well, this looks interesting. Via Racialicious, an announcement:

New York City Reproductive Justice Coalition, a outgrowth of SisterSong NYC, proudly hosts its first reproductive-justice media conference this weekend!

Attendees–and those following the Ustream–will hear from RJ activists and writers Aimee Thorne-ThomsenBelle Taylor McGheeJamia WilsonAkiba SolomonDara Sharif,Simone JhingoorShanelle MatthewsJasmine BurnettFaith PennickNuala Cabral,Carol McDonaldDalila-Johari PaulGabriela ValleNicole ClarkSteph HeroldPamela MerrittJanna Zinzi, and the R’s Jessica Danforth (Yee). Racialicious’ Associate Editor Andrea Plaid will open the workshop.”

You can follow the livestream here. You can also check out NYCRJC’s Twitter stream @NYC4RJ

I won’t be able to watch the whole thing, but I hope to catch at least parts of it!

What If They’re Really Not Like Us?

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Last month Foreign Policy magazine published its “Sex” issue, featuring an article by Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy, titled “Why Do They Hate Us?”

As soon as the article was published, it faced tremendous backlash, especially among Arab and Muslim women. You can read some of these responses here. Six responses were published by Foreign Policy itself, including one by Egyptian-American scholar Leila Ahmed, professor of women’s studies at Harvard Divinity School. Ahmed and Eltahawy also appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show and discussed the article. Here is the link to the video, which I got via Feministing:

The Backlash

I am going to focus on that conversation between Eltahawy and Ahmed, and why I think they were both talking past each other. But first, a rundown of the basic critiques leveled against Eltahawy.

Read the rest of this entry

The White Feminist Savior Industrial Complex

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Racialicious Crush of the Week is “Oppressed Brown Girls Doing Things,” run by a young brown woman living in Canada. Now as you all know, this is a topic very close to my heart, because I, too, am oppressed, a brown girl, and sometimes I do things.

You can check out the Tumblr: http://oppressedbrowngirlsdoingthings.tumblr.com/

But be forewarned, this Tumblr is somewhat misleading. It shows brown girls doing things like reading or hugging or wearing make-up, but we all know those are free activities associated with the free world. Sure, you might think, some women in India do things, but certainly not all of them! The ones who do things are just the less oppressed ones.

Or, as a commenter over on Racialicious points out:

While not all Indian women are oppressed the kind of freedom available to the average Indian Woman in India (Indian is an ethnicity and a nationality. I am Indian ethnically but I am british Indian) and indeed some families in the UK is not the same as we expect as a norm.

It’s simple. If you are forced to display your independence in other ways then you are not free, because you are being forced to display independence in ways that won’t get ostracised by your community.

Not every woman has the freedom of those on the blog and in your photos. In India atleast the women who you have portrayed are in the minority.

I agree. When Indian women read or knit, they’re just trying to be independent in a way that won’t get them ostracized. I’ve seen white women read and knit and hang out with friends, and the dynamic is totally different. Less… oppression-y. You know?

Hell, I know, because I grew up in India. At the tender age of 13, I moved to the U.S. with my family, and man, the last nine years have been great! I’m totally not oppressed here! Probably because we are no longer within Indian boundaries. On the contrary, white people are so interested in my culture. I love it when they ask me how I feel about marrying a stranger, and whether or not I’m allowed to date white men. (By the way, am I??)

I like this Tumblr because it reminds me of the hell I left behind, where I was so oppressed, I could only show my agency by reading books and hanging out with the kids in my neighborhood. Sure, some of us read Harry Potter in India, but we were totally a minority. A minority that loved to read? No, a minority that was truly free. Even when I was in India, I recognized my privilege and always felt sorry for those poor oppressed girls not reading Harry Potter because of their oppression. Here in America, everybody reads Harry Potter and rides bicycles because everybody is free and nobody is oppressed.

And I like that comment because it ties oppression to national boundaries in a way that we all need to do more. It defines freedom very helpfully. Reading Harry Potter in America –> normal. Reading Harry Potter in Pakistan –> a subversive, but pathetic way to fight oppression. Got it.

I think I learned something today. Oppression comes in many shapes and forms, and so does freedom. Just because brown women read books and wear make-up doesn’t mean they’ve attained full equality in society… any more than white women have. But just because they haven’t attained full equality in society doesn’t mean they can’t read books or wear make-up or articulate their grievances.

Now, on to saving them!