School Resegregation


How School Choice Reestablishes Segregation in Our Schools, and How the Federal Government is Complicit

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education for the Trump Administration last February, in an interesting way, marked a deviance from the past. It was the first time a Vice President had to submit a tie-breaking vote in a confirmation vote for a cabinet position. Opponents to confirmation of DeVos voiced concerns about her family’s donations to Republican organizations as her way into the Cabinet, her past statements degrading public education, and her financial support for poor-performing charter schools in Detroit. But in one important regard, the DeVos confirmation is a continuation of a decades-long tradition. Since the Reagan administration, including the George W. Bush, Barack Obama administrations, charter schools have been promoted by the federal government. This promotion of school choice, among other things, is a significant reason for a increase of racial isolation and segregation in schools.

Background on School Segregation

Chief Justice Earl Warren, on May 14, 1954, delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court on Brown v. Board of Education stating “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The reaction among segregationists was to resist the desegregation orders that followed Brown.

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The fierce resistance against integration efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. [Image Source]

The Little Rock Nine is one well-known example of Black students attempting to integrate Central High School, a previously all-White school, but facing fierce resistance. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used his power to prevent the integration efforts. President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to force the integration and protect the Black students.

One year after the Brown ruling, in 1955, Milton Friedman, then an economist at the University of Chicago, proposed a new idea to solve the new “problem” in education in which the parents could not decide which schools their children went to. He developed the voucher system to provide choice to the parents. The voucher idea is simple: rather than all money earmarked for education going directly to (now integrated) public schools, the government should give each family a voucher worth as much as the per-pupil spending in that area. If parents wanted to send their kid to public school, the public school got their voucher money. But if a parent wanted to enroll their child in a private school, then the private school would receive that money instead.

While initially meant for Catholic families hoping to send their kids to Catholic schools, resistors of the Brown desegregation order quickly realized the utility of the voucher system in their fight against racial integration of schools. White Citizens Councils, an organizational arm of the massive White resistance to desegregation, opened private “segregation academies” or “Council schools” to provide alternatives for White students to the racially integrated public schools. In Prince Edward County in Virginia, the White power structure decided to close the public school rather than desegregate them.

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Sign in front of a closed public school in Prince Edward County, Virginia. [Image Source]
Prince Edward County provided vouchers to every family, Black or White (in order to appear race-neutral), which they could use to attend any available school. The only schools available, however, were private all-White schools. Black families were simply out of luck. Under the premise of “providing choice” for students, White Resistors found a way to undercut the Supreme Court’s desegregation orders.

In 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court and a federal district court ruled that closing all public schools was unconstitutional, and ordered the schools to reopen. It took another five years for Prince Edward County to comply. Black students were without opportunities for formal education for years.

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Students protesting the closure of public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. [Image Source]
Throughout the 20th century, some of the only opportunities for quality education for Black students (and other students of color) were Freedom Schools. In Mississippi, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) began the Freedom Schools during Freedom Summer of 1964. The schools not only provided the education denied to Black students, but much needed empowerment as well. Through lessons in Black history, art, and culture, students were taught that their lives had value and they had real possibilities to succeed.

The only force pushing for desegregation in public schools seemed to be the progressive rulings of the Supreme Court. But in 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren retired and newly-elected Republican Richard Nixon got the opportunity to replace him. Nixon chose conservative Warren Burger to take the position as Chief Justice. The Supreme Court became stacked with conservative justices and progress toward Black educational equity quickly subsided.

Benefits of Racial Diversity and Integration

I believe that working to achieve racial diversity in schools for its own end is a virtuous endeavor. Schools do not exist outside of society, free from political and social issues that the “adults” work out while the kids attend their academic bubbles and just learn “the facts” of life. What we teach, how we teach it, and how we assess student learning are all inherently political choices that policymakers and education professional make. Schools are thus products of political and social decisions and debates around particular issues. Children learn how to present themselves, how to value themselves, how to work together, what to care about, etc. in school. Children are not blank slates who become instantly knowledgeable of the world around them upon graduation. If our schools are not racially diverse, if they never address race or racism in American society, if they never teach children to embrace differences and cooperate with people different than them, then we are doing them and everyone else a disservice.

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Rucker Johnson. [Image Source]
Racial diversity in schools, beyond the moral arguments, has lasting implications for equality in our society. A 2014 study by Rucker Johnson published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black students who attended integrated schools were more likely to graduate, go to college, and earn a degree than Black students in a racially isolated school. Those students from integrated schools made more 15% more money five years after graduation than students in racially isolated schools. White students did just as well. Attending racially diverse schools increased the likelihood of White students to later live in integrated neighborhoods and send their own children to racially integrated schools.


Resegregation of Public Schools

Unfortunately, schools today are resegregating, not desegregating. Most White students attend overwhelmingly White schools and Black and Latino students attend overwhelmingly Black and Latino schools. The degree of racial isolation is far worse for Black students in charter schools. 70% of Black students in charter schools attend such schools that are 90-100% non-White. This is twice as many Black students who attend such racially isolated traditional public schools. The traditional public schools are much better though. Over 50% of Black and Latino students attend schools at least 66% Black or Latino, respectively. In 2001, the typical White student attended a schools that was 80% White, even though only 60% of students nationwide were White.

Racial isolation hasn’t been this severe since White Resistance in the 1960s and 70s. Only today, alternatives to public schools aren’t called “segregation academies.” They are called “charter schools.” And rather than pulling White students out of public schools, they push Black students out of public schools (there are many factors pushing Black students out of school, but that is a blog post for another day).

Charter Schools: A Brief Introduction

Charter schools are education institutions that float between the public and private spheres. Like public schools, they receive public taxpayer money to operate, typically money that would have otherwise gone to the local traditional public school. Like private schools, charter schools are not held to the same oversight or accountability of public schools, and are commonly run not by elected school boards, but privately appointed boards.

Originally, charter schools had potential to revolutionize the field of education. By receiving public funds, they would be able to receive reliable funding. By being run by citizens (originally supposed to be teachers or other education professionals), they could have more freedom to experiment with new teaching and learning styles and techniques for students who were not succeeding in the traditional public schools.

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[Image Source]
Today, the vast majority of charter schools are not run by former or current teachers or concerned community members. They are owned and operated by for-profit companies. These companies see charter schools as just another capitalist enterprise. They open the charter schools, enroll students, and gain the public funds that travel with those students. Cashing the government checks per pupil, they spend as little money as possible hiring teachers and buying materials (they have to minimize cost to make a profit, right?) then pocket the rest. Again, these companies are in the business of making money, not educating students.

That’s why a public system of education exists in the first place, because educating children is not a market priority. In fact, it’s a market failure: no one wants to single-handedly pay for everything associated with education. So the government steps in, requires everyone to chip a little in (because everyone benefits from an educated citizenry and workforce) through taxes, then operates the school system. Because the market will not. Any yet “reformers” like Milton Friedman (and currently, Michelle Rhee (former education chancellor of Washington, DC), Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), Bill Gates, Rahm Emanuel (Mayor of Chicago), and Arne Duncan (former Secretary of Education for the Obama Administration) ) wonder why the field of education has to “suffer” under a government regime.

This “reform” in education has been supported by the last three presidential administrations: Bush, Obama, and Trump. Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education under the Trump administration, is a staunch supporter of student choice and voucher systems (which have largely failed in Michigan, where she’s had done a lot of her work). Arne Duncan and John King, Obama’s Secretaries of Education, and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first Chief of Staff, supported school closures and teacher turnover and corporate school boards and charter schools, etc. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which pushed schools to show constant improvement toward an impossible goal of 100% reading and math literacy. And schools who could not show improvement faced punishment such as fewer funds, school closure, and state takeover of the school board. Obama’s Race to the Top program largely continued the neoliberal corporate reform efforts of NCLB by forcing states to allow charter schools and school choice programs to exist in their jurisdictions to get much-needed extra funding from the federal government.

