Sunday, May 31, 2009

More Dreams Deferred

Over the last decade or so, the courts have chipped away at affirmative action programs in a whole host of areas. The cases which have gotten the most attention have been those which involve college admissions. This is no surprise, since no country places a greater faith in the power of educational opportunity than this one.

Using race/ethnicity as one among several criteria for college admissions became a way of leveling the educational playing field for under-represented groups on campus. It acknowledged that certain groups of people faced steeper obstacles getting into college than others. The courts, however, began more and more to disagree with that rationale.

So ten years ago, officials in Texas came up with an interesting solution to the dilemma. They created a mechanism through which the top 10% of the graduating class from every Texas high school would, more or less, be guaranteed a spot in one of the state's Tier 1 institutions. Underneath this entirely race-blind quota system was the deeply unhappy truth that public education is so thoroughly segregated in Texas that the enrollment of minorities in those Tier 1 universities would go up dramatically.

And it did, and the Texas model seemed to offer a way of providing access to higher education while neatly skirting the increasingly sticky discussion of race and affirmative action.

Until now. The Times reports today that legislation pending in Austin will terminate the experiment. Surburban legislators have been furious that some of their (largely white and above-average income) constituents' kids are being denied entrance into Tier 1 schools in favor of poor kids (black, hispanic and white) from urban and rural districts. Now they apparently have enough votes to end the program. (In fairness, they are being aided in this by the colleges and universities involved who find the quota system restrictive to their own admission plans).

There are several obvious ironies to observe here, not the least of which is the spectacle of a nation telling poor kids to get ahead by getting an education and then refusing in every conceivable way to make that possible. But what struck me was that this news underscores the way suburban school districts were pitted against urban and rural ones. The same was true some years ago in Ohio when a collection of urban and rural districts sued the state, claiming the way schools were being funded was unconstitutional. (They won; but the state was firmly in the grip of Republicans and the legislature simply refused to address the court's ruling).

This is really myopic, since more and more we are recognizing the way metropolitan regions share interests and problems across the urban/suburban/rural divide. Questions like transportation, open-space preservation, food production, clean air and water, and economic development, transcend political and demographic boundaries, and the places that deal effectively with these issues will be those places that recognize that fact. In Texas, alas, suburbanites still don't seem to realize that the whole state has a vested interest in giving better educational access to all its kids.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Ol' College Try

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame deserves credit for inviting him. It is an example of the kind of civility that we have missed for the last eight years. (Full disclosure: my employer, Ohio State University, invited George Bush to commencement in June, 2002. After students and family filed into the stadium for the event, the stadium was put under lock-down and student protesters were arrested. Several spent up to 72 hours in jail for carrying signs or for turning their backs on Bush when he spoke).

The President addressed the issue that made his appearence controversial head-on: abortion rights. By drawing an analogy to the issue of civil rights in the 1950s, he suggested that people could find common ground on this thorny question.

On one level, the President simply acknowledged what has been true already in this country for about a generation. In survey after survey, a majority of Americans support access to abortion, though most favor certain kinds of restriction on that access. A majority of Americans, in other words, have already reached that common ground, though we haven't quite had the courage yet to admit this fully and out loud.

But at another level, of course, the President searched for a middle ground in vain. For those - and as it turns out there weren't really that many of them - who turned out to protest Obama's speech, abortion can only be discussed in absolutist terms. Any abortion under any circumstance ought to be criminalized. No quarter given; no half-way measures. We might dismiss these people as a small minority of zealots except for the fact that they exercise of outsized influence on our politics, and indeed, on the culture as a whole. The multi-millionaire founder of Dominos pizza, for example, has contributed heavily to anti-choice causes and the founder of Curves, the chain of women's gyms, posts on his website his desire to "destroy" Planned Parenthood.

This single-minded opposition to abortion masks other agendas, as many have pointed out. The issue, for some, isn't really about unborn children but about controlling women. The Catholic church, after all, is probably the world's largest institution predicated on the discrimination of women. For others, the fixation on fetuses is a proxy for an attack on sexuality more broadly. When the President suggested that we might find common ground by finding ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies, he did not mention Texas where high schoolers are only given abstinance education and which, surprise surprise, now has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the nation.

Right as those explanations surely are, behind them looms a particular christian theology that we need to understand. For fundamentalist Protestants and their Catholic allies, the important lesson of the Gospels did not come from the Sermon on the Mount, but from the events on Calvary. They aren't interested in messages of compassion, love, of lasts being first, but rather in the passion and the crucifixion. (Remember fundamentalist Catholic Mel Gibson's bizarre movie which some dubbed "The Jesus Chain Saw Massacre??) In this view of the world, suffering and pain are the only roads to redemption.

At its root, the fetish of the fetus isn't about the "sanctity of life" but rather about the importance of suffering. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, therefore, offers an opportunity for that redemptive suffering. And since the goal of these fundamentalists is that we all be saved according to their formula, forcing women to have these babies makes perfect sense.

Perhaps a better way to understand the theology of anti-choice fundamentalism is remember the circus that erupted during the Terry Schiavo fiasco. The very same crowd the pickets in front of Planned Parenthood turned their energy and resources to keeping the vegetative Schiavo alive not despite the fact that she would never recover, but precisely because she never would. She suffered; her husband suffered; it was all good for them.

And if those protesters who greeted President Obama in South Bend have their way, we'd all suffer too.