I began teaching a class of 28 prisoners at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey during the first week of September. My last class meeting was Friday. The course revolved around plays by August Wilson, James Baldwin, John Herbert, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Miguel Piñero, Amiri Baraka and other playwrights who examine and give expression to the realities of America’s black underclass as well as the prison culture. We also read Michelle Alexander’s important book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Each week the students were required to write dramatic scenes based on their experiences in and out of prison.
My class, although I did not know this when I began teaching, had the most literate and accomplished writers in the prison. And when I read the first batch of scenes it was immediately apparent that among these students was exceptional talent.
The class members had a keen eye for detail, had lived through the moral and physical struggles of prison life and had the ability to capture the patois of the urban poor and the prison underclass. They were able to portray in dramatic scenes and dialogue the horror of being locked in cages for years. And although the play they collectively wrote is fundamentally about sacrifice—the sacrifice of mothers for children, brothers for brothers, prisoners for prisoners—the title they chose was “Caged.” They made it clear that the traps that hold them are as present in impoverished urban communities as in prison.
The mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States. The 28 men in my class have cumulatively spent 515 years in prison. Some of their sentences are utterly disproportionate to the crimes of which they are accused. Most are not even close to finishing their sentences or coming before a parole board, which rarely grants first-time applicants their liberty. Many of them are in for life. One of my students was arrested at the age of 14 for a crime that strong evidence suggests he did not commit. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. He never had a chance in court and because he cannot afford a private attorney he has no chance now of challenging the grotesque sentence handed to him as a child.
My stacks of 28 scenes written by the students each week, the paper bearing the musty, sour smell of the prison, rose into an ungainly pile. I laboriously shaped and edited the material. It grew, line by line, scene by scene, into a powerful and deeply moving dramatic vehicle. The voices and reality of those at the very bottom rung of our society—some of the 2.2 million people in prisons and jails across the country, those we as a society are permitted to demonize and hate, just as African-Americans were once demonized and hated during slavery and Jim Crow—began to flash across the pages like lightning strikes. There was more brilliance, literacy, passion, wisdom and integrity in that classroom than in any other classroom I have taught in, and I have taught at some of the most elite universities in the country. The mass incarceration of men and women like my students impoverishes not just them, their families and their communities, but the rest of us as well.
“The most valuable blacks are those in prison,” August Wilson once said, “those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African. They got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them.” He added: “The greatest spirit of resistance among blacks [is] found among those in prison.”
I increased the class meetings by one night a week. I read the scenes to my wife, Eunice Wong, who is a professional actor, and friends such as the cartoonist Joe Sacco and the theologian James Cone. Something unique, almost magical, was happening in the prison classroom—a place I could reach only after passing through two metal doors and a metal detector, subjecting myself to a pat-down by a guard, an X-ray inspection of my canvas bag of books and papers, getting my hand stamped and then checked under an ultraviolet light, and then passing through another metal door into a barred circular enclosure. In every visit I was made to stand in the enclosure for several minutes before being permitted by the guards to pass through a barred gate and then walk up blue metal stairs, through a gantlet of blue-uniformed prison guards, to my classroom.
The class, through the creation of the play, became an intense place of reflection, debate and self-discovery. Offhand comments, such as the one made by a student who has spent 22 years behind bars, that “just because your family doesn’t visit you doesn’t mean they don’t love you,” reflected the pain, loneliness and abandonment embedded in the lives of my students. There were moments that left the class unable to speak.
A student with 19 years behind bars read his half of a phone dialogue between himself and his mother. He was the product of rape and tells his mother that he sacrificed himself to keep his half brother—the only son his mother loves—out of prison. He read this passage in the presentation of the play in the prison chapel last Thursday to visitors who included Cornel West and James Cone.
Terrance: You don’t understand[,] Ma.
Terrance: You’re right. Never mind.
PauseTerrance: What you want me to say Ma?
Terrance: Ma, they were going to lock up Bruce. The chrome [the gun] was in the car. Everyone in the car would be charged with murder if no one copped to it …
Terrance: I didn’t kill anyone Ma… Oh yeah, I forgot, whenever someone says I did, I did it.
Terrance: I told ’em what they wanted to hear. That’s what niggas supposed to do in Newark. I told them what they wanted to hear to keep Bruce out of it. Did they tell you who got killed? Did they say it was my father?
Terrance: Then you should know I didn’t do it. If I ever went to jail for anything it would be killing him … and he ain’t dead yet. Rape done brought me into the world. Prison gonna take me out. An’ that’s the way it is Ma.
Terrance: Come on Ma, if Bruce went to jail you would’uv never forgiven me. Me, on the other hand, I wasn’t ever supposed to be here.
Terrance: I’m sorry Ma … I’m sorry. Don’t be cryin’. You got Bruce. You got him home. He’s your baby. Bye Ma. I call you later.
After our final reading of the play I discovered the student who wrote this passage sobbing in the bathroom, convulsed with grief.
In the play when a young prisoner contemplates killing another prisoner he is given advice on how to survive prolonged isolation in the management control unit (solitary confinement, known as MCU) by an older prisoner who has spent 30 years in prison under a sentence of double life. There are 80,000 U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement, which human rights organizations such as Amnesty International define as a form of torture. In this scene the older man tells the young inmate what to expect from the COs, or correction officers.
Ojore (speaking slowly and softly): When they come and get you, ’cause they are gonna get you, have your hands out in front of you with your palms showing. You want them to see you have no weapons. Don’t make no sudden moves. Put your hands behind your head. Drop to your knees as soon as they begin barking out commands.
Omar: My knees?
Ojore: This ain’t a debate. I’m telling you how to survive the hell you ’bout to endure. When you get to the hole you ain’t gonna be allowed to have nothing but what they give you. If you really piss them off you get a ‘dry cell’ where the sink and the toilet are turned on and off from outside. You gonna be isolated. No contact. No communication.
Ojore: ’Cause they don’t want you sendin’ messages to nobody before dey question some of da brothers on the wing. IA [internal affairs officers] gonna come and see you. They gonna want a statement. If you don’t talk they gonna try and break you. They gonna open the windows and let the cold in. They gonna take ya sheets and blankets away. They gonna mess with ya food so you can’t eat it. An’ don’t eat no food that come in trays from the Vroom Building. Nuts in Vroom be spittin’, pissin’ and shittin’ in the trays. Now, the COs gonna wake you up every hour on the hour so you can’t sleep. They gonna put a bright-ass spotlight in front of ya cell and keep it on day and night. They gonna harass you wit’ all kinds of threats to get you to cooperate. They will send in the turtles in their shin guards, gloves, shank-proof vests, forearm guards and helmets with plexiglass shields on every shift to give you beat-downs.
Omar: How long this gonna go on?
Ojore: Til they break you. Or til they don’t. Three days. Three weeks. You don’t break, it go on like this for a long time. An’ if you don’t think you can take it, then don’t start puttin’ yerself through this hell. Just tell ’em what they wanna know from the door. You gonna be in MCU for the next two or three years. You’ll get indicted for murder. You lookin’ at a life bid. An’ remember MCU ain’t jus’ ’bout isolation. It’s ’bout keeping you off balance. The COs, dressed up in riot gear, wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you. They bring in dogs trained to go for your balls. You spend 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. They put you in the MCU and wait for you to self-destruct. An’ it works. Men self-mutilate. Men get paranoid. Men have panic attacks. They start hearing voices. They talk crazy to themselves. I seen one prisoner swallow a pack of AA batteries. I seen a man shove a pencil up his dick. I seen men toss human shit around like it was a ball game. I seen men eat their own shit and rub it all over themselves like it was some kinda body lotion. Then, when you really get out of control, when you go really crazy, they got all their torture instruments ready—four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains. But the physical stuff ain’t the worst. The worst is the psychological, the humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat and the long weeks and months of solitary. If you don’t have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive. They want to defeat you mentally. An’ I seen a lot of men defeated.
The various drafts of the play, made up of scenes and dialogue contributed by everyone in the class, brought to the surface the suppressed emotions and pain that the students bear with profound dignity. A prisoner who has been incarcerated for 22 years related a conversation with his wife during her final visit in 1997. Earlier his 6-year-old son had innocently revealed that the woman was seeing another man. “I am aware of what kind of time I got,” he tells his wife. “I told you when I got found guilty to move on with your life, because I knew what kind of time I was facing, but you chose to stick around. The reason I told you to move on with your life was because I didn’t want to be selfish. So look, man, do what the fuck you are going to do, just don’t keep my son from me. That’s all I ask.” He never saw his child again. When he handed me the account he said he was emotionally unable to read it out loud.
Those with life sentences wrote about dying in prison. The prisoners are painfully aware that some of them will end their lives in the medical wing without family, friends or even former cellmates. One prisoner, who wrote about how men in prolonged isolation adopt prison mice as pets, naming them, carefully bathing them, talking to them and keeping them on string leashes, worked in the prison infirmary. He said that as some prisoners were dying they would ask him to hold their hand. Often no one comes to collect the bodies. Often, family members and relatives are dead or long estranged. The corpses are taken by the guards and dumped in unmarked graves.