Racial Segregation in Charter Schools

There are many ways schools can be racially segregated without explicit rules that dictate racial separation. Many supporters of charter schools believe that school segregation is not actually possible if there are no laws requiring racial separation. The same argument was used by White Citizens Councils in the 1950s and 60s. Today, traditional public schools are highly segregated because of White Flight, discriminatory federal housing policies, racist property-selling practices, and intentional school district boundaries between neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of K-12 public schools comprised mostly (that is, 75% or more) of Black or Latino students more than doubled. This segregation is exacerbated by school choice programs. Charter schools, mostly operating in urban areas, are known to be more racially isolated.

RESOURCE SEGREGATION. While school policies may be “race-neutral” on their face, there are multiple factors at play which can increase segregation. If school choice policies do not offer any transportation programs to get students to their school of choice, then the choice is very limited for low-income families. Even if they have a “choice” they still must choose their local traditional public school out of necessity (not another school further away), which may become more segregated as higher-income families and White families pull the few White and higher-income students from the local traditional public school and transport them to other (more White and higher-income) schools. In this way, the local traditional schools become the “schools of last resort,” with little funding to teach students with just as few resources.


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A controversial excerpt from a Pearson American History textbook which characterized slaves as mere “workers” brought over from Africa. Following a social media campaign, Pearson edited the excerpt and offered to replace the textbooks. [Image Source]
Beyond material resources available to families, school resources perpetuate segregation and racial achievement gaps. School curricula have scant coverage of segregation (education, residential, etc.), especially as it occurred in the North. Even if textbooks (which many teachers rely on as the source of their curriculum) vaguely mention that Black citizens “found themselves forced in segregated neighborhoods,” as one textbook read, they rarely mention why that segregation existed and how it has proliferated throughout the decades. Avoidance of accurate and comprehensive racial history in curricular resources in schools means generations of citizens, policymakers, leaders, etc. will be ignorant of the ways racial segregation is reinforced by society and the institutions which form it. It is not surprising, then, that conversations around charter schools and school choice do not center the history of racial segregation in schools. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos exemplified a lack of historical understanding regarding Black education equity when she praised historical Black colleges and universities for providing “choices” to Black students. She obviously failed to recognize that those HBCUs largely exist because of the lack of choice Black students faced in regards to institutions of higher education.


TESTING DISCRIMINATION. Most schools are judged by standardized tests. From these judgments (which many argue are invalid in the first place), schools are ranked as effective or ineffective. These judgments are not just made by inquiring parents, but federal and state programs that decide vital funding opportunities (a là No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both federal programs that support charter schools). Unfortunately, bilingual and bidialetical children who speak African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) are disadvantaged by standardized tests written in Standardized English and assessed in Standardized English. Part of the testing gap between Black and White students may be caused by this linguistic gap.

In 2009, a New York Times article reported that “Between 2004 and [2008], [standardized test] scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide.” “Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did [four] decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s,” the article went on to say.

On top of that, most standardized tests are graded by temporary workers who are completely in control of grading, led only by (vague) guidelines set by the testing company such as Pearson, the College Board (for AP exams), or Education Testing Services (for the GRE). If institutional discrimination is the accumulation of many instances of personal discrimination, then there is a clear analogous situation: racial discrimination in testing can be partly attributed to the accumulation of many instances of personal racial discrimination (typically subconscious bias) in temporary graders with no to little formal training in education. Thus the schools that are claimed to be “ineffective” because of poor test scores may be incorrectly labeled as such due to environmental factors beyond the control of the schools (ex. The language/dialect the students speak). And because school choice advocates can claim the “ineffectiveness” of the local traditional public schools, they can persuade powerful funding agencies to invest in their charter schools instead of the traditional public school, despite there being no evidence that the charter schools are any better. This is further evidence that school choice is not getting Black and Latino kids into better schools. School choice, still today, is meant to get the White kids out of the “failing” local schools.

RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION. Most charter schools operate in urban areas, which may be one reason that they are so segregated. (It is well documented that because of residential segregation, White Flight, and discriminatory federal housing policies, urban areas tend to have a higher proportion of Black residents.)

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Opportunity Charter School in New York City. [Image Source]
Many urban areas are now so geographically isolated from White suburbs that voluntary choice programs, establishing magnet schools, or fiddling with school attendance zones can no longer enable many low-income black children to attend predominantly middle class schools. Suburban communities and school districts have resisted the establishment of charters in their areas. This is called the “suburban veto” of charter schooling, coined by legal scholar James Ryan. The suburbanites fear that their valued public school systems would be drained of resources if charters came in and voucher programs were created. This is ironic, of course, because their fears are based on observations of that exact outcome occurring in urban areas. Of course, it is suburban areas that typically vote for candidates and political parties that support school choice programs, as long as those programs only affect poor, urban areas filled with citizens of color.


The US Government Accountability Office found in 2016 that between the 2000-01 and 2013-14 school years, the percentage of K-12 public schools comprised mostly (that is, 75% or more) of Black or Latino students more than doubled, in addition to K-12 public schools of mostly (75% or more) high-poverty schools. Together, they accounted for 15,089 schools in 2013-14 (up from 7,009 schools in 2000-01). In percentages, that’s an increase of racial or socio-economic isolation from 9% to 16% of all K-12 public schools. The GAO report also finds that public charter schools are less diverse (that is, more segregated) than traditional public schools.

CLASSROOM SEGREGATION. Schools around the country suffer from racial discrimination in their academic programs, typically in the form of “tracking.”

generic tracking and race diagram
A depiction of racial segregation in tracking programs. [Image Source]
Tracking is a practice in schools in which students are sorted by ability and taught in different environments tailored to their perceived abilities. Basically, smarter kids get more challenging curriculum, while less smart kids get a less challenging curriculum. Unfortunately, not only does evidence not support this practice as benefiting lower-performing students, but it more often than not suffers from problem of racial disproportionality. White students typically get sorted into more advanced classrooms at multiple times higher rates than Black or Latino students. According to former Assistant Secretary of Education Catherine Lhamon, who wrote in a letter to school districts across the country: “Schools serving more students of color are less likely to offer advanced courses and gifted and talented programs than schools serving mostly white populations, and students of color are less likely than their white peers to be enrolled in those courses and programs within schools that have those offerings.” In 2011-12, Black and Latino students represented 16% and 21% of all high school students, respectively. But they were only 8% and 12%, respectively, of students taking advanced-level calculus classes.


Legal Dismantling of Desegregation Programs

Unfortunately, school choice is not just championed by the executive branch. One significant reason for the proliferation of school choice systems is the retreat of the Supreme Court’s commitment to the desegregation effort that began in 1954.

FREEMAN V. PITTS (1992).  In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in an unanimous decision that “where resegregation is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.” In the decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court found that incremental changes targeted at ending de jure segregation was enough to comply with desegregation decrees from district courts. The issue with his ruling is that it differentiates between de jure (by law) and de facto (by fact) segregation, when it fact these two segregations are a false differentiation. De facto segregation exists because of many reasons, including residential discrimination and White Flight and purposeful drawing of school district boundaries to exclude communities of color. Since the Brown decision, White parents with means have voiced their opposition to desegregation “with their feet,” which is to say they moved. They moved to more-White districts or sent their children to private schools.

De facto segregation is a misnomer. There is no segregation that is accidentially, circumstantially, or randomly caused. There is no collection of “private decisions” devoid of “state action” because historic states action has, for centuries, shaped factors that have implications for private decisions.

The differentiation between de jure and de facto washes the hands of the federal government and local and state actors of the responsibility to work against discrimination. The implication of de facto segregation is that nothing can be done. “It’s just how it is. It’s just a fact of life.” In fact, the history segregation manifests itself in many ways, including who lives where. Freeman v. Pitts set up a dangerous precedent of allowing schools to accept segregation, just as long as its a result of “private choices.

PARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY SCHOOLS V. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1 (2007). In 2007, in a case commonly called Parents Involved, the Supreme Court ruled that voluntary desegregation efforts were unconstitutional because they focused too much on the racial demographics of the schools. The Seattle School District allowed students to apply for enrollment in any high school in its district. In the case of tiebreakers to decide who went to which schools (in the event that more students applied to a school than seats were available), the school significantly considered the race of the student.

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Ballard High School in Seattle. Parents Involved (2007) began when one student alleged she was denied admittance to this school because she was White. [Image Source]
The intention was to maintain racial diversity in the schools. A group called Parents Involved in Community Schools sued the Seattle School District, claiming this tiebreaker was unconstitutional. In order to be deemed constitutional, the Court must find that the tiebreaker did not violate any student’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the tiebreaker did violate the constitution. Additionally, Seattle School District’s goal of maintaining racial diversity was not a constitutionally valid reason to consider the race of its students when deciding admittance.


Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the opinion, noted that race can be used to “remedy the effects of past intentional discrimination” (i.e. de jure segregation) But he (and the Court) ruled that Seattle schools were not using race in that manner because Seattle “had never been segregated by law.” Yet, in 1957, the first year the Seattle school board collected demographic data about its students after Brown, they found that only 5% of its students were Black, but 81% of those students were concentrated in just nine of the city’s 112 schools. Six of the city’s ten high schools had only five or fewer Black students each. Seattle had legal residential segregation laws until 1968. It is obvious that Seattle schools suffered from state-sponsored segregation, yet the Court refused to identify it because it would be labeled as “de facto” segregation, which is acceptable according to the Freeman v. Pitts decision.

Perhaps even more insidious than reinforcing the false differentiation between de jure and de facto segregation, Parents Involved codified a colorblind approach to school desegregation attempts. Allowing schools to try to maintain racial diversity through desegregation efforts would “effectively assure that race will always be relevant in American life,” which the Court deemed as harmful. This fear of race being relevant was one reason they rejected the desegregation efforts in Seattle.

Furthermore, here is what Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion in Parents Involved (2007): “For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as Seattle… the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Robert’s logic, however, is flawed because in his view, any discrimination must be negative and based in prejudice. Discrimination is this case refers to the pure act of separating into groups, not the colloquial definition of prejudicially separating into groups according to perceived value or superiority. Identifying students according to their race, not with the intention of racially dividing them, but racially integrating the schools, has a positive impact of battling the historical and social effects of segregation.

Sharon Browne, the principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, the organization fighting the desegregation program in Seattle for Parents Involved in Community Schools, believes that “teaching our kids that race matters […]  is just plain wrong.”

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Sharon Browne. [Image Source]
After listening to oral arguments today, it seems like it could be a clear message that the Court is going to be sending to school districts: that race discrimination or the use of race in assigning students to public schools will not longer be allowed or even considered by school districts. What it does is it amounts to race discrimination and race discrimination is wrong. [The case] requires the district to eliminate the consideration of individual characteristics. The Equal Protection Clause protects individuals, not groups. 


The Supreme Court agreed with Browne’s colorblind approach. Unfortunately, this approach is just misguided. Theodore Shaw, the President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the same legal entity which argued Brown and many other school desegregation cases) pointed out being conscious of race is not always racist.  


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Theodore Shaw. [Image Source]
The broader issue [of the case] is whether or not it is going to be legal or constitutional in this country to voluntarily and consciously do anything about racial inequality. And for our adversaries… it is very clear. There is no stopping point on that. They believe that outside of a court order, it should be illegal to do anything that is conscious about race because they equate race consciousness with racism. And that is the only way you can get to the point where you say that efforts to integrate public education are somehow discriminatory and segregated. It is a boldfaced lie at worst. At best, it is steeped in ignorance. And it is a fundamental betrayal of what Brown was about, what the Legal Defense Fund has been about, and what this country says it is about. It is also a betrayal of Martin Luther King’s dream, which [Parents Involved in Community Schools] attempts to hijack in support of their colorblind America, which is really not about colorblindness, it is about blindness to the reality of continued racial inequality.

Shaw succinctly reiterates the flaws of the colorblind approach: that equating race consciousness and racism is a false equivalency. Unfortunately, Chief Justice Roberts and the majority of the Court succumb to this argument. And like Shaw said, that is not what Brown was about. Being blind to race in this country also means being blind to racial oppression: the history of it and its manifestations, subtle and overt, today. The Supreme Court has been moving away the just intentions of Brown for decades. Even voluntary desegregation efforts have been deemed unconstitutional.


In his first State of the Union Address, President Trump declared that school choice was the civil rights issue of this generation. The evidence suggests that, in fact, this is true. But not for the reasons Donald Trump believes. Most researchers, focusing on African American students, say that school choice vouchers have little to no effect on how students are performing in schools. This means that when parents send their children out of the community to go to, for instance, a charter school, not only does the public school in the neighborhood lose money to educate the students who remain, but also that the students who leave aren’t truly getting a better education elsewhere.

The school choice voucher system is founded on a lie: that students will get better education if they could just get out of those “failing” urban schools. In fact we see that charter students do no better academically. But the students in the public schools receive less funding and thus continue to “fail.” If the vouchers didn’t exist and the government gave all schools the same funding, then maybe the school wouldn’t be failing. School choice is resegregating students, reinforcing the achievement gap, and draining communities of vital funding and resources. School choice is in fact the “civil rights issue of our generation.” The fight is not how to grow the school choice system, as President Trump desires, but rather how to destroy it.

Racial integration of schools benefits students of all races. Desegregation has shown an increase academic performance of students; improvement of graduation rates, higher rates of employment, higher earnings in adulthood, avoidance of teen pregnancy, and lower rates of delinquency, homicide, and incarceration.

We cannot continue to regress back to school segregation. Chief Justice Warren wrote more than 50 years ago that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Whether schools are racially isolated because of segregationist laws or a “collection of private choices,” schools are hindered in their ability to provide effective, high-equality education. School choice programs fail to the isolating effects of colorblind ideologies, and are thus only perpetuating the problem. The federal government has been complicit in the resegregation of schools since the 1980s, no matter which party is in control. Something must be done. Our future is at stake.


Why I Hate the Command: “Do Better”


Arguing Against the Use of the Command “Do Better” by Advocates and Educators


Firstly, I will try to lead from my own perspective, and so I will preface my arguments by sharing some aspects of my life that might have influenced my perspective.


  • I am a white cisgender man and I have been perceived as one my whole life.
  • I have been in leadership positions for most of my academic career.
  • I want to be a high school social studies teacher and study education.
  • I am attending a 4-year university and have a lower-than-average amount of student loan debt because of academic scholarships.
  • I am attending a 4-year university and have tremendous access to education and information which is not available to people not enrolled in a 4-year university.
  • I am middle-class and higher education was not only accessible to me but was an expectation for me.


Secondly, I am not debating whether “call out culture” is good or bad. That is another blog post. Rather, I am specifically focusing on the use of the phrase “do better” in the command tense, primarily used in an engagement between two people.

  • I do not care about when “do better” is used like:
    • “I really need to do better at remembering their pronouns.”
    • “General education teachers need to do better by students with disabilities.”
  • I do care about phrases like:
    • “You’re trash. Do better.”
    • “Stop assuming people’s sexuality. Just do better next time.”


Now, on to the reasons I don’t like “do better”:

It is unnecessary.

Before I begin, let me define “teller” in the following argument as “the person speaking, who would say “do better”, and define “recipient” as “the person listening, who would be told to “do better”.

By itself, the phrase doesn’t accomplish anything because it is so unspecific. Telling someone to “do better” can only confuse the recipient of that phrase, instead of enlighten them of what they did wrong. When it is attached to more explanation of how someone can be more socially just, the phrase “do better” becomes unneeded because the explanation itself is sufficient to accomplish the goal of calling out oppression. Every response we give should have a purpose, and “do better” doesn’t have enough of one, in my opinion. The following engagement: “I think assuming someone’s gender identity based on their voice over the telephone perpetuates gender norms and transphobia. Do better.” is just as effective (or actually less effective in my opinion) as “I think assuming someone’s gender identity based on their voice over the telephone perpetuates gender norms and transphobia.” There is no purpose of the “do better”, it is just two more words uttered from the teller.

