Tim Wise: Higher Education’s Urgent Imperative to Become Antiracist

(soft electronic music) – Good to be back. I say back because I
have been here before, I cannot honestly recall exactly when I would have been on this campus. I know I’ve been on at
least one of the others, but I’m pretty sure I’ve
been here at some point in the 20 plus years. And pretty much everywhere I go, I guess that’s the same story
which is both good and bad. It is good in that sense
that if they ask you back, they either assume you have
something constructive to offer. Or maybe on the other
hand, they’re just saying like we’re gonna give this
shmuck one more chance to get this right and hopefully this time he’ll tell us something valuable. I’m hoping it’s the
former and not the latter. And then secondly it’s bad
to come back again and again because it suggests that in spite of, at least for me, 25 years
of this work on the road, 30 in all doing racial,
equity and civil rights work and antiracism work, that the issues about which I was speaking
25 and 30 years ago and about which many of you were speaking at least that long ago if not longer, are still very much with us. And oddly enough, shockingly,
have not been resolved. I’m sure we’re all heartily surprised by the lack of ability of our country to actually over the course
of the last three decades eliminate and eradicate
institutional white supremacy. If you are shocked by that, you’re probably in the wrong room. I’m going to assume that
you sort of expected it would be that way. But when you do this work for long enough, you sorta play this game with your head where you really wanna try
to figure out why it is. And it’s one thing to acknowledge that we haven’t solved the problem. I mean, that’s sort of obvious, right? But then you sort of have
to come up with a reason. What is it? ‘Cause we’re smart people, sorta, right? I mean, we try, we play
at it on our better days, and we’re committed people. I think most people are pretty
good, well-intended folks. I mean, there are some people out there, duly noted, who are exceptions
to that general observation. But I think, on balance, I think most people are pretty good, don’t wake up in the morning wanting to oppress or marginalize people, and yet, oppression and
marginalization still happens and in spite of our best
intentions and our intelligence, we seem to be lacking in the ability to figure out the sort of
way to crack the code, right? To figure out how we’re
gonna really create equity in spite of our intentions
and in spite of our efforts and in spite of money thrown
at the issue over the years. So, then the question becomes, what’s up? What is it that we’re really up against? What is it that’s preventing
us from obtaining equity? Whether that is on a particular campus or in a certain college system or whether it’s in a city,
or a state, or a nation. And I think one of the things that I’ve come to recognize
is that one of our problems is we tend to oversimplify
that which we’re up against, and we try to simplify it in a way that protects some of us from judgment by casting that judgment
upon certain others as if they alone were the problem. And I think we do this
a lot in this country, and we’ve certainly done
it since Charlottesville. And you do it here, well,
some folks make it easy for you here in Portland. It’s very easy to decide who
the good guys and bad guys are, or to think that you know who
the good guys and bad guys are when you have fools like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer and Joey
Gibson marching around, demanding they be listened to. Joey, apparently, having forgotten what the Bible says about prayer, that it ought to be done in the closet and not on the streets of Portland. So his organization, Patriot Prayer, isn’t really attention to
their own Biblical admonitions, but that’s not the only thing to which they don’t pay much attention. And yet, it’s so easy, isn’t it? To say well, the Proud
Boys are the problem, and Joey Gibson is the problem, and those boys in
Charlottesville are the problem. Richard Spencer, who had an epic meltdown that was released on
social media yesterday just to remind you that even the most erudite
intellectual of Nazis is still interestingly a Nazi at heart, and given the chance, will indeed engage in the most vitriolic and
genocidal of rhetoric. So you don’t really have the opportunity or the luxury of being fooled by people just because they pretend to be intellectual in their racism. And yet, it’s so easy to say
it’s about Richard Spencer and David Duke or even
Donald Trump, isn’t it? It’s so easy to pretend that the problem of racism and racial inequity is something that if we
could just sorta get rid of those boys in Charlottesville with their tiki torches, right? Because let’s be honest,
nothing says white supremacy like a bunch of 23-year-old white boys in khakis and polo shirts marching around with oversized Polynesian candles that they bought at Pier 1. Like nothing says bad ass like that. But if we can just get rid of them, if we can just figure
out a way to defeat them, if we can just figure a way to get a certain presidential candidate or sitting president out of office and all the problems of
racial inequity will go away. It’s certainly tempting to believe that. It’s certainly tempting to believe that we can draw this sort of line and say, okay, here are
the bad people over here, they’re white supremacists and Klansmen, and neo-Nazis and that kind of thing, and here are the good people over here and we’re open minded and progressive. But there’s the thing, right? Well, first of all, here’s the thing. First time I came to Portland, I was picked up at the airport by a young man, young
African American student who was driving me around
heading back to the campus where I was gonna be speaking, and he asked me, he’s like a sophomore, in college at the time at Lewis and Clark. And he said to me,
“Just take a guess, Tim, “how many times I’ve
been stopped by police “in this town driving my car.” He said, “keep in mind, “I didn’t have the car
on campus first year, “so I’ve only had it this year.” And this was like eight months in, near the end of the semester. And he said, “How many times
do you think I’ve been stopped “here in Portland?” Keeping in mind those
of us not from Portland, were led to believe as we
were about the Bay Area as we were about Seattle, as we were about all of those… I mean, we’re from the South, right? You get the impression,
all these other places are just progressive nirvana,
it’s the place to be. And this black man’s asking me, “How many times do you
think I’ve been stopped?” I said, “I don’t know, 10, 12?” Which to me would’ve been a
pretty shitty horrible answer. That woulda been awful. 10 or 12 times in the
course of eight months. He’s like, “No, 63”. I said, “How many times
did you get a ticket?” Cause I knew the follow up
question I wanted to ask. I knew the question I had
to ask him in response. “How many times you get a ticket?” He said, “Not once”. I said, “Of course not, cause
