Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 10 2012

Minority voters, my students, and the belief that people voted for Obama because they are lazy and want “free stuff.”

The comments made about minority voters and women by people who are disappointed that Romney lost are likely to further distance these groups from the Republican Party. They make me think about my students who are, to me, the faces of minority voters. I believe that my students, despite their critics, do want to grow up and have a good job and earn money by working hard. Some of them already graduated from college!

First, here are some comments that demonstrate the inability of some prominent Republicans to understand other perspectives:

“But what was Romney’s recipe? Romney’s recipe was the old standby: American route to success, hard work. That gets sneered at. I’m sorry. In a country of children where the option is Santa Claus or work, what wins?” Rush Limbaugh continues discussing the ways in which the Republican party has reached out to minority voters. He asks “Why doesn’t the Republican Party get credit for Condoleezza Rice?” He doesn’t understand why people don’t think Republicans care about minorities because fundamentally he doesn’t see what minorities do in these comments. This point is well made here.

Rush continues by discussing how the Republican party should reach out to women. “If we’re not getting the female vote, do we become pro-choice? Do we start passing out birth control pills? Is that what we have to do?”

I didn’t vote for Obama because I wanted free birth control pills. I voted for him because I had evidence to believe that he was less likely to say things like “there are 47% [of American's] who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.”

I voted for Obama because he is not in a party full of people who appear to look up to Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly said, “Obama wins because it’s not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority. People want things.” The juxtaposition of “white establishment” and people who want things is too big to overlook.

I’ve heard people claim, on facebook and in the gym, that black people voted for Obama because he was black. Many comments implied that black people were racist or too ignorant to form judgements apart from matching their skin tone with the presidents. Perhaps some black people were not interested in voting for a party that thinks they are children who just want things and enjoy depending on the government. I’m sure that black people, like those of any skin-color, had many reasons for voting, some good and some bad. However, I can understand that some would vote for a man who was more likely to understand their experience in the United States and skin color has something to do with this. Others believe Romney lost because he couldn’t convey empathy to people in tough situations.. Obama has written about his experiences as a black American. Although he admitted to not experiencing some of the worst inequities in this country, he had the experience of being treated differently because of his skin color. For example, white men have handed Obama keys to their car assuming he was a valet at a nice restaurant. I know that some Republicans mock people like me for thinking that small details indicate racism, but I truly believe that there are too many inequities in this country to assume that racism is a thing of the past.

To me, it is racist to promote the concept that black or Latino people prefer welfare to working hard without a good hard look at some of the reasons that it has traditionally been easier for white men to support their families in this country. I think of my students who wanted to have a good job and wanted to go to college and were given teachers who did not know how to help them get there. I don’t see my kids as people who were looking for handouts or free rides, but I did see some of them give up when they were faced with a school system they didn’t know how to succeed in. How many F’s do you get before you stop trying on tests? And since 93% of my district and my entire class earned an F on the district Algebra test, it is certain that there were hard working kids who did what the teacher asked them and still didn’t understand math well enough to pass. Would you give up if you were failing math and knew that 50% of your school couldn’t graduate because they couldn’t pass the math proficiency test. Would you assume that your friends were all stupid and lazy or believe that there were no teachers at the school who had the skills to prepare the majority of students to pass the test?

I just don’t see the evidence that my kids wanted to be lazy failures-as soon as I gave them something interesting that made sense to them they sat right down to work. I think that a lot of the laziness was a defense mechanism so that they didn’t have to fail on another assignment. I still don’t know how to take these observations and be a good teacher-I know giving out free passes to individuals because I see that the system is unfair isn’t going to work. I know I have to hold them to high standards while reflecting on the issues in the system that work against them. That is a tricky balancing act that I have yet to master. How do I get students to do advanced work when I know from a math education research perspective that they need prerequisite skills first? How do I spend a lot of time on those prerequisite skills when I know we’ll be held accountable to higher standards? How do I reconcile the conflicts within myself? I know that the system is making it harder for these students to learn, but to accept this in my own classroom as a fact and absolve myself of responsibility means that nothing will change. If I give easier work or more chances because that is what I think they can handle given their prior knowledge, I’m setting them up for failure. I DO understand why Romeny doesn’t want people to feel like victims of a system. Feeling like a victim is license to give up and ask for help. But, my kids WERE victims of a system. I saw it every day. I honestly have no answers here even though I wish I could believe in the warm and fuzzy TFA success stories. I do believe that teachers can make a huge difference in Elementary school, but I have my doubts about high school math. I can’t believe that the stories of turnaround elementary classrooms apply to high school math because it makes me at fault for my kids failure even though I gave teaching so much energy I ended up miserable.