This first argument is hinged on the assumption that if you can engage someone using the above statement, you feel safe, confident, and empowered. My assumption is that if you feel threatened or endangered in a situation, not only would you not utter the entire above engagement, you would not even say “do better” as a phrase on its own. My assumption is that you would not engage at all. Thus, when people feel threatened, they don’t say “do better”, and when people don’t feel threatened, they don’t need to say “do better”. So it is unnecessary.

It is egocentric/self-centered.

Now let me define “standard for basic human decency” as “the minimum level of respect you give any person you interact with.” For some, this could just mean acknowledging their existence. For others, it is not assuming sexual orientation or gender identity or pronouns, and acknowledging their own expertise over their experiences and ideas.

The phrase “do better” asks the recipient to evaluate THEIR actions based on YOUR standard of basic human decency. Instead, what we should be doing is trying to raise the recipient’s standard of basic human decency so they hold themselves accountable to be more socially just. Essentially, I think holding everyone else to your own standard is ultimately futile, because everyone will consistently fail to meet your expectations (because no one is actively to meet your own standards but yourselves).

Additionally, it is easy for the recipient to learn the right words to say and words not to say around you, but that doesn’t mean the recipient actually works to be socially just when you are not around. We must engage the recipient in a way that encourages them to integrate social justice into their core belief system, which will in turn raise THEIR standard for basic human decency. And that means they will be socially just even when no one else is around.

I believe using the phrase “do better” makes the teller out to be “superior” or a kind of authority. It forgets that the teller is on their own journey of education, is a work in progress themselves, and used to have an un-elevated standard of basic human decency similar to the recipient’s. I think that the recipient will feel insulted, patronized, and condescended to when someone tells them to “do better”, because they do not view the teller as superior or an authority. This can turn them off of social justice altogether.

“Do better” also perpetuates a social justice groupthink in which there is only one correct way to be and act socially just, which is wrong in my opinion. I believe there are multiple truths in our world and there are multiple ways to be socially just. We do not how far the recipient has come in terms of being socially just. But if we only judge them by OUR standard for basic human decency, then we erase the recipients experiences and progress. The idea of some “perfect” social justice advocate is toxic. It leads to the inability to forgive mistakes, to humanize people, or meet them where they are when trying to educate them.

This is not to say there are not some universal aspects of standards of basic human decency. Everyone should feel safe and should be acknowledged for who they are, what they think/feel, and what they’ve experienced. Everyone should be allowed to self-identify and live their truth.

But we should recognize that people might interpret those universals differently or they might not have been educated on those aspects yet.

It assumes education is (easily) accessible to the recipient.

While I believe education is a right that everyone should have, not everyone has equitable or equal access to their right (especially to education). This lack of access is one manifestation of oppression. So I think telling someone to “do better” could be viewed as a form of pointing out the recipient’s oppression.

“Do better” is in the command tense. To me, it is reminiscent of a wealthy person telling a poor person to “get a job” if they want to escape poverty. Or perhaps a white person telling an African-American or Latino person to “stop antagonizing the police” if they wanted to stop disproportionately high police brutality, disproportionate rates of incarceration, or racial profiling. I think other social justice advocates would identify the problem with those two example phrases I just shared: the privilege of the teller is blinding them of the complexities of the issues and the obstacles faced by the recipients that are not faced by the teller. An educated person telling an uneducated to “do better” minimizes the complexities of becoming educated.

It minimizes the work it takes to be socially just.

It forgets the effort, energy, and courage it takes to tear down previous conceptions of the world and adopt new ones. Asking someone to “do better” minimizes a lot of work, courage, and accomplishments needed to become aware of oppression, inequalities, and systems of privilege and begin to work to fight those.

The journey of education is not easy, there is no map which follows paved roads. It is hard, it can be full of discomfort, anxiety, and embarrassment. But that is what happens when a person is on their “learning edge” as some call it. It takes courage to be willing to reevaluate your beliefs and perceptions as you learn new information and experience new realities. Simplifying one’s progress to becoming a decent human being as a simply act of “doing better” trivializes a lot of emotions, experiences, late-night talks, arguments, reading, etc.


We should always be trying to improve ourselves and be better people. And if you really want to help someone else improve, we should give them specific advice, use “I” statements, try not to insult them, belittle them, or be condescending.

Anyway, that’s my point of view. Let me know what you think.

-Brian (@iambriam)

Amending the Future-Like-Ours Theory


How the “Future-Like-Ours” Theory of the Immorality of Abortion Marginalizes Women; and How to Improve It

Note before we begin: This post is not supposed to provide the ultimate moral argument for or against abortion rights. This is an examination of one argument that opposes abortion; and how I amend it to expand abortion rights to more people.

Second note: I wrote this as a paper for my Ethics class two years ago. But I thought it was worth revisiting. I don’t pretend that this paper still accurately reflects my views.

But onward with my paper:

Don Marquis, an American philosopher, wrote that abortion was immoral, but not because fetuses were more deserving of life or they had some kind of sanctity only afforded to them. Instead he argued that abortion was immoral for the same reasons any killing of any being would be immoral: it robbed the being of a future of value. As Marquis put it, killing “deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future”. This Future-Like-Ours theory, as Marquis calls it, is an approach to killing that states that aforementioned idea, and his argument is as follows:

  1. Abortion generally deprives the fetus of a future of value.
  2. If an act deprives someone of a future of value, then it is, except in very extraordinary circumstances, wrong.
  3. Therefore, abortion, except in very extraordinary circumstances, is wrong.

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Don Marquis, American Philosopher [Image Source]
Don Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory was suggested in 1989 as a way to determine the morality of abortion by equalizing the moral statuses of fetuses and human adults. In the argument, however, he includes a small caveat that states that (although most abortions are immoral because they deprive a fetus of a future of value) in some “very extraordinary circumstances” abortions may not be immoral. This caveat is problematic because it does not explain what extraordinary circumstances are. One judges whether a circumstance is extraordinary or not based on the frequency of that circumstance occurring. Judging a circumstance on frequency, however, ultimately marginalizes the suffering and problems of the women seeking abortions whose circumstances are not deemed as “extraordinary” and thus devalues their moral status.

I will argue that Marquis’ theory is not sufficient in explaining the immorality of abortion because it does not give fetuses and adult humans the same moral status as it intended to do, but rather dismisses the futures of value of the adult humans. Below, I will explain Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory, the caveat in question, and why it undermines Marquis’ theory. Then I will present my solution to this problem by simplifying the theory into a single Net-Future-of-Value principle, which does not base the morality of abortion on the frequency of the circumstances, thus solving the problem of marginalization and therefore the problem of unequal moral statuses. Finally, I will address a possible objection that society will fix the problem itself in time by noting that although society and its ideas of what constitutes “common” and “extraordinary” change, the two terms will always exist, and will always cause marginalization.


In Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”, he explained that the act of aborting a fetus is no worse or better than killing an adult human. That is to say, a fetus and human adult have the same moral status. And therefore since killing an adult human is immoral, killing a fetus is immoral. Marquis explained his ideas about the morality of abortion with his Future-Like-Ours theory, which is again paraphrased below:

  • Abortion generally deprives the fetus of a future of value (that is, a future with all the experiences, projects, feelings, activities, etc. which one would typically bear).
  • If an act deprives someone of a future of value, then it is, except in very extraordinary circumstances, wrong.
  • Therefore, abortion, except in very extraordinary circumstances, is wrong.

The point of Marquis’ argument was to go beyond explaining the moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion by defining what a human being is or is not, on which he believed (rightly so) that the current abortion debate focused too much. His Future-Like-Ours argument provided a reason why any killing, including abortion, was immoral without needing to define what a human being was. All in all, the argument states that if any creature has the potential to live a life similar to human adults, then it is just as immoral to kill them. It is immoral to kill them because their futures are as valuable as the lives of adult humans.