you didn’t do anything”. Because if you’d done something, you would have gotten a ticket. That tells you a lot about the supposedly open minded and progressive Northwest and the progressive
nirvana of Portland, right? Where I can go into weed shops run by white weed billionaires while black and brown
folks still rot in jail for selling the same product
without an occupational license and a storefront cause daddy
couldn’t buy it for him. (audience applauds) And I can ride out from the airport on one of the side roads where they have the bulletin boards for the weed shops, and I see like Cheech Marin has his
own weed strain, awesome. Tommy Chong has his own
weed strain, awesome. You go into weed shops, it’s like they’re pairing
it with cheese and shit. (audience laughs) Like there are tasting notes for weed. (audience laughs) Because here’s the thing, and Portlanders will appreciate this, white people have gentrified weed. (audience laughs) So see, that ain’t Nazis, is it? Like all the dudes running weed shops, they didn’t go to Charlottesville and march around with tiki torches. They’re on the left, they’re progressive, they’re selling weed. But they’re still taking advantage of a market of inequality that continues to plague people of color and benefit white folks. So who’s the good guy and who’s the bad? See, the lines aren’t always that clear. And I get nervous when we’re able to
point to obvious demons. I get real nervous when it’s easy, when some people make it easy. The Proud Boys make it easy. Man, they’re fascist, it’s so easy, right? Patriot Prayer, fascist,
they just make it easy. They’re just hateful, misogynistic goons. It’s so easy to just say that and move on. So easy to talk about Trump or David Duke or Richard Spencer. And I know those three are
not the same, by the way, I’m very clear on the
differences between them. I’m not trying to allied
those differences. I know that Donald
Trump is not David Duke. David Duke is not Richard Spencer, and Richard Spencer is not Gavin McInnes, and Gavin McInnes is not
joy Gibson, I get it. But they all sort of push this
obvious politic of prejudice, but the only reason it works, right? The only reason it works is
because there’s a pathogen in the larger body
politic that we all share. If that weren’t true, it wouldn’t work. You couldn’t make bank, economically or politically
talking in those terms. And speaking in that way, you couldn’t gain a
following or a prominence if it was just you and your boys, right? At some point there has
to be something deeper, some virus residing in
the larger body politic that we share, that’s on us. Right now the typical white
family in America has, according to the data,
15 times the net worth of the typical African American family, 11 times that of the typical
Latino and Latina family. Certainly not because we
worked harder, prayed harder, or because white folks have
some superior investment wisdom. After all, a lot of really
well educated white boys lost $12 1/2 trillion
of other people’s money during the great meltdown
of the economy 10 years ago. That wasn’t black and brown folks that was just white boys
with really good SAT scores. And they lost 20% of the
wealth of the country. So white folks don’t have any
superior investment wisdom. We’re not better bankers
for God’s sake, right? So that inequality isn’t about merit, it’s about a history
of disparate treatment that isn’t the fault of David Duke, like David Duke didn’t create that, Richard Spencer didn’t create that, those numbers were the same before Trump. They’re gonna be the
same after Trump, right? Democrat or Republican, those
numbers remain the same. They bounce around a little bit, but it’s always pretty much the same. Black folks with a college degree, regardless of major, by the way, you can take a black person with a degree, white person with a degree, same degree. Same area of concentration, and that black person
is still almost twice as likely to be out of work. Latino or Latina folk,
Latinx folks with degrees, about 50% more likely than comparable whites with
degrees to be out of work. Asian Americans and Pacific
Islanders with degrees about 20% more likely than whites with degrees to be out of work. Indigenous folks with degrees, 2/3 more likely than whites
with degrees to be out of work. So whose fault is that? Whose responsibility is it? Maybe it’s the bigger question, right? David Duke didn’t create it, can’t take responsibility for it. Donald Trump didn’t create it, those numbers were true
before he came around. And they’ll be true after unless we decide to
prioritize these issues. So inequalities in education, healthcare, the justice system, labor market, housing, all of that, right? These are problems with
deep systemic roots. And if we’re going to get a hold of them, and if we’re gonna get a hold
of them on college campuses and create equitable spaces
here as a counterweight to that, we have to at least understand that we’re up against more
than just the obvious, right? We’re up against systems of inequality. Systems that are not, I
beg to remind you, failing. Because that’s the mistake
that we sometimes make, right? We say things like, “God,
the system’s broken, “how do we fix it?” See, no. The only way you can actually believe that the system is broken, and in need of fixing on that basis is if you believe that the
system was actually set up for the benefit of people of color or poor people of all colors, right? Or women as women, or
LGBTQ folk as such, right? The system wasn’t set up
for marginalized people, that’s why they’re marginalized. So when the system that was
never set up to serve you proceeds to let you down, that is not failure, y’all, that is the system working
exactly as it was designed. So don’t act shocked, right? We have an educational system that was predicated on
inequality on purpose. It’s not an accident. This is not a conspiracy
theory, by the way, this is just a sociological
theory called functionalism, which says that basically,
systems remain in place because they are functional for people with the
greatest amount of power. The fact that they don’t work for people without power, doesn’t matter because they ain’t got power,
that’s the whole point, right? When systems don’t work for
powerful people, shit changes. That’s normally the way of things. When systems don’t work
for non-powerful people, they don’t change because
they don’t have power. This is not rocket science,
is relatively easy. It’s just observational, right? But our educational system, of which you’re apart
here at this institution was set up deliberately to be unequal. How do we know? Because everybody that
created it told us as such. It’s not me telling
you, it’s not ideology. It’s not politics. It’s just language on a page
that I can read, you can too. Thomas Jefferson told us what the point of schooling was, y’all. Thomas Jefferson was a very
forward thinking educator according to those who lived in his day, that’s what they said. He founded the University of Virginia, very enlightened by the
