Looking through the Veil: The Post 9-11 Response from the Margins
by Gloria Ladson-Billings - September 03, 2002
A different interpretive lens to examine the events of September 11th.
Like many people in this nation, I watched in horror as the planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York and the Pentagon. The non-stop news coverage insured that the images were never far from my consciousness. I joined my campus community as thousands of us gathered in silence for a memorial service at week’s end. I worried about the likely military response and wondered what we could expect. It was an uncertain and unsettling time. To say that I have made sense of September 11th would be untrue. As I listen to the rhetoric of the national leaders I am keenly aware of my growing alienation and estrangement from the mainstream. Once again, I stand on the margins and bring a different interpretive lens to this social phenomenon. As a teacher educator I ask myself, how can my perspective inform what teachers do in the classroom?
First, let me elaborate on the way my perspective is formed. Theologian Gardner Taylor asserts that the perverse virtue of our marginality is that we can see the center in ways those who are at the center cannot. W.E. B. DuBois argued that as an African American he experienced a “double consciousness’’ or a kind of two-ness that forced him to measure his self-worth by another’s tape. And it is DuBois’ double consciousness that has served as a useful rubric for helping me understand the uneasiness with which I approach September 11th for, as many people of color understand, we had a unique perspective on America on September 10th and we still had it on September 12th. Rather than be prescriptive about what to do, I am more persuaded by what we should not do as we process and live through the trauma.
Jazz genius John Coltrane said that the highest level of the human spirit is to be a force for good. Thus, we must examine the degree to which our current course of action functions as a force for good. Instead of our current focus on action, we must refocus on creative thinking and being in the world. Cornel West acknowledged that because of September 11th America has finally entered the global struggle. How we teach students about participation in that global struggle will determine whether or not our future includes an opportunity for us to be a force for good.
There are at least four things that we should not do as a response to the events of September 11th. We should not confuse patriotism with nationalism. We should not succumb to simplistic binaries. We should not compromise our civil liberties for a perceived sense of safety. And we should not pretend that we have changed. Let me discuss each of these in a bit more detail.
By the time the nation had processed what happened on September 11th the quest for a unified America had already begun. We began to see flags hanging on buildings and affixed to cars. We heard patriotic music blaring from our radios. We saw billboards that declared, “United We Stand.” In Wisconsin, an obscure rider to last year’s budget bill had required all schools to begin each day with either the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag" or the national anthem. Few schools in Madison were complying with the law. However, after September 11th all schools were reminded of it. At one school that serves a more than 50 percent international student population, a number of parents appeared before the school board to protest the requirement to recite the "Pledge," either because of religious or national allegiances of their own. The school board voted to substitute an instrumental version of the national anthem for the "Pledge." Their decision caused a firestorm throughout the state and the nation. Talk radio lambasted the “ultra-liberal” school board, and a recall effort began. An emergency school board meeting drew 1,000 people and lasted until 3:00 a.m., filled with angry words and ugly accusations. The school board rescinded its decision. The message that went out from Madison was “My country right or wrong,” and the space for dissent was growing increasingly small. How can we teach our children about democracy in an undemocratic environment? How can we help them understand that the way corporations have capitalized on the nation’s grief is about capitalism, not patriotism. You cannot buy a Buick for the nation; you buy it for General Motors.
A second thing we must avoid is the simple and dangerous binary thinking that has come to characterize this moment. The President of the U.S. insists that there are but two positions to be taken—with “us” or with the terrorists. In my own double consciousness I wonder who the “us” is. The Reverend Al Sharpton said that a journalist remarked to him that African Americans were not good patriots because as he drove through their neighborhoods he did not see the omnipresent display of flags he saw in White neighborhoods. For his part, Sharpton replied: “Spend a little more time in Black neighborhoods and you’ll see we don’t have a lot of stuff that they have in White neighborhoods.” Does the lack of flags in Black neighborhoods signal that Black people are not a part of the President’s “us”?