But surely not all abortions are immoral. What if some radical terrorist organization forced a woman to terminate her pregnancy lest they kill two other people? Perhaps then the abortion would be the moral choice, since saving two lives is better than saving just one. Accounting for situations possibly like the one written above, Marquis avoided absolutism in his theory by adding the simple caveat: “except in very extraordinary circumstances”. And certainly a circumstance in which the only choice was the killing of one innocent fetus or the killing of two innocent people is an extraordinary circumstance.

But that stipulation may be problematic, because it allows the frequency of the circumstances to dictate whether it is permissible or impermissible to deprive someone of a future of value. “Extraordinary” refers to something that is “unusual or very different from normal”, and thus something that is uncommon, infrequent, or rare (according to Merriam-Webster). When discussing human life and their potential for a future, however, no case or instance should ever be regulated to be an afterthought because it occurred within a circumstance which is extraordinary. The Future-Like-Ours theory may give us permission to abort the fetus to save two other citizens now, but only because it is not often that someone must make a choice like that.

But what if that circumstance happened frequently? What if overpopulation was becoming an extreme problem for a state and so a radical state legislature passed a law that for every child born, two other people must die? It would eventually bring down the population to a reasonable number. And of course every woman would have to know that if she wanted to have a child, it would be at the cost of two other lives. Suddenly the choice of either having a child or saving two innocent people’s lives is not so extraordinary. In fact it’s pretty common. It becomes just another part of life and society, maybe so much that people do not even question it. So what happens then? Because the circumstances are no longer extraordinary, the caveat in Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory does not apply. And so even though it would mean the deaths of many citizens, women were morally obligated to carry their child to term in order to not deprive it of a future of value.

[To complicate matters more, Marquis’ theory also says the killing of those two other people would be morally impermissible as well, putting the mother between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.]

These women’s struggles, desires, dreams, feelings, and obligations are being ignored simply because they are pregnant, and the circumstance of the pregnancy is not very rare. But does the frequency of their situation invalidate their feelings, dreams, desires, etc.? It absolutely does not. The women are being marginalized because of the circumstances in which they are pregnant, and Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory is only perpetuating that. And it is certainly immoral to marginalize a human being. Ultimately what this means is that Marquis’ theorized potential future of value for the child is worth more than the actual future of value for the mother. And thus potential humans have some higher moral status simply because they have not yet left the womb of their mother. But this directly contradicts Marquis’ intentions of giving fetuses and adult humans the same moral status. If Marquis does want their moral status to be the same, both the mother and child’s futures of value must be considered. That is to say, one of them cannot be marginalized.

Can the Future-Like-Ours theory fix its error of wrongly marginalizing women? At this point, one might consider an abortion case where the mother’s life is threatened to be an extraordinary circumstance. But what if that was not the case? What if mothers’ lives were commonly threatened by pregnancies? The Future-Like-Ours theory, as written above, would then always consider abortions wrong, even if the mother’s life is in danger. This marginalizes the suffering of the woman carrying the child and wrongly dismisses her right to a future of value just because she is human and human lives are commonly threatened by their pregnancies. This is the same kind of problem as described previously.

In order to address this problem, I propose the following, which will amend the theory into a single principle:

  • An act which deprives someone of a future of value is only morally permissible if the projected net value of the futures affected by the deprivation increases by more than the value of future deprived.

This principle still does not take the side that all abortions are morally permissible. It does, however, weaken the impermissibility of abortions, even more than Marquis’ original “very extraordinary circumstances” caveat. The point of the principle is to not just look at the future of value of the child who might be aborted, but consider the futures of value for all people who would be affected by the abortion (including any possible future children). This reinforces the idea that the fetus and all other adult humans have the same moral status. Thus, if the collective futures of value of all the people affected by the abortion is increased because of the abortion, and increased by more than the value of the future of the aborted child, then that abortion is morally permissible. This principle still does not allow frivolous or unnecessary abortions. And although a woman might not want the child in some cases, if the net collective of futures of values are not increased by more than the value of the future of the aborted child, then that woman is still morally obligated to carry the child to term.

Let me explain the principle with an example. Chelsea is a junior at a public university. She is a member of a small sorority (since she cannot afford the dues of a bigger sorority), and is invited to a big party at a fraternity house. She goes to the party with the intention of drinking alcohol, dancing to music, flirting with fraternity guys, and having sex with one of them. Knowing her intentions, Chelsea brings contraceptive tools with her to the party, and during intercourse, her partner wears a condom. In the next few days, however, Chelsea learned she got pregnant anyway.

If Chelsea receives an abortion, she can go on to finish school and graduate with a marketing degree. She will find a good job with good potential for promotion and a high salary. She will have time to wait to meet a good person to marry and create a loving household. She and her husband have a child, to whom they can give the benefits of a set of loving, caring parents, lack of financial worry, and good educational system found in their suburban neighborhood.

If Chelsea does not receive an abortion, she must drop out of school in order to find a full time job to raise money to take care of the child. Because of her lack of educational degrees, her opportunities for employment, housing, and support are limited. She immediately marries the baby’s father, but does not love him the way she knows other couples love each other. Their child grows up in a poor neighborhood, with minimal education, and lack of attention which Chelsea gives to her own worries, like their desperate financial situation.

Even if Chelsea carries the child to term and puts it up for adoption, that child will still not have a likely future of value. Children who are adopted may have the same IQ as non-adopted children, but lag behind in school performance and language abilities (van IJzendoorn, Juffer, and Poelhuis 2005). If they are left at the orphanage until they are adults, they are just a drain of government resources. Additionally, the child has any stigmatized features (such as any mental health problems or physical issues, being a person of color, or have a mother who used drugs), it will be very difficult for it to be adopted (Hellerstedt et. al. 2008).

In this example, when Chelsea aborts the fetus, the value of her own life, and the value of the life of her next child are increased dramatically. When Chelsea does not abort the fetus, the value of her life and that child’s life are low. In this case, Chelsea’s abortion is morally permissible, because the net value of the futures affected by the deprivation of a future of value are more than the value of the future deprived. Following the original Future-Like-Ours theory, Chelsea would not receive the abortion and both her and her child’s futures would be of little value. What this amendment to the Future-Like-Ours theory does is force each case to be looked at individually, no matter how common (or cliché) they may be.

This solution, however, could come with its own objections. First is the ambiguity with the word “projected”. No one can predict the future with 100% accuracy and no one can assess the value of one’s future objectively. There will always be bias, whether caused by race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, income level, education, etc.  While some might believe Chelsea does have the potential to get a good job and find a loving husband if she received the abortion, they might change their mind if Chelsea’s name had been Chantel or Salwah. Or they would believe Chelsea would not actually have the potential to have a future of high enough value to compensate for the deprivation of the aborted child’s lost future of value unless she was attending a prestigious Ivy League university rather than the state public university.

It is impossible to remove bias from human judgment, however, and no proposed solution to Marquis’ marginalization error will ever find an answer to bias. What philosophers can do, however, is approach this problem like they do with some other problems of bias: use the ideal observer (“Impartiality” 2011). Attempting to be perfectly rational and actively trying to overcome any presumptions based on bias is the best humans can do to combat the problem.

But there is another more pressing objection to my proposed principle. It is the idea that the solution will not be necessary in the future. That is, in a more advanced world, where sexual education is more widespread, contraceptive methods are more available, and thus unwanted pregnancies (read: pregnancies which are desired to be terminated), are rare, even the most common circumstances we see today will become extraordinary in the future, making the Future-Like-Ours theory relevant and perfected in its original form. Take for an example fetal exposure to drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana, and even tobacco. While in the past, drug use was more commonplace among mothers (and the population as a whole), pushes for the discontinuation of drug use among the population (such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign) made functioning in society safer for both the mothers and fetuses (“Thirty Years” 2014). So while the health afflictions associated with drug use could have caused the mothers to have been marginalized in the 1970s and 80s, these mistakes were corrected in the future. Now drug related pregnancy complications are uncommon (“extraordinary”) circumstances.

