Author: Valerie Nyberg

It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later

It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later

Reading Time: 2 minutes

After nearly two years, Friday June 28, 2013 was my last official day at West Wind Education Policy Inc.  On July 1, I started my new position as Associate Principal at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Although I’m thrilled to start this new chapter of my life, it is bittersweet.

On Sunday afternoon, I spent time in my office for the last time. I packed my belongings, taking my graduation plaque down from the wall.  I can honestly say that I’m not sure I would have graduated had I not found a home at West Wind. Continue reading “It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later”

The Burden

The Burden

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last weekend I was reminded of the care and caution needed with raising young Black men.

My sons have been involved with a local Boy Scout troop for the last five years.  My eldest joined the scout troop at the beginning of sixth grade and my younger two sons followed suit.  Up to this point, I’ve never felt they were looked at or treated differently based on their race.  Until last Sunday. Continue reading “The Burden”

Recognizing Talent

Recognizing Talent

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This year, my youngest son was admitted into the district Extended Learning Program (ELP), a program for students identified as gifted and talented.  Almost immediately upon hearing the news, he remarked, “Wow…I’m the smartest Nyberg, besides you and Dad, of course.”  Ever since then, I’ve wondered about the messages we send students in some cases as early as second grade about talent and what it means for those who are not deemed “talented” what that may imply? Continue reading “Recognizing Talent”

What We Are Doing for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

What We Are Doing for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1983 legislation was signed declaring the third Monday in January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  In 1994 Congress designated MLK Day as a national day of service and charged the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency, with leading the effort.  Founded in 1993, the Corporation for National and Community Service’s purpose is to “connect Americans of all ages and backgrounds with opportunities to give back to their communities and their nation.”  This agency manages the SeniorCorp (2009), and AmeriCorp (1993) programs. Continue reading “What We Are Doing for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service”

The Power of Belief

The Power of Belief

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As I drove into work this morning, I realized that in a foreseeable amount of time (one month from now), a long-term goal that has been one of the biggest challenges I ever set out to achieve will culminate: I will defend my dissertation and have earned my PhD.  Though it’s easy to pat myself on the back for realizing a long-held dream, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I didn’t get here alone. Continue reading “The Power of Belief”

The Burden of Understanding:  The Challenge for English Language Learners

The Burden of Understanding: The Challenge for English Language Learners

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In my second year as a doctoral student, I worked with a professor who was finishing his first book.  Among my many tasks was to help him write footnotes for his first chapter.  This is how I was introduced to Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States (1997).  Although a bit dated, many of the points she makes are still salient as we consider creating and implementing effective policies to assist English Language Learners (ELLs). Continue reading “The Burden of Understanding: The Challenge for English Language Learners”

What’s Missing from the Conversation?:  The Trayvon Martin Shooting and Race

What’s Missing from the Conversation?: The Trayvon Martin Shooting and Race

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Yesterday morning as I prepared for work, I heard someone speak about the February 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin stating that he should have stayed with his father on that fateful night.  Last week, in the first public interview of Martin’s parents, on The Today Show, one of Matt Lauer’s first questions to Trayvon’s mother and father was if there was any reason why Trayvon might have been agitated that night?  The lawyer and friends of George Zimmerman have come forward to emphatically state that he was in a fight for his life, having emerged from the scuffle with a broken nose, scrapes, and grass stains on his clothes.  They also state that he is not racist and has cried for days over the incident.  In the released 911 calls, in George Zimmerman’s own words, he describes the boy as a suspicious person who keeps looking around and into windows.  These thoughts and statements are all parts of the conversation as it continues to play out in the media each day. There are, I believe, key considerations missing from this conversation.

Stand Your Ground

The 2011 Stand Your Ground statute, Chapter 776 outlines  justifiable use of force on the “presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.”  One question missing from the current conversation is, wouldn’t Trayvon Martin have the right and responsibility to stand his own ground as well?  In all of the conversations I have not heard enough emphasis of the degree of the fright and alarm that Trayvon experienced by being followed by an adult man.  In Trayvon’s case, it’s not hard for me to imagine that he was aware of his surroundings.  In the clip of recorded conversation between Trayvon and his girlfriend, we hear her tell him to run.  Should Trayvon have run home that night to avoid a confrontation?  From an adult perspective certainly, he would likely be here today to share his own point of view if he had.

