October 02, 2015

Markers Honors 13 Courageous Memphis Schoolchildren

For the children who walk the halls of Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle and Springdale elementary schools, few know they follow in the footsteps of 13 of the smallest pioneers of Memphis civil rights history.

On Oct. 3, 1961, 13 African-American first-graders entered these four schools as the first students to desegregate Memphis City Schools. Today, historical markers will be placed at the four schools commemorating the steps of these children and the courage of their families to enroll them.

It is an important acknowledgment of these contributions to our community.

Unlike school desegregation in Little Rock four years earlier, the event in Memphis was orderly and did not make national headlines. Perhaps as a result, the Memphis 13 do not hold the same place in the national consciousness as do the Little Rock Nine. The Memphis 13 have not been honored at the White House or appeared with Oprah; rather, they have been recognized periodically, but have lived in relative anonymity in our community.

View the full article here....

September 24, 2015

"Rhodes Must Fall" and Memphis's Confederate Monuments

Cecil John Rhodes is both famous and infamous in South Africa. He is famous as an arch-imperialist, involved in the colonial expansion in Southern Africa in the late 19th century that generated much of the economic infrastructure that still underlies South Africa today. He is infamous also as an arch-imperialist, involved in the subjugation of native Africans to help drive economic expansion, generating much of the social division that has plagued this country.

When I arrived in South Africa two months ago, I didn't anticipate thinking much about Cecil John Rhodes, who died more than a century ago. Yet the local news was abuzz with coverage of a movement called Rhodes Must Fall.

Furious over a campus display of a symbol of a colonial and oppressive past, black students at the University of Cape Town organized to demand the removal of a Rhodes statue. After a month of protest, the statue was removed by the university. The Rhodes Must Fall movement has spread to other campuses and communities in South Africa and beyond, targeting not only Rhodes but also other figures from complicated pasts.

All of this resonated with a Memphian abroad because of our own experience with a statue of a long-deceased famous and infamous man. There was some comfort in seeing a society 8,000 miles from home grapple with the same difficult issues. Particularly in places with deep histories of division, a universal part of confronting that past is struggling with persistent symbols of it. Freed from my identity as a Memphian, I am able to follow the Rhodes story without my own local baggage and preconceptions.

Read the full article here...

May 16, 2015

No Caste Here? Toward a Structural Critique of American Education

In his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that in the United States, there was “no caste here.” Justice Harlan was rejecting the idea that American society operated to assign preordained outcomes to individuals based upon classifications, including racial classifications. This Article questions whether Justice Harlan’s aspirational assertion accurately reflects contemporary American education. Identifying: (1) multiple classification mechanisms, all of which have disproportionate racial effects, and (2) structural legal, political, and practical impediments to reform, the Article argues that the American education system does more to maintain the nation’s historical racial hierarchy than to disrupt it. This is so, the Article suggests, despite popular agreement with the casteless ideal and popular belief that education can provide the opportunity to transcend social class. By building the framework for a broad structural critique, the Article suggests that a failure to acknowledge and address structural flaws will preclude successful comprehensive reform with more equitable outcomes.

This article appeared in the Penn State Law Review.  The full article is available here.

December 16, 2014

New Yorker Letter: Thinking Fast and Slow in Ferguson

I recently had a letter published in The New Yorker (here it is).  Here's the story of how I came to write the letter (which, in my opinion, is more interesting than the letter itself)....

I have been reading Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which is about the way our minds work - specifically, biases in how we consider things.  As the recent events in Ferguson unfolded, I was struck by the ways in which the book connected with the conversations about race that Ferguson was triggering - and how unproductive those conversations seemed to be.  I wrote the following essay with some of those thoughts...

