By Mica Pollock
Our election keeps pivoting on a basic debate: are some Americans freeloading and “dependent” when “they” use subsidized “public” services? Or are public services a basic public investment in a collective future—in “us”?
In a now infamous private conversation taped by an unknown guest, Mitt Romney complained to wealthy donors that 47% of the country freeloads off the government and clarified that he “didn’t care” about “them” – the half of the country he was describing. Then Paul Ryan was heard accusing one third of the country of the stance of government dependence. But long before these famous percentage claims surfaced, we were seeing a divide in our two conventions and platforms between an economic philosophy arguing explicitly for public investment in a diverse American “we” -- and specifically, in children --- and one arguing explicitly for limiting such investment.
The literal language of “investment” in a diverse and specifically young American “we” pervaded the Democratic convention. Elizabeth Warren said bluntly that “I grew up in an America that invested in its kids.” Julian Castro argued explicitly that opportunity provision for all in America is not charity, but an investment in future prosperity; Deval Patrick said children are by definition our future innovators, so abandoning the fiscal responsibility to care for them is dumping our future down the tubes. And President Obama made the explicit case for opportunity in education and other public services as investment in an American collective “we,” with posters afterwards trumpeting “we leave no one behind, we pull each other up.” Even as Obama’s education work has often called far too reductively for more investment essentially only in schools with higher test scores, the Democratic platform discusses education in a section focused on economic investment, called “rebuilding Middle-Class Security” (http://www.democrats.org/democratic-national-platform), and in the debates, Obama repeated the logic of education investment.
In contrast, the Republican platform includes explicit statements of a position that public investment in education in today’s America equals overspending, like, “enormous amounts of money are being spent for K-12 public education with overall results that do not justify that spending” and the notably anti-“universal” “We support keeping federal funds from being used in mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socio- emotional screening programs.” (http://whitehouse12.com/republican-party-platform/) According to many analysts, Ryan’s and Romney’s economic program would gut programs that invest in the “public’s” children (http://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/race/report/2012/08/16/1196...): Head Start, community health centers, Pell grants, youth training programs, Medicaid (http://tinyurl.com/8ecm6wn), and, as Bill Clinton pointed out in the convention, even services for kids with disabilities. Romney has said that investing in teachers won’t grow the economy (http://tinyurl.com/927exvm).
Is investing, via public services, in the nation’s children and families (and in those children’s teachers) a down payment on prosperity or an unwarranted drain on national profit? I was struck long ago by a logic put forth by Elizabeth Warren: pretty much everything we use in American life has had some sort of public subsidization (http://tinyurl.com/3ewtzut). Romney’s own private ventures actually have benefited from public money – Bain-owned companies received taxpayer money, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-06/romney-critical-of-government-a..., and so did Romney’s Olympics (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/07/15/1110178/-Romney-s-Olympics), and even Romney’s dad benefited from welfare for a bit (http://tinyurl.com/d3hhjfh). Private companies benefit from public roads and public-schooled workers. So are my own kids dependent freeloaders for going to a public school, reading at a public library, eating food bought by a mom teaching at a public university, driving to that school on publicly paved roads, and dropping recycling in our public garbage? Or are they simply utilizing services designed for a collective “us”?
The wealthier you are, the more you might feel isolated from human interaction with the public, and the public’s children; after the “47%” line, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in the New York Times (http://tinyurl.com/9neg6kd) that Romney seemed out of touch with the reality of pervasive public subsidy, almost as if from a castle protected by barbed wire by lower-class marauders. But for the diverse actual America, public roads move our cars, and public services take away our garbage – and public schools care for our children. In its origin, such public effort is actually about caring for children pragmatically and selfishly: the future health of the country, reformers started to realize, relied on the education of more of its youth. Still today, like the health of the person next to me on the bus or the prices of others’ homes, the success of my children’s classmates affects me. So, public investment actually is collective self-interest: public investment literally gets our cars from A to Z and makes our shared streets cleaner. “Public health” means stopping diseases before they infect us all. And by extension, public schools educate our children because our collective future depends on young people deploying their talents. And if “we” are the nation, publicly funded education isn’t charity, right? It’s an investment in the future of “us.”
But here’s the point: this logic only works if you consider the young “we” getting public investment, “us.”
I trend toward optimism, but watching the Republican convention, I had been depressed by its vast whiteness – almost like the photos of Jim Crow America I grew up looking at in the encyclopedia. Delegates aren’t just window dressing; they represent the constituency a president will represent after the election. Romney has the highest percentage of white supporters of a GOP presidential candidate in recent history (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/10/18/mitt-romney-is...). Before, during and after the convention, I was ashamed by explicit comments about taking back “our country,” by public snickers on Romney’s trustworthy birth certificate, and by active voter regulations attempting to make it harder for poor people and people of color to vote (http://www.jackandjillpolitics.com/2012/09/voting-going-gone/). My jaw dropped during the Tampa convention when I heard Romney supporters foaming anonymous, old-school racism on Fox Nation comment strings calling Michelle Obama a “fried chicken”-eating “baboon” and a “whore” who should stop talking so the audience could get back to “the lettuce fields” http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/09/05/1127817/-Fox-Nation-reacts-to-M...); when I read of convention-goers pelting a black CNN camerawoman with peanuts, calling her an “animal” (http://tinyurl.com/cyrbf52); and later, when I heard of Romney supporters hanging empty chairs and nooses in their yards (http://www.thenation.com/blog/170439/romney-backer-displays-chair-waterm...), wearing t-shirts saying “put the white back in the White House” (http://tinyurl.com/9r9ovxh), or saying blithely that they couldn’t “stand to look at” the President and his wife, who just didn’t act or “look” like a first Lady” (http://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160293862/romney-courts-veterans-at-americ...). Why would such perspectives not extend to the children of those being hated, post election?