standards of the day when it came to the way he viewed school. What did Jefferson
actually say about school? Well, this is what he said he said, “What we need is about six
years of compulsory education.” And of course, he was only
talking about white people, he didn’t mean six years for black folks. He didn’t mean six years
for native folk, right? He’s just talking about white people. He’s like, we need six years
of compulsory education which I guess in the ’70s,
’80s, six years was a lot. Six years of compulsory schooling so that we can, his words, not mine, quote, “Rake a few
geniuses from the rubbish”. Oh, fascinating, right? We can rake a few
geniuses from the rubbish keeping in mind, he’s only
talking to white people. So it’s like we know he didn’t
think much of black folks. We know he didn’t think
much of indigenous people. What he just told white folks is I don’t like any y’all either
except for like a handful. And we’re gonna give you
six years of education so we can figure out which
among you are the geniuses, and the rest of y’all can work for us. In other words, what he was saying was the purpose of school is inequality. This shit is not happening
by accident, right? Or coincidentally, like
this is on purpose. Just why I always find it interesting when people tell me that
education is the great equalizer, and that’s why they wanna be teachers. And that’s why they wanna
get into the education game because we know you don’t do it for money. We know you don’t do
it for prestige, right? You don’t do it for power. Everybody says, education
is the equalizer, where’s the evidence of that? Not only is the data that I gave you, a contradiction to the idea
that it’s an equalizer, but the people that were
setting up the system from the jump told you
that was not the point. It’s about inequality, fast forward, because I don’t want
Jefferson to be an anomaly. Fast forward to the early
1900s and Woodrow Wilson before he becomes President
of the United States was President of Princeton. He also was considered a very progressive educational theoretician. He wasn’t quite on the level
of Dewey and some of those but he was still someone to whom a lot of educators
looked for theories about schooling and best practices. And what did Woodrow Wilson say? He said something very
similar to Jefferson, he said, “What we need is a small group of people “to prepare themselves “for the receipt of a liberal education”, that being the term that we want to use for college education. And he said, “What we need by necessity “in this and every other
society is a much larger group “that will forego the privilege
of a liberal education “and prepare themselves
for the performance “of certain difficult manual tasks.” Fascinating, right? I mean, break that down, it’s pretty much what Jefferson said. Updated a little bit, right? A little bit different language, but ultimately what he said was, the point is we need a
handful of folks to rule, the rest of y’all work for us. The purpose of education is
inequality, not equality. Now, let’s do you believe
that this is a philosophy that died in the early
part of the 20th century and is somehow changed? Let’s fast forward
again, we’ll go to 2001, late 01, maybe early 02,
George W. Bush’s president, No Child Left Behind his passed, right? The big educational reform bill. I’m watching the Sunday talk
show, William Bennett is on, former Secretary of Education
to Reagan, who until recently, was the worst Secretary of
Education in American history. (audience laughs) Records are meant to be broken, y’all, like Lou Gehrig used
to have the longest run of consecutive games in baseball and even that fell, nobody
thought that one was gonna fall. Nobody really thought Bill
Bennett would get knocked from his perch as the worst
Secretary of Education, but amazingly, it has happened but he is holding on tight at number two. And there he was on the talk show and they asked them a question as the former Secretary of Education, they said, “Mr. Secretary,
what do you think “the biggest problem
in education today is?” Now that y’all it’s pretty
big question, right? It’s kind of question that
if somebody asks you that, you probably think, I wanna
think about that for a minute. Can we go to commercial? Maybe we’ll come back talk
about that in a minute. Like I’m pretty confident
about my answers. But I still think that’s
awfully big, right? I don’t wanna give a bad
answer to a question like that. So I would need some time,
Bill Bennett did not need time. Bill Bennett was ready with his answer. And I’ll remind you the question, “What do you think the biggest problem “in education today is?” Bill Bennett without missing a beat says, “The biggest problem “is too many people are going to college.” Period, not comma, not
like internal ellipses, like there’s more shit coming, right? Like there could have
been an ellipses in there, there could have been an em
dash, a semi colon, a comma, something like maybe
he was wanting to say, too many people going to college comma who can’t afford it or em dash, or what, I’m bad at grammar, I’m a writer, I’ve written seven books, but
I’ve editors for that shit, like whatever the point is, like there’s nothing, there’s no comma, no semi colon, no em
dash, there’s nothing. There’s certainly no dot,
dot, dot, it’s just a period, at the end of the sentence, too many people going to
college and I’m thinking, whoa, who in the world is he talking about? ‘Cause he didn’t say, see? But that’s the obvious question which they did not ask him as a follow up. I’m like, why didn’t we ask that question ’cause I wanna know what the answer is. But then again, I realized
I do know the answer, right? ‘Cause come on, who do we
know he’s not talking about? He’s certainly not talking about rich and mediocre children
of rich and mediocre parents who themselves came from
rich and mediocre people. I’ve known plenty of
rich and mediocre people over the course of my
life, lots of them, right? I used to be able to go to the Ivy League and get a gentleman’s C
without even going to class, as long as you were from the right family and you were white male and
protestant from the east coast, you didn’t have to show up, man, right? So you could be mediocre,
it didn’t matter, man. You could get Cs in prep school, go to Yale, get Cs at Yale, go to Harvard Business
School, get Cs there. Go on and become president
of the United States, I’ll let y’all Google that one. (audience laughs) Or you could get $400
million worth of cash and real estate from your daddy and be a millionaire by the
time you’re eight years old. And then seven years later, folks are still acting like
you’re a self-made billionaire. I’ll let you Google that one, too. So we’re not talking about
the rich and mediocre of whom there are scores. They’re gonna go to college, and we all know they’re
gonna go to college and they’ve always gone to college. Never have I ever met a counselor
at a prep school, right? Who showed up at the counseling office near the end of the senior
year of the graduating seniors at the prep school and sat
down with the C students and said, “Okay, so I know