However, would it have been wrong for him to turn and face his follower?  Certainly not.  Who was this man who continued to follow him through the complex as he made his way from the 7-11 to his father’s townhome with his candy and tea?  What had Trayvon done to be considered suspicious?

In my own imagination, I can easily see Trayvon, feeling relatively safe in his own neighborhood.  He may have been tired of being treated as a suspect first, and 17-year old boy second and not wanting to be subjected to that behavior from others anymore, and so instead of running he turned and stood his ground.

Or, I can also see him as a somewhat cocky young man who, knowing that he was being followed, figured that he could handle the man on his own and turned to face him, thinking if it came to a fight, he would easily win.  I can also see that as a young African American man, to run can be considered to be a coward, and with the mixture of the two scenarios, Trayvon turned to stand his ground.

We don’t  yet, and might never, know exactly how Trayvon and George Zimmerman came to be in a struggle on the sidewalk that night, but I can imagine that Trayvon felt as threatened and in defense of his own life as George Zimmerman is reported to have felt, with the exception of the fact that Trayvon only had his fists to defend himself while George Zimmerman had a loaded gun.


Secondly, in all of this, history is curiously absent.  It was not even 70 years ago (the 1950s and early 1960s) when lynching occurred with some regularity in the south.  In the intervening years, where these incidents have widely been condemned and more people have been brought to justice for their participation, we continue to hear of incidents where Black men are dragged, tortured, and killed.  In fact in the wake of this case, a recent NPR Morning Edition show featured writer Donna Britt regarding “the talk” she’s had with her two sons.  The fact of the matter is I too have had similar discussions with my own 15-year-old multiethnic son.  “The Talk” concerns how the world perceives them and their own responsibility to be aware of the perception, no matter how real or imagined, and to be prepared for the reaction they may likely receive at times.

I imagine that Trayvon’s parents had similar discussions with him regarding the dangers of the police and his interactions with White people in general that could lead to tragic consequences.  Today a young Black man can’t be picked up simply for failing to yield the sidewalk to a White person, or for being “fresh” or overly friendly towards White women; however, it seems, if someone feels threatened, especially in states with Stand Your Ground statutes like Florida, there continues to be legal justification for killing young Black males.

Walking While Black

Thirdly, part of the conversation that remains largely absent is that I still have not heard of just cause for George Zimmerman to have followed Trayvon in the first place.  Yes, there had been a few robberies in the area recently.  Yes, according to reports, it is suspected that those crimes were committed by Black men.  However, does that mean that every Black male is suspect?

It appears Trayvon became suspicious to George Zimmerman for “walking while Black.” He was a young Black man, unfamiliar to Zimmerman, walking at night with a hoody on.  Our society perpetuates the notion of Black men as dangerous and criminal. People respond with fear and suspicion when we see Black males, particularly at night.

The continued perpetuation of fear of Black men every day in the media, in entertainment, and in our own imaginations, results in someone like George Zimmerman seeing Trayvon and easily justifying the ensuing actions in his own mind.  Zimmerman, like all of us, consistently sees the message that Black men are dangerous, whether they are 12 or 35.  He saw Trayvon and said to himself, this shadowy figure is up to no good.

What’s more, this doesn’t simply happen in our neighborhoods or on the streets…this also happens in our classrooms and schools.   We can examine the recent reports regarding disproportionate suspensions and actions of discipline in schools where  Black males especially, but Latino males as well, are disproportionately suspended in schools[1].  Here we see school officials disciplining Black boys, in particular, for like-transgressions, often with the intent of “sending a message” as if Black boys are somehow in need of extreme measures to learn the same lessons about behavior, rules, and right and wrong as other kids.  Rather it is the imagined consequence that “lenience” (which I consider to be more proportionate responses) does in light of the exaggerated notion of Black males as dangerous and criminal that underlies such decisions regarding appropriate discipline.