A discussion of Wilson’s play “Fences” became an exploration of damaged manhood and how patterns of abuse are passed down from father to son. “I spent my whole life trying not to be my father,” a prisoner who has been locked up for 23 years said. “And when I got to Trenton I was put in his old cell.”
The night we spoke about the brilliant play “Dutchman,” by LeRoi Jones, now known as Amira Baraka, the class grappled with whites’ deeply embedded stereotypes and latent fear of black men. I had also passed out copies of Robert Crumb’s savage cartoon strip “When the Niggers Take Over America!,” which portrays whites’ fear of black males—as well as the legitimate black rage that is rarely understood by white society.
The students wanted to be true to the violence and brutality of the streets and prison—places where one does not usually have the luxury of being nonviolent—yet affirm themselves as dignified and sensitive human beings. They did not want to paint everyone in the prison as innocents. But they know that transformation and redemption are real.
There are many Muslims in the prison. They have a cohesive community, sense of discipline and knowledge of their own history, which is the history of the long repression and subjugation of African-Americans. Most Muslims are very careful about their language in prison and do not curse, meaning I had to be careful when I assigned parts to the class.
There is a deep reverence in the prison for Malcolm X. When the class spoke of him one could almost feel Malcolm’s presence. Malcolm articulated, in a way Martin Luther King Jr. did not, the harsh reality of poor African-Americans trapped in the internal colonies of the urban North.
The class wanted the central oracle of the play to be an observant Muslim. Faith, when you live in the totalitarian world of the prison, is important. The conclusion of the play was the result of an intense and heated discussion about the efficacy and nature of violence and forgiveness. But by the end of a nearly hourlong discussion the class had unanimously signed off on the final scene, which I do not want to reveal here because I hope that one day it will be available to be seen or read. It was the core message the prisoners wanted most to leave with outsiders, who often view them as less than human.
The play has a visceral, raw anger and undeniable truth that only the lost and the damned can articulate. The students wrote a dedication that read: “We have been buried alive behind these walls for years, often decades. Most of the outside world has abandoned us. But a few friends and family have never forgotten that we are human beings and worthy of life. It is to them, our saints, that we dedicate this play.” And they said that if the play was ever produced, and if anyone ever bought tickets, they wanted all the money that might be earned to go to funding the educational program at the prison. This was a decision by men who make, at most, a dollar a day at prison jobs.
We read the Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The character Bynum Walker, a conjurer, tells shattered African-Americans emerging from the nightmare of slavery that they each have a song but they must seek it out. Once they find their song they will find their unity as a people, their inner freedom and their identity. The search for one’s song in Wilson’s play functions like prayer. It gives each person a purpose, strength and hope. It allows a person, even one who has been bitterly oppressed, to speak his or her truth defiantly to the world. Our song affirms us, even if we are dejected and despised, as human beings.
Prisoners are given very little time by the guards to line up in the corridor outside the classroom when the prison bell signals the end of class. If they lag behind they can get a “charge” from the guards that can restrict their already very limited privileges and freedom of movement. For this reason, my classroom emptied quickly Friday night. I was left alone in the empty space, my eyes damp, my hands trembling as I clutched their manuscript. They had all signed it for me. I made the long and lonely walk down the prison corridors, through the four metal security doors, past the security desk to the dark, frozen parking lot. I looked back, past the coils of razor wire that topped the chain-link fencing, at the shadowy bulk of the prison. I have their song. I will make it heard. I do not know what it takes to fund and mount a theater production. I intend to learn.
Roger’s note: This article reflects pretty much what I have been thinking but did not have the courage to say it. In a note to a friend I mentioned that the media and pundits have de-fanged Mandela much as they have MLK.
Nelson Mandela tributes in Parliament Square – London
(image by John Pannell)
OpEdNews Op Eds 12/7/2013 at 19:55:59
Offering a dissenting opinion at this moment of a general outpouring of grief at Nelson Mandela’s death is not likely to court popularity. It is also likely to be misunderstood.
So let me start by recognising Mandela’s huge achievement in helping to bring down South African apartheid, and make clear my enormous respect for the great personal sacrifices he made, including spending so many years caged up for his part in the struggle to liberate his people. These are things impossible to forget or ignore when assessing someone’s life.
Nonetheless, it is important to pause during the widespread acclamation of his legacy, mostly by people who have never demonstrated a fraction of his integrity, to consider a lesson that most observers want to overlook.
Perhaps the best way to make my point is to highlight a mock memo written in 2001 by Arjan el-Fassed, from Nelson Mandela to the NYT’s columnist Thomas Friedman. It is a wonderful, humane denunciation of Friedman’s hypocrisy and a demand for justice for the Palestinians that Mandela should have written. [http://www.keghart.com/Mandela-Palestine]
Soon afterwards, the memo spread online, stripped of el-Fassed’s closing byline. Many people, including a few senior journalists, assumed it was written by Mandela and published it as such. It seemed they wanted to believe that Mandela had written something as morally clear-sighted as this about another apartheid system, an Israeli one that is at least the equal of that imposed for decades on black South Africans.
However, the reality is that it was not written by Mandela, and his staff even went so far as to threaten legal action against the author.
Mandela spent most his adult life treated as a “terrorist”. There was a price to be paid for his long walk to freedom, and the end of South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. Mandela was rehabilitated into an “elder statesman” in return for South Africa being rapidly transformed into an outpost of neoliberalism, prioritising the kind of economic apartheid most of us in the west are getting a strong dose of now.
In my view, Mandela suffered a double tragedy in his post-prison years.
First, he was reinvented as a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility.
Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was required to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.
It is an indication of what Mandela was up against that the man who fought so hard and long against a brutal apartheid regime was so completely defeated when he took power in South Africa. That was because he was no longer struggling against a rogue regime but against the existing order, a global corporate system of power that he had no hope of challenging alone.
It is for that reason, rather simply to be contrarian, that I raise these failings. Or rather, they were not Mandela’s failings, but ours. Because, as I suspect Mandela realised only too well, one cannot lead a revolution when there are no followers.
For too long we have slumbered through the theft and pillage of our planet and the erosion of our democratic rights, preferring to wake only for the release of the next iPad or smart phone.
The very outpouring of grief from our leaders for Mandela’s loss helps to feed our slumber. Our willingness to suspend our anger this week, to listen respectfully to those watery-eyed leaders who forced Mandela to reform from a fighter into a notable, keeps us in our slumber. Next week there will be another reason not to struggle for our rights and our grandchildren’s rights to a decent life and a sustainable planet. There will always be a reason to worship at the feet of those who have no real power but are there to distract us from what truly matters.
No one, not even a Mandela, can change things by him or herself. There are no Messiahs on their way, but there are many false gods designed to keep us pacified, divided and weak.
Roger’s note: If you have not been following the attempts to privatize and, in effect, destroy public education in the United States, Diane Ravitch is a prominent and respected educator who has taken a 180 degree turn from a supporter to its major critic. Backed by mega corporations such as Microsoft and spearheaded by Obama’s basketball playmate and Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, the initiative involves making a fetish of standardized testing, the increased funding of elite charter schools, the marginalization of children from non-white and lower economic families, and a drastic reduction of dependence upon the skills, talents, and experience of teachers. The comments posted after the article fill in some of the details of how this works in practice. If genuine public education is to survive in the U.S., then serious resistance to this typical capitalistic attempt to make money at the expense of children, is essential.
In 2007 when Diane Ravitch descended from her 20,000-foot view of the education reform landscape to examine what was going on at ground level, she did not like what she saw: children suffering nose-bleeds and vomiting from test anxiety, school personnel and parents humiliated by test results designed to satisfy the failure quotas imposed by cynical and self-serving corporate privateers and political ideologues; educators being blamed for the effects of poverty that no amount of good teaching could fix alone; untrained beginners replacing education professionals in schools that needed the most caring and experienced teachers; schools that had functioned as community centers of identity and activity being closed; a pathological fixation of quantifiable data that had displaced attention to the human needs of growing children; an educational governance structure increasingly controlled by autocratic and arrogant billionaires; and an incredibly shrinking and brittle collection of desiccated facts having replaced the curriculum for the lower caste of segregated untouchable children incarcerated in more and more urban corporate reform schools.
Seeing all this, Ravitch did what was unthinkable among the delusional and arrogant group of efficiency-worshipping zealots with whom she had spent much time during the prior twenty years: she admitted the entire antiquated system of back to basics on steroids 1) was not improving teaching and learning, 2) was not closing the achievement gaps, 3) was not making public schools stronger, and 4) was not being held accountable for the previous decades of more of the same failed policies built upon the same racist and classist standardized testing foundation, made harder still with each subsequent repackaged iteration.
What makes Diane Ravitch even more unique is that she did not sit behind a screen to offer her insider testimony on these issues to the court of public opinion and then go into an educational witness protection program but, rather, she made the continuing public condemnation of the Billionaire Boys Club her raison d’être, even as the plutocrats’ high-testosterone testocrats have challenged her unassailable facts and as the academic mercenaries from the corporate think tanks have resorted to pretzel logic in attempts to refute her wisdom. Since 2010 when she published The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch has been on a non-stop one-woman road show, crisscrossing the country, speaking to the growing and rumbling army of educators of the nation’s PS Hope.