you have your heart set “on university and maybe
law school and med school. “But have you ever thought
about working in a factory? “Because I think maybe
your academic prowess “suggests that’s what you’re suited for, “or maybe minimum wage job,
you ever think about that?” No, of course not. Those people are gonna run the universe. So when Bill Bennett says too many people are going to college, he sure as hell is not talking about them. Who is he talking about? He’s talking about working
class people of all colors. He’s talking about people
of color in particular, he’s talking about the kind of people that go to community colleges. He’s talking about the people
who in prior generations wouldn’t have had access to education and for whom he doesn’t
care much for access now. He didn’t have to say it. It’s obvious, it’s the mentality
of the slave owner, right? What was the mentality of the slave owner? Mentality of the slave owner
was, if they all learn to read who’s going to pick this cotton, y’all? And so if they all go to college, who’s gonna pick up my
garbage on Wednesday? And who’s gonna change the
bedpans at the hospital, and who’s gonna change my sheets
at my hotel tonight, right? ‘Cause if you get a college degree, you’ll think you’re
too good for that work, because that’s what they
basically tell us is, you’re too good for certain work, right? Even though that work
is like vital, right? The garbage collection
thing sort of vital, sort of important. We don’t pay it like it’s very important. But the two guys that pick up my trash once a week in Nashville,
they get about 19 five, maybe 20, 21 if there’s been
a raise that I’m not aware of, and then some benefits,
probably aren’t all that great. And they do like the most important work in the neighborhood. Like if they don’t show up for six weeks, we got like bubonic
plague on my block y’all. Like people are dying, people
are just falling out dead, I wouldn’t know where the dump is. I don’t even know where
to take my own garbage. I just look at my wife and be like, I don’t know, I guess
we’re just all gonna die. I don’t know where to take it. I don’t know where the recycle is, what are you talking about, right? But they get paid like 20 grand a year to know stuff like that
and do stuff like that. And meanwhile, the dude that lives like five
houses down and sell stock. Come on, man, if he didn’t
show up for six weeks, world will go on. Nobody’s gonna miss and
that stock will get sold and traded by somebody else. But the garbage folks
don’t come, and people die. So we have a labor market
predicated on inequality. If you have a labor market
predicated on inequality structured into the system, you have to have a school
system predicated on inequality to fill those jobs slots. Again, not conspiratorial,
just systemic functionalism. So what that means is, if you’re working in a college setting, particularly a community college setting, you have to remember that the folks who are entering
through your doors as students are at the 13-year mark of a
system that was established for the purpose of crushing most people. And if you’re gonna be
about creating equity at this point in the game,
there’s a lot of damage that has to be undone and to
undo it, you have to see it and you have to address it and
you have to name it, right? You have to name that damage and that damage wasn’t
done by Nazis and Klansmen, that damage was done by the best and the brightest college educated people. Who in spite of their
education in their erudition did horrible things in
the name of inequality. So I’m always fascinated by
the focus we have on STEM, within our colleges and
even within our K-12 now, science, tech, engineering
and math, I get it. It’s important. Science is important, we need scientists if we’re gonna stave off
ecological catastrophe. It’s sort of important. Technology, it can be good or bad, but on balance, I’m glad we have some. Engineering, yeah, it’s very important. I’d like my bridges not to collapse. And I fly all the time, and
I don’t understand aviation, so I’m glad somebody does, right? Math, very important. I’m glad that some of y’all
good at and love math, wasn’t gonna be this boy,
but I’m glad y’all like it. I’m glad somebody knows how to do it. But here’s the problem, right? If we only focus on STEM in
our colleges and our K-12, and we make that sort of the
focal point of education, which I fear we’re doing. Because we’re so concerned
about global competitiveness, and we’re saying to young people, these are the best paying
jobs of the future. And you need to be prepared for one, cool. But here’s the problem, technology can be used to liberate or to marginalize and to oppress. And I’m afraid that if we only focus on science, tech, engineering,
and math or overly so, we’ll end up 20 years out with a lot of really
well educated tech bros, who can code all day long,
and maybe some women as well, if we really open up the ranks
of STEM the way we need to, but those tech bros and those tech women who end up in the same field, can code, and code, and code but they won’t know how to function as members of a pluralistic
multicultural democracy. They won’t know how to be citizens, I don’t mean of this country,
I mean of this planet, they won’t know how to maintain systems of even remotely
democratic institutions. So we got to do some other stuff, right? We got to focus on some other things. We have to make sure that STEM is combined with what I would call MESH education. M for media literacy, E for ethics, S for sociology, H for history. Why, et’s think about it. M for media literacy. Well, we have young people
and even not so young people, who are being bombarded with
more media imagery than ever, it’s really important that people know how to
sift through the bullshit, and separate the wheat from the chaff. And I don’t just mean
in political campaigns, although that’s important. I mean, even just an advertising, right? Being able to ascertain when corporations are
trying to manipulate you to buy products that you don’t need with clever advertising and marketing, which is certainly part of
our everyday experience. So having some media
savvy, some media literacy, to know when you’re being manipulated around political themes, social themes, cultural themes, commercial
themes, very important, right? Learning how to use social
media in a responsible way, at a time like this, very
important to have that. It has to be taught,
doesn’t come naturally, the technology is evolving
much faster than our brains. So we have to sort of
intervene and teach this stuff and really learn this stuff. E for ethics, just about every division that royals us in this
country and on the planet, has an ethical dilemma at its heart. How do we balance off the need
for ecological sustainability with the need for economic opportunity? How do we balance off this versus that, there’s any number of things
you can probably think of, where ethical decisions are in play, but when is the last time
most of us really sat down and thought seriously