Underlying Beliefs

I’m troubled by a seemingly double standard.  In our media and popular entertainment, we see the image of White males taking charge.  On more than one occasion, I’ve seen stories of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, in particular, hailed for their quick thinking and response to threatening situations.  In their cases, they emerge not only unscathed, but admired for their response and bravery.  This to me demonstrates how our culture on the whole values brashness and no-holds bar behavior from White males, yet these same behaviors are considered aggressive and undesirable in minorities, especially Black males.   According to Zimmerman’s lawyer and friends, he was justified in his pursuit of Trayvon, yet, in their minds, Trayvon was not justified if he had turned and faced his pursuer in the very least, and defended himself at the most.  How can both perceptions exist at the same time?  It goes back to what we value as appropriate responses from specific subject positions.  How is it that the only seemingly acceptable response that Trayvon should have had was to run?

A recent blog by Michael Skolnik points out, if it had been him, rather than Trayvon, he doubts that Zimmerman would have seen him as suspicious.  He states:

No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggie my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you.  I will never watch a taxi cab pass me by to pick someone else up.  I will never witness someone clutch their purse tightly against their body as they walk by me.  I won’t have to worry about a police car following me for two miles…I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one think only.  The color of my skin.  I am white.

The point being, if Trayvon were White, how different would the conversation be?  Based on which underlying beliefs and values would the media and others’ respond?  How does this notion change the conversation completely?

Reversal of Fortune

The last and most important question that remains unaddressed is if the situation was reversed, would we even have this same degree of speculation?  I suspect that had Trayvon been the one to carry a weapon, even with a permit, Trayvon Martin would be held in jail with a hefty bond.  The media would ponder why this “troubled teen” went out to kill a law-abiding Neighborhood Watch captain.  Not only would the questions surrounding the incident (I doubt anyone would have asked if George Zimmerman was agitated that night) would have been different, but also the language used to frame the incident would likely have included emphasis of murder and killing rather than a death.   How do we continue to talk about Trayvon’s death as if his death wasn’t the result of another’s intentional or unintentional actions.

Missing Conclusion

It seems to me if George Zimmerman never spends a night in jail, if the Stand Your Ground law only applies to him and is a means of his escaping criminal liability for his actions, and not to Trayvon who reasonably felt he was defending his own life, then  we are saying to everyone that it’s okay to shoot an unarmed 17-year old Black male, as long as you feel threatened.  And in doing so, we continue to justify the perpetuation of fear of Black men and boys.

How is this substantially different than our recent and unfortunate racial history?

Creating Risk

Creating Risk

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Minnesota state officials recently released the Minnesota Readiness Study showing that children of color and children who live in poverty are “less likely to be considered ready for kindergarten”[1] than their White and middle class counterparts.  As we try to understand, I want to focus attention on the notion of what it means to be “ready” for kindergarten.

According to a 2010 report[2] summary, the Minnesota Department of Education defines readiness as:

The skills, knowledge, behaviors, and accomplishments that children should know and be able to do as they enter kindergarten in the following areas of child development: personal and social development; language and literacy; mathematical thinking; physical development; the arts.[3]

Although I understand given the pressure to produce a highly educated and qualified citizenry that there is such emphasis of skill and knowledge development for five year olds; I do believe that these indicators, don’t tell the full story.  Not only that, but I am even more alarmed when last year’s summary goes on to “[c]onclud[e] that the result of the School Readiness Study are predictive of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) proficiency outcomes at grade three, especially in reading and math…”[4]

