Monday, December 4, 2006

The Bigotry of Low Expectations.

It's not obvious from my profile picture, since my face isn't shown, but I'm technically a minority.

At least, half of me is. You see, I am of mixed Mexican and Caucasian ancestry (one parent from each "race"). This combination of brown and white has left me an interesting shade of beige on the inside, but since my outsides are more on the brown side, most people look at me and go, Oh, she's a Mexican... And they approach me as such.

That doesn't bother me most of the time. I am proud of and identify with both sides of my heritage. I guess that's why I get a little sensitive when people make certain kinds of remarks about minorities in education, the workplace, and other key areas of society.

And that's why I'm furious over the way a certain Puerto-Rican student at Columbia University was recently treated on the basis of two things: His race, and his membership in the US Military. Well, it's not this incident that makes me furious. It's the disease of which this incident is merely a symptom.

When some fellow students at a booth for the International Socialist Organization were making rather loud, negative comments about the military. Matt Sanchez, the student in question, tolerated this, until they asserted that the military exploits minorities, using them as cannon fodder. Sanchez, noting that all of the ISO protesters were not minorities, challenged this, informing them that he is a minority person who signed up for the military, and he does not feel exploited. Their response? "You're too stupid to know you're being used."

I guess they felt it was their duty as his racial and intellectual superiors to inform him. And the University must have agreed, because it has yet to discipline these students for their violation of Columbia's policies against racial harassment.

Unfortunately, this attitude that minorities are too inept to look after themselves is not limited to this small group of students at Columbia University. When Jaime Escalante (the high school teacher immortalized in "Stand and Deliver") wanted to teach Calculus to minority kids at his inner-city school site who were academically behind, he met with resistance from faculty. These teachers believed Escalante's students incapable of advanced academic study, and argued that they should be protected from what they believed was inevitable failure.

There are universities now that are considering lowering their admission requirements, in the hope that it will attract more minority students to their campuses. What happened to helping them rise to the existing standards?

When I was in high school, my ethnic background and my very respectable GPA resulted in lots of mail from academic advancement and scholarship programs for minority students. Most of the letters I received assumed that I came from a financially, academically, and even culturally disadvantaged background. The message between the lines was, "you poor thing, let us help you". It never occurred to them that, thanks to the diligence of my parents many of the racial obstacles I might have faced had already been overcome. This is especially a credit to my father, who had to overcome a significant amount of overt racism to become a successful adult, including the low expectations of many of his school teachers, who assumed that a Mexican kid from a poor neighborhood would never go anywhere.

I encountered similar attitudes early in my own teaching career. One person I worked with, who taught a remedial English class for 7th graders told me, both in and out of the presence of these students that "These kids are low" and that they were never going to handle academic life well. She assumed that most of them would end up as dropouts, teenage parents, and even inmates before they were 18, and it was clear from her remarks that the fact that most of these students were ethnic minorities played into her assumptions. She therefore did not assign any homework, since she figured they wouldn't do it and she didn't want them to fail the class. It never seemed to occur to her, despite a lifetime of teaching, that she was contributing to their future failures by not reinforcing a study habit that might keep them from becoming dropouts and delinquents. (I will also note that this person was surprised to find out that English is my first language, even though she never heard me speak any other language, and I haven't the slightest trace of any foreign accent.)

Ironically, several of the kids in this class to whom I spoke wanted to go to college--a place she assumed they would never see, and which she didn't want to bother preparing them for. This teacher was skilled at gaining the respect of her students. Seeing the crestfallen looks on their faces when they overheard her say that she did not believe they would amount to anything was among the most frustrating and painful moments in my career. I had to remind myself that it really is the 21st century.

Even more frustrating is when I see people of color, who have positions of power as teachers, public activists, politicians, doctors, attorneys, actors, and occasionally even parents and students, adopting this attitude as well, and ceasing to encourage younger people to use their talents to follow their dreams and ambitions.

The initial intent of programs like Affirmative Action was, I have always thought, to provide a way for students to get around barriers created by unreasonable stereotypes. I reasoned that the assumption was that people of color are just as intelligent and capable as anyone else, and the forceful minimization of the effects of racism on the education system would provide equal opportunity for people of equal talent to shine. Experience, however, is making me start to think otherwise. Maybe these people who seek to "help" us never really believed in racial equality at all.

Related Link: The Columbia Daily Spectator

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