In her new book, Ravitch has brought a megaphone to the long-ignored message that resistance, indeed, is not futile but, rather, resistance is demanded and that resistance will prevail.
Somehow she has found time between her face-to-face engagements and her online presence as both tweeter and blogger, to write a new book with a cover title in two inch orange Day-Glo letters: Reign of Error. Unlike with Death and Life, which Ravitch shopped to numerous publishers before landing with Basic Books, this time New York’s premier publishing house, Knopf, was eager to snap up Reign or Error, along with generous provisions for promotion, advertising, and touring.
The new book picks up where the last one left off, this time mixing sharp punctures of the ‘Corporate Education’ gas bags with lists of positive strategies that are sure to rankle the proto-fascist sensibilities of the corporate Borg’s swarm of propagandists, e.g., the Wall Street Journal. In this new volume, in fact, Ravitch has brought a megaphone to the long-ignored message that resistance, indeed, is not futile but, rather, resistance is demanded and that resistance will prevail. Her logic to reaching that conclusion is as simple and clear as her deliberate prose, and the directness of her indignant optimism bespeaks an historian who is enjoying her moment and looking forward to a future that she is determined to make livable and learnable for her grandchildren, and ours.
The first half of Reign of Error takes up for discussion a series of reformist claims that are repeated so often by the post-partisan CorpEd think tanks that they would have to be accurate if repetition were sole criterion for establishing truth. Reformist bromides are refuted with clear statements from evidence-based reality that are accompanied with enough documented examples to send any self-serving edupreneur scrambling back to his corporate teaching manual in hopes of salvaging some semblance of pedagogical respectability.
The second half of the book is comprised of Ravitch’s Top Ten educational policy interventions that may, once taken seriously by Washington, again restore sanity to an education policy world gone wild with what Harold Rugg called an “orgy of tabulation,” whose corrupting and abusive practices have spread into kindergarten and pre-K. Each point is discussed with clarity, determination, and evidence that Ravitch has been listening to the most important professionals not included in policy discussions—teachers.
It took a long time for Dr. Ravitch to break clear of the corporatist influence that has controlled the increasingly antiquarian version of education reform since the coming of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Whether her conversion in 2007 resulted from the gentle persuasion of researchers like Richard Rothstein or from the fierce prodding of researcher-advocates like Gerald Bracey and Susan Ohanian, Diane has made up for lost time since regaining her sight after being struck blind on the road out of DC. Whatever happens over the next ten or twenty years in education policy, her place is secure, just after six years of battle, as the single individual who most influenced the eventual outcome if parents and teachers and students continue to heed the call for the restoration and renewal of public schools free of high stakes tests for all children who choose a high quality and free education. Ravitch has brought the word—now it is time to act.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Jim Horn is Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is also an education blogger at Schools Matter @ the Chalkface and has published widely on issues related to education reform and social justice in education. With co-author, Denise Wilburn, his new book, The Mismeasure of Education, was published in July 2013.
The most serious blow to education delivered by corporate reformers is the discouragement of intelligent, sensitive young people, a hopelessness that keeps them from choosing teaching as a career. Intelligent people do not want the likes of Bill Gates and Arne Duncan telling them what they should be doing in their classrooms. They want the freedom to structure time and space as they see fit–so their students not only learn the stuff but are entranced by it.
How odd that capitalist reformers will not apply the rules of capitalism to education: successful ventures require the expenditure of resources, the recruitment of good people, and the creation of a non-threatening, nurturing atmosphere in which work can be conducted. The damage inflicted on education by corporate reformers will last a generation or more–until the confidence of the young is restored and teaching is regarded as an honorable profession once more.
Agree. If the billionaires think their policies are so terrific, why don’t they use their money to set up a chain of PRIVATE schools which do not take public tax dollars. But, oh no, they want to set up charter schools and a voucher system which do suck up tax dollars at the expense of the REAL public schools. Their real goal is to destroy the real public schools, to privatize the school system, make bundles of cash for charter chains and testing firms and, as a side “benefit,” to destroy, liquidate and eliminate teacher unions. Tenure, seniority, defined benefit pensions will all be jettisoned.
The good news is that the American public is onto the game now, and resistance is breaking out in every section of the country. In a shameless plug for our new book, I urge all teachers who are undergoing the quackery of evaluations based on value-added modeling to buy or ask your library to buy The Mismeasure of Education, which provides a history of this scheme (which has been underway in Tennessee for 20 years), along with a extensive summary of the research that teachers and lawyers will find very useful in seeking redress from a system that can be counted on to give false results in 25 percent of cases.
Indeed. They’re not interested in setting up schools of any kind; they want to destroy the system of public education and replace it with something that will make money for them. They want to create another extractive industry – your kids as ore.
They also make money already of the suppliers of food, where the kids get garbage to eat and the profits go to food merchants. Interesting parallel – garbage food and garbage education.
You may not know this, but when this “create-a-crisis” version of education was imposed on school boards, one of the new improvements was the assignment of an ID number to every child so that his/her (spending) habits could be tracked in order to target marketing strategies. Not quite yet implanting a chip, but getting there.
Your points are spot on, I think. It would seem that the Gates Foundation, which owns Duncan’s ED, has the same destructive system in mind for teaching as the geniuses at Microsoft have used to kill creativity there. This article from Forbes you might find interesting:
1. Stealing technology (from BASIC, MS-DOS, Windows and on and on)
2. Introduction of copy rights on software. In, engaging in plagiarism, Bill Gates managed to equate his intellectual achievements with those of Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy. The irony is that Shakespeare never held copy-rights, while Leo Tolstoy finally gave up his.
The study of Microsoft helps to understand the cultural settings in this country as well as studies of drop of water help to understand ocean. Obsession with money that help to reduce multidimensional Life into set of one-dimensional men explain everything, starting from education and ending with nursing homes and funeral business. But I would agree with term ‘Rein of Error’.
For class that reduced artisans into assembly line cogs and then moved those cogs to other side of the Planet, it is only logical to reduced teachers and pupils into the same cogs. To think that lonely crusade may change anything is to forget that any society is nothing but very big system moving according its own intrinsic algorithms. Education is anathema to ‘Everyone for himself’ core ideology.
Our system is as self-destructive as train wreck abandoned by well trained engineers. Both Hitler’s and Stalin’s gifts to America had run its course.
In short, false hopes and false promises are the most destructive to our mental health, especially now when we need it most.
If we want young people to be able to teach we need to do away with part-time, low pay, no benefit adjunct positions. It is getting so that no one dare go into an education debt that no future salary in teaching will compensate for.
Sorry–voted down instead of “reply”. We all need to say “no”–no, we won’t teach a class for a few bucks an hour, we who worked hard to earn a Masters or better. It’s time to stop volunteering. Stop giving stuff away, our time, our skills, our ability to deliver a good lecture, our talent for sizing up an audience and adjusting our performance thereby. If someone asks me to give a speech to their group about local history, I ask them how much they pay. Charity is for the rich–not that most of them give more than a small fraction of their wealth away–not for the rest of us. I want cool, hard cash.
I would point out that the term “corporate reformers” is too kind and really blurs the issue. These people are disaster capitalists who now lick their cops for public schools the way vultures seek out road kill.
Schools do need reform, but no one will talk about the giant elephant in the room — perpetual war. The US spends most of its tax dollars killing poor children overseas, so it has little left to educate children at home.
And it needs uneducated children to fill the ranks of professional killers.
I listen to my school board members all the time, all of them somewhere on the spectrum of people who identify as “liberals.” But not one of them will speak out against war. Not one of them will call Obama a war criminal (but I would bet most of them called W a war criminal only a few years ago).
Good schools need lots of different avenues for children. What about music and art? Most schools don’t teach them because they want to prepare people for jobs, prepare them to become doctors and lawyers.
But 300 hundred years from now, will people go to museums to look at legal briefs or to concert halls to hear doctors lecture?
Adiantum, I don’t disagree the connection may be hard to make to those not well informed, except that (1) in many schools the day starts with “I pledge allegiance to THE FLAG…”, (2) in others recruiters are given free reign to recruit the vulnerable to military service, (3) state and local taxation is not fundamentally detached from federal govt nor do states and localities not obtain billions from it (for example consider the National Defense Education Act and the National Defense Student Loan program, and (4) the huge number of teachers conned into supporting war-POTUS Obama and Dem elites owing to his duplicitous lip-service paid to public education while supporting corporatization and privatization everywhere you look and doing nothing to support their precedent battle in Wisconsin.
Applause for Diane Ravitch, first for the truth of her research and thesis, and second for her courage in electing open defiance of the corporatist predators despite consequence to herself. Applause also for Jim Horn, for his leadership and amplification of voices of both genders making a critical difference. JIM, it happens that at the time Bush was elected and orchestrated this “accountability and corporate testing hoax”, I was Vice Pres Strat Dev for the USA’s leading (by far) free source of information and resources for teachers and other educators, and “masterminded” an awarded contract to build NEA’s new portal. I’ll find a way to get my contact info to you for purpose of telling a first-person story of fraud perpetrated by the Bush transition team for Education, for which Houston’s “reformer” was the trojan horse.
