Why America Can’t Escape Its Racist Roots

Orlando Patterson, Professor of Sociology, Harvard.

“. . . sociologists have argued that while some whites may have liberal views, a lot of them are not prepared to make the concessions that are important for the improvement of black lives. For example, one of the reasons why people have been crowded in ghettos is the fact that housing is so expensive in the suburbs, and one reason for that is that bylaws restrict the building of multi-occupancy housing. These bylaws have been very effective in keeping out moderate-income housing from the suburbs, and that has kept out working people, among whom blacks are disproportionate, from moving there and having access to good schools. Sociologists have claimed that while we do have genuine improvement in racial attitudes, what we don’t have is the willingness for white liberals to put their money where their mouth is.

One of the fundamental aspects of the American race problem is segregation. The black population is almost as segregated now as it was in the ’60s. That is the foundation of a lot of problems that blacks face, but it also explains and perpetuates the isolation of whites who grow up in neighborhoods where they don’t see blacks or interact with them. That reinforces the idea that blacks are outsiders and don’t belong.”

And Chris Rock says, “Being a cop is a hard job, it’s a hard fucking job. . . . But some jobs can’t have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good.”

 

 

Teaching Teamwork

In May, 2011, Atul Gawande gave an insightful commencement address to Harvard’s Medical School graduates.

He reminded the graduates that the practice of medicine had changed markedly, and that increasingly, the best docs are members of teams.

Gawande pointed out that, “The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become.”

I’m having my graduate-level teacher certification students read the address. On the copy I’m providing them, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “medicine” and written in “teachers” and “education”.

Here’s Gawande’s primary point:

The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.

Today, isn’t it a workplace truism for nearly everyone that “. . . you can’t hold all the information in your head. . . and you can’t master all the skills”?

Gawande adds:

The public’s experience is that we have amazing clinicians and technologies but little consistent sense that they come together to provide an actual system of care, from start to finish, for people. We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.

On my students’ copies, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “people” and substituted “teachers” and “students”.

Gawande acknowledges that medical education fails to teach docs to function like pit crews for patients. The same is true for teacher education.

Too often nursing, medical school, and teacher education faculty wrongly assume that novice nurses, docs, and teachers will naturally, through osmosis, form knowledgeable, skilled, interdependent work teams. Absent intentional team-building curricula, in which case studies would be an integral component, professional apprentices depend upon the modeling of their veteran colleagues, often out-of-step ones pining for old school independence and autonomy.

When in comes to intentionally teaching teamwork, what can and should professional preparation programs do to shift the balance from cowboys to pitcrews? More generally, what can employers do to teach teamwork?

They shouldn’t assume it’s something someone is either born with or not. Effective teamwork can be taught through case studies that illuminate what the best teams do and what commonly trips up most others. And by proactively providing pre-professional students positive examples of excellent teams during their fieldwork.

Too Excellent?

It gained momentum during the Pennsylvania primary when Obama passed on beer shots and rolled a few gutter balls. Hillary’s peeps went on the attack saying he’s not a regular guy, he’s an elitist, out of touch with beer drinking bowlers who work factory jobs and hunt on the weekends.

The criticisms multiplied after Hockey Mom burst onto the national stage. Obama was too professorial, too intellectual, too eloquent, too damn skinny. He was a media darling, because like him, the media are arrogant out-of-touch east-coast intellectuals. On the other hand, Palin was celebrated for not being professorial, not being intellectual, not being particularly eloquent. She was regular folk. She hunted moose.

Obama was a man of ideas, she was a woman of action. Like ordinary folk, she hopped from anonymous college to anonymous college before graduating and reading the sports news for a living. In contrast, Obama attended the Punahou school, then Occidental, then Columbia, then the bastion of elitism, Harvard, where he became the first African-American to edit the Harvard Law Review.

Even though we tell ourselves that education is important, people are suspicious of those that attend elite institutions. Obama went from editing the Harvard Law Review to a community organizing gig in Chicago which cynics charge was simply a calculated plan to jumpstart his political career. There’s another strike against him, too ambitious.

I understand cynicism, but maybe there was something about growing up poor that combined with classroom and extracurricular experiences at Punaho, Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard that resulted in a genuine social conscience.

For awhile there, at the end of the Republican Convention, when McCain-Palin pulled even, I thought our national motto had become style over substance. Better not to be too poised. Better not to be too intelligent. Better not to be too fit. Better not to be too ambitious.

All of a sudden conservative Republicans who always advocate for excellence over equity were back-pedaling en masse.

Obama illustrated there was a tipping point, one can be too excellent. I can’t help but wonder if latent racism explains why many on the right felt compelled to portray Obama’s excellence as elitism.

Even last Wednesday night, McCain repeatedly referenced how eloquent Obama was, by which he meant, he’s just too smooth, he can’t be trusted. 

So Obama’s probable victory will restore my faith that what I’ve attempted to model and teach my children—pursue excellence in school, learn to communicate well, take care of your body, be ambitious about serving others—still resonate despite the best efforts of the Palin fanbase to retreat on excellence and dumb down the election.