about ethical dilemmas, and tried to resolve them? If you took a philosophy class, maybe, if that was your major, sure. Maybe you do some of that. And if you’re a person of
faith in your house of worship, maybe y’all have some
of those conversations. But for the most part, we don’t
really engage young people and students around ethics. We leave that to like the philosophers assuming we can’t be that, right? That we can’t be part
of that philosophical and ethical critical thinking
tradition, but we must. S for sociology, how are you
gonna make sense of the world that you find if you don’t have
a sociological imagination? Which is to say, if I don’t
understand power dynamics, and the dynamics between
socially defined groups, I’m not gonna be able to
make sense of inequality. I’m not gonna be able to make sense of the way elections run,
the way the economy runs, the way culture operates, right? We don’t just operate as
individuals bouncing off others, like just atoms rotating around, we also operate within
systems as members of groups. And understanding the
power dynamics between us is how I can understand everything from the impact of gentrification to the way the criminal
justice system operates to the way that tracking and
K-12 schools operates, right? I have to have a sociological
context for what I see because otherwise, you know what happens. We all grow up in a society where we’re told the same thing, this society tells every one of us wherever you end up is
all about your own effort. That’s the social gospel of America. That’s Genesis 1:1 in
the Bible of Americanism. Well, if you tell me that, and then I look around and
I see massive inequality between rich and poor,
between men and women in the job market, for instance, between white and people of color, if I see massive
inequality, and you told me that wherever I end up is
all about my own effort, and anybody can make it if they try. And you don’t break down that ideology by looking at the sociological
and historical context that got in the way of it being true, then my default position is gonna be classist,
and racist, and sexist. Oh, well, I guess they’re here
because they’re just better. And I guess they’re here
because they’re inferior, that becomes almost logical. Again, David Duke doesn’t
even have to exist, y’all. Richard Spencer doesn’t have to exist. Donald Trump doesn’t have to exist. None of these people have to exist. All you have to do in order to internalize racial and racist, classist and sexist norms in this country is to be in this country
and be taught the lessons that we’re all taught and learn them. And not learn to interrogate them. Sociology allows you to interrogate them by giving you some context,
history does as well. That’s the H in MESH, right? This idea that we need
better historical memory, our history pedagogical approaches are bismal in this country. What do we do? We just teach people a
bunch of disconnected names and dates and battles. And we haven’t regurgitated,
not all history teachers. I mean, some do a great job, but that’s what we do pretty much K-12. So by the time they get to college, that’s where most students have been. And they hate history. You ask most high school graduates like what was your least favorite class? History, I wouldn’t have said that because I was a history geek. But that’s what most people say, because it’s just taught in this way that’s utterly disconnected
from their lived experience. Because it doesn’t seem
to have any relevance. I mean, more people
grew up in this country, believing that lie about George Washington
in the cherry tree, right? You know that story, right? George Washington cut down a cherry tree. He’s just so honest. He’s just such an honest little boy that he went “Daddy, daddy,
daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry
tree in the front yard. Because I can’t lie. Well, apparently historians didn’t have any such compunction because if they did, that story is a lie, that shit did not happen. There’s not a single historian with any documented evidence
of that story ever happening. But more people know that story than know that George Washington
owned other human beings and was a particularly
vicious slave owner, in fact, particularly vicious in his treatment of his chattel property, but we don’t know that story. But we know the cherry tree story because that’s more functional
for the people in power to say we have almost
like deities as founders. It’s almost godlike how
our country came to be, we just struck off from the
forehead of God Almighty, rather than actually understanding
how we came to be here. So if we don’t have a proper
historical understanding, sociological understanding, ethical grounding and media literacy. All the STEM in the
world isn’t gonna help us because that technology can be used to oppress and to
marginalize, it has before. That’s why we need MESH within stem. Even if you’re teaching science, you better have a MESH
understanding of science because science has been weaponized against marginalized people. Science was used to justify
the extermination of peoples both on this continent and in
Europe during World War II, all of the things that Nazis did, they borrowed from our scientists, our academics, our professors who were ensconced at Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford and Columbia. They didn’t come up with
any of that on their own, those were American scientists,
the best and the brightest. And that was the thinking that
led to genocide in Europe. And it was the thinking that led to the involuntary sterilization of 100,000 women in this country in the 20th century against their will because they were deemed
too imbecilic to reproduce. Most of them people of color, but a lot of poor white women as well. Now, think about why that
would be important to teach me? If you’re wanting to diversify STEM, which is something we talk about, right? We talk about that, we
talk about the importance of making sure that folks of color and women of all colors
have access to STEM. I think one of the ways
you might inspire folks to go into STEM is not
just by telling them, there’s a good job waiting for you. Because nobody trusts that
anymore in this economy. Nobody believes that shit. Daddy, there’s a good job waiting for you just because you worked
hard and gotten education? Man, folks can look around, see folks with graduate
degrees waiting tables, they don’t believe that, right? Or saying, “Oh, it’s
about global competition.” What, nobody cares. But if I’m a person you’re
trying to inspire to go into STEM and I’m a person of color, I’m a woman of any
color, I’m working class, maybe the way to do it is to say like, yeah, you sorta need to know this ’cause if you don’t know it, the people who do know it
might kill you with it, how about that? How about it can be
weaponized against you? How about this is self-defense. How about this is collective liberation, how about you need to know this
better than they know this. So they cannot use it against
you the way they always have. How about that? See?
