How Barack Obama failed black Americans, William A. Darity Jr.
The “acting white” libel is symptomatic of a more general perspective—a perspective that argues that an important factor explaining racial economic disparities is self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior on the part of blacks themselves. And Barack Obama continuously has trafficked in this perspective. Of course, there are some black folk who engage in habits that undermine their potential accomplishments, but there are some white folk who engage in habits that undermine their potential accomplishments as well. And there is no evidence to demonstrate that are proportionately more blacks who behave in ways that undercut achievement, especially since it is clear that blacks do more with less. Nevertheless, Obama consistently has trafficked heavily in the tropes of black dysfunction. Either he is unfamiliar with or uninterested in the evidence that undercuts the black behavioral deficiency narrative. These tropes, in my view, do malicious work.
Once edujournalist Paul Tough and “grit”-genius Angela Duckworth realized their significant contributions to the “grit” industry were gradually being unmasked, they discovered ways to cash in on backpedalling (slightly) to keep the train rolling.
Regretfully, many very good people have praised Tough and Duckworth for their much-too-late and way-too-little—somehow ignoring the incredible damage that has been done to vulnerable populations of students—and even recommend Tough and Duckworth’s “new” books.
Please, I beg of you, do not forgive and forget, and especially do not fund further the “grit” industry.
Let me offer instead a few alternatives:
Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
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And I am certainly sensitive to Thomas’s point that a reluctance to call racism by its name makes its eradication that much more difficult. Let me be clear: grit theory, in the wrong hands, fuels racism and classism. But I am more concerned about what happens when grit theory is in the right hands.
The feebleness of this example exposes a flaw in this book and, to a lesser degree, in Duckworth’s doctrine: A focus on grit decouples character education from moral development. Duckworth never questions the values of a society geared toward winning, nor does she address the systemic barriers to success. She is aware of the problem, and includes the necessary to-be-sure paragraph. “Opportunities — for example, having a great coach or teacher — matter tremendously,” she writes. “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” She concludes with a section praising the writer and MacArthur fellow Ta‑Nehisi Coates for being “especially gritty,” though I wonder how Coates, who has written extensively about structural racism in America, might feel about being used to exemplify her up-by-the-bootstraps ethos.
You can’t blame Duckworth for how people apply her ideas, but she’s not shy about reducing them to nostrums that may trickle down in problematic ways. On the one hand, some of the “no excuses” charter schools that her research helped to shape have raised math and literacy scores among minority and poor students. On the other hand, a growing number of scholars as well as former teachers at those schools report that some of the schools, at least, feel more like prisons than houses of learning. Schools that prize self-regulation over self-expression may lift a number of children out of poverty, but may also train them to act constrained and overly deferential — “worker-learners,” as the ethnographer Joanne W. Golann calls them. Meanwhile, schools for more affluent children encourage intellectual curiosity, independent reasoning and creativity. Ask yourself which institutions are more likely to turn out leaders. Perhaps an approach to character training that’s less hard-edge — dare I say, less John Wayne-ish? — and more willing to cast a critical eye on the peculiarly American cult of individual ascendancy could instill grit while challenging social inequality, rather than inadvertently reproducing it.
This paper seeks to apply longitudinal discourse analysis to the AngloAmerican conversation about grit. Examining the history of grit reveals more than the simple fact that this character trait has had a long life. The “usefulness” noted in this paper’s title refers to the way in which language and rhetoric are employed to “legitimize relations of organized power” (Habermas, 1967, in Wodak and Meyer, 2009, p. 10). In other words, the grit discourse allows privileged socioeconomic groups to preserve their position under the guise of creative pedagogy. This phenomenon does not require malevolence on the part of its enactors. In fact, it can coexist with perfectly benign intentions.
While I think his claim that a historical analysis of the use of the term “grit” discounts arguments the term has racist implications is flawed, his analysis is excellent and important in this discussion.
It’s deplorable to defend teaching that mimics animal training and extreme discipline practices in the name of a school’s success record. Usually the children who have the most needs are the ones that suffer, and if we push our most vulnerable children away, then it’s hardly a success at all.
In fact, it perpetuates the school- to-prison pipeline. After all, we’re relegating children to alternative schools that continue to fail children. Many of these children who are pushed away drop out of school and ironically end up in the hands of the justice system.
The irony is that black students aren’t the ones who need fixing.
Deficit thinking corrupts the potential effectiveness of even the most competent teachers.
White folk must unlearn their negative expectations. That’s the only way we’re ever going to change the structures that really hold students back.