Essentially this report, like so many others like it, indicates that poor children and children of color not only enter school behind, but are more likely not to catch up to their White and middle class peers even by third grade.  To go further, many education reports like these and the subsequent media coverage contribute to a narrative and mental model that lead people to believe that it is the fault of the parents, the home environment, the culture, or circumstances that no one can control that leads to such disparate outcomes.  This is implied due to the emphasis that these kids are behind even before they enter school.  However, for a moment, let’s suppose we take this at face value and agree children enter into kindergarten at different levels of “readiness” in terms of their skills and knowledge.  So what?  To me, the obvious solution is to teach them the skills they need to be “ready” for kindergarten.  Is that such a radical notion?  It is true that learning accumulates with some skills building from others, but does that mean that once behind, always behind?  I would guess that in a country like our own that prides itself on upward mobility and the self-making of each citizen, the rather obvious conclusion should be no.  Yet, that’s exactly what happens.  Why?

To answer this, I go back to one of the first texts I read as a graduate student, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words (1983)[5].  She studied three communities, Roadville, a predominantly White working class community; Trackton, a predominantly Black working class community; and the Townspeople, a more racially mixed middle-class community.  She examined the orientation and use of language that each community exhibited in their day-to-day interactions amongst each other, and especially with their young children and looked at how their relationship with literacy and language related to their children’s degrees of success in school.  Heath found that each set of students entered with different relationships, understanding, skills, and knowledge of literacy and that school heavily favored the orientation and skills that the Townspeople’s children brought with them to the detriment to the other students.  It wasn’t that children from Trackton and Roadville didn’t know, but that they had different ways with words.  Specifically Heath (1983) says, “The school’s approach to reading and learning establishes decontextualized skills as foundational in the hierarchy of academic skills,” (p. 353) which indicates the need to reassess how school approaches such skills and knowledge and examines who is privileged in this process and who is marginalized.  Without this understanding and without taking the time to examine the taken-for-granted knowledge and skills teachers bring from their own homes and then perpetuate in the classroom, the achievement gap will continue to exist.  As she says,

The school is not a neutral objective arena; it is an institution which has the goal of changing people’s values, skills, and knowledge bases.  Yet some portions of the population, such as the townspeople, bring with them to school linguistic and cultural capital accumulated through hundreds of thousands of occasions for practicing the skills and espousing the values the schools transmit…

In any case, unless the boundaries between classrooms and communities can be broken, and the flow of cultural patterns between them encouraged, the schools will continue to legitimate and reproduce communities of townspeople who control and limit the potential progress of other communities and who themselves remain untouched by other values and ways of life (p. 367-369).

My point is that such reports, while sounding the alarm are indicating all the wrong sources for the achievement gap.  It is not that students enter kindergarten deficit of skills, it’s that kindergarten in its current form is not created to recognize and honor the skills children bring with them and utilize those skills as a means of learning others.  It’s a lack of knowledge, interest, and skills built into the institution itself that fails to welcome all its citizenry with the same equitable embrace as those who best exhibit the institution’s own ideologies and ways of knowing and being.  Until we change that, I believe we will continue to create risk where none actually exists.

[1] See Tom Weber, “Achievement gap exists for kids even before kindergartenMinnesota Public Radio.

[2] Due to technical errors, the report from this year is inaccessible online; therefore, I used the summaries and results from last year’s report, which makes many of the same points.

[3] See School Readiness Study Summary found HERE.

[4] Also see the School Readiness Study Summary.

[5] Heath, Ways with Words Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Why Teacher Diversity Matters

Why Teacher Diversity Matters

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When I first became a teacher, honestly, I didn’t think race mattered.  As a child who grew up in single-parent, low-income household, when I first graduated college, I felt I was the “model” of the American Dream.  As a homeowner, mother, wife, college graduate, there were many reasons for why I didn’t challenge the paradigm that I was the exception.

Yet, as I entered into my first teaching jobs and even more importantly as I moved into graduate school and reflected more on my background and experiences, I learned to see the privileges I benefited from, including, coming from a family where my great-grandmother and her siblings were college educated, and that my mother, raised in a middle-class household taught me to see our poverty as an anomaly which I was duty-bound to overcome. How did this occur?  First through personal experience.