(audience claps) That’s gonna get me in the game, that’s gonna actually make me realize like, oh, this isn’t just something you’re telling me I have to learn because of the state standards, or because I’ve got this requirement to graduate with my associates degree, my bachelor’s degree,
it’s actually because, this is some deep connection to my life. That’s what education
is supposed to be about. But we have so individualized it, right? We’ve sort of individualized education to where it’s all about,
you got to get yours so you can get out there
and get a good job. And that’s the purpose of education. But when you individualize
education, you strip it of all of its collective and
social and cultural meaning for marginalized people,
it doesn’t make any sense to talk about it in a
purely individualized sense because for marginalized peoples, so I’m talking working class
folks, regardless of color. I’m talking people of color,
I’m talking women as women. I’m talking any group
that’s been marginalized to sit there and think about
getting yours and getting out, is to turn your back on the larger social
project of group uplift. And during periods of intense oppression, like under segregation, think about that, like black folks under
segregation is just one example. Would have been really weird to have a philosophy of education that said the purpose of schooling is to be more successful as an individual, so you can get a good job and
support your family, right? Because you’re only going
to be able to rise so high under that system. So the idea that that
would be your motivation is nuts, right? No, that would make no sense. So under segregation, people
of color had to actually have a collective philosophy
of what schooling was for that it was about group uplift,
all of us or none of us. Either we all rise or none of us rise. The problem is when we
integrated the bodies, and we integrated the buildings, we didn’t integrate the philosophy so we left the dominant individualistic philosophy in our schools, and then we made it more multicultural but we were asking all
these collective folks who have a collective
philosophy of social uplift to come into our individualized places and make it all about them. And we have teachers who
I’ve heard many times as young as like middle school telling their middle school students. And I think they mean well, when they talk to kids this way, they’ll say things like, you need to get a good education so you can get out of here and
make something of yourself. The hell does that mean? So you can get out of here and
make something of yourself, and you think you’re doing a
kid of favor when you say that, like this is your ticket
out, ticket out of what? The only place you’ve ever known and the people who loved you? When you say that, what
you just said to that child is the place you come from is
broke and busted and no count and your goal should be to
leave all the people there in the dust not to come
back and fight for them, not to come back and work with them to liberate the neighborhood you come from or improve the neighborhood but just to get the hell out and let the gentrifiers claim it. And everybody that you think loved you, they didn’t love you, if they loved you, they’d
have gotten you out of there. That’s the implicit subtext, right? That’s a horrible thing. And we don’t just tell
it to kids of color, we tell that to young working class, white folks that live in rural areas too, you got to get out of here, and then they do, they leave, right? Because they’re trying to get out. And then the folks they left behind are like, “Well, why is
our neighborhood dying? “Why is our town dying?” Because y’all, we’re
encouraging people to get out and make something of themselves, instead of come back and
fight for the collective good of the people in the
communities that they come from. So this individualized notion
of what schooling is about is just an incredibly dangerous thing, and it’s not inspiring. People just aren’t really inspired by it. It just doesn’t work, especially
when they can look around. And they can see people with education that haven’t gotten very far. And they can see people who
don’t have that much education, who are some of the richest
people on the planet, like Zuckerberg left Harvard, right? He said, screw it, don’t even need it. And a lot of the folks in
Silicon Valley, same way, like screw it, I don’t
have to do this, right? Because if I got the right connections, I really don’t have to do this. Everybody knows that that’s
the way the system operates. But the key is for us, if we’re gonna create
equity, we have to meet folks at that level of their own
recognition of that knowledge and say to them that the purpose of this education here at this institution is not about just
helping us an individual, is all of us or none, right? It is this whole
community or it is nobody, that’s especially what community
colleges have to be about. And that means recognizing that the problem is an overall mindset, it’s our overarching paradigm, not given to us by white supremacist in the traditional sense, but just given to us by white supremacy as an overarching philosophy,
given to us by a society that’s always been predicated on that, and class inequality,
and gender inequality and all these forms of inequality, and recognizing that our task
is to rebel against that, to be an educator in that society is to be a revolutionary
or a collaborator, and there’s no in between. There’s no other choice,
it is one or the other. You are either working to liberate people from systems of marginality or you are keeping them in place. And the only question for
us at this particular point is what side are we going to be on, so we have to recognize the
problem is not out there, it’s all around us. It isn’t about bad people and good people, it’s about bad systems and how bad systems can
contort good people. Like I said, I think most people are good. But if you’re a good person in
a bad and iniquitous system, you’re gonna have a hell of
a time producing goodness. On the other end, if you’re standing at the
end of a conveyor belt in a sausage factory, don’t
be shocked, in other words, when it gives you sausage
every time, right? If you’re standing at the
end of that conveyor belt waiting for chicken nuggets, you’re gonna be waiting a long time. Where are my chicken nuggets? I don’t know, did you read the sign, fool, it is a sausage factory. It is gonna give you exactly what it told you it was gonna give. But I really want chicken? Then you need to retool
