Monthly Archives: May 2014

Asians Are Smarter

For years I’ve heard that Asians are smarter than Americans. Each time, I’ve envisioned hordes of Chinese people peering down disdainfully at stupid me. I’ve cowered, embarrassed and fearful: are they really smarter than me? It wasn’t until I wrote my post “The Most Dangerous Pronoun” that I realized I’d fallen into the collective noun or “they” trap.

Acknowledging that Einstein, Chomsky, Clinton (Bill and Hillary), and thousands of other individuals are smarter than I am has never bothered me. And I acknowledge, unconsciously and happily, the intellectual superiority of Chinese friends. It’s the vision of hordes who are ethnically different from me that’s intimidating. I, a Caucasian, stand no chance. Perhaps that’s what black people feel when reading negative comments and dismal statistics about their race.

But wait, we are individuals. We fit into a spectrum of ability that has nothing to do with ethnicity. We can strive to fit in wherever we choose. I was reassured recently by an article in The Princeton Packet about Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mom,” who spoke at Princeton University about her latest book, The Triple Package, written with her husband. They began by identifying overachieving groups in America today, which include Nigerian-Americans, Jews, Mormons, and Chinese-Americans among others. They found that the groups share three qualities: self-discipline, insecurity, and a superiority complex or sense of one’s exceptionality. According to Chua, feeling simultaneously superior and insecure produces drive. She noted that the three qualities are not exclusive to any one ethnicity or group.

Can any child learn to achieve? As a teacher, I believe so—though how to instill insecurity is a mystery. At Trenton High, students came with insecurity; my job was to elicit and prove their exceptionalism, and that took long enough. But, if I succeeded in convincing them of their worth, self-discipline usually followed. Some of my students achieved.

Certainly I was raised to believe myself superior to others. Mother told me I was an aristocrat and boasted about me to her friends, but she never warned me not to boast. My braggadocio alienated everyone around me. Without friends I became insecure, aware of my effect on others, and eager to please. People now tell me that I’m driven. I believe I have achieved.

Are Asians smarter? I opt for a more useful wording of the question: do American schools instill in students whatever qualities they need in order to succeed? Answering that question is hard enough and will yield more valuable results.



Voting Rights and Politics

      Why, in New Jersey, is the right to vote denied to people with felony convictions while they are on parole or probation? It’s politics, right? The ACLU notes, “New Jersey is home to some 80,000 citizens – most of them African American or Latino – who live and work in our state but cannot vote because they are on parole or probation.” So, I reason, since minorities tend to vote Democratic, it must be Republicans who’ve put this law on the books.

      I decided to look at the history, certain that the law was recentsay sometime around the War on Drugs. I found a thorough, overwhelmingly footnoted, 2004 article by George Brooks in the Fordham Urban Law Journal.  To my astonishment, I learned that felon disenfranchisement was written into New Jersey’s constitution in1844 and rested on John Locke’s concept, “that those who break the social contract should not be allowed to participate in the process of making society’s rules.”

     The law had not been designed to suppress the black vote. Blacks didn’t have the vote in1844. This law appears in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, where the states cannot abridge the right to vote except for participation in rebellion, or other crime. Brooks notes that “despite facing judicial scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s and 70s, felon disenfranchisement laws were almost always found to be constitutional.” (Brooks, 110)

       Even though, during the War on Drugs, disproportionately more blacks than whites have been stopped, arrested, and convicted for drug-related crimes, this has nothing to do with the disenfranchisement law. Any discrimination is the responsibility of the criminal justice system, not the law. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow points out, it is the intent to discriminate that must be proven in court. Statistical evidence means nothing.

       How can I convince my state legislators to pass a bill allowing parolees and probationers to vote, as they can in Pennsylvania? My own legislators, all Republicans, would have more to lose than to gain. Yet I cannot argue that the law is based on politics.

Maybe I should point out that the effect of changing the law will be minimal. After all, only half of Americans who can vote, do.

I could just admit that I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I am excusing 80,000 citizens—most of them African American or Latino—who shouldn’t have broken the social contract in the first place. Or is there an excuse? Although I find John Locke’s premise compelling in the abstract (good is good and bad is bad; obey the rules), “the social contract” is troubling. The CEO of McDonald’s will find it easier to obey “Thou shalt not steal” than his employee, who must support a family on minimum wage. The social contract allows the already rich and powerful to determine who gets the profits—and, especially after Citizens United, even to determine who writes the contract. Maybe that’s a reason to consider restoring voting rights not only to parolees and probationers but also to those felons still in prison.

The Power of Voting

“I don’t know who to vote for.”

“I don’t like any of the candidates.”

“My vote won’t count.”

These excuses were familiar to me, but, whenever I staged mock elections in November at Trenton High, I heard another one. “I don’t vote. I don’t want to give up my power.”

That voting meant giving up one’s power made no sense to me. Wasn’t America founded on the power of the vote? For years, when at least one student invariably gave this excuse, I struggled to understand. Occasionally, a small voice asked, “Do you think there will ever be a black president?” Finally, I developed a theory: some black people are so resentful of our racist history that they boycott the white man’s system of government.

The first time I heard “I don’t want to give up my power,” I consulted a black colleague. She was surprisedand angry. She came to my class and lectured the student about the sacrifices of black Americans who’d struggled for the right to vote. Had Martin Luther King, Jr. given his life in vain?

When our problem child remained adamant, my colleague and I worked out a skit to illustrate that issues important to black people were being decided without their voice. I played the bad white guy, voting for “laws” that repressed black folk. She used her vote to counter mine. Still, the child balked. Issues meant nothing. Finally, we resorted to a basketball analogy: to vote is to shoot for a basket. You might not make it, but it’s worth a try. If you don’t shoot, the other team’s sure to win. The student would give in to shut us up, but we knew he wasn’t convinced. That’s why I was thrilled when Obama was elected. A black president might help mend the wounded egos and restore faith in the system.

As a member of the League of Women Voters, I believe in voting. Votes do count. Perhaps my candidate won’t win, but he or she has a better chance with my vote than without it. Even a shoo-in candidate can lose if supporters don’t bother to vote. To those who don’t know whom to vote for, I offer the League’s voters’ guides and debates and suggest checking the voting records of incumbents and the platforms of all. Voting is our responsibilityeven if it’s choosing the lesser of two evils.

Choosing a Candidate

     A month has passed since my last post, but I make no apologies. There is more to life than bloggingnamely choosing a candidate and voting. I and others in the League of Women Voters have organized, hosted, and videotaped two debates among Democrats running locally and for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District. Since ours is a largely Democratic district, whoever wins the primary is likely to win the November election.

     The League of Women Voters was founded by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The convention was held just six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 72-year struggle. The League began as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters. It continues today as a non-partisan organization whose mission, in part, is to inform citizens about candidates and to encourage men and women alike to vote. Thus, I have been registering voters and running non-partisan debates.

     What if voters took the time (perhaps had the time) to watch debates-even those sponsored by partisan organizations?  Would that get money out of politics?  Would it give new candidates a chance to make themselves known?

     How is all the money spent?  Are TV ads and campaign mailings truthful?  Do they let voters compare candidates?

     I don’t have the answers.  All I can do is my small part.  But my debates are videotaped!  Voters can sit back with a soda or a beer and watch as little or as much as they choose-whenever they choose.  Most televised debates are available online.  Now if only choosing a candidate were as much fun as watching kittens frolic on YouTube….