Let us look at the case of child birth and overpopulation. Those who posit this future-advancement objection would simply say that the effects of the law would eventually bring down the population of the state, and once they were at a reasonable level, they would repeal the law. Then those circumstances in which giving birth would mean the death of two people would become extraordinary, and Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory, with the caveat, would apply, making it relevant as it is. So while common problems today may marginalize women, society will correct itself, making the marginalization of women less common. Marquis’ theory has its problems now, but the advancement of technology, medicine, and society will eventually solve those problems.

But what does it mean to be extraordinary or common? Those are terms of relativity. I will use another example to explain. In a given year in the United States the infant mortality rate (IMR) was 20.0 (which means, on average, 20 infants less than the age of one die per every 1,000 live births) (Singh and van Dyck 2007). Is this common or extraordinary? Well, it depends. This was the IMR in the early 1970s. In 2000, the IMR was only 6.9, meaning those in 2000 would view the death of an infant in the 70s as common. In 1935, the IMR was 55.7. So those in 1935 would view the death of an infant in the 70s as extraordinary.

It is a noble cause to try to minimize the rate of deaths in the United States. But while what is common and what is extraordinary changes, those terms are never eradicated. Let’s imagine some news reports that citizens of the state with the overpopulation law might see on a given day. In the first report, the news anchor reports that while a woman did get pregnant, it marked only the third time it happened that year (making only 3 in 3 months), which is a much lower number than number of pregnancies in other states. Thus their accident is deemed extraordinary, and the women are allowed to receive an abortion. In another possible report, however, the news anchor reports that the pregnancy is part of epidemic, indicating that the incidence of pregnancies is up 50% (from 2 to 3). In the people’s minds, the woman is one of possibly many to get pregnant in the state. And thus their accident is deemed common, and the woman is not allowed to receive an abortion, marginalizing them simply for how their circumstance is viewed.

Marginalization is a problem our society has been battling for a very long time. And when it is suffering and death being marginalized, there is no excuse to let it continue without combating it. The Future-Like-Ours theory must be amended, because it uses frequency to judge the morality of death (specifically abortion). If a woman wants to terminate her pregnancy because she does not want to raise the child in a single parent household, she is told she cannot because a) those following the Future-Like-Ours theory believe her circumstance is not extraordinary (because of their own racial, religious, sexist, or classist bias) even when it is, or b) her circumstance is not extraordinary and it actually is not. In either case, her own feelings, desires, dreams, obligations, etc. are dismissed because she is believed to be merely part of a bigger problem. This is wrong and immoral on its own. The woman is viewed not as a person, but a statistic. And the Future-Like-Ours theory not only allows it to happen, but commands it to happen.

I suggest that the theory be amended to be a principle which is as follows:

  • An act which deprives someone of a future of value is only morally permissible if the projected net value of the futures affected by the deprivation increases by more than the value of future deprived.

It fixes the problem of marginalization of women presented by Marquis’ original Future-Like-Ours theory and its “very extraordinary circumstances” stipulation. It is immoral to not treat the women as humans, but merely statistics. And the end of marginalization of women gives adult humans and fetuses the same moral status, which achieves one of the original goals of Marquis’ theory. The new principle still forbids the frivolous and unnecessary abortions which ultimately decrease the net future of value for those involved, achieving the other original goal. And in the end, the new principle allows each woman’s circumstance to be viewed individually, as it should be.

  • Hellerstedt, Wendy L., Nikki J. Madsen, Megan R. Gunnar, Harold D. Grotevant, Richard M. Lee, and Dana E. Johnson. “The International Adoption Project: Population-based Surveillance of Minnesota Parents Who Adopted Children Internationally.” Maternal and Child Health Journal 12, no. 2 (2008): 162-171.
  • “Impartiality.” Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Updated 20 March 2011.
  • Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral.” Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989): 183-202.
  • Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Extraordinary,” Accessed 10 May 2014,
  • “Thirty Years of America’s Drug War.” Frontline. Public Broadcasting Service. 2014.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Health Resources and Services Administration. Infant Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007 by Singh, Gopal K. and Peter C. van Dyck. Washington DC: GPO, 2007.
  • van IJzendoorn, Marinus H., Femmie Juffer, and Caroline W. Klein Poelhuis. “Adoption and Cognitive Development: A Meta-Analytic Comparison of Adopted and Nonadopted Children’s IQ and School Performance.” Psychological Bulletin 131, no. 2 (2005): 301-316.

“All Lives Matter Act” Founded on Hypocrisy

On 11 December 2015, Representative Mike Moon (R- Ash Grove) pre-filed a bill which would establish the “All Lives Matter Act”, defining that human life begins at conception, opening up the path for harsher and more restrictive anti-choice legislation from the Missouri Legislature.

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The legislature heard the first and second readings of this bill on 6 and 7 January 2016, respectively. This is not the first time I’ve seen the Black Lives Matter concept twisted and spun to support anti-choice action.

Back in December 2015, the Genocide Awareness Project came to the University of Missouri’s campus in Columbia to display a rolling billboard trying to explain how Black Lives Matter should be against abortion. I would suggest NOT looking up the images of that billboard up because they are very graphic in their depiction of violence against Black people and aborted fetuses and fetal tissue.

From what I could gather on the display, the GAP tries to co-opt the momentum and messages of progressive movements and tries to twist them to support conservative values. Here is one example: “(All) Black Lives Matter: Born and Unborn!”. The Republican congresspeople who are introducing anti-choice bills in the Missouri Legislature are trying to do the same thing.

I can already see the sly smile on someone’s face. Finally the liberal hypocrisy is revealed! How will they be able to reconcile that? he thinks to himself. (I purposefully chose to use he/him pronouns.)

Here is the thing about that: It is not hypocritical to support Black Lives Matter (and the removal of the oppression of Black People and People of Color in general) and to be Pro-Choice. In fact, the Genocide Awareness Project is hypocritical to support Black Lives Matter and be anti-abortion. And the Missouri legislators who are introducing anti-choice legislation under the guise of fairness and justice are just as hypocritical.

Black Lives Matter is a movement/organization dedicated to removing the systemic racism that constantly oppresses non-white people, specifically removing anti-Black racism and oppression.

Being anti-choice means supporting the sexist and patriarchal system that currently exists and oppresses women and other people with vaginas.

And this is important to note too: those two systems are the same.

It is the same society that we all live in that is founded in both racist and sexist principles. Let me bring in the idea of Intersectionality: the idea that all our identities co-exist at the same time and influence each other. For example, my whiteness is affected by and affects my manhood; both my whiteness and manhood affect and are affected by role as a student, and a student of higher education at that. My experiences are not the same as other men because I have other different identities which affect my being a man. My experiences are not the same as other white people because I have other different identities which affect my being white.

Basically, what I want you to understand is that our different identities cannot be thought of in a vacuum; in other words, by themselves. They are all connected.

So there is no “getting rid of the racist parts of the system” while “keeping the anti-choice parts of the system”. The two are interconnected; so locked together that getting rid of one means getting rid of the other, and keeping one means keeping the other.

That is why it is hypocritical to be pro-Black Lives Matter and anti-choice. If you support Black Lives Matter, you support overthrowing the system because it is racist. If you are anti-choice, you support maintaining the system which is sexist and patriarchal. And you cannot have both, because in the same breath you are advocating for the removal and maintenance of the same system.

Allison Dreith, interim director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, wrote in the St. Louis American an op-ed in which she revealed the hypocrisy of Representative Moon’s using “All Lives Matter” in the title of his bill:

Rep. Moon also cosponsored legislation for 2016 requiring all public restrooms, other than single-occupancy restrooms, to be gender-divided – an attack on transgender persons. So, trans lives do not matter to him. Moon also called for a special legislative session on the Syrian Refugee crisis to halt “the potential Islamization of Missouri.” So, Muslim and refugee lives also do not matter to him. And those examples are just from the past month.

