Connection in the Unexpected Moment

Joe Brooks
Jul 28, 2019 · 5 min read


Resentment (noun) — bitter indignation at being treated unfairly.

The two central public education trends in my lifetime have been the rejection of racial desegregation as a worthy democratic policy goal and the gutting of school funding for our nation’s poorest urban and rural communities. Alternatively, elite leaders in both parties with ties to industry have focused instead on radical privatization, dismantling the teaching profession, raising the personal burden and opportunity cost of obtaining a college degree, and celebrating a small number of well-marketed success stories designed to disprove this chaos.

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You’ve seen those sentimental viral videos emphasizing the poor kid who learned coding online or graduated from a “break-the-mold” charter school with a celebrity founder and donations from Walmart and who got into Harvard, right?

As a result, our policies have ensured three modern realities: 1) If you are poor, you probably went to school surrounded by people of the same race; 2) If you are poor, you got a substandard education; 3) If you are poor, you were inundated with media messages blaming you for your lack of educational progress.

Ask the white third grader outside Huntington, WV who sees teachers on food stamps as his neighborhood becomes big pharma’s favorite opioid dumping ground. Ask the black middle schooler in Memphis who may not realize her per-pupil funding goes directly to a large charter school network and its well-paid CEO, but who knows full well her third teacher quit last year while administering another standardized test. Ask the Mexican-American immigrant teen attending an Arizona high school that eliminated language learning resources, who can’t meet minimum university admission requirements, and who worries any completed FAFSA might expose an undocumented family member.

Each of these students is subsequently flooded with heartwarming examples of other kids who successfully overcame similar obstacles and is accusingly asked, “Why can’t you be more like them?”

Meanwhile their resentments boil, justifiably. And they become adults. This is not simple white resentment. This is not simple black resentment. These are kids who, despite tragically few opportunities to obtain the analytical, writing, and critical thinking skills you take for granted, astutely intuit that they deserve something better. And unless you are working for their liberation, stop judging how that resentment manifests (even into adulthood).

Because here’s a fourth modern reality. If you are poor, a politician is telling you this is all a zero-sum game. If you are are poor, you are being asked to rally your indignation in favor of a particular candidate who knows nothing of your lived experience. If you are poor, you are are expected to believe the lie your poverty is primarily the result of another group of poor people getting more than they deserve.

Trump’s path to reelection requires that we buy into these carefully calculated and highly-charged racial categories. And no small part of the Democratic Party fundraising base benefits from and promotes this same framing. Those maintaining power, after all, have always needed racism much more than the poor (see: “The Southern strategy”).

The political value of these categories rests on the assumption that human beings, as categorized, are immutable. It requires you to view pre-categorized strangers, especially the poor, as static rather than dynamic. After all, why waste your time talking to someone who has their mind made up?

But you aren’t the same person you were at 18. You’ve had moments of fresh consciousness. You’ve had new information and experiences change you. You’ve had all this happen in the most unexpected moments.

So what then makes you so certain your opponent doesn’t share these same human qualities? And if you aren’t talking or listening compassionately to your neighbor’s resentments, how will you find out?

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About the Author: Stephen Mucher directs the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles. A historian by training, Stephen’s research and teaching explores intersections of history, policy, pedagogy, human rights, and the liberal arts in relation to teaching, teachers, and teacher training. His commentaries on education, immigration, religion, and politics have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, Education Week, La Voz and Sojourners. Stephen is an member of the History of Education Society, the National Council for Social Studies, and the National Council for History Education and previously taught in the Bard MAT Program in New York, the Bard Prison Initiative, the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and the Institute for Writing and Thinking. Stephen began his career as a high school teacher in Honduras and in Micronesia before spending a decade in secondary and post-secondary positions in metro Detroit. He has consulted on professional development projects for Los Angeles Juvenile Court Schools, New York Department of Education, Harlem Children’s Zone, Los Angeles Unified Schools, and schools in Oakland, Sacramento and Detroit. His more recent work focuses on cultivating civic engagement, fostering student activism, promoting human rights, addressing trends in the criminalization of youth communities, and seeking humane treatment and legal rights for immigrants and refugees. He is active in the Los Angeles Promise Zone Education Working Group and a member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

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