In my first teaching job, I taught in a school in a small mostly rural area that was not too far from a large naval installation.  As a result, our school had more diversity than most in the area.  Among our demographics were Samoan students, who by-and-large were affiliated in one way or another with the Navy.  In my third period class, of the 16 or so students (as a writing class, we had a classroom cap of 19 students), over a quarter of my students were Samoan, with a couple of African American students while the rest were White.  As the year progressed, I was concerned because half of the students struggled, most of all my Samoan and Black students.  They were disaffected, uninterested, and seemed to resist even the slightest amount of rigor.  When I engaged my colleagues to inquire about ideas regarding the different approaches, insights into the kids and their backgrounds (I did not live in the community), and additional supports for my instruction, many times I was told things like: not every student will pass; they are failing themselves, you are not failing them; you’re doing everything that you can.  For me, these were insufficient answers.  Why were my students failing?  Why was it such a struggle to help them find a way into the course and why were these efforts failing them?

In contrast was my second period class, many of whom were in band and/or orchestra, many of whom were passing with high As and Bs, almost all of whom were White, with a few Asian (non-Samoan) students.  When I asked others about students’ behaviors, because often I found students challenged my authority, or in some cases tried to make me “look” stupid, I was told to expect them to challenge and that as high achieving students, though annoying and at times not respectful, that was simply a characteristics these kids brought to school with them.  My question always was what is the difference between these two sets of kids?  Would they ever tolerate the same behaviors and approaches to the classroom from students in my third period class?  How did the differences in the ways we interacted with the students, as well as our expectations for them impact their performance and overall interactions in school?  Don’t all kids want to be successful?  Didn’t they all have ambitions and dreams, even if they didn’t share them with me?  If so, why would we see behaviors and interactions differently for one group and not another?  Didn’t they all deserve the same opportunity to fulfill their dreams and ambitions, and wasn’t that indeed my job to help them try?  I didn’t find the answers.  Instead I found an ample amount of labels to describe students, most of whom are minority, some of whom grew up in poverty, some others of whom may be labeled with a behavioral disability, and many of whom are disciplined and suspended in school.  To be clear, this is does not only apply to students of color.  Any student who does not fit the mode of behavior and expectations, which differ at the different levels of school: elementary, middle school/junior high, and high school, are caught in a web of school marginalization that sometimes leads to failure and/or drop out.

As Arne Duncan said in the fall of 2010, it’s important to have a diverse workforce in the classroom that reflects the diversity of our nation.  In many cases this is racial/ethnic and even language diversity.  In many other cases this includes gender.   My understanding of this came years after I stepped out of the classroom.

In 2001, at the end of my first year in my second teaching job, I left the K-12 classroom a few years after I entered.  Essentially, I stopped teaching because not only were my students unable to handle the racial tension that having their first Black teacher presented, but my school and more importantly my school district had no idea how to support me in this transition.  When I sought assistance, I received none.  When I complained about my principal’s handling of the situation, first and foremost I was told it was not racial, though I was the only Black teacher in a teaching staff of over 100, and that he was simply a bad principal…allowed to keep his job while he threatened mine.  My response, go to graduate school.

In the intervening years, I have learned that teaching and learning is profoundly a social event.  At the base of this event are all of the assumptions, stereotypes, beliefs and values that we each, student and teacher, brings into the classroom and that this does not apply only to the subject of instruction, but to the nature of what is means to be “teacher” and “student” and how fluid these roles and definitions are as they interact with our understandings of what it means to “learn” and to “teach.”