In the meantime let me also say that what anti-privatization people seem to be inadequately aware of is this: For-profit corporatists like Gates see public ed as a market as lucrative as MIC and healthcare. Their core strategy is to deliver “master teacher” cookie-cutter instruction via internet and proprietary hosted networks employing the internet. Dramatic reduction in spending on teachers, etc. They already have a big and growing share of post-secondary and continuing adult ed. Secondary share is growing but limited to internet connection services, PCs, laptops, handhelds and peripherals. They plan to privatize K-12 in stages. PreK last.
Add in his support for massive vaccine programs AND gen-tech “food” (along the lines of Monsanto), and his “machine” bona fides become clear. The guy views human beings as biological computers devoid of heart, soul or spirit. He’s a very dangerous being.
I greatly admire Diane Ravitch for having the honesty to publicly revise her opinions. Even when she was ensconced with conservatives, she was pushing for enriched curricula. She was never a buffoon. Now she sees that her genuine concern for children and education cannot be fulfilled under the “first starve, then condemn, then privatize” model.
I agree. To me, Diane’s principles and intelligence are unquestioned, and her persistence and work ethic are amazing for anyone, any age. Unfortunately, I think her late conversion speaks to the power of ideology to influence the position from which one views a scene. Her intentions were always good, I argue, but then we know what the road to hell is paved with. Her position as high up on the policy chain during the 90s did not offer her reason to see at the ground level, especially when her position was linked with certain non-negotiable preconceptions, i. e., ideological commitments shared by Bush I and Clinton as well. I believe, too, that she is very loyal, and that it was hard for her to admit that some of her Hoover Institute friends could be acting out of bad faith. To me, her current defense with Randi Weingarten, who sits on the left side of the corporate jet, offers an example of this, even as Weingarten’s loyalty is more with the billionaires that made her, than with the teachers that Diane Ravitch most cares about.
These so called educational reformers think all kids are a jar you poor information into and when asked they can hand it
back, they do not consider all jars are not the same some are even damaged or broken just like kids.
give all parties with a stake a fair say in all decision making.
with this procedural democracy in which students, teachers, parents, taxpayers, and administrators participate, transparency, empowerment, responsibility and accountability will come.
the process itself will educate and train everyone involved as the members of a broader democratic society.
without radical change in the way the members of the society think about what kind of society they want to live in, there will be no real change in the way education is conceived of, school is organized and run, students are taught, teachers are respected, parents are involved, and society is sustained.
my alma mater localized and democratized their school three decades ago (not perfect but substantially) and the difference it has made so far is mind-blowing. everyone is committed, hard-working, proud, satisfied, as everyone owns the result.
Roger’s note: I have long wondered what would have happened if the Civil War had not occurred, and what is now the United States was instead the USA and the CSA. Of course, hindsight is 20\20, but that should not deter us from such an analysis. Certainly on the face of it, Lincoln’s stated primary objective to preserve the Union in order for the great experiment in democracy to survive, can be questioned on the grounds of what that quasi-fascist imperium that it has turned into. Many do not realize that Lincoln was not a dyed-in-the-wool abolitionist, that he made it clear that he could live with slavery if it meant avoiding secession. This raises the question, obviously unanswerable, of how long it would have taken to end the institution of slavery in the slave South if it had remained outside the Union. But everything has to be weighed against the consequence of the Civil War, which was one of the bloodiest in history, with an estimated three quarters of a million dead, which represents around four percent of the male population. And, of course, that is not to mention the wounded and maimed. Also, given the failure of reconstruction and that fact that in a very real sense the Civil War is still being fought, it is not unrealistic to question Lincoln’s decision to go to war.
[Also titled, "The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: Who Chose War IV-- Was Lincoln Wrong to Fight?"]
Some Southerners still call the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression.” I’ve already shown that — it being an act of outlawry to secede the way the South did it — it was no such thing. But was Lincoln, even though he was entitled to use force, nonetheless wrong in his judgment that it was worth a war to hold the Union together?
Abraham Lincoln is generally rated by historians as the nation’s greatest president ever. He was certainly an extraordinary man with a great spirit. His level of compassion, his inclination to forgive those who wronged him, his craving for peace–in all these ways, he seems to us now, and seemed to a great many of his contemporaries, an exceptionally humane man. Also, his navigating of the most complex of waters, during our nation’s greatest crisis, suggests a man of astonishingly acute and subtle judgment.
But for at least a decade I have been wondering about the wisdom and rightness of the main decision of his presidency, the judgment on which almost everything else about his presidency rested: to go to war against the secessionist South in order to preserve the Union.
Lincoln decided to use force to hold the Union together for two main reasons. One is that he believed the secession unconstitutional, and thus that his oath of office, to defend the Constitution, required that he enforce the irrevocability of the states’ membership in the Union. That position was at least arguable, so I don’t think Lincoln needed to feel absolutely honor-bound to resort to war.
His other reason was that he believed profoundly in the American experiment in democracy — a government of the people, for the people, and by the people — and he believed further that the nation’s breaking apart into two nations would grievously discredit the American experiment and therefore the very idea of democracy. He believed that keeping alive this “last, best hope on earth” required keeping the Union together, by force if necessary.
I’ve not come across serious Civil War scholars who question that judgment. But I am unconvinced of its validity.
It is not clear to me that the example of the American democracy would have been discredited if the two regions — which had become in many ways like two different cultures, aside from the deep polarization that had antagonized the two against each other — had negotiated a separation. When Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, that peaceful division seemed an accomplishment to their credit.
If I could place myself back in early 1861, and were in a position to advise the newly-elected President, this is what I would have counseled:
“Offer to sit down with the Confederates and negotiate over the question of their independence. Keep the military option open, use it subtly as an inducement to come to terms favorable to the Union of which you would still be president. Your unwillingness to allow slavery to spread further into the American territories can guide the terms you would accept. See if this can be accomplished peacefully.”
Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight: I know that the war would be more terrible than either side expected at the outset. (Nonetheless, during the 1850s, as the specter of secession loomed, many did anticipate that the outcome might be a nightmarish war.)
Still, as with all counter-factual history, my hindsight doesn’t enable me to see whether my proposed alternative would have worked out better.
In The Federalist Papers, one of the arguments presented for the former colonies to form “a more perfect Union” is that if the colonies break into more than one nation, history suggests the great danger that these sovereign entities would in time find themselves at war with each other. My proposal to Lincoln, the logic of The Federalist would suggest, might only postpone the war.
Indeed, I expect that danger is even greater than the general history of intersocietal relations would suggest. For I do believe that the spirit animating the South was one that was itching for a fight, and I am quite uncertain whether peace would have been possible. Here are three reasons I might be wrong about the chances for a peaceful resolution.
First, I wonder if the Confederate States of America would have been willing to cede to the Union, as part of the price of secession with peace, ownership of the territories of the West that were not yet admitted as states. If I’m right about the spirit animating the South, it might well have been impossible for Lincoln to have achieved acceptable terms.
Second, having read about the appetite of the Southerners for additional territories into which they could take an economy based on slavery — Mexico, Central America, Cuba”– the Confederacy might have been an especially difficult neighbor with which to live at peace.
Third, if I’m right about the South being, at some level, driven toward conflict — driven, I might say, to destruction (this will be the subject of the next installment) — then that, too, might have made a peace between the USA and the CSA difficult to maintain.
Despite all those, I believe that an attempt at negotiating the division of the United States into two nations would have been preferable to the course taken.
Lincoln never considered it. (Many others in the North advocated a position like mine: let the South go, they said, weary of the trouble-making and bullying they’d experienced from that region.)
Perhaps Lincoln’s reasons were good. Perhaps this compassionate man — who was also a very complex man– had a dark side that expressed itself in his rigid determination to undo the secession of the South through war.
I don’t know if Lincoln is to be faulted here. But I hold some space in my thinking for the idea that, in the course Lincoln took, the North bears some responsibility for the fact that the central issue of that era was decided not peacefully but through a monstrous war.
Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia’s 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The (more…)
For 110 years, the numbers stood as gospel: 618,222 men died in the Civil War, 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South — by far the greatest toll of any war in American history.
But new research shows that the numbers were far too low.
By combing through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, has recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000.
The new figure is already winning acceptance from scholars. Civil War History, the journal that published Dr. Hacker’s paper, called it “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear” in its pages. And a pre-eminent authority on the era, Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, said:
“It even further elevates the significance of the Civil War and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history. It helps you understand, particularly in the South with a much smaller population, what a devastating experience this was.”
The old figure dates back well over a century, the work of two Union Army veterans who were passionate amateur historians: William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore.
Fox, who had fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, knew well the horrors of the Civil War. He did his research the hard way, reading every muster list, battlefield report and pension record he could find.
In his 1889 treatise “Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865,” Fox presented an immense mass of information. Besides the aggregate death count, researchers could learn that the Fifth New Hampshire lost more soldiers (295 killed) than any other Union regiment; that Gettysburg and Waterloo were almost equivalent battles, with each of the four combatant armies suffering about 23,000 casualties; that the Union Army had 166 regiments of black troops; and that the average Union soldier was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall and weighed 143 1/2 pounds.
