This is where we are now

At a meeting at the New York City high school where I conduct research, we discussed placing 11th grade immigrant students in internships. Teachers talked about where to place a young man– let’s call him Adisa– who can’t read or write “in any language” as one of teacher put it. They settled on his interning at a local library in hopes of continuing his exposure to print literacy. The school’s internship program had been designed to introduce the young people to a tough NY economy, to give them the skills they would need for the world of work.

After the meeting a teacher and I stood in cold January air and talked truth and data and representation. The teacher unlocked his bike. As he opened the lock he questioned what I would be reporting. He urged me to share the more difficult and unsavory aspects of policy and politics at the school where I collect data. He trusted me, he said. I owed them that. I owed them telling the truth in my writing.

As a researcher, I don’t simply report on the findings I prefer at the expense of data findings I don’t. Data are data. At the same time, as I shared with the teacher– we are up against something. And this up against something means I have a dilemma. On the one hand, I don’t ignore problematic data. The data are there. They don’t go anywhere. On the other hand, I struggle with publishing findings that may paint teachers and immigrant education in a bad light. Paint immigrants in a bad light. Data that could be snapped up by a reporter and misquoted in ways that hurt real people.

This is where we are now:

  • Jason Richwine, who was awarded a Harvard PhD for his 2009 doctoral dissertation which claimed that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than white native-born Americans. Richwine’s dissertation was defended by George Borjas, himself a Cuban immigrant, who is also a leading controversial figure in immigration economics. Borjas, a Harvard professor, regularly publishes research that has been described as a “crusade” against immigration. Forget the liberals: even self-described conservative, Republican Washington Post columnists were horrified.
  • In economically depressed Shenandoah, Pennsyvania in 2008, a former coal town, a Latino father of three was beaten to death by four white men. He was left foaming at the mouth in the snow to die. In an anti-immigration rally held after Luis Ramirez’s murder, a rally to support the young men (who were arrested and sentenced), demonstrators claimed to be Klu Klux Klan.
  • In a Tucson, Arizona in 2010, the superintendent of schools banned books related to the region’s Mexican American history and culture, and removed nine titles from school shelves. All but one were written by Latino authors.

This is where we are now. Where NYC schools have been recently called the most segregated in the nation. Where teachers teach students who cannot read or write “in any language” in the 11th grade. In this context, what is the truth of our data and how do we tell it?

Where doctoral dissertations are awarded for recirculating a tired race-I.Q. argument. Where Latino fathers are killed in the snow. Where giving an immigrant a job in a poor coal town leads to murder. Where books are pulled from shelves and the cultural and print literacy that Adisa needs is removed. This is 21st century America. This is where the same connective tissues we have always had–binding together culture, literacy, race, economics, eugenics and murder– harden.

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