the damn machinery, right? This is not a glitch. You think about it in
like phone terms, right? It’s like if education
in America was an app, it’s not a glitch, it’s
not a bug, it’s a feature. It is programmed into the app. There’s no update coming,
there’s no patch coming, right? There’s no version 2.0, this is it, it’s just version 1, always 1 until you actually retool the software, maybe even the hardware, right? But that requires a different mentality, that requires looking at
education as a revolutionary act, committing to a mission
that is community based, and particularly in community colleges, being clear and unwavering
about that commitment, especially in the face of
those who would challenge it. Especially in the face of those who would, in this present day, make those who are immigrants particularly but not only undocumented
people feel so insecure, those who are Muslim but not
only Muslim feel so insecure, those who are LGBTQ feel so insecure, but not only them women as women as well, people of color generally. And these folks who will
try to come on your campuses and claim the right to be here under the guise of free
speech, forgetting for a minute that although speech may indeed be free, that doesn’t mean it has to be worthless. I’ll let you think about
that aphorism for a minute. Just because speech is free doesn’t mean that it has to be worthless. And sometimes it is just that. And when certain groups come around and they yell racial slurs,
and they taunt and they cajole, that’s not a speech act,
that’s not an argument. The whole purpose of free speech is to forward an argument
that can be rebutted, it is to engage in the search for truth. Racial slurs are not part
of a search for truth. Gendered slurs are not
part of a search for truth. Sexualized slurs are not
part of a search for truth, they are not rebuttable presumptions, they are not rebuttable by anything except maybe medication
or a fist to the teeth, the latter of which
will get you locked up, the former of which you
cannot do in voluntarily. So the idea that that
speech needs to be defended, there may be a constitutional
reality to that, but I’ll tell you what, if you spend more time defending
the free speech of racist than you do, condemning their racism, your priorities are messed
up, that much I know for sure. And yet, that’s what we have. We have people who will defend
the free speech of fascist and I acknowledge it exists, but I’m also gonna spend
more time critiquing fascism than defending the free speech of people who rock that mentality. ‘Cause I got my priority straight. We have a lot of people who
don’t, we have to be clear, we have to have administrators
and professors and staff, all the way from top to bottom who say when those folks come around as they surely will, if
they have not already, you may have a right to be here, but we will condemn you
in no uncertain terms. We believe no question
as to where we stand, we will not simply say, “This violates the norms and
the values of our community.” No, no, we will show some emotion. We will show some anger, we
will show some real hostility at the fact that you
think you have the right to come around us
(audience claps) and make our students unsafe, we have the right to be
every bit as emotional and every bit as angry as you are and our anger is righteous,
and yours is destructive. And so it isn’t enough to
issue mealy mouth platitudes or emails or letters that
go around the campus. It’s about standing up
and saying, damn it, you are not welcome here. You may have the right to be here, but we will make your life hell because we have free speech too, see? You have the right to be an asshole and we have the right to call you one, that’s how this works. So you need to get used to that. Free speech is not
consequence free speech. But I wanna make sure we’re clear on this. It isn’t enough to just
speak to those people because like I said at the outset, they’re not the only problem, right? They only can be as successful as they are because the rest of our society is still predicated on inequality. If you were taught that wherever you end up is all about you. And then you see inequality, of course, you’ll come to
some of the same conclusions those folks come to, right? Maybe not at the same level, maybe it’ll be subconscious,
but it’s going to be there. So we got to work on ourselves too. We can’t just work on our institutions and we can’t just work on trying to change the mentality of
fascist and overt racist, we also have to work on us. And the reason I know this,
and I’ll close with this, some of you know this
story, most of you won’t. So I tell the story sometimes at the beginning of my speeches, but it seems to fit here and then I’ll be done
and take some questions. My grandmother was very
instrumental person in my life, lots of reasons, first, because she was
the person in her home and my grandfather’s home was
the home to which I would turn when things got a little hectic in my own family life, as often happen. See, we all come from
dysfunctional families. The only difference between
me and some of y’all is I’m real clear on
it and I’m in therapy. And my therapist said,
I should tell you that because that shit is
therapeutic, so there it is. (audience laughs) So my grandparents house
is where I would go when things got a little tight in my home. And so she was very
helpful in that regard, just keeping me alive. But in addition to that, very instrumental in the
way I understand the world, very instrumental in my hatred
of condemnation of racism. She wasn’t an activist, I don’t wanna give the
impression that she was, but she was just very clear and always had been from a very long time, about the unacceptability of racism. She had learned to speak to that unacceptability
very early at the age of 16. When she stood up to her own father, my great grandfather who
was a member of the Klan, after she fell in love with a man who would become my
grandfather who was Jewish, which normally does not go over
well at the claver meeting. And so when she was 16 in
1936, I beg to remind you, not a time when young Southern girls talked to their daddies this way, she went to him one evening and said because she was in love with this Jew and insisted she was going to be with him and she was tired of his anti-black racism that she had heard far too
much in her young life. She went to him and said that
he had two choices that night, choice number one was he
was gonna take his robes and his hood out of the closet into the front yard and