Fox’s estimate of Confederate battlefield deaths was much rougher, however: a “round number” of 94,000, a figure compiled from after-action reports. In 1900, Livermore set out to make a more complete count. In his book, “Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-65,” he reasoned that if the Confederates had lost proportionally the same number of soldiers to disease as the Union had, the actual number of Confederate dead should rise to 258,000.
And that was that. The Fox-Livermore numbers continued to be cited well into the 21st century, even though few historians were satisfied with them. Among many others, James M. McPherson used them without citing the source in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” his Pulitzer-winning 1988 history of the war.
Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.
Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.
“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.
As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.
Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.
The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.
Another hurdle was what Dr. Hacker called the “dreadful” 1870 census, a badly handled undercount taken when the ashes of the war were still warm. But he reasoned a way around that problem.
Because the census takers would quite likely have missed as many women as men, he decided to look at the ratio of male to female deaths in 1870. Next, he examined mortality figures from the decades on either side of the war — the 1850s and 1870s — so that he could get an idea of the “normal” ratio of male to female deaths for a given decade. When he compared those ratios to that of 1860-70, he reasoned, he would see a dramatic spike in male mortality. And he did. Subtracting normal attrition from the male side of the equation left him with a rough estimate of war dead.
It was a better estimate than Fox and Livermore had produced, but Dr. Hacker made it clear that his was not the final answer. He had made several assumptions, each of which stole accuracy from the final result. Among them: that there were no war-related deaths of white women; that the expected normal mortality rate in the 1860s would be the average of the rates in the 1850s and 1870s; that foreign soldiers died at the same rate as native-born soldiers; and that the War Department figure of 36,000 black war dead had to be accepted as accurate because black women suffered so terribly both during and after the war that they could not be used as a control for male mortality.
The study had two significant shortcomings. Dr. Hacker could make no estimate of civilian deaths, an enduring question among historians, “because the overall number is too small relative to the overall number of soldiers killed.” And he could not tell how many of the battlefield dead belonged to each side.
“You could assume that everyone born in the Deep South fought for the Confederacy and everyone born in the North fought for the Union,” he said. “But the border states were a nightmare, and my confidence in the results broke down quickly.”
With all the uncertainties, Dr. Hacker said, the data suggested that 650,000 to 850,000 men died as a result of the war; he chose the midpoint as his estimate.
He emphasized that his methodology was far from perfect. “Part of me thinks it is just a curiosity,” he said of the new estimate.
“But wars have profound economic, demographic and social costs,” he went on. “We’re seeing at least 37,000 more widows here, and 90,000 more orphans. That’s a profound social impact, and it’s our duty to get it right.”
Guy Gugliotta is the author of the new book “Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War.”
The private prison industry is making a killing off the broken criminal justice system.
Private prison companies make billions from torture and confinement.
We can stop this by holding prison companies’ investors, board members, and public officials accountable.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and the private prison industry is making a killing off this broken system. For-profit prison companies get paid for each person that fills their cells — raking in $5 billion in annual revenue.1 Empty beds mean lost profits, so to keep the money flowing the industry spends millions lobbying the government to expand the destructive policies that keep more people behind bars for longer, harsher sentences.2
Tragically, one-third of all Black men will spend part of their lives in prison.3 Meanwhile, for-profit prisons promote and exploit mass incarceration and racial-bias in the criminal justice system — further accelerating our nation’s prison addiction. We can stop this. The prison industry depends on corporate backers for the capital it needs to keep growing,4 and allies in government for contracts that fill their prisons. If we convince enough investors and board members to leave the industry, we can discredit incarceration as a business, bring attention to the harm it creates, and deter public officials from granting contracts to prison companies.
Federal agencies and state governments contract with three main companies to lock people up: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Inc., and the Management and Training Corporation (MTC). The top two prison companies, CCA and GEO, are publicly traded and financed by investors, major banks and corporations, who hold shares in the industry. CCA and GEO Group make money by charging a daily rate per body that is sent to them — costing tax payers billions for dangerous, ineffective facilities.5 The industry also makes money by avoiding tax payments. CCA will dodge $70 million dollars in tax payments this year by becoming a real estate investment trust (REIT) and designating their prisons as “residential”.6
In order to maximize profits, prison companies cut back on staff training, medical care, and rehabilitative services — causing assault rates to double in some private prisons.7A 2010 ACLU lawsuit against CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center cited a management culture so violent the facility is known as the “gladiator school”.8 The industry also maximizes profits by lobbying for and benefiting from laws that put more people in jail. In the 1990′s CCA chaired the Criminal Justice Task force of shadowy corporate bill-mill, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which passed “3 strikes” and “truth in sentencing” laws that continue to send thousands of people to prison on very harsh sentences.9Black folks are disproportionately subjected to these uniquely harsh conditions due to our extreme overrepresentation in the private prison system.10
In many parts of the country, the political tide is shifting against the for-profit prison industry. Earlier this summer, Kentucky, Texas, Idaho, and Mississippi broke ties with CCA after reports of chronic understaffing, inmate death, and rising costs to the states became undeniable.11 In April, New Hampshire rejected all private prison bids because the prison corporations could not show that they would follow legal requirements for safely housing prisoners.12 And, there is growing opposition to California Governor Jerry Brown’s misguided plan to comply with a Supreme Court order to alleviate the State’s prison overcrowding crisis by moving thousands of prisoners into private facilities, at a public cost of $1 billion over 3 years.13
The private prison industry should not control who is locked up, for how long, and at what price. For-profit prison companies have investors that cut across many industries. Some of these investors — wealthy individuals, major banks and financial companies — know exactly what they’re doing. But with enough pressure, they might reconsider whether it’s worth being known as profiting from exploitation and racism in the criminal justice system.
Help support our work. ColorOfChange.org is powered by YOU—your energy and dollars. We take no money from lobbyists or large corporations that don’t share our values, and our tiny staff ensures your contributions go a long way.
Roger’s note: I participated in the Cesar Chavez lead farmworkers struggle in California in the late 1960s, and it is more than disheartening to know that fifty years later things have not improved. But why am I not surprised? Under capitalist economic relations, things always get worse, with only occasional temporary mitigation that results from intense labor organizing. That exploitation and degrading working conditions are rife in the realm of harvesting the very food we eat is a tribute to the dehumanizing world of capitalism we inhabit. Big agri-business and the whores (with apologies to honest sex trade workers for the use of the term) in all three branches of government that are responsible for this disgrace are criminals by any logical definition of the term.
The great reporter Edward R. Murrow titled his 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame on the merciless exploitation of the migrant farmworkers by the large growers and their local government allies. Over fifty years later, it is still the harvest of shame for nearly two million migrant farmworkers who follow the seasons and the crops to harvest our fruits and vegetables.
As a student I went through migrant farmworker camps and fields and wrote about the abysmally low pay, toxic, unsafe working conditions, contaminated water, housing hovels and the complete absence of any legal rights.
It is a perversely inverted society when the people who do the backbreaking work to harvest one of the necessities of life are underpaid, underinsured, under-protected and under-respected while the Chicago commodity brokers – where the white collar gamblers sit in air-conditioned spaces and speculate on futures in foodstuffs’ prices – are quite well off, to put it modestly.
It probably won’t surprise you that the grapes, peaches, watermelons, strawberries, apricots and lettuce that you’re eating this week are brought to you from the fields by the descendants of the early migrant workers. Their plight is not that much better, except for the very few working under a real union contract.
Start with the exclusion of farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Then go to the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which is aimed at protecting farmworkers and their families from pesticides but is outdated, weak and poorly enforced.
Continue on to the unyielding local power of growers and their campaign-cash indentured local, state and Congressional lawmakers. The recent shocking description of the tomato workers in central Florida in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, shows how close defenseless migrant workers can come to involuntary servitude.
In a recent television interview, featuring Baldemar Velasquez – a vigorous farm worker organizer – Bill Moyers summarized the period since Harvest of Shame: “Believe it or not, more than fifty years later, the life of a migrant laborer is still an ordeal. And not just for adults. Perhaps as many as half a million children, some as young as seven years old, are out in the fields and orchards working nine to ten hour days under brutal conditions.” (See the full interview here.)
Among the conditions Moyers was referring to are the daily exposures to pesticides, fertilizers and the resulting chemical-related injuries and sicknesses. Far more of these pesticides end up in the workers’ bodies than are found in our food. President of Farmworker Justice, Bruce Goldstein writes: “Short-term effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, headache, coma and even death. Pesticides also cause infertility, neurological disorders and cancer.”
In a recent letter appeal by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the beleaguered small union representing farmworkers, these ailments were connected to real workers by name. Focusing on the large grape grower – Giumarra Vineyeards of California – the UFW describes one tragedy of many: “After ten hours laboring under a blazing July sun, 53-year-old Giumarra grape picker Asuncion Valdivia became weak, dizzy and nauseated. He couldn’t talk. He lay down in the field. The temperature was 102 degrees.
