August 4th, 2009
Is America "Teachable"?
The recent Teachable Moment presented itself when the Cambridge, MA cop (Sgt. Crowley) arrested the Harvard professor (Henry Gates) in his own home and Pres. Obama dared to utter an empirical truth/fact about racial profiling because he knew the phenomenon well enough to speak spontaneously about it. The opportunity for the Moment passed once the media framed it as Obama’s overzealous conclusion about police stupidity without knowing “all the facts in the case.”
We’re doomed it seems to never learn, or worse, never be able to teach ourselves to learn. This happens for several reasons.
Teachable moments for society require (1) facts and access to people whose life mission is to discover the facts, (2) an ability to absorb facts at levels deeper than superficial summary or Twitter-length statements, (3) an ability to separate politically-driven opinions from facts, (4) a “let’s fix it if it’s broken” orientation, a willingness to reverse long-standing problems with long-range solutions and to stop denying that societal problems exist, (5) sufficient public patience to allow the success to happen over time without insisting on immediate or short-term gains, and (6) abandonment of the cult of American individualism and exceptionalism.
At his press conference, Obama said “what I think we know separate and apart from this incident—is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that’s just a fact.”
Here’s how the Moment could have been materialized to get closer to a more equitable and decent society.
1. Facts about racial profiling (which Crowley was accused of) confirming Obama’s statement reveal themselves with a simple Google search. Further, the studies that pop up identify individuals and organizations who can teach us about it.
A 2008 Illinois state study found that when a vehicle of a white driver was “consent-searched,” officers statewide found contraband 24.7 percent of the time. When a vehicle driven by a minority was searched, officers found contraband 15.4 percent of the time. In Chicago, minority drivers were four times more likely to get searched.
The principal American researcher is Dr. Karl Lamberth who conducts studies and emphasizes applications for practitioners. In a study for Washington DC law enforcement, Lamberth recommended that formal “how to” training done at police academy be accompanied by discussions about the informal transmission of biased conduct through the sharing of “war stories” among police.
It might surprise you to learn that Crowley the cop teaches the course Racial Profiling at the Lowell MA police academy. The course covers different cultures that officers could encounter in their community and not to single people out because of their ethnic background or culture. He has done so for the last five years at the invitation of the former police commissioner Ronny Watson (who incidentally is black). Certainly, police training prepares cops to endure predictable verbal abuse from the public when police exercise their unique authority to take away a person’s freedom. In other words, Crowley chose to have a short fuse and to react to the emotional Gates (who was in his own home and proved it to Crowley).
Another source is the Racial Profiling Data Collection Resource Center at Northeastern University, Boston. Reporters could have read the 2005 report “New Challenges in Confronting Racial Profiling in the 21st Century: Learning from Reserach and Practice” by Amy Farrell, Jana Rumminger, Jack McDevitt. Read the report yourself to learn that individual bias plays a role but also that policies can unintentionally result in disparate treatment of minorities. For those minorities, the burdens are not only ostracism but financial.
Amnesty International also has called for an end to racial profiling and created a fact sheet about it.
Finally,there is the ACLU Campaign Against Racial Profiling. ACLU experts were the only ones to have given media interviews about the problem.
2. As consumers of facts, we have to be able to absorb them. Turn away from purveyors of information that force feed sound bites and push twitter-length crawls across the bottom of the TV screen (or brightly colored sidebar boxes in newspapers). Some topics cannot be reduced to a bumper sticker. Newspaper Op-Ed opinion columns are limited to 600-750 words. And that now seems long.
Sometimes you have to read longer articles and follow all the links provided. Exercise your brain by reading more to keep the high level of functioning you inherited as a newborn. Condescending coverage of important topics breeds a stupid public. A stupid public is sheepish and will never confront the well-funded corporate forces willing to do the homework to figure out how to deceive and con you. Be skeptical. Read more. Dig for more facts. Don’t be influenced by partisan advertising making an emotional appeal because the creators know that if you thought about the facts you would never agree with their nitwit premises.
Teachable Moments require teachable, not passive, learners.
3. Americans have to be able to recognize the difference between facts and opinion. The media distort this difference all the time. They create a false sense of balance and equality when a representative of one side of an issue (climate change, for example) is paired with a rep from the other side. The scientists are 99% in agreement about impending catastrophic changes to the earth. 99% should not be counterbalanced with a 1%-er; it’s not equal. However, when one person, like idiot Sen. Inahofe, says that the science is a hoax, relying on the non-factual, anti-science nut makes the “debate” seem legitimate. In the screwy world of modern media, one man’s opinion is juxtaposed so as to look as important as the aggregate knowledge of thousands of scientists and millions of reality-based people.