burn them that night, he was going to quit
the Klan the next day. Or choice number two, she
was gonna take his robes and his hood out of the
closet into the front yard. She was gonna burn them that night and he was still gonna
quit the Klan the next day. There was no third choice. And my great grandfather
challenged as he was by the 16-year-old freedom
fighter even in 1936 did as he was told, he took his robes, his hood into the front yard,
burned them, quit the Klan, changed his life, accepted the man who would become my
grandfather into his life. And at that point, my grandmother decided, well, this shit is easy. (audience laughs) Damn, like challenging
racism is easy, y’all, like come on, so I’ll just do it again. So 21 years later she and my
grandfather looking for a house 1956, 57 in Nashville
there’s a real estate agent, shows them a house says,
“You’ll like this house, “there are no black people
in this neighborhood.” He of course didn’t use the
term black people, right? She looked at him and said, “I’m gonna give you two choices today.” My grandmother was a big fan
of the multiple choice quiz, she believed in giving racist and out. She was very ecumenical in that way. And she said, “Give you two choices, “choice number one, you’re
gonna get in your car “and you’re going to drive
your ass out of here.” “Choice number two, I’m
gonna get in my car, “I’m gonna run your ass over, you pick.” There is no third choice. He left, they didn’t buy
that house, needless to say. And again many other
times throughout her life in front of me, she would
stand up for what was right, and so it rubbed off and
I think it had an impact on all of her children and her grandkids. But in any event, that’s not
really the point of the story. The point of the story is the
last couple years of her life, she had Alzheimer’s and
that’s ultimately the disease that would take her from us, right? It’s fascinating disease. You ever took care of anyone who has it or you know anyone, you know
it’s a fascinating disease and the part that we all know about, which is the memory loss. That is by far the most
benign of the symptoms, right? In fact, there’s something and
no one will understand this who hasn’t experienced, there’s something almost
hauntingly beautiful and romantic about the memory loss piece. And that won’t make sense to you if you haven’t experienced it. And even if you have, maybe
you see it differently, but there’s something hauntingly
romantic and beautiful about the forgetting of who one is all the way back to
literally an infinite state because of the way you
die with Alzheimer’s just to simplify it a little bit, you basically forget how to do everything and sort of reverse order and you forget how to breath and you die, sorta how it goes, right? So she had Alzheimer’s and
memory loss was disturbing. But what was really
disturbing was the other stuff that happens when you have that disease, the rage, the insecurity, the paranoia, the lashing out, the hostility, right? Because it makes sense,
you’re losing your mind and you sort of know
you’re losing your mind. You don’t know exactly how or why, but you don’t know who
all these people are, who are poking and prodding, trying to give you medicine
talking to you telling you about some vacation you can’t remember, telling them that they’re
your kids, it’s sort of scary. And so you lash out, yell at them. She did that, to me, all the
grandkids, all her children. She did it to her nurses as well who were taking care of her, responsible for keeping her alive. And I should point out, the last 2 1/2 years of her life, all those nurses were
black women, all of them. The ones responsible for keeping her a carbon based life form, feeding her, making sure she didn’t
burn the house down. She’d smoke cigarettes and fall asleep. So they were responsible
for keeping her alive. And as a woman who was going
through all Alzheimer’s and the progression of that disease, having fear and anger and insecurity, she lashed out at them as well. And I ask you to ask yourself what word do you think she used for them when she was angry and
when she lashed out, keeping in mind who I
just told you she had been since the age of 16? ‘Cause he was a woman
who couldn’t remember how to wipe your own ass, couldn’t remember how to pour
a glass of water for herself, couldn’t remember who her husband had been who any of her children
or grandchildren had been, but by God, she never,
ever forgot the word that you call black folks in this country when the chips are down. It was embedded in her memory, regardless of who she had
been when she was healthy and able to resist the disease that had been sitting back
there in the back of her mind, like a ticking time bomb
waiting to reassert. And when she was no longer healthy enough to choose resistance, it
reasserted and it exploded, it was the last word
that I heard her utter before she stopped talking at all, 2 1/2 days before she died. And when I talked to a doctor
about this weeks later, who’s an expert on
Alzheimer’s and dementia, he said, “Tim, the things
that we remember last “are the things that we knew best.” Let me say it again. The things that we remember last are the things that we knew best, and I insist to you this is
not a story about Alzheimer’s. It’s not about Alzheimer’s because it doesn’t take
Alzheimer’s, does it? To put most of us in a state of fear and anxiety and insecurity and rage, we all fall into that from time to time. So the point of this story is
not what will happen to you, if you have that disease, some will have that story, some will not. But we are all susceptible
when the chips are down to going back to our conditioning, and you don’t have to have a
Klan daddy to teach you that, you just got to be in this country, a country that has taught
us all very subtly, the same lessons, however,
much more indirect that that Klan father told my grandmother. We can never ever be content that we are so woke, so down, so together, so with it that we have it figured out because we are all capable of
falling back into the patterns that this society gave us. If we wanna be better than that and if we want our country
to be better than that we have to be honest with others and most importantly, we have
to be honest with ourselves and commit to making
this campus, this city, this state and this
country great not again, but for the first time. Thank you all so much for
being here, I appreciate. (audience applauds cheerfully) Thank you.

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