Asuncion’s 21-year-old son, Luis, and another worker rushed to his aid. Someone called 911. But a Giumarra foreman cancelled the paramedics. He told Luis to drive his father home. They reached the emergency room in Bakersfield too late. Asuncion died on the car seat next to his son.”
For backbreaking work, kneeling 48 hours a week on crippled joints, 29-year-old Alejandro Ruiz and other farmworkers are not making much to live on. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour does not apply to farmworkers. Workers without documents are often paid less than those with documents. In most cases, they are too frightened to consider objecting.
It is so deplorable how little the members of Congress from these farm Districts have done to improve the plight of migrant farm workers. Members of Congress could be raising the visibility of deplorable working conditions faced by farmworkers and allying themselves with urban district Representatives concerned about food safety. This partnership could raise awareness of the safety of the food supply, the careless use of agricultural chemicals, and press the EPA to issue a strong WPS that emphasizes training, disclosure of chemical usage, safety precautions prior to spraying and buffer zones.
Is there a more compelling case for union organizing than the farm workers who sweat for agri-business? Federal labor laws need to be amended to improve national standards for farmworkers and eliminate existing state fair wage and health barriers. California has the strongest law, passed under the first gubernatorial term of Jerry Brown in 1975. Even this law needs to be strengthened to overcome the ways it has been gamed by agri-business interests.
Next time you eat fruits or vegetables, pause a moment to imagine what the workers who harvested them had to endure and talk up their plight with your friends and co-workers. Remember, every reform starts with human conversations and awareness. (For more information see the United Farm Workers of America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Roger’s note: I post this article so as not to forget the millions. mostly Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, who suffer the degradation of our Amerikan prison system so that blood sucking capitalists can profit. If you will excuse my bluntness.
Debbie Bourne, 45, was at her apartment in the Liberty Village housing projects in Plainfield, N.J., on the afternoon of April 30 when police banged on the door and pushed their way inside. The officers ordered her, her daughter, 14, and her son, 22, who suffers from autism, to sit down and not move and then began ransacking the home. Bourne’s husband, from whom she was estranged and who was in the process of moving out, was the target of the police, who suspected him of dealing cocaine. As it turned out, the raid would cast a deep shadow over the lives of three innocents—Bourne and her children.
(Photo: Derek Key/ Flickr)
* * *
The murder of a teenage boy by an armed vigilante, George Zimmerman, is only one crime set within a legal and penal system that has criminalized poverty. Poor people, especially those of color, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year. This use of the bodies of the poor to make money for corporations fuels the system of neoslavery that defines our prison system.
Prisoners often work inside jails and prisons for nothing or at most earn a dollar an hour. The court system has been gutted to deny the poor adequate legal representation. Draconian drug laws send nonviolent offenders to jail for staggering periods of time. Our prisons routinely use solitary confinement, forms of humiliation and physical abuse to keep prisoners broken and compliant, methods that international human rights organizations have long defined as torture. Individuals and corporations that profit from prisons in the United States perpetuate a form of neoslavery. The ongoing hunger strike by inmates in the California prison system is a slave revolt, one that we must encourage and support. The fate of the poor under our corporate state will, if we remain indifferent and passive, become our own fate. This is why on Wednesday I will join prison rights activists, including Cornel West and Michael Moore, in a one-day fast in solidarity with the hunger strike in the California prison system.
In poor communities where there are few jobs, little or no vocational training, a dearth of educational opportunities and a lack of support structures there are, by design, high rates of recidivism—the engine of the prison-industrial complex. There are tens of millions of poor people for whom this country is nothing more than a vast, extended penal colony. Gun possession is largely criminalized for poor people of color while vigilante thugs, nearly always white, swagger through communities with loaded weapons. There will never be serious gun control in the United States. Most white people know what their race has done to black people for centuries. They know that those trapped today in urban ghettos, what Malcolm X called our internal colonies, endure neglect, poverty, violence and deprivation. Most whites are terrified that African-Americans will one day attempt to defend themselves or seek vengeance. Scratch the surface of survivalist groups and you uncover frightened white supremacists.
The failure on the part of the white liberal class to decry the exploding mass incarceration of the poor, and especially of African-Americans, means that as our empire deteriorates more and more whites will end up in prison alongside those we have condemned because of our indifference. And the mounting abuse of the poor is fueling an inchoate rage that will eventually lead to civil unrest.
“Again I say that each and every Negro, during the last 300 years, possesses from that heritage a greater burden of hate for America than they themselves know,” Richard Wright wrote. “Perhaps it is well that Negroes try to be as unintellectual as possible, for if they ever started really thinking about what happened to them they’d go wild. And perhaps that is the secret of whites who want to believe that Negroes have no memory; for if they thought that Negroes remembered they would start out to shoot them all in sheer self-defense.”
The United States has spent $300 billion since 1980 to expand its prison system. We imprison 2.2 million people, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. For every 100,000 adults in this country there are 742 behind bars. Five million are on parole. Only 30 to 40 percent are white.
The intrusion of corporations and private contractors into the prison system is a legacy of the Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton’s omnibus crime bill provided $30 billion to expand the prison system, including $10 billion to build prisons. The bill expanded from two to 58 the number of federal crimes for which the death penalty can be administered. It eliminated a ban on the execution of the mentally impaired. The bill gave us the “three-strikes” laws that mandate life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies. It set up the tracking of sex offenders. It allowed the courts to try children as young as 13 as adults. It created special courts to deport noncitizens alleged to be “engaged in terrorist activity” and authorized the use of secret evidence. The prison population under Clinton swelled from 1.4 million to 2 million.
Incarceration has become a very lucrative business for an array of private contractors, most of whom send lobbyists to Washington to make sure the laws and legislation continue to funnel a steady supply of poor people into the prison complex. These private contractors, taking public money, build the prisons, provide food service, hire guards and run and administer detention facilities. It is imperative to their profits that there be a steady supply of new bodies.
* * *
Bourne has worked for 13 years as a locker room assistant in the Plainfield school system. She works five hours a day. She does not have medical benefits. She struggles to take care of a daughter in fragile health and a disabled son.
Bourne and her children sat terrified that April afternoon in their apartment. After about 10 minutes four more police officers arrived with her husband. His clothes were torn and disheveled. His face was swollen and bruised. He was handcuffed. “He looked like he been beat up,” she said.
“They were telling him, tell us where you have the stuff at, the drugs at,” Bourne said when we met at a prison support group I help run at the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, N.J. “Tell us where you have the stuff at ’cause if you don’t we are going to handcuff her and the kids. And you be a man, you know, you know be a man and tell so we … don’t have to handcuff her and the kids. And he told them they [she and the children] have nothing to do with this, and there’s nothing in the house.”
The police took her husband to the kitchen. “They were hittin’ him in the kitchen,” she said, “punchin’ him, like in the stomach. Like by his ribs. He was saying they don’t have nothin’ to do with it, you know, they don’t.”
She could hear the officers repeating: “Where are the drugs?” They beat him for about 10 minutes, she said. The police then went into the living room and handcuffed Bourne and her son and daughter. They took her husband out of the apartment. Three officers remained until a K-9 dog unit arrived. The police removed the handcuffs and took Bourne and her children into the kitchen. A dog was guided around the living room and then coaxed up the stairs to the bedrooms, where it stayed for five minutes before being brought back down. The police remained in the bedrooms about 30 minutes.
Bourne heard banging sounds. She heard one of the officers say: “We found drugs in a black boot.” Her husband’s boots had been in a plastic bag with his clothes in preparation for his moving out of the apartment.
Although not under arrest, Bourne was taken to the police station, where she filled out forms and was fingerprinted. No charge was filed against her at the time. Two hours later the police drove her home. It would be weeks before Bourne learned—in an indirect way—that she, too, would face the possibility of jail time because of the raid.
When Bourne returned home that spring night, “It looked like a tornado had went through my bedroom. Everything was piled on top of each other. The TV was broken. It had been pushed over on the floor. I had my cellular phone charging in the socket—the charger was ripped out the socket. There were nails holes [made by the police] in the wall. You could see little dots, probably about six, seven, 10. The computer was pushed over on the ground. The cable was pull out the TV. The blinds was removed. The shades were removed from the windows. The containers that I have clothes in was all thrown on the bed. The dresser drawers were sitting high on top the bed.”
“I felt violated,” she said. “Very violated. I felt that if [they] wanted him so bad, why destroy my stuff?”
In cleaning up she found that her wedding and engagement rings, kept on the top of her dresser in a small box from Macy’s, had disappeared. She soon found that other items were missing.
“They took video games that I bought for my kids that was packaged inside a closet in a shoe box,” Bourne said. “They took a remote control that go with one of the game systems. I had collectible like coins that I bought way back. That was gone.”
She had seen police leaving the apartment with a yellow plastic container that had a new Acer computer she had bought for her cousin. “I had told them, ‘Where are you going with that computer?’ ” she said. The police immediately returned it.
Her husband is in Union County Jail in Elizabeth. He is charged with possession of drugs in public housing and possession of drugs in a school zone. When Bourne spoke to him by phone he told her the police had taken $900 he had in his pocket and that he had $2,000 in the apartment closet. When she checked the closet the money was not there. The police report in Bourne’s possession claims the officers confiscated $134 from the apartment and $734 from her husband. There was no mention of the other missing items, including her rings.