Finally, black women have had very little reproductive choice, historically. During slavery, they wereforced into childbirth. Then, they were forced into methods for sterilization. Since then, black women have had to bear the burden of the“welfare mom” stereotype. This bill continues the trend in Missouri, that women should not make their own decisions. Again, the lives of women – and especially black women – do not matter to this legislator.


It is clear that HB 1794 is a bill targeted to end abortion services. And now what is clear is that the use of “All Lives Matter” to defend these services not only mocks the Black Lives Matter movement, but is hypocritical in its own right.

This bill should meet the same end as HB 1743, the bill which would have revoked scholarships to athletes who participated in social activism that caused them to refuse to play their sport. I wrote about HB 1743 here. That bill was withdrawn after a huge uproar from the community. The “All Lives Matter Act” deserves that same fate.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)

Respectability Does Not Earn You Justice

A Misguided Appeal to Propriety


I think most people raised in nations founded in Enlightenment ideals (ex. the United States) are taught that rights are not something to mess with. They are not bestowed upon us by our governments, but rather they are innately owed to us as part of our humanity. In fact, we are told all the time that we should be constantly watching out for when the government tries to take away our rights. The rhetoric can be seen on any political blog or newspaper, no matter the ideology.


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[Image 1] | [Image 2] | [Image 3] | [Image 4]

We all agree that rights are precious and worth protecting.

But often, we are not in agreement about who has which rights. Some people might believe we all have equal access to our rights. They might argue that the _________ (insert: 19th Amendment, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision, etc.) finally made everyone equal after a long struggle with inequality since the inception of the first British colony on North America. Unfortunately, that idea that we are all equal is not true. Not everyone has equal access to their rights.

That’s where rights activism comes into play. People in this nation are tired of being denied access to what they are entitled for being human. They want to fight the system which has denied them their rights, maybe even overthrow that system and institute a new one in which they actually get access to rights.

Yet, there are still people who are born in this world with full access for whatever reason (perhaps because they are part of the dominant culture), who want to tell disadvantaged people how to get their rights. As if those advantaged people have ever had to fight for them.

Here is one example of this happening:

8 August 2015 | Seattle, Washington. Bernie Sanders was delivering a speech at a rally when Black Lives Matter protesters took the stage from Sanders and used the platform to share their message. Many people were uncomfortable with protesters’ actions, upset that they interrupted Sanders’ speech. The critics of this move have said things like: “I can’t support a movement that manhandles its way on stage and interrupts people who just want to help them”, “Maybe if they weren’t so rude, people might want to listen to them”, “There is a right way to protest, and that is not it”, and “Their tactics are making the situation worse rather than better”.

Photos from the Rally: Black Lives Matter Activists take to the stage during a speech by Bernie Sanders

Essentially, they were engaged in behavior that made many people feel uneasy and upset. And people believed that their uneasiness was evidence that the Black Lives Matter activists’ actions were wrong. So they criticized the actions, saying that they were not be respectable, that what they were doing did not make them worthy of their accomplishing their goals. In many circles, what I am describing is called Respectability Politics.

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Have you seen this image on your social media? This image plays right into respectability politics. The ones on the bottom right may still have better access to their rights than the man in the top left, no matter how well/poorly each dresses. [Image Source]
Respectability Politics is all about using the code-words “respectability” or “respectable” (and similar words) as a guise to shut down activists’ work before it even begins. It’s that idea that if you want your activism to be successful, you should make appealing to those in power (after all, aren’t they the ones who are going to graciously bestow the rights to disadvantaged groups?). It is the practice of holding hostage marginalized people’s access to rights until they conform to the demands of the people with systematic power, until they are deemed “respectable” enough to have access to rights.

You have probably seen examples of Respectability Politics on social media or in conversations with colleagues. Things like:

  • If they didn’t want to get stopped by police, why did they choose to look like criminals?
  • No wonder she doesn’t have a job, did you hear the way she talks? I can’t understand her slang!
  • I don’t mind gay people, just as long as they don’t act flamboyantly or are all in my face about it.
  • He is not poor because he is Black, he is poor because he won’t pull up his pants and go out and find a real job!
  • I wouldn’t date her, she has had sex with everyone!
If you use or have heard anyone else use any of these or related phrases, I will explain below why these phrases not only don't help anyone, but blame people for their socially-inflicted troubles.


First off, here is one problem with Respectability Politics: Activists aren’t asking anyone to give them rights. They’re demanding the rights they are entitled to. They don’t want to hear any criteria or stipulations from the advantaged people for gaining access to rights. They will not pander to the system that denies them rights and necessitates their activism in the first place.

It doesn’t matter if their activism work makes you smile and feel all warm inside or if it makes so mad you’re red in the face. They are demanding their rights (which again, all humans are entitled to). And if you are part of the system that is denying them rights, you are the problem, not them.

Secondly, activists should not have to make their work “respectable” to find success. They are not asking you for second helping of dinner, so to speak. They are asking for a seat at the table in the first place. They do not have time to be dealing with people who want to debate about how to make them more comfy with all this activism business. To continue with the dinner metaphor, they don’t have to time to sit down and educate people about how they are in fact not getting a second helping, but rather, they are getting a chair placed at the table for them. And because of the fact that they don’t even have a seat at the dinner table, they don’t get food at all. And it’s hard to find the time or energy to debate every single person about your eating habits when you are in fact starving. (That’s the end of the dinner metaphor.)

Mattachine Protest in Washington DC. 17 April 1965 | During the first protest for gay and lesbian rights, the demonstrators were required to dress, act, and speak respectably. But it didn’t help much. The LGBTQ rights movement didn’t really kick off until a riot in NYC four years later.

But here is the ultimately fundamental problem with Respectability Politics: it never really works. No one is given access to rights because they were nice or polite. As the image I started this post with quotes from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s 2007 book of the same phrase, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History”. The same principle applies to all disadvantaged people. Because when the powerful see the powerless being “respectable”, they think “Awesome, nothing is wrong. Look how complacent everyone is, they must love the current state of affairs. I don’t have to do anything“. But when the powerful see the powerless not being “respectable”, they think “Wow, those people are so mean, rude, and uncouth; I’m not doing anything for them until they get better.” And thus what is always the result of Respectability Politics? Nothing. Nothing gets done; the advantaged are kept at an advantage and the disadvantaged are kept an a disadvantage.

Additionally, disruption and loudness and other “non-respectable” behavior accomplishes many of the goals of activism: it gets people aware of the issues and makes them talk about it.

[Image 1] | [Image 2] | [Image 3] | [Image 4] | [Image 5]

What would have happened if the Black Lives Matters activists respectfully asked for stage time at the Bernie Sanders rally? They would have been told “no”, and then would their message have been spread? Or even if they were given time after Senator Sander’s speech was done, would they have been able to as effectively spread their message to a dwindling crowd? Would people have started having those hard conversations about race? Or conversations about why Black Lives Matter exists in the first place?

Returning to those critiques of those actions by the Black Lives Matter activists, we must deconstruct them and expose the hidden Respectability Politics behind them.

    Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was still assassinated even if he was wearing a suit and tie. [Image Source]
    “I can’t support a movement that manhandles its way on stage and interrupts people who just want to help them”:  You need to think critically about how successful the movement would be if it operated differently. Have other methods been tried? How successful were those methods at spreading their message? If you can’t think of many times polite movements were successful, maybe it’s because being “respectable” doesn’t get you very far. 
    freedom summer violence
    Young adults riding a Greyhound Bus to Alabama during the Freedom Summer (1964) campaign faced nearly lethal violence for attempting to register Southern Black citizens to vote. Was it their nice clothing or maybe the way they looked out the window that prompted the violence against them? Or was it that people were upset they were trying to uproot the racism that plagued the South’s electoral system, government, and culture? [Image Source]
  • “Maybe if they weren’t so rude, people might want to listen to them”: People weren’t listening to them when they were being “polite”. Why would the movement switch back when being “rude” accomplishes their goals? Additionally, we must seriously consider if some groups get more scrutiny for behaving “rudely” than others. Do some groups of people get away with same behavior that some other group would get chastised for?
  • “There is a right way to protest, and that is not it”: Is there a right way to protest? If so, would it not be the way that best completes the goal of the protest? Who decides the right way to protest? This alludes back to the subtitle of this post, a misguided appeal to propriety. People like to police other people’s behavior using some idea of what’s “proper” or “correct” as justification. But we should not tell other people how to live their lives because we are not those people; we don’t know their histories, their experiences, or their intentions.
  • “Their tactics are making the situation worse rather than better”: Their tactics are making people think and talk about issues around race and racism in the United States. And that is way better than no one talking about it while the powerless suffer in silence.

