Promise and Reality in Higher Ed

Education, we are told, is the great equalizer in the United States. It is the “key to the American Dream,” and the pathway to a more egalitarian society.

The data backs this up in many ways. The average Latino and African American earns less than the average white American and they are less likely to obtain a college degree. We know that the more educated you are the more you will earn over your lifetime and the less likely you will be to be unemployed. By many measures, education is the key to your individual and group prosperity.

It stands to reason that the promise of higher education to surmount our historic and engrained structural inequalities is only as strong as the institution’s own ability to surmount those inequities as it educates. If education is inherently unequal and inequitable then the effects it produces will also be.


The conclusion of this report from researchers at Georgetown University is that US colleges and universities are failing on that front. (You can read the full report here.)

In the report, researcher find that “The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market.” Far from being the great equalizer we want it to be, education is becoming another way to fracture equality of opportunity based on race and class.

This isn’t a surprising conclusion to anyone working on diversity in higher education. It also doesn’t mean those poor or working class and/or nonwhite students who get in and do well aren’t working hard and achieving a great deal.

But it should help fuel the debate about what equality and equity mean for the 21st century. For colleges like mine, I hope it helps us confront the ways we fail to confront the larger problems of equality and equity while we hide behind “excellence.”


Not a Way of Life

“But it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reaching against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority–outer as well as inner–it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. Bt it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”

–Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)

My book arrived!

Look what I got in the mail today!


I’m not sure I have the words to describe how this feels. I’m also sure that those feelings will keep coming and changing with all that it to come in the months ahead.

MLK: 45 years later

As we commemorate the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., I think it’s important for us–as a nation–to grapple with the incisive radicalism of MLK writings, analysis, and vision.

And so I offer to you his spring 1966 evaluation of the Civil Rights Movement, printed in The Nation. Titled “The Last Steep Ascent,” it is a King we are rarely connected to, one who problematizes the future of which we are a part.

The period which has been completed, though attended by turmoil and spectacular events, was relatively easy to accomplish. Negroes not only furnished the drive but by disciplined adherence to nonviolence swiftly educated and won millions to the righteousness of their demands. For the white majority there were few hardships, and the lifting of some burden of guilt adequately compensated for any limited inconvenience.

The future is more complex. Slums with hundreds of thousands of living units are not eradicated as easily as lunch counters or buses are integrated. Jobs are harder to create than voting rolls. Harmonizing of peoples of vastly different cultural levels is complicated and frequently abrasive.

It is easy to conceive of a plan to raise the minimum wage and thus in a single stroke extract millions of people from poverty. But between the conception and the realization there lies a formidable wall. Someone has been profiting from the low wages of Negroes. Depressed living standards for Negroes are a structural part of the economy. Certain industries are based upon the supply of low-wage, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agriculture operations using itinerant labor, would all suffer shock, if not disaster, if the minimum wage were significantly raised. A hardening of opposition to the satisfaction of Negro needs must be anticipated as the movement presses against financial privilege.

The full piece is accessible here.


45 years of the Chicano Movement

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the East L.A. walkouts. Generally regarded as one of the foundational events of the Chicano student movement, the walkouts represented one of the first mass actions of Chicano (Mexican American) youth in U.S. history. Certainly the scope–eventually involving more than 10,000 students in the Los Angeles area alone–makes it noteworthy in the span of Chicana/o history.

There is a story of politicization and organization behind these walkouts. However spontaneous they may have seemed to city officials, they were anything but that. On Friday, March 1, 1968, when the first students walked out from Wilson High School in East L.A.–the largest Chicano barrio in the United States, at the time–plans were already in the works for a multi-school protest the next week.

As important as it is for us to understand that the student walkouts were the result of a specific political and social history, so, too, is it important for us to understand their powerful impact. The act of walking out of class and surrounding your school en masse was the first political act for many of the involved students. Even for those already connects to the analysis of racism facing their communities and the organizational planning to address it, the walkouts further inspired collective action as well as the development of a critical analysis of power and race in society. It also fundamentally helped shaped what it meant to be “Chicana” or “Chicano” for the generation of brown baby boomers coming of age.

One of the most dynamic historical sources to offer us a window into these multiple processes and evolutions is the list of demands presented by students to the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education.

What do you see in their list of demands? What surprises you? How does it reflect an emerging sense of political and cultural change?

