Friday, May 1, 2015

Prager, Valdary, Understanding, and the Classroom

If you have a conservative Facebook friend, you have probably seen it. An intense and serious young black woman looks into the camera and describes, in a slickly produced five-ish-minute video why anyone who doesn't condemn the Baltimore riots is a racist.

The video is from Prager University. Prager University is non-brick, non-credit, non-coursework-- well, Prager University is a extra-fancy name for a growing library of video clips. It makes me realize that I really missed the boat by not launching this website as Curmudgucation Academy. (One more lesson I should have learned from Edushyster.)

The "University" was founded by Dennis Prager, a conservative writer and syndicated radio guy. The woman in the video is Chloe Valdary, who is best known as a zionist and pro-Israeli activist (as of 2014, she was senior in International Studies at the University of New Orleans.

The Pitch

Valdary argues that dealing with racism is difficult because progressives think they have to treat black folks with kid gloves, which she calls demeaning and condescending. She moves from there to a recent experience in an anthropology class in which a professor (one Valdary very much likes) says that in the shooting of Michale Brown, "ultimately the facts don't matter." It was another example of racism in a racist society, and therefor the riots that followed the non-indictment were a legitimate reaction of people who couldn't take any more.

The words of that last sentence are Valdary's; she does not attribute them to the professor or a classmate. That's important because it's exactly at that point that Valdary either makes a logical leap or just plain creates a straw man.

"Rioting and looting are acceptable forms of behavior because they have no other options?" Valdary asks incredulously. "In free democratic America? Really?" (This while her graphic shows black stick figures cheering the burning of a liquor store.)  She continues that this excuse is applied only to blacks (not other minorities) by "we, the enlightened ones." Worse, if it's white cop killing black teen, the facts don't matter. Well, not in Valdary's world. In her world, facts always matter.

Anyone who excuses bad behavior among blacks just because they're black is a racist, viewing blacks as children who can't play by grown-up rules. Valdary sets white supremicists and condescenders side by side and give the KKK-uniformed racist credit for being open and honest instead of the condescenders who "nod knowingly and say 'They couldn't take it any more. Who can blame them?'"

Valdary wants to convince the condescenders that "as a black human being, I want to be-- I must be-- judged by the same standards as everybody else." Her proposal-- treat everybody equally, all the time.     

The Problem    

I bolded some words above because I think they speak directly to why Valdary is off the mark here.

I don't actually disagree with the root of her argument-- that blacks (and women and folks with disabilities and short people etc etc etc) should be treated equally and not patronized or infantilized. But Valdary (and the conservatives who are happily sharing her because, hey, she's black so that means her words are more equal than others) is missing a large chunk of the point.

First, finding the behavior of rioters in Ferguson or Baltimore (or any of the other flashpoints of the last forever) acceptable or legitimate is not the same as finding it understandable. There's a long list of things that I don't find okay that I still understand. Valdary leans heavily on words of judgment, but in highly charged situations I find understanding far more powerful than judgment.

This stuff is basic classroom 101. Don't think I'm about to infantilize African-Americans by analogy-- I teach high schools students and Step 1 for me is to recognize them as grown humans, not children. But there is a power differential in my classroom, and if I want to (or if I'm too foolish to know better) I can drive my students to acts of misbehavior that get them sent to the office. It's not about judging or standards; it's about my understanding of my students and how that informs my use of power in the classroom. It's about respect and recognizing fundamental humanity. And I'm pretty sure I'm onto something, because my classroom is almost never a chaotic mess, but it has been years since the last time I sent a student to the office.

Valdary (and her amplifiers) want us to agree to condemn the rioters. It is not clear to me what that gets us. A warm glow of moral superiority? A justification to come down on the rioters like a ton of bricks? A free pass to ignore all contributing factors that led people to think there was nothing left but taking to the streets to lash out? What does any of that get us?

Is she afraid that there's a whole bunch of pro-riot folks out there, a bunch of people saying, "Yes, what this country needs is more riots. I'm hoping to organize a riot in my neighborhood." Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think a neighborhood riot appears on anybody's list of Things To Do except at the bottom. I don't imagine anybody saying, "Well, I can think of several actions we could try, but how about we just have a riot, instead?"

I won't deny for a second that condescenders exist. They always have. But many of the expressions of empathy and understanding have been the exact opposite. They have been a recognition that any human beings of any race living for years in such a state of systemic oppression would react with something less than calm decorum when the situation was goosed up by one more unnecessary and unjustified death.

And I should note somewhere in this piece that most of us could just wait on making any sort of judgment until we have enough information to know what the hell we're talking about. How can we all be so aware that the media are so untrustworthy and yet go right back to taking their word for it?

But whenever possible, I still believe that understanding is our best choice. Understanding does not mean approving, justifying or applauding rioting and violence. But in the long strong of violent urban outbursts running back decades upon decades upon decades, what we see is that attempts to understand and respond are far more useful than attempts to blame and punish.

Any good classroom teacher already know this truth: treating people with respect and understanding is not treating them like children; it's treating them like human beings. That truth does not change in the moments when they're acting out with anger and violence.

People want to be heard. They will keep raising their voices until they feel heard, and they will keep raising their voices until they are screaming. It's a basic rule in a classroom, in a board room, in any community-- if you don't want people to start screaming, you have to listen to them.

Note: I don't really recommend watching this video, but I will embed it so that you can check my work.


  1. Anyone who wants to condemn the "rioters" should take a good, hard look at the founding of our country.

  2. "Her proposal-- treat everybody equally, all the time." Yeah. That would be cool - if the police did it.

  3. Thank you for this! My mantra all week has been: disagreeing with violence and understanding the anger that led to the violence are NOT mutually exclusive!

  4. I was so excited about the video that I made a spoof of it.

  5. How would your sense of understanding change if there were an injustice in your neighborhood and rioters burned down your house or family business? How would you show respect to the arsonist?

    1. As I think I said, there's a difference between "I understand this" and "I think this is swell."