29 October 2009 A Drug Dealer with a Cadillac is a Successful Businessman
Last year I was standing outside a checks cash in neglected East Chicago. I was working as an organizing fellow for Obama at the time and my instructions were to register as many voters as I could. The checks cash was on a terrifying corner. Cars packed to the brim with armed gangland stereotypes–both black & Latino–streamed into the parking lot all day. Half of the people in the car would enter the checks cash, the rest would stand (presumably) on guard outside; and then the process would be repeated for those who had originally remained on guard. It was there that I met a young man with the murderer’s tear drop tattooed on the fringe of his eyesocket. I asked him if was registered. He said simply, “Convicted felon.” I asked him if he was off papers. He told me he was not.
As he stood outside watching the street, I asked another group of black men wandering into the cash checks if they were registered. They said they were not. I asked them if they would register. They said they would not. “Nigga why NOT!?!” demanded the tear-dropped black youth, before proceeding with the most eloquent punditry I heard during the election, about McCain’s fiscal policy and Obama’s urban experience, ending with the line, “If you ain’t gon vote, den yo kids ain’t gon’ be nuthin but a hood nigga like me ‘n’ you, son.” Three registered. One was a convicted felon and so could not. I wrote it all down in my notebook and it got me thinking…
The young man was a whirlwind of informed discourse and what our presumptive society would deem a “lost cause.” He was rough as hell around the edges and made no pretenses about his affiliation with a violent lifestyle. My question is, regarding the “merit problem,” when will potent Americans like Obama’s tear-dropped crusader in East Chicago have a place in American classrooms? Or is it, like he said, that the hope is for the next generation and that his generation is a lost cause?
East Chicago grooms many locals with abilities that we, as a society, ought harness. Bold is the hallmark of “ignorant” in the United States. It was bold slaves and hillbillies who followed the drinking gourd and the Oregon Trail. But back then, there was an optimism that has been extinguished in the era of religious devotion to institutional merit. Pres. Obama spoke of “turning your back on your country” by dropping out of school. But public school education equips us with only a diploma, and virtually none of the practical weaponry that can be learned on porches and street corners. “Merit,” it seems, needs to be redefined to acknowledge that the drug dealer with a Cadillac is a successful businessman, and the working single mother of five fed, clothed, & respectful children is an administrative genius, even without an MBA.
In my opinion, OpenCourseWare is the best contribution an academic can make to the broader society. Free and accessible lectures, notes, readings, and other materials are the starting point. The next step is to facilitate conversations online like the one we’re having here, but on the open Internet where all can access the discussion threads. Then, the most intelligent & impassioned contributors can be identified and incorporated into research teams in relevant subjects. The final step is in the credentialing process. As the facilitator and moderator of the discussion, academics & researchers will be able to offer sound guidance to schools and/or employers about applicants based on their remote contributions. Admittedly, what I’m suggesting here is imperfect, but it could work as a way to use the Internet to address the merit problem.
NOTE: Excerpted from my comments on Melissa Harris Lacewell’s Facebook wall regarding Lane Guinier’s address at the State of the Black Union.