In comparison, the Charlotte convention didn’t just “include” everyone visually; people actively argued for three straight days that all Americans were worthy of inclusion in the “American dream” and in economic programs supporting kids and households. Throughout the Democratic convention, I was struck by the consistent explicit inclusiveness – the explicit anti-bigotry and the explicit statements of equal human value – displayed both visually and rhetorically in Charlotte. A recent article in the New York Times indicated that the word spoken most often by Obama and his inner circle to describe his philosophy is just that – “inclusive” (http://tinyurl.com/8uvu6rh). Obama said again in the last debate that investing in public education and in youth development supports the economy, period.
The word “inclusive” strikes my deepest instincts as well. Whenever I’ve written a book or article on race and education, editors have always circled the many occurrences of an American “we” in my writing and asked, “who’s ‘we’?” I’ve always felt that at heart, “we” were a national “we,” divided by all sorts of internal rifts but basically reliant in the future upon one another’s children. But if you live in a private road, private plane, private school, all-white sort of bubble, I guess, investing in the public, including in public schools, can feel like a gift to freeloaders – to “them.”
At stake here might be a basic definition of equal opportunity’s shelf life: remarks critiquing half the country for dependence imply that “the public” has used up its allowance and future generations simply don’t deserve any more. In their book The American Dream and the Public Schools, my former Harvard colleague Jennifer Hochschild and her coauthor Nathan Scovronick report that when asked to express their opinion on surveys today, Americans overwhelmingly agree abstractly on equal opportunity principles – “ninety percent” “agree that ‘our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed’” (2003, 10) -- but disagree fundamentally on concrete ways of applying them. To those who can afford private education or, who don’t want their children schooled in public demographics, public schools may not still themselves be part of “what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” But the rest of us need public schools, and the argument for spending even less on schools, teachers, and children suggests simply that today’s kids aren’t a “we” worthy of further public investment – that they can and should somehow be educated on a gnawed bone.
When I went to elementary school in mostly-white Iowa in the 1970s and 1980s, we had an orchestra with publicly available instruments, and taking science wasn’t some sort of extra perk but a public good normalized in every classroom. Today, my kids’ school has to fundraise hard for art and science specialists, and that’s only possible because middle-class parents have the ability to scrape extra dollars from their own pockets; as a supporter of even more strapped public schools primarily serving low-income kids of color, I have to beg charitable donors for basic dollars simply to keep teachers around to support the next generation’s development. In California’s public schools, we now have to argue that kids deserve even the basic school year or afterschool programs -- or, public universities, period (http://www.salon.com/2012/10/02/california_educations_painful_decline/).
Is this because the children in today’s public schools are increasingly kids of color? I think in part, yes. But as Ta-Nehesi Coates noted recently (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/we-are-all-welfare-q...), a weird marker of improvement in race relations today is that white people too are getting dragged down in racism-fueled refusals to fund and support public services – including public education.
So in this election, we’re debating the borders of “us” and what “we” and our children deserve. When Romney argued against half the country (“them”) as “freeloaders” and in justifying his comments reiterated his desire to slash government programs, he also really raised the question of whether public investment in America’s multicolored children via publicly supported schools, libraries, hospitals, mental and physical health programs, and preschool is simply investment in the United States or, an unwarranted investment in “them.”
Four years ago, on November 5, 2008, I coincidentally gave a talk on my work about racial inequality in education on the morning after Barack Obama was elected President. In education, I argued then, “we” share a generic logic of opportunity but still often act as if some “types” of American children are simply smarter, more capable, or worthier of investment than others. I suggested that in education, the task of “everyday antiracism” today is to act proactively as if every child is “us” -- as if each child’s future contributions are as possible and necessary as one’s own child’s, and so, equally requiring investment.
Core to such equity work in education is activating a proactive logic of “we” and taking acts that invest in all young people’s talent development, actively treating boys/girls, locally born children/ immigrant children, well-off children/poor children, white children/children of color, and straight kids/gay kids as equally necessary investments. On each of these pairings, the Republican party stance treats the second group as less worthy of public dollars.
If you are a teacher in a diverse public school today, the only way to support children’s success is to act as if you believe in each child’s capacity to contribute to current and future prosperity, and to invest accordingly in each child’s talent development and human capacity-building. In supporting investment in each young person, we invest in our own future as well. More explicitly than in my own memory, it seems we are now being asked as a nation to choose who “we” is – to choose or reject a program of public investment in the diverse, young human beings who are actually the American public.
Mica Pollock is a professor of education, and the author of Everyday Antiracism (edited with 70 colleagues), Colormute, and Because of Race. This is her personal opinion, written on her own time.