When Bourne was in court for her husband’s arraignment in early July she was stunned to hear the prosecutor tell the court that cocaine was also found by the police in a pocket of her jeans.
She told me she was not wearing jeans at the time. She said she does not take or sell drugs. And she pointed out that the police report, which she showed to me, never mentioned finding drugs on her person. After being charged she met with a public defender who told her that she should urge her husband to confess that the cocaine was his. If he does not, Bourne could face six years in jail.
The state-appointed attorney, with whom Bourne spent less than 15 minutes, told her to stay out of trouble. She has never been arrested at any time in her life. She said the encounter with the lawyer left her feeling “degraded.”
“I have two kids,” she said. “I’m 45. Why would I be trying to go to jail? That’s not me, that’s not how I was brought up. My daughter is sick. My son has a disability. I’m the only one that take care of both of them.”
If she goes to jail it will be catastrophic for her children. But this is not a new story. It happens to families every day in our gulag state. Bourne is one human being among hundreds of thousands routinely sacrificed for corporate greed. Her tragedy is of no concern to private contractors or supine judges and elected officials. They do not work for her. They do not work for us. They are corporate employees. And they know something Bourne is just discovering: Incarceration in America is a business.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Janet Napolitano became the new president of the University of California Thursday over objections of student protesters. Six students were removed by campus police from the Board of Regents meeting where Napolitano’s appointment was confirmed.
The former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security will be the first woman president of the 10-campus UC system and will earn $570,000 per year in her new position. Shortly after Napolitano’s compensation was read at the public meeting, a UC student stepped forward from the audience and started the chant, “Education, not deportation!” Campus police escorted four other students out shortly after when they refused to leave the room.
About 60 students, parents, faculty and staff representing UC Merced, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and other campuses protested outside the meeting to show their disappointment with Napolitano’s nomination.
As Secretary of Homeland Security, Napolitano oversaw a record number of deportations under the Obama administration, about 400,000 undocumented immigrants per year.
Undocumented student protesters said they were concerned about what her appointment could mean for students like them.
“She’s separated a lot of families,” said Wei Lee, an undocumented graduate of UC Santa Cruz, who noted that the UC system is home to many undocumented students. “We cannot allow someone like Janet Napolitano with her background and her experience to run this fine education system.”
Lee, who is ethnically Chinese and was born and raised in Brazil, fell out of immigration status after being denied political asylum. He said that without the advocacy of his friends and community, he and his family would have been deported. Today, he is a part of the student group ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education) and says that the current immigration system “does not reflect American values.”
San Francisco State University student Akiko Aspillaga held a pink sign that read, “This feminist opposes Napolitano’s appointment.”
“For somebody who justifies the war, who militarizes not just our borders but our communities and separates our families… if those are her values, we don’t want her to be the lead of our education system,” said Aspillaga.
Lotus Yee Fong, whose son has two UC degrees, expressed concern over Napolitano’s credentials: “She is not an educator.”
Protesters also criticized the timing of the appointment. Napolitano was nominated only a week before the public meeting, which they said left them little time to organize.
“It’s more or less a political coup,” said UC Santa Cruz student Daniel Shubat, shaking his head. “They did it during the summer. It’s underhanded and we don’t have a say.”
Supporters are quick to point out that Napolitano has also been criticized by Republicans who accuse her of being too soft on immigration enforcement.
Roger’s note: add WWB (walking while Black) to DWB (driving while Black) to the list of booby trapped “crimes” that Black Americans face every day. After being stalked and harassed, young Trayvon Martin is found guilty (posthumously) by a 5/6 White jury of assaulting Zimmerman to the point where he (young Trayvon, walking home from buying some snacks) “justifiably” had his young life snuffed out . Trayvon was not unarmed, according to the Zimmerman defense, the sidewalk was his weapon. It would be laughable if it were not truly disgusting. The shameless defense lawyers went to the ridiculous extreme of showing the jury a slab of concrete sidewalk. Virtually every African American lives in an Alice in Wonderland world of execution first, trial later. SHAME.
The not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down moments after I left a screening of “Fruitvale Station,” a film about the police-shooting death of Oscar Grant four years ago in Oakland. Much of the audience sat quietly sobbing as the closing credits rolled, moved by the narrative of a young black man, unarmed and senselessly gone. Words were not needed to express a common understanding: to Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old he shot, fit the description; for black America, the circumstances of his death did.
George Zimmerman is congratulated by his lawyers after being found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin (Photo: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty)
The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.
The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty. During his cross examination of Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, the defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked if she was avoiding the idea that her son had done something to cause his own death. During closing arguments, the defense informed the jury that Martin was armed because he weaponized a sidewalk and used it to bludgeon Zimmerman. During his post-verdict press conference, O’Mara said that, were his client black, he would never have been charged. At the defense’s table, and in the precincts far beyond it where donors have stepped forward to contribute funds to underwrite their efforts, there is a sense that Zimmerman was the victim.
“The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty.”
O’Mara’s statement echoed a criticism that began circulating long before Martin and Zimmerman encountered each other. Thousands of black boys die at the hands of other African Americans each year, but the black community, it holds, is concerned only when those deaths are caused by whites. It’s an appealing argument, and widespread, but it’s simplistic and obtuse. It’s a belief most easily held when you’ve not witnessed peace rallies and makeshift memorials, when you’ve turned a blind eye to grassroots organizations like the Interrupters in Chicago, who are working valiantly to stem the tide of violence in that city. It is the thinking of people who’ve never wondered why African Americans disproportionately support strict gun-control legislation. The added quotient of outrage in cases like this one stems not from the belief that a white murderer is somehow worse than a black one but from the knowledge that race determines whether fear, history, and public sentiment offer that killer a usable alibi.
The thousands who gathered last spring in New York, in St. Louis, in Philadelphia, in Miami, and in Washington, D.C., to demand Zimmerman’s arrest shared a narrative and an understanding of the past’s grip on the present. Long before the horrifying images of Martin lying prone and lifeless in the grass ever made their way to Gawker, he’d already begun inspiring references to the line about “blood on the leaves” from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Those crowds were the response of people who understand that history is interred in the shallowest of graves.
Yet the problem is not that this case marks a low point in this country’s racial history—it’s that, after two centuries of common history, we’re still obligated to chart high points and low ones. To be black at times like this is to see current events on a real-time ticker, a Dow Jones average measuring the quality of one’s citizenship. Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one. That it occurred in a country that elected and reëlected a black President doesn’t diminish the despair this verdict inspires, it intensifies it. The fact that such a thing can happen at a moment of unparalleled political empowerment tells us that events like these are a hard, unchanging element of our landscape.
We can understand the verdict to mean validation for the idea that the actions Zimmerman took that night were those of a reasonable man, that the conclusions he drew were sound, and that a black teen-ager can be considered armed any time he is walking down a paved street. We can take from this trial the knowledge that a grieving family was capable of displaying inestimable reserves of grace. Following the verdict, Sybrina Fulton posted a benediction to Twitter: “Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control.” The Twitter account of Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, features an image of him holding Trayvon as a toddler, a birthday hat perched on the boy’s head. At the trial, they sat through a grim procession of autopsy photos and audio of the gunshot that ended their son’s life. No matter the verdict, their simple pursuit of justice meant amplifying the trauma of their loss by some unknowable exponent.
There’s fear that the verdict will embolden vigilantes, but that need not be the concern: history has already done that. You don’t have to recall specifics of everything that has transpired in Florida over the past two hundred years to recognize this. The details of Rosewood, the black town terrorized and burned to the ground in 1923, and of Groveland and the black men falsely accused of rape and murdered there in 1949, can remain obscure and retain sway over our present concerns. Names—like Claude Neal, lynched in 1934, and Harry and Harriette Moore, N.A.A.C.P. organizers in Mims County, killed by a firebomb in 1951—can be overlooked. What cannot be forgotten, however, is that there were no consequences for those actions.
Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Jelani Cobb Ph.D. is an American author and educator, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute for African American Studies at University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut.
Topics: Alisa Valdes, celebrity, celebrity_rewind, entertainment, Eva Longoria, film, Latina, Latina identity, latino, Los Angeles, mexican, Mexican-American, novelist, politics, stereotypes, television, tv
When it was a Telenovela, Devious Maids had an all-Latino cast, even the employers. Not so in English, where only the maids are Latina now.
When it was a Telenovela, Devious Maids had an all-Latino cast, even the employers. Not so in English, where only the maids are Latina now. (Photo/Courtesy Lifetime)
Opinion: The problem with “Devious Maids” goes far beyond Hollywood
by Alisa Valdes, @mizalisa
12:14 pm on 06/07/2013
Six years ago, I had a deal with Lifetime Television to develop my bestselling novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, as a TV series. It soon became clear that the relationship wasn’t going to work, when two executives insisted that my pilot outline “wasn’t Latin enough,” because it told of middle class, educated American women who happened to be Latina.
“This reads as if it were about me and my friends,” complained one executive in disgust.
I didn’t know how to respond, so I asked her what she’d prefer.