When we have implicit or explicit lower expectations those are communicated.  When we ignore the tensions of having someone “in charge” when people typically see them as “those who take orders,” that also makes a difference.  What minority teachers can (because not all do) bring to the classroom is a better understanding of the social, psychological, and personal stakes that minority students are presented with when they enter the classroom.  To learn is a risk.  Not only must students trust that the teachers will guide them with the students’ own best interest at heart, but there is always the fear of losing or moving away from those who are familiar whether they include family, language, or culture, and in that, students also risk elements of their own identity in an education system that continues to maintain a colorblind paradigm.  As a social event, we are all subtly and not, impacted by the relationships we develop and “teaching” and “learning” that occurs.  To actively and implicitly learn that you are a member of a group that has historically occupied the bottom rungs of society, necessarily means that you learn that you are of lesser value.  To overcome this, minority teachers can help to dispel the myths, stereotypes, and assumptions that White and middle class teachers bring into the classroom about those children who are not like themselves.  They can also better explicitly teach students how to connect to a curriculum that often marginalizes if not entirely excludes them,[1] the contributions that minority groups have made to the founding and strengthening of this country and in turn the contributions that today’s students of color can make to us all.  These are certainly not elements that appear on a standardized test, yet they are important, nonetheless.  Lastly, as Sonia Nieto’s wide body of work on “multicultural education” points out, all children want to see our eyes light up when they enter the classroom.  Isn’t that our responsibility to show all students?



[1] In this time of celebrating Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays, consider what we are celebrating.  In the case of Thanksgiving, it’s important to recognize that is not a celebration for all.  In the case of Native populations (whether they identify as Native American or American Indians) we are celebrating the impending demise, intentional and accidental, to entire populations of people in the service of building a country literally on the backs of enslaved and impoverished people of color, who for the most part, were not even considered citizens.

Photograph (cc)

The Myth of Meritocracy

The Myth of Meritocracy

Reading Time: 5 minutes

People who know me know that I have a healthy National Public Radio (NPR) addiction.  As of late, it has become a habit to tune in at work.  On Tuesday as I sat at my desk, On Point, a daily opinion call-in show, aired a segment, “Jobless in America” (   Two of the guests, both white and unemployed, talked about their experiences with unemployment and their sense of betrayal for “having done everything right,” yet finding themselves unemployed: a situation they never anticipated.

Although I empathize with those who have lost their jobs during the ongoing recession and are experiencing economic hardships, I must admit that I’m also partially annoyed by the notion that White middle class workers should expect a guaranteed job and a certain lifestyle.  As the introduction to the show states:

…There are not enough jobs, by a long shot. It’s crushing individuals and families right now. We’ll hear from some today.

And it’s putting a huge dent in our national future. Changing things we love most about this country.

As I listened to the show and even now as I read these words, what I hear is the collective anxiety and loss of identity that middle class White Americans are experiencing.  This is not the first NPR or other media outlet show that has broadcast the woes of our society as being the conundrum of those who ordinarily would expect to never have this problem.

From my position as an African American woman, people of color have historically experienced unemployment and underemployment without questioning whether or not we should believe in the American Dream.  In fact my favorite poem, Langston Hughes’, “Harlem” or “A Dream Deferred” (depending on the publication source) as well as the Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun” speak to the frustrations that people of color, in this case African Americans, have suffered historically when they have tried to assert their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Rather than the NPR story continuing to promulgate the notion that our current joblessness threatens the fabric of our society, I posit that this is an opportunity to really question the notion of meritocracy.

We live in a society that promotes the idea that as individuals we all have the right and ability to realize our dreams through our own hard work and effort.  But when you peel back the layers of that notion, you find that we are a nation of individuals who stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.  David Horwitt (2008) reminds us that every society employs myths in order to explain how those who are privileged are more deserving that those who are not.  In his essay, “This Hard-Earned Money Comes Stuffed in Their Genes,” Horwitt discusses the multiple ways in which people gain advantage through no effort of their own.  A primary means of unearned gains is inheritance.  Though he cites a Forbes article about the wealthiest 400 people who largely inherited their wealth, consider the more typical types of inheritance: a house that is passed down, or jewelry, stocks and bonds, property, vehicles, and so on.  These are all units of wealth that lessen the burden upon the individual who now has a commodity simply because the parent left it to the child.  Another form of this is a business.  Lucrative or not, it is collateral that can be negotiated for personal profit and gain.  Other, less obvious advances are college admissions.  Many colleges and universities (particularly those top-ranked colleges and university) admit just as many legacy applicants as they do non-legacy applicants.  Today, getting into a college or university has become increasingly important.   Even with our current downturn, those who have a college education have lower rates of unemployment[1] 5.4% in comparison to 10.3% for those who only have a high school diploma