  1. No student or teacher to be reprimanded or suspended for participating in the recent demonstrations.
  2. Compulsory bilingual and bicultural education in all East Los Angeles schools, with teachers and administrators to receive training in speaking Spanish and Mexican cultural heritage.
  3. Teachers and administrators who show any form of prejudice toward students, including failure to recognize cultural traditions, will be transferred.
  4. Textbooks and curriculum should be revised to show Mexican contributions to society, to show injustices they have suffered and to concentrate on Mexican folklore.
  5. Class size must be reduced so teachers can devote more time to individual students. Team teaching should be used.
  6. Counselor-student ratios must be reduced and counselors must speak Spanish and have a knowledge of Mexican cultural heritage.
  7. The schools’ guidance program for counseling students on post-high school endeavors must be improved.
  8. Students must not be grouped into slow, average and rapid ability groups and classes based on the poor tests currently in use which often mistake a language problem with lack of intelligence. A more effective testing system for determining IQ must be developed.
  9. Only “pass or fail” grades shall be used, and students shall be advised of their grade progress monthly.
  10. Any teacher with a high percentage of dropouts from his or her classes will be identified to students and the community.
  11. Schools should have managers to supervise maintenance to allow administrators to concentrate on educational matters.
  12. New teachers should be required to live in the community where they teach during their probationary period.
  13. School facilities should be made available for community activities and recreation programs developed for children.
  14. No teacher will be dismissed or transferred because of his or her political or philosophical views.
  15. Community parents will be engaged as teacher’s aides.
  16. The industrial arts program must be revitalized to provide training for entry into industry; modern equipment and techniques must be provided.
  17. New high schools in the area must be built with renaming of existing schools after Mexican heroes to establish community identity.
  18. All condemned buildings will be razed and new structures erected.
  19. Library facilities must be expanded at all East Los Angeles high schools, and more library materials will be provided in Spanish.
  20. Open-air student eating areas should be roofed.
  21. Student lounges with jukeboxes should be provided and operated by paid students.
  22. All campuses will be open and fences removed.
  23. School janitorial services should be restricted to employees and not assigned to students as punishment.
  24. Corporal punishment, which is carried out only in East Los Angeles schools, should be abolished throughout the district.
  25. Teacher proficiency will be rated by students.
  26. Students should have access to any type of literature on campus.
  27. Students who help teachers should be paid or given credit.
  28. Students must be allowed to invite guest speakers to club meetings without approval.
  29. Dress and grooming standards will be determined by students, parents and teachers. Only administration-controlled student body officers, PTA representatives and teachers now do this.
  30. Student unions should be provided and run by students, and free speech areas designated on campuses.
  31. Student body offices should be open to all students and a high grade average not considered a prerequisite for eligibility.
  32. Restrooms should be open to students.
  33. Lighted athletic fields should be provided at Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin high schools.
  34. Cafeteria menus should have more Mexican dishes and mothers should be allowed to help prepare the food.
  35. All East Side schools should have swimming pools.
  36. All school athletic activities should be free.
  37. Student suspensions will be made by area superintendents instead of principals in order to prevent indiscriminate use of this action.
  38. Presentation of non-academic programs at the expanse of class time should be prohibited.
(From Jack McCurdy, “Demands Made by East Side High School Students Listed,” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1968, pp. 1, 4, and 5.)
For further reading, see Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement, by Carlos M<uñoz Jr.; Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, by Ian F. Haney-López; Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975, by Jorge Mariscal; and Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings, by Alma M. García. The semi-fictionalized movie Walkout is also a great introduction to the event itself.

The Sleeping Giant Awakens!

A dozen years ago, historian and geographer Mike Davis wrote a thoughtful examination of the role of Latinos in the making and remaking of Los Angeles. Called Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, the book made an important statement about politics in a closing chapter. “Latinos, all political pundits agree, are the sleeping dragon of U.S. politics.”

It’s a refrain I have been hearing for most of my conscious life: Mexican Americans are a “sleeping giant” in US politics. Just wait until we start showing up at the polls.

Today will mark the unequivocal emergence of Latinos on the national political stage. The “giant” or the “dragon” will awaken. Of course, to those of us who have been studying and watching this process closely for year, it woke up long ago. It is only now beginning to roar so loudly that you can’t ignore it.

The pathway to this kind of political clout has been in the works for more than a century. It began in 1903 when beet pickers from Mexico joined with beet pickers from Japan to struggle for better pay. It began in 1929, in Corpus Christi, Texas, when Mexican American professionals came together to found LULAC. It began in 1935 when Latin American radicals founded a civil rights organization called El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Español.

What you will witness today began in 1947, when Mexican American activists in Los Angeles worked to get thousands to register to vote and elected Ed Roybal to the LA City Council and, later, the House of Representatives. It began in the barrios of California and Texas when women and men with dedication continued that work to create groups like MAPA, the American G.I Forum, and others who would represent Mexican American issues to major political parties. It began in 1960 when the Democratic Party organized “Viva Kennedy” clubs to elect JFK as the first Catholic President.

President John F. Kennedy at a Latino-focused political event the night before he was assassinated.

Today is the culmination of years of struggle and hard work. It may look sudden to the pundits; it may seem like a simple demographic ascendancy to the pollsters. But it is anything but. Today is the end of the first phase of building political power for Latinos in the U.S., a phase that has lasted for more than a century.

It is also the beginning of our political future as major constituencies within the U.S. electorate, and another step toward a nation where “whiteness” no longer holds the uncontested seat of power. This is, I hope, a step toward the multiracial democracy we must become.