“Why don’t we make the girls debating whether or not to date men in prison? I know that’s what Latinas talk about, just like it’s what black women talk about.”
Right. Because all middle class, college-educated professional women talk about dating prisoners.
In her dreams.
I got out of that deal because of this idiocy, and never looked back.
Fast forward to two years ago. I get a call from my agent, asking if I’m interested in writing a TV series about “Latina maids and nannies in Beverly Hills.” He said a network wanted a story about “exotic” Latina maids who knew all about their employers’ vices. I declined the offer.
Unsurprisingly, Lifetime has now come out with a show about Latina maids in Beverly Hills, called Devious Maids. It was originally in development at ABC, but that network had the good sense to pass on it after seeing the pilot.
I am not the only Latina to be annoyed by the perpetuation of stereotype in Devious Maids. Tanisha Ramirez wrote a scathing critique on the Huffington Post, only to be attacked in return by the show’s co-producer, Eva Longoria. Cosmo for Latinas editor Michelle Herrera Mulligan responded to Longoria by diplomatically telling her she was a big fat sellout. The Devious Maids camp responded with the weak argument that the show puts Latinas to work in an industry with embarrassingly few roles for them, and that it is based on a Telenovela and must therefore be Latino approved.
Many of my readers have asked me to opine on the matter, so here is what I think.
It is not wrong to be a maid, or even a Latina maid, but there is something very wrong with an American entertainment industry that continually tells Latinas that this is all they are or can ever be.
My grandmother was a maid in Cuba; my biological grandfather was her employer. My father, never claimed by his bio-dad, was a janitor when he first began working in the United States, as a teen immigrant. My father went on to get his PhD, sort of a real-life Good Will Hunting, and became a leading sociologist. He raised me to believe in myself and my voice; I went to Columbia, and I’m a bestselling author Tom Wolfe called one of the most important social critics of our time.
We don’t see stories about people like me or my dad. Indeed, network executives say to my face that I don’t exist. That’s the problem.
Ten years ago, Mexican American actress Lupe Ontiveros lamented to the New York Times that she had been cast as a maid 150 times in her career. The astounding number of times this one (outstanding) Latina actress has been cast as a maid destroys Longoria’s defense of Devious Maids as “Latina maids deserving to have their stories told, too.” According to academic research on Latino roles in mainstream US film and TV, the maid is pretty much the only Latina story being told, other than seductress, whore, dying immigrant and gang member.
There is more to stereotyping of Latinas than laziness or lack of information.
Longoria and others like to try to brush off criticism by telling us we’re all giving Hollywood too much credit, or that we’re overly sensitive, or, worst of all, by trying to paint critics as anti-maid elitists. The thing is, this isn’t just about maids. And it isn’t just about entertainment.
In his groundbreaking work At the University of Texas at Austin, on stereotypes of Latinos in film, professor Charles Ramirez Berg explains that Hollywood’s stereotypical “construction of Latinos in this country [is done] to justify the United States’ imperialistic goals. U.S. imperialism was based on the notion that the nation should control the entire hemisphere and was willing to fight anyone who disagreed. For centuries, the precepts underpinning the Monroe Doctrine have been used as a rationale for the U.S. interference in the internal politics of Latin America. On the whole, Hollywood endorsed North American dominance of this hemisphere, and as often as it depicted that hegemony uncritically, movies helped to perpetuate it.”
It is no mistake, and it is not mere happenstance, that Lifetime refused to allow me to make a show for them about complex, nuanced Latinas, yet greenlit a show about Latinas as sexy domestic servants. It isn’t a matter of me being too sensitive and lacking a sense of humor, and it isn’t a matter of me not liking maids. It is about the way the Latina maid stereotype beautifully cleaves to the time-honored imperialistic way this country has dealt with its Spanish-speaking neighbors in the Americas. My vision of us – as autonomous human beings – is simply too threatening to be considered realistic. How else to explain that a business supposedly built around making money continues to refuse to make money off of people like me, continues to refuse to meet our demands in its supply and demand spreadsheet?
It’s not just that Hollywood sees Latinas as one-dimensional, subservient sex objects; it is that this is how our nation has historically viewed all of the native peoples in the Americas, including the vast portions of this country that were once part of Mexico and Spain. You cannot colonize or occupy the lands of human beings you respect or view as your equal; it is better to simplify them in order to dehumanize them.
Nothing determines how people are viewed more than pop culture. The US government has spent fortunes researching film and TV as tools of propaganda, discovering, to no one’s surprise, that what people see in movies or on TV is what they believe to be true about the world. There is a reason an editor was yet again surprised this week to learn that I, an American by birth, did not live my life in Spanish. Movies and TV never show him people like me; in film and TV, women like me always have a Spanish accent. It is no coincidence, either, that the New York Daily News, when writing about my books, accused me of bringing chick lit to “the third world,” even though I write for an American audience. I am strong enough to fight this nonsense off. But what about the untold millions of women who aren’t as pugilistic as I am? Who is fighting for them? Not Longoria. Not Lifetime.
Most disappointing is how several Latino rights organizations have jumped to defend Devious Maids, because Longoria, a contributor to their bank accounts, asked them to. They have all decided that telling stories of maids who, as the network describes it, “have dreams of their own,” is somehow a step up for all of us. We’re not just maids in the background anymore, they tell us, now we get to be maids in the foreground, with dreams of our own.
That executives, actors and others continue to view the stereotypes as inevitable, that they continue to construct them subconsciously, that they accept them as fact without any justification, makes the predicament all the more overwhelming.
Longoria’s argument conflates race/ethnicity with socioeconomic status; sociology tells us quite clearly that these are not the same thing.
Yes, Devious Maids was a telenovela before Lifetime borrowed it. But in the Spanish-language version, all of the characters – the maids and their employers – were Latinos. The telenovela, approaching Latin Americans, allowed for class distinctions among Latinos, something that is utterly unthinkable in the imperialistic paradigm of the English-language side of the industry. Latinos are never nuanced human beings on the English-language side, because in order to maintain the American exceptionalist status quo race, ethnicity, and class must be simplistically conflated and assumed to be interchangeable. In truth, they are not. But that truth is a Latin American and Latino truth, and to allow us our own truth is untenable. People like Longoria choose, cynically perhaps, to make a living within these narrow confines, to justify them in every way they can, to perhaps even lend humanity and depth to the roles of maids, and you cannot blame them; they are actors, not activists. But I am a writer. I don’t interpret the stories, as an actor does, I construct them. In today’s Hollywood, my story of us, my story of me, stories of Latinas with dreams of their own who aren’t maids, or hookers, or sultry in some dominated way, remains too damn threatening.
Hollywood is still choosing to remain clueless about how to reach the 60 million Latinos in America.
Again and again in Hollywood I have heard networks invoke “telenovelas” as what they are after. “We want an English-language telenovela,” they say. But they don’t actually want a telenovela, because they don’t know what that means. Telenovelas often have powerful Latina protagonists. Class distinctions among Latinos are not only present, they are required and fuel the narrative.
Hollywood doesn’t actually want an English telenovela, because I wrote one, and it was a huge hit, yet they don’t believe that I know what Latinas want, because my story is not stereotypical and, to their eyes, therefore untrue. Devious Maids is as much about mental laziness and fear as it is about stereotypes.
I am building an empire on a new paradigm, and hope you’ll join me.
After disappointing deals I’ve had with NBC, Columbia Pictures and, of course, Lifetime, I have taken control of my book. I’m producing it as an indie film. Watch. I will prove to Hollywood that the key to reach Latinos is in ditching stereotypes. Period. It’s time for a change. New technology is quickly dismantling the omnipotence of the old paradigm, making it possible for a writer like me to reach my audience without help of a middleman studio or network. I know my audience is there, because I’ve met them. In cities all across the nation, I have heard their stories, accepted their gratitude for being the first to give them characters they could relate to.
I used to view Hollywood’s insistent imperialistic attitudes as an obstacle, but then I realized something wonderful. They weren’t an obstacle at all, but an opportunity to build our own media empire, right next door to theirs.
There goes the neighborhood.
Interestingly, my decision to eschew the US mainstream entertainment industry comes at a time that global economists are starting to announce the decline of the United States as a global power, and the rise of a Latin America independent of it — a Latin America that, as we speak, has four female presidents within it, an accomplishment this nation has yet to achieve. Not a one of these president women is…a maid.
Writing for economic thinktank Project Syndicate this week, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami had a piece whose headline read, simply, “Is the US Losing Latin America?”
“It is a mantra increasingly heard around the world: US power is in decline. And nowhere does this seem truer than in Latin America. No longer is the region regarded as America’s ‘backyard’; on the contrary, the continent has arguably never been so united and independent.”
The same could be said for the 60 million Latinos living in the United States. And we’re ready for our own movies now.
If you understand what I’m saying, and you want to be part of this new empire, please visit my Kickstarter campaign to support my film, and tell everyone you know about it.
Alisa Valdes is a novelist of mixed Cuban, Mexican, Spanish and European descent. Her first book, “The Dirty Girls Social Club,” earned critical acclaim and became a New York Times bestseller. Her eighth book, “The Feminist and the Cowboy” was released earlier this year. She resides in New Mexico.