We are suffering from an unprecedented economic shift.  We are no longer alone, but are competing for jobs in a global economy where no one is safe.  However, for me the great concern is the jobless rate among people of color.  According to the BLS Monthly Labor Review (2011), although the fourth-quarter unemployment rate for Whites fell by .05% to 8.7% it remained in the double digits for African Americans and Hispanics at 15.8% and 12.9%.  Prevailing myths may try to convince us that the disproportionate rates among people of color is due to their lack of educational attainment and experience, but as the recent settlement of a 1995 lawsuit against the Chicago firefighter’s entrance exam demonstrates, African American applicants who otherwise qualified[2] were not hired or denied promotions.  As a result, the Chicago Fire Department will have to hire 111 firefighters between now and March 2012 as well as pay the remaining 6000 candidates $5000.[3]

A final example is a recent article in Science which investigated the National Institutes of Health reveals that Asians were 4% and African Americans were 13% less likely to win NIH funding.  Even when controlled for education, training, previous research rewards and publication record, African Americans were still 10% less likely to receive funding.

These examples represent a need for our society to turn and face ourselves. In order to actually have a meritocracy, we have to be able to guarantee equal access and compensation for equal talent and skill which will require the reformation of policies, procedures, and frameworks that continue to marginalize people of color.

Works Cited

“City to Hire, Pay Back Black Firefighters as Part of Settlement.” Chicago Fox News: Chicago.  17 August 2011.  Web. 18 August 2011.

“Education Pays…”  The Bureau of Labor & Statistics.  4 May 2011.  Web.  18 August 2011.

Ginther, Donna K.;  Schaffer, Walter T.;  Schnell, Joshua ; Masimore, Beth;  Liu, Faye;  Haak, Laurel L.; Kington, Raynard.  “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Rewards.  Science 333.  19 August 2011. 1015-1019.

Horwitt, David.  “This Hard-Earned Money Comes Stuffed in Their Genes.” Eds. Karen E. Rosenblum & Toni-Michelle C. Travis.  5th Edition.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

Jobless in America.” On Point.  NPR: WBUR, Boston.  August 16, 2011.  Radio.

Theodossiou, E & Hipple, S. “Unemployment Remains High in 2010” Monthly Labor Review March 2011.  Web.  August 18, 2011.

Vedantam, Shankar.  “In the Boardrooms and in Courtrooms Diversity Makes a Difference.”   Washington Post .  17 January 2007.  Web.  18 August 2011.

“White Fire Fighters to Share $6M Settlement.”  NBCUniversial, Chicago. 11 March 2009 Web. 18 August 2011.

Comic © Gary Varvel (

[1] For more specific information see the Bureau of Labor & Statistics May 4, 2011 graphic showing that in 2010 those who have less than a college education the unemployment rate was 14.9% compared to 10.3% for high school graduates and 9.2% for those who have some college compared 5.4% for college graduates.  The graph includes rates of unemployment up to those who have a doctorate degree as well as gives the median weekly earnings for each of the educational attainment levels from less than high school up to the doctorate level.

[2] According to the Associated Press article (2011), “Before being hired, they must pass the physical abilities test, background check, drug test and medical exam” (online,

[3] It’s interesting to note that in 2009 the same fire department settled a lawsuit in which 75 White firefighters alleged that because the 1986 lieutenants’ exam were “race normed” they suffered from reverse discrimination.  They received $6 million to distribute amongst the group of 75, with a separate 100 firefighters receiving “tens of millions” with benefits for the same lawsuit.  Even in settling litigation disputes, it seems, those who already had the advantage of gaining employment and moving through the ranks still received more compensation for discrimination which was not as economically and socially impactful.  For more information see:  Again the notion of a meritocracy where Whiteness should be rewarded for “doing my part” plays a role in the argument.

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