This simplistic thinking has caused us to divide the world in strange and self-serving ways. One would think that the horror of this event would have put us more in touch with human suffering throughout the world, but the national discourse continues to be about the West and all the rest. What role did we play in the events that unfolded during Zimbabwe’s recent national election? What assistance did we provide as Argentina’s economy collapsed? How many Palestinians and Israelis have to die before we make any real effort to participate actively in the peace process? Are the people who die in this country deader than people who die elsewhere? Is suffering only suffering when it happens to people in the U.S.? How do we help our children make sense of life’s complexity and the multiple textures that comprise human existence? How do we help them understand that people who disagree with them are not demons but rather fully human people who come to us with a full slate of grievances that must be addressed if we are to find peace, joy, justice, and love in this world?
The third thing we should not do is compromise our civil liberties for a perceived sense of safety. It was Benjamin Franklin who commented at a different period of national crisis: “They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Many of the actions taken at the national level following September 11th were major infringements of civil liberties, but since they seemed aimed at those we deem “others” we have raised no collective voice of protest. It has not bothered us that people have been held in detention without a release of their names or that military tribunals are proposed that will void attorney-client privilege or that academic freedom and free speech have come under severe attack.
When the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) published the report Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing America & What Can Be Done About It , it targeted U.S. faculty as the “weak link” in the war on terrorism. The report noted on its opening page that, in contrast to the "anger, patriotism, and support of military intervention" voiced by the vast majority of Americans in response to September 11, "professors across the country sponsored teach-ins that typically ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnation of America." The report went on to blame the formal curriculum: Instead of ensuring that students understand the unique contributions of American and Western civilizations --the civilizations under attack-- universities are rushing to add courses on Islamic and Asian cultures... and reinforced the idea that it was America --and America's failure to understand Islam-- that were to blame" (p. 6).
Not since the McCarthy era have we been so quick to evacuate our rights and search for enemies among us. When President Bush asked for what amounted to carte blanche to fight terrorism, only one person said, no—a Black Congresswoman from California named Barbara Lee. For her temerity she has received over 200 death threats here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Two hundred cowards fail to understand that democracy requires people to speak truth to power.
The fourth thing that we should not do is pretend that we have changed. After September 11th we all heard how we would never be the same. From my dual-consciousness perspective we are exactly the same. Yes, there are individuals whose lives are irrevocably damaged by the horror. There are heroic stories to be told about those who worked tirelessly to search for survivors and unearth the dead. There are families and individuals intimately involved in the war. However, much of the nation has returned to business as usual. When people tell me that we’ve changed I look around and wonder how. Have we now decided that it makes no sense to maintain entire groups of students in substandard schooling just because of their race, ethnicity, language, or socio-economic status? Have we suddenly realized that by oppressing large groups of our citizenry we fail to cultivate the kind of loyalty that all of our newly mandated edicts cannot? Have we realized the paradox of asserting that when airport security doesn’t work we must federalize it, but when our schools don’t work we want to privatize them? Have we made a commitment to equity and social justice for all Americans? Since 1977 247,000 Black people have been killed in the U.S., there is a 23.5 percent infant mortality in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, and over 1 million Black people are incarcerated in this country. George Bush discovered terror on 9-11, too many people in this country did not. They know it, they live with it, and what they have to contribute to the national dialogue is that they know how to rise above terror and remain human.
What we have to tell students in our schools is that we don’t really know why the US was attacked. We don’t know if or when it will happen again. We only know that those who relied on their wealth and status to insulate themselves from the pain and suffering of world events can no longer count on such certainty. Among the songs we have heard played often during this period of hyper-patriotism is the version of “America the Beautiful” sung by Ray Charles. But remember, Ray Charles is blind. He has never seen the "purple mountain majesties" or the "amber waves of grain." Ray Charles sings with the conviction of a person who is committed to a dream—an ideal—an America he cannot see. There is a little Ray Charles in every American living on the margins—every person who experiences a double consciousness—for we all sing about an America the beautiful we have yet to see. We can only strive for the highest level of the human spirit and try to be a force for good.
1. Martin, J. & Neal, A. (2002). Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing America & What Can Be Done About It. Washington DC: ACTC. Online at www.goacta.org