Obstructionists love to say that opponents’ reality-based evidence cannot sway them because they themselves have not seen the evidence. In fact, they refuse to seek information that disconfirms their stereotypes about other people. When facts are presented, e.g., a copy of Obama’s birth certification, the disbelieving “birthers” have their totally false side of the story carried on TV as if there is a legitimate debate.
When have the media ever slowed down to gather and report “all the facts” in any story? In Gatesgate, polarized TV pundits separated into two camps — Police Are Heroes (who never do wrong — too much Law & Order not enough The Wire) and Racial Profiling Exists (unfortunately the principal proponents on TV were conveniently black). One side had the facts, the other side wanted to obfuscate and say that America has resolved its race problem. Unfortunately, the networks did not invite the scientists who conduct the racial profiling studies to present their work.
4. To solve a problem, you gotta admit that one exists. Staying in denial, avoiding conflict, resenting dissent, insisting on jingoistic nationalistic slogans (post-racial America) — all of these tactics block problem solving. As part of the current fight over health insurance reform, the insurers work tirelessly at great expense to convince Americans that government is to be feared more than the actual demonstrable record by health insurers of recission (dropping coverage when a new disease warrants treatment), exclusion for pre-existing conditions, increasing required deductibles and co-payments, and pricing individual and COBRA insurance so high that too many Americans cannot afford to have health or dental insurance.
In other words, they are telling Americans not to trust their real experiences and fear the imagined world conjured up from whole cloth. And polls show that this strategy works! How dumb are Americans?
Getting and paying for health care is a problem, so let’s fix it. The economy is a mess, so let’s fix it. But don’t turn to the industry and individuals responsible for the mess (Wall Street, insurers, hedge fund managers) expecting them to change and find a solution that works for the general public good.
Solutions necessarily change the operating rules that allowed the problem to develop in the first place. When corporations say to trust them to voluntarily do the right thing for patients or workers or voters, say no. Responsible insurers, investment firms, employers have nothing to fear from regulation. For that small group only, the marketplace restrains anti-social behavior. The rest of them cannot be trusted curb their profit-driven tendencies without the imposition of external regulations.
The mantra for corporate America is that an unfettered marketplace is better than one regulated by government on behalf of the people. This perspective has dominated American culture for nearly 30 years. Solutions to the problems generated by the marketplace will not be devised by corporations. It’s not their job; it is ours.
5. The fourth stumbling point that keeps Americans from learning from Teachable Moments is our insatiable need for immediate gratification. 24/7 cable news coverage shortens our ability to wait. A news story that spans two days is considered old news, so they move on (except in the case of celebrity coverage saturation — OJ trial, Michael Jackson death, athletes misbehaving).
Societal race problems were born in the time of slavery long ago and maintained overtly in the deep South until very recently. Racism did go mostly underground. Covert racism can preserve the inequalities for centuries into the future. The point is that if the problem is long standing, the fix can never be immediate. If the fix seems to good to be true, you know that it’s b.s. Quit expecting something for nothing. Real solutions require sacrifice and commitment from large groups of people.
6. America’s arrogant pride in its destructive, divisive individualism that harms millions of fellow Americans interferes with societal improvement. We are immersed in the big societal problems (racism, violence toward women, bullying, climate change, pollution, dwindling water supplies) together. It takes many working together to fix society. Social solutions for social problems are not necessarily “socialistic.” However, to brand such solutions with a perjorative connotation (as if democratic socialism = stalinistic communism) stalls progress while we dicker over semantics.
We can learn much from our fellow human beings. Yes, Virginia, people on the earth outside America are humans! They have struggled with the same issues. Many countries have dealt with problems we now face successfully. Why not apply the good ole biz practice of “benchmarking” and copy from the nations who got it right?
For instance, Scandinavian countries offer the best chances of realizing “the American Dream” of upward social and financial mobility. Great Britain and the USA are last on the international list. The Dream for Americans is a myth, but we refuse to accept that Europeans have much to teach us.
All western industrialized nations have national health plans so that residents don’t risk financial ruination (bankruptcy) from medical costs to stay alive. Only Americans make the choice between economic security and life itself.
Who are the stupid ones? We are the last among nations in many indexes of the quality of well being and longevity. With respect to workplace bullying, the movement started in Scandinavia. Those nations are the most advance with respect to identifying and correcting it.
America is not as exceptional as we like to think it is (view historian Howard Zinn’s video about the myth of American exceptionalism). Our “special place among nations” noted by de Tocqueville about 1831 America seems an antiquated phrase.
Phew! If you read this far, you deserve a medal! Hope I jarred your sensibilities a bit. Tell me what you think it will take to capitalize on Teachable Moments.
Workplace Bullying needs its Teachable Moments. Only you bullied targets can provide them. Post summaries of your stories below to help convince corporations and lawmakers that bullying must be addressed, not ignored.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 at 6:00 pm and is filed under Fairness & Social Justice Denied. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.