In fact, I ended up believing that I could not change things no matter what I did at my school. I helped individual students, but systemic change was beyond me. I was so mad at the system that seemed impossible to overcome and my own failure as a teacher that I just wanted to stay home with mono. I have always had dreams and worked hard and never considered depending on the government to be an interesting or fulfilling goal. However, when I was in a school where more than wrong was right, I wanted to give up right along side my students. And a lot of days I rode my bike instead of grading or lesson planning because the school-wide problems I had to overcome were just too huge. And even though I persevered, got my classrooms under more control and taught a little bit of math, in the end I did retreat to my white world. I did not want to keep failing as a teacher because I was placed in a system that was broken. The daily, personal, failure was too much to bear and I had an escape route back into the world where hard work meant success often enough that I could bet my behavior on it. It is not that the concept didn’t apply in my TFA school. When I worked hard things definitely improved in my classroom. However, when I moved to my private school I worked half as hard and had twice the success. The system, not just me, determined so much of my student outcomes. I had to believe I was not a victim of the system so that I would keep trying, but realize that I was a victim of the system so I wouldn’t loath myself for my failures and become depressed. How are young students supposed to reflect enough to see what they have power over and what they don’t and keep believing in themselves despite repeated failures? Perhaps the Serenity Prayer in addition to the flag salute?

I think that some Republican’s hear liberals complaining about the unfairness of our system in a different way that we intended. When I point out that large groups of children receive poor educations because of the neighborhoods their parents can afford to live in, I think that conservatives are hearing me say “minorities are not responsible for their own lives because the system if not fair.” It is clear to me that my hard working students who took responsibility for their lives did better, but even as that happened the system STILL wasn’t fair. It is obvious that hard work is important, but we can’t blame people for 100% of their troubles when they were given no fair shot at college and a good job. I just don’t buy it that 100% of my students at my private school worked hard enough to go to college because of their own individual work-ethics and talent and that at my other school only 50% graduated because the rest were so lazy and didn’t care.

I guess what irks me the most about some of the election aftermath comments is the sense that the Republicans think that the current system is fair and that differences in outcomes are due to differences in personal work ethic. They believe that the people who vote for Obama are “takers not makers” and that therefore the majority of minorities are takers. To them, if black people have a proportionally higher number of people on welfare it is because they are that much lazier. I want Republican’s to consider the system that we created and perpetrated in this country. I want them to think about cities 30 years ago where the city government gave 99% of contracting jobs to white’s even though 30% of the city contractors were black. I want them to consider how much harder it is to get to college if you don’t actually do much but sit around and fill out badly written drill worksheets in school and listen to teachers try to control behavior. I want them to see a connection between a lack of jobs for African American’s in the past and their children going to at-risk schools in the future. I can understand why minorities don’t vote Republican-it as if some major leaders of the party are missing some huge piece of reality. Their belief in hard work and personal responsibility requires them to make up reasons for the unequal outcomes in our country that don’t imply that unequal outcomes were due to systemic inequalities. If the abysmal college graduation rate of minorities is due to the system, then they have to look harder at their personal responsibility philosophy and look for other pieces in the picture. Republican beliefs about personal responsibility absolve them of responsibilities to the kids who went through a broken educational system and ended up without a good job.

To close, I’m certain that I have said something offensive to someone here, but I would welcome discussion on race in America and how to cope with inequity in a way that allows everyone to move forward and escape the system. I think that everyone who teaches for America is dealing with these issues in their classrooms and schools.

2 Responses

  1. This is an interesting electoral map breakdown ( that shows the impact of universal suffrage.

  2. Wow! That is interesting.

Reply to Cameron

or, cancel reply

About this Blog

Learning more about life than math…

Las Vegas Valley
High School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)