--> One thing observers of the ongoing drama in Ferguson seem to agree on is that there is a need for frank conversations about race and criminal justice.  However, discussions about the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson and the resulting riots in Ferguson have been largely unproductive.  It seems at times that people are not even talking about the same event.  The disconnect between the various perspectives – and the impact that disconnect has on our ability to honestly address the situation with the seriousness it deserves – reminded me of an experiment from the Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman’s book about our minds, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Try the experiment yourself.  Begin at the top of a sheet of paper and draw a vertical line without using a ruler down to the point you think is 2 ½ inches from the bottom of the page.  Next, without looking at the line you’ve already drawn, start at the bottom of the page and draw a line going up 2 ½ inches - you are aiming for the same point on the page, just starting from the opposite direction.  If you are like most people, you did not stop at the same place in these two attempts.  Most likely, you stopped too early in both cases, leaving a gap between your two lines.  That gap can be called the zone of uncertainty.  You have a general sense of where 2 ½ inches from the bottom of the page would be, but your tendency is to go no further once you get the feeling you are in the ballpark.  When you are coming from two different directions, the lines do not meet.
What does the zone of uncertainty have to do with Ferguson?  Think of the top and bottom of the page as stereotypes that may be at play in a situation where a police officer interacts with a black male: racist police officers and dangerous black males.  Stereotypes like these are certainly not pretty, but they are part of how our minds work – pretending they do not exist or wishing them away only muddles an already difficult dialogue.  How you evaluate any particular interaction between a police officer and a black male depends in large part on which stereotype you begin from.
Saying that you begin from a “racist police officer” stereotype does not mean that you actually think police officers are racist – rather, it means that if you are given no facts other than that a police officer interacted with a black male, your initial reaction (your bias) would be to take the side of the black male.  You would have no facts upon which to make such an initial judgment, but you would make the judgment regardless.  Fortunately, as new facts are provided, you would be able to move off of your initial reaction to evaluate a particular case more fairly.  However, where the “true” answer is unable to be definitively ascertained, your movement is likely to stop at the edge of the zone of uncertainty closest to the side you began from.  The same thing is happening for those who begin from the dangerous black male stereotype.  The two types of people are thus stopping at opposite edges of the zone of uncertainty and their lines never meet.
Unfortunately, from what may be a small zone of uncertainty, a much larger chasm opens up as we grow increasingly frustrated that others aren’t seeing things as we do.  Feeling that we have reached our own conclusion absent bias cleanses our own perspective and sullies disagreement as prejudiced.  Rather than accept the zone of uncertainty, we instead form a negative opinion of those with whom we disagree and begin to harden our own beliefs – asserting them even more strongly than we initially felt them.
This, of course, is not a path to a constructive conversation about race.  A first step toward a productive Ferguson conversation is acknowledging that there may be a zone of uncertainty between how this story is being experienced by different people.  By accepting that we come to the conversation with some bias, we can unlock useful discussions about the undercurrents making a situation like Ferguson possible – and so explosive.  We can even address how troublesome stereotypes like racist police officers and dangerous black males are formed.  Those undercurrents run deep into our national history and have been persistent trouble spots in our evolution into a more perfect union. 
Engaging with these topics – getting to that point 2 ½ inches from the bottom of the page – requires an open mind, an honest assessment of one’s own biases, and a willingness to accept that others may see things differently.  Even though such conversations seem to be what many of us want, our fast thinking might be making that engagement slow to come by.

I submitted that essay to various places, but received no responses.  Then, I saw the cover of the December 8, 2014, issue of the New Yorker.  I was struck by how much it reflected the idea of the zone of uncertainty described in my essay...

...so I wrote a condensed version of the essay and sent it along.  The relevant portion of the letter, as published is:

Perhaps the break in Staake’s arch is not a break at all but a reflection of the fact that people approach these discussions from different perspectives. As we move toward meaningful engagement, we are likely to stop at the edge of our own uncertainty. Connecting the arch requires an open mind, an honest assessment of one’s biases, and a willingness to accept that others may see things differently.

September 17, 2014

Director Daniel Kiel Shares Lessons of the Memphis 13

Director Daniel Kiel Shares Lessons from the Memphis 13 from Daniel Kiel on Vimeo.

At a program marking the opening of a new exhibit at the Ned McWherter Library at the University of Memphis, law professor Daniel Kiel shares lessons learned from The Memphis 13, the first students to desegregate Memphis schools as first graders in 1961.