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Various "What They Say"/"What We Hear" examples revealing the respectability politics behind various generic comments about protesting. [Image Source]


Respectability Politics does not just apply to race. People who talk about LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer) people “just wanting to get married like everyone else” are appealing to Respectability Politics. Because LGBQ folks do not just want to get married, they want to get rid of the whole system that denied them marriage in the first place. And then get married without straight people telling them the “correct” way to be married (ex. one stay-at-home spouse and one breadwinner). LGBQ people are every bit as diverse and complex as heterosexual people, but they don’t want inclusion into a homophobic institution; they want a new institution that welcomes them, appreciates them, and acknowledges their existence.

Transgender folks face constant pressure to look as much as possible like male/female stereotypes of cisgender people. The way they act, speak, dress, style their hair, make gestures, etc. are all policed by everyone to ensure they still fit into the very gender binary that denies their existence. Even other transgender people, like Caitlyn Jenner, police transgender folk’s bodies. In a TIME Magazine interview, she said:

caitlyn jenner“I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.

So the first thing I can do is try to present myself well. I want to dress well. I want to look good. When I go out, as Kim says, you’ve got to rock it because the paparazzi will be there.”


Should everyone else’s level of comfort dictate how you should present yourself, as Jenner alludes? Caitlyn Jenner points out that “it’s much easier for a trans [person] who authentically kind of looks and plays the role”, noting that trans people who pass for cisgender may escape some discrimination. But that doesn’t save them from discrimination on their legal documents and driver’s licenses which show the wrong sex/gender, embarrassment and harassment in the workplace where they have to dress for a gender they don’t identify with, and violence and harassment in bathrooms when trans people who just want to relieve themselves are verbally and/or physically abused. Their “authentically” playing the “role” will not save them from that.

Here is the respectability politics: Jenner is telling trans folks that they need to look “presentable” (aka cisgender) so that they don’t make other people uncomfortable, and thus, will be more willing to tolerate trans people. And to me, that is like telling trans people to pretend they aren’t trans people so that cisgender people will not feel compelled to discriminate against them. Which of course puts the onus on trans folks to stop their own oppression. And that doesn’t make sense.

Additionally, do trans people not deserve protection from employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and lethal violence on the streets unless they look enough like a cisgender person? If they do look like a “man in a dress” do they deserve to be killed in the street? Do young black boys deserve to be shot by the police because they were wearing hoodies and sagging their pants? Do women deserve to be raped because they were wearing revealing clothing?

No. Of course they deserve protection from discrimination and violence because they are human and entitled to those protections, they have rights to those protections, no matter how they choose to express themselves or live their lives. Your comfortability be damned.


Again, as humans we are guaranteed certain rights. But many people are still denied access to those rights. And when they fight and demand access, they are told that they are not being respectable, and thus are undeserving of that access. That is unacceptable.

We may be uncomfortable with some of the tactics of some movements and the work of some activists. But we must examine that uncomfortability. Is it because we are taught never to disrupt the system? Is it because we are taught that some people simply don’t deserve rights? Is it because we were socialized to behave a certain way and deviance from that makes us feel uneasy?

Because even if we are taught those things, we must now take the opportunity to re-teach ourselves in our adulthood. Instead of asking “how can rights activists accomplish their goals most effectively while minimizing disruption?” the question should just be “how can they accomplish their goals most effectively?”.

Instead of asking “how can they minimize their differences from me so that I feel more comfortable with them?” the question should be “how can I handle these uncomfortable feelings like an adult and learn to appreciate differences and diversity rather than try to suppress them?“.


I want to end with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I think it is important to recognize how long the struggle with respectability politics has been going on. King succinctly characterizes the same dialogues that we hear even today, especially concerning the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the drive toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another mans freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro the wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


Don’t let the system tell you how you should tear down the system. Because it’ll ensure you never succeed.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)

More than Just Bodies on the Field

State Representative Rick Brattin (R-Harrsionville) pre-filed House Bill 1743 (co-sponsored by Kurt Bahr (R-O’Fallon)) on Friday, December 11th. The bill will revoke any scholarship offered to student-athletes who refuse to play a game for any reason other than health reasons. The bill is pictured below.

hb 1743

The crux of the bill is between lines 2 and 3:

Any college athlete who calls, incites, supports, or participates in any strike or concerted refusal to play a scheduled game shall have his or her scholarship revoked.

There are several reasons this bill should never make it to the Floor of the House.

1. It is just an overreaction to the realization of student-athletes that they actually have some power. Co-sponsor Bahr said the bill is “obviously in reaction to the athletes who were saying they weren’t going to play to what they considered to be social issues on campus.” As Representative Brandon Ellington (D-Kansas City) said in a statement, the bill seeks to “further solidify and legalize institutional racism” and reduce players to the status of “subjugated livestock”.

2. It reinforces the idea that student-athletes are nothing more than bodies on the field, whose sole purpose is to entertain. It forgets that “student” part of “student-athlete”. As Ian Simon, a senior captain for the football team, told the Columbia Missourian, “I’m more than just a football player… Our sport is just a small part of who we are”. He went on to say that “I don’t just wear a helmet on Saturdays and disappear the other six days of the week”.

3. The MU athletic department self-funds, so it doesn’t receive public funds. The athletic scholarships come from ticket and merchandising sales. The MU Student-Athlete Handbook notes “The University of Missouri does not receive state appropriated funds to operate its intercollegiate athletics programs, thus, similar to private business, the Mizzou Athletics Department must operate solely from what revenue it generates.”

4. The MU Student-Athlete Handbook also says that “any renewal, reduction, or cancellation of an athletics scholarship is made at the discretion of the coach and the Director of Athletics”, not the State Legislature.

5. If the State Legislature wants to assume they have power in the running of a public university like Mizzou, they should first fund it like a public university. Funding for higher education from the state has been stagnant over the past 8 years. Missouri ranks 44th in higher education appropriations per $1,000 of personal income and 47th in higher education appropriations per capita.

6. Even the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) called the law “deplorable” and that they “stand against it”. Member of the NFLPA’s Executive Comittee, Benjamin Watson (Tight End-New Orleans Saints) said in a statement that the “proposed legislation is clearly an attempt to silence student athletes by threatening to take away their education”.

I believe this bill fails to recognize the fact that student-athletes are not simply given their scholarships, they earn them. And it should take significant explanation to justify taking them away.

Will Representative Brattin pre-file another bill that mandates all students who skip class to be stripped of their academic scholarships? Will student-athletes have their scholarships revoked if they don’t play to a certain standard? What other stipulations will be a violation of a contract? Will elected officials be sanctioned for proposing legislation in which the State has no jurisdiction? What punishment will the government face when it stops representing the voice and will of the people and protecting their rights, thus breaking the 300 year-old Social Contract?

There is no precedent for HB 1743. There is just a desire to punish students for standing up to the system which dehumanized them.

UPDATE: 16 December 2015

Representative Brattin withdrew HB 1743 without comment.

hb 1743 updated.png
“Last Action: 12/16/15 – Withdrawn”

Co-sponsor Bahr commented to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “Unfortunately, it’s going to be seen as a coup by those who opposed the bill.”

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)