When research, history, and allegory all converge to tell us the same story, we must pause to ask why we have ignored the message for so long and why are we likely to continue missing the essential thing before us.
The New York Times and Education Week reveal two important lessons in both the message they present and the distinct difference in their framing of that message:
“Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests [sic]” headlines the NYT’s article with the lead:
“Black students, especially boys, face much harsher discipline in public schools than other students, according to new data from the Department of Education.”
And EdWeek announces “Civil Rights Data Show Retention Disparities,” opening with:
“New nationwide data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office reveal stark racial and ethnic disparities in student retentions, with black and Hispanic students far more likely than white students to repeat a grade, especially in elementary and middle school.”
One has to wonder if this is truly news in the sense that this research is revealing something we don’t already know—because we should already know this fact:America’s public schools and prisons are stark images of the fact of racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequity in our society—inequity that is both perpetuated by and necessary for the ruling elite to maintain their artificial status as that elite.
The research, coming from the U.S. Department of Education, and the media coverage are not evidence we are confronting that reality or that we will address it any time soon. The research and the media coverage are proof we’ll spend energy on the research and the coverage in order to mask the racism lingering corrosively in our free state while continuing to blame the students who fail for their failure and the prisoners for their transgressions.
X-Men and The Hunger Games: Allegory as Unmasking
Science fiction allows an artist to pose worlds that appears to be “other worlds” in order for the readers to come to see our own existence more clearly.
In the most recent film version of Marvel Comics superhero team, X-Men: First Class, the powerful allegory of this comic book universe portrays the isolation felt by the mutants—one by one they begin to discover each other and share a common sentiment: “I thought I was the only one.”
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These mutants feel not only isolation, but also shame—shame for their looks, those things that are not their choices, not within their direct power to control. While this newest film installment reveals the coming together of the mutants, this narrative ends with the inevitable division of the mutants into factions: Professor X’s assimilationists and Magneto’s radicals.
It takes only a little imagination to see this allegory in the historical factionalism that rose along with the Civil Rights movement between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
In whose interest is this in-fighting?
Although written as young adult literature, The Hunger Games trilogy is beginning to spread into mainstream popular consciousness. The savage reality show that pits children against children to the death gives the first book in the series its title, but as with the research on racial inequity in our schools, I fear we fail to look at either the purpose of these Hunger Games in that other world of the novel or how it speaks to us now.
In Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen, the narrator, confronts directly that her country, Panem, has created stability by factionalizing the people into Districts, ruled by the Capitol.
Panem exists because of the competition among the Districts, daily for resources and once a year personified by two lottery losers, children form each district.
In this second book, Katniss learns something horrifying but true when the winners of the most recent Games, Katniss and Peeta, visit District 11—home of Katniss’s friend killed in the Games, Rue: During the celebration, the people of District 11 repeat Katniss’s act of rebellion:
“What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends them to me. It’s our sign from District 12, the last good-bye I gave Rue in the arena.” (p. 61)
Then as Katniss and Peeta are rushed from the stage, they witness Peacekeepers executing people in the District 11 crowd. As President Snow has warned Katniss about the possibility of uprisings:
“‘But they’ll follow if the course of things doesn’t change. And uprisings have been known to lead to revolution….Do you have any idea what that would mean? How many people would die? What conditions those left would have to face? Whatever problems anyone may have with the Capitol, believe me when I say that if it released its grip on the districts for even a short time, the entire system would collapse.’” (p. 21)
What maintains the stability of Panem? Competition, division, and fear.What threatens the stability of Panem and the inequity it maintains? Solidarity, compassion, cooperation, and rebellion.
Separate, Unequal…and Distracted
U.S. public education has always been and remains, again like our prisons, a map of who Americans are and what we are willing to tolerate.
Children of color and children speaking home languages other than English are disproportionately likely to be punished and expelled (especially the boys), disproportionately likely to be retained to suffer the same grade again, disproportionately likely to be in the lowest level classes with the highest student-teacher ratios (while affluent and white children sit in advanced classes with low student-teacher ratios) in order to prepare them for state testing, and disproportionately likely to be taught by un- and under-certified teachers with the least experience.
We don’t really need any more research, or history lessons, or sci-fi allegory, or comic books brought to the silver screen.
We need to see the world that our children live in and recognize themselves (just ask an African American young man), and then look in the mirror ourselves.
Why do those in power remain committed to testing children in order to label, sort, and punish them?
Who does the labeling, sorting, and punishing benefit? And what are the reasons behind these facts, the disproportionate inequity in our schools and in our prisons?
We only need each minute of every day to confront what the recent data from the USDOE reveal, but it is always worth noting that this sentiment is often ignored despite its value:
“…I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
How and why? Eugene V. Debs is marginalized as a socialist, a communist so no one listens to the solidarity of his words. Because this sentiment is dangerous for the Capitol.
If we persist in being shocked by the research or enamored by the exciting story of Katniss, we will remain divided and conquered.
Katniss in Catching Fire responds to the president with: “‘It [Panem] must be very fragile, if a handful of berries can bring it down.’”
To which the president replies, “‘It is fragile, but not in the way that you suppose’” (p. 22).
The fragility is masked by the 99% as separate, unequal, and distracted—fighting among ourselves in fear of what we might lose otherwise.
It is time to suppose otherwise.
Atwood, M. (2011). In other worlds: SF and the human imagination. New York: Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday.