Saturday, October 18, 2014

A 2009 HIPHOP reminder from Wise Intelligent

Wise Intelligent Drops Some Serious Science On the DePoliticization of HipHop

This was recorded at the Influence of Islam on HipHop Gathering back in 2009.

It is still very much on point today. Share with youngfolk and the not-so-youngfolk among your family, friends and neighborhood.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Native American Holocaust Remembrance Day- NOT Columbus Day

From the official site of William Loren Katz and Black Indians:

Ill Winds Drove Columbus

Columbus’s Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were driven across the Atlantic by the same ill winds that from 1095 to 1272 launched nine Crusades to capture Muslim Jerusalem. Defeated and humiliated the invaders suffered staggering human losses, left royal treasuries depleted, and convinced Christian leaders to do pay lip service to another try.

Except for Christopher Colon or Columbus. An ambitious Genoese sailor who craved adventure and was given to religious mysticism, he accepted God’s personal command to free the Holy Land. He also saw God’s hand in cloud formations, splashing waves, and distant stars, and had read a religious book that convinced him the world would end in 150 years. As a seaman he saw three mermaids dancing on waves, and was sure in distant lands he would meet men with tails or heads of dogs.

Above all, God had chosen him to see Christianity victorious “throughout the universe.” And he would follow His further command to convert or destroy Muslims, Jews and other non-believers.
Columbus’s earliest sea experiences were as a youth on Portuguese slave-trading ships along Africa’s Atlantic coast. He learned captured men, women and children could be chained and sold for enormous profits. With enough slaves and gold, a Columbus could finally end the infidel grip on the Holy Land.

Weeks after first landing in the Americas Columbus thought he had found a large enough supply of gold and slaves to persuade the Christian “Sovereigns within three years [they] would undertake and prepare to go and conquer the Holy Places.” Pope Urban II had launched the first Crusade. He hoped the current Pope would ask him to lead “50 thousand foot soldiers and five thousand horsemen” to march on Jerusalem. He never abandoned this hope.

Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic to reach the riches of Asia was also a first step toward his larger goal. After five weeks in the Atlantic, lying to grumbling crewmen, claiming he was not a man lost at sea, his food supplies running low, Columbus stumbled on a Caribbean island named Guanahani.  On the morning of October 12, 1492 with a crew in heavy armor carrying swords and muskets, he left the Santa Maria for the sunny shore. and a military and nationalist operation. He planted Spain’s flag in the soil, took “possession of the said island for the king and queen,” and renamed it San Salvador. “With fifty men your Highness would hold them all in subjection and do with them all that you could wish,” he wrote in his Diary. The Admiral was applying the new “doctrine of discovery” that granted Europe’s merchant adventurers the right t claim distant lands and  their inhabitants. Papal bulls of the time also divided “discovered” lands betweeen Spain and Portugal, and in 1494 the Vatican specifically drew a line dividing the Americas – and the slave trade – between these seafaring powers.

Columbus and his expedition was also a product of Spain’s painful “final solution.” Since 711 Spain’s Muslim Arab rulers shared their cultural wealth with and practiced toleration of the country’s diverse citizenry. Catholics, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully with neighbors, as Spain became a world center of books and learning.
Santiago Matamoros
Then Catholic King Ferdinand of Castille and Queen Isabella marshaled a Christian army to impose their rule. Castillian soldiers charged into battle with the cry “Santiago Matamoros” or “Kill the Moors.” By January 1492 Christian soldiers stood poised for victory and an era of ethnic cleansing.

On January 2, 1492 Ferdinand’s troops captured the splendid Moorish Alhambra castle, the last Arab power bastion in Grenada. An enthusiastic Columbus who stood in the cheering crowd later recorded the triumphal moment in the first sentence of his Diary. “I saw the Royal banner of your Highness placed on the towers of Alhambra  . . . and I saw the Moorish King come forth and kiss the royal hand of your Highness . . . . “

Spain’s new government quickly moved to finance Columbus’s voyage and against its minorities. On March 31 Spain’s Jews — as integrated into commercial, governmental and cultural life as Christian and Muslim citizens – were handed an Edict of Expulsion. Families were ordered into exile, and one official suggested, “The whole accursed race of Jews, of twenty years and upwards, might be purified by fire.”
The Inquisition forced many Jews to face the ultimate penalty. Even the “marranos,” families who had agreed to convert to Christianity, were not exempt. Can you trust people you forced to convert? Muslims also faced persecution and exile over the next ten years. By 1609 Spain had expelled Muslims it had converted to Christianity. Exiles lost everything but what they could carry.

The wealth that fell from tortured hands helped pay for Columbus’s historic voyage. His final sailing plans were completed when Luis de Santangel, Chancellor to the Royal Household, lent his King the last 17,000 florins – and by this act purchased his family’s right to remain in their homeland.

Some 150,000 refugees had trudged to southern seaports as time ran out for the Jews on the very day before Columbus left. On the day he weighed anchor at Palos, a small band of Jewish families huddled at nearby Cadiz waiting for a rescue ship.

The second sentence of Columbus’s Diary shows he was well aware of the connection between their expulsion and his departure. “After having turned all the Jews from your Kingdoms and Lordships . . . your Highness gave orders to me that with a sufficient fleet I should go.” The expulsion and Columbus’s departure were forever linked.

On his first night in the Bahamas, Spain’s “Captain of the Ocean Sea,” described in one Diary sentence how he brought the new Spain to the New World. “I took some of the natives by force.”  The enslavement of American Indians was both Columbus’s first act in the Americas, and a first step in his Crusade.
More Spanish troops arrived in the Americas to crush the Aztecs of Mexico, the Incas of Peru and other peoples of the Americas. Spaniards brought new weapons and a new battle cry — “Santiago Mataindios” or “Kill the Indians.” They unleashed the world’s largest, longest and most devastating genocide. Millions upon millions died of a harsh slavery, forced starvation and mass executions as well as European diseases. Entire villages and cities disappeared.

Along with his sailing skills and fierce ambition, Columbus carried in his heart the burning embers of his monarchy’s intolerance, violence and ravenous greed. Though the Admiral found Caribbean people “tractable, peaceable” and wrote King Ferdinand, “there is not in the world a better nation” — he concluded they must be “made to work . . . and adopt our ways.”

Oppression built slowly. Columbus’s initial voyage seized a few dozen Native men and women, some as slaves, others to present at the Royal Court. But his goal was largely exploratory. After another voyage he wrote to his King, “From here, in the name of the Blessed Trinity, we can send all the slaves that can be sold.” Spain’s rulers eagerly agreed to supply him with 17 ships, a thousand soldiers, priests who would conduct mass conversions, and orders for a brutal colonization. He began an island by island search for gold and slaves that decimated the fifty to a hundred million Native Americans.

Las Casas a Dominican Priest, denounced Spain’s invaders as “ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers and lions” whose ultimate aim . . . is to acquire gold.” The only true Christians in the Americans, he stated, were Native Americans.  Indians, he found, had their own name for the Spain’s Christians –“Yares” or devils.

Columbus did not “discover” anything but islands filled with people who greeted him with water, food and gifts. He repaid their generosity with treachery. He introduced two continents and many islands to a holocaust more thorough and lasting than any  in human history. As a devout servant of God he relished his work and offered no apologies.
Hatuey being executed in 1512.
But the Columbus story had another hidden side. Tiano and Arawak women and men with names like Anacoana and Hatuey who once warmly greeted him soon rebelled against colonial rule and enslavement. On Hispaniola Anacoana and her husband Coanabo led their people in the first known military uprising and were slain.

A few years later Hatuey and four hundred followers on Hispaniola left in canoes to warn Cubans of the murderous invaders. He and his soldiers were finally overwhelmed by superior Spanish forces, but Hatuey was carved into Cuban statues as their liberation hero.
Other Native Americans soon rose to mobilize their people against the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch and English invaders, their muskets and cannons.

In 1502  — the age of Columbus, Anacoana and Hatuey — Native Americans found new allies in the Africans Europeans imported as slave laborers. That year Governor Nicolas de Ovando of Hispaniola complained to King Ferdinand that his Africans escaped to Indian villages and “never would be recaptured.” Africans and Native Americans realized they faced the same invaders and slave-catchers, and saw no need to fight them alone.

From Canada to Tierra del Fuego and the Caribbean islands, Africans and Indians were able form maroon settlements in the wilderness that protected their families and thrived through agricultural and trade. Some lasted for years or decades, and the Republic of Palmares in Northeastern Brazil had 10,000 people and lasted almost a century until 1694. Maroon villages and cities were the first in America to include Indians and foreigners, and to embrace the belief that all, Native American and newcomer, are created equal.

We should follow the advice of today’s Native Americans who reject Columbus Day in favor of a Native Americans Day. All Americans need to study and celebrate the heroic battles that pitted our first Americans against Europeans who would conquer and enslave them, and their African allies.

A Native Americans Day can educate all of us about the Indians who united with Africans to fight against foreign tyranny before, during and after 1776. It will remind everyone that Native Americans still seek the lands and monies promised in ancient treaties with United States. And it will inform us anew that Americans of color whose ancestors fought and died for the principle of freedom still do not enjoy all their inalienable rights.

© 2014 William Loren Katz

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Same School, Same Opportunities? Addressing Within-school Segregation

by Halley Potter 
( a Fellow at The Century Foundation.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision this year, promoting racial and socioeconomic integration in our schools remains an uphill battle. Re- search from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows that much of the progress made by legal desegregation was lost after court orders were lifted, and stu- dents of color increasingly face “double segregation” in racially iso- lated schools with high poverty concentrations.

There is so much work still to be done on the first level of integration, addressing disparities among schools, that it is easy to forget about the next frontier: addressing within-school segregation. Schools that look integrated from the outside based on aggregate demographics may be sharply segregated when you look at the classrooms, see who takes part in academic enrichment or support programs, or count the students that are not in the classroom because they have been suspended or expelled.

Remedying this internal segregation in schools and classrooms requires first identifying and understanding the problem. Adding to work on this front from scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings and Jeannie Oakes, R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at The City College of New York, makes an important contribution with his new book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources and Suburban School-ing (Stanford Univ. Press, 2014, 232 pp.). The book provides a case study of the ways in which classrooms, schools and districts create unequal pathways to resources for families of different racial backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. While the study is small-scale, focused on three fourth-grade classrooms in two schools in a single Midwestern district, the patterns and pitfalls Lewis-McCoy uncovers are no doubt common in many locations across the country. The book is a worthwhile read for researchers, stakeholders and activists, who should reflect on ways that other districts may share some of these dynamics of inequality.

A District Divided
Inequality in the Promised Land profiles an unidentified Midwestern suburban school district that Lewis-McCoy dubs Rolling Acres Public Schools. (Individual schools and interview subjects in the book are also given pseudonyms to preserve anonymity.) Rolling Acres has a reputation as a good school district, garnering national academic and extracurricular accolades. It is the kind of school district that families with means flock to when choosing where to live. The district spends more than $10,000 per pupil each year, and just 20% of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. The largest racial/ethnic group in the district is white students, at 50% of the student population. Black students are the second largest group, at 15%. (Lewis-McCoy does not provide district-wide demographic data for other racial/ethnic groups.)

Over the past 60 years, the district went through a number of legal challenges and reforms to address de facto racial segregation of schools. The attitude of most white residents in the district, however, is that their schools are now well integrated. As one interviewee put it, “Our [Rolling Acres’] children are in the same classrooms.

Children in the same classrooms have the same opportunity to learn” (p. 28). Most black families, on the other hand, saw things differently. One middle-class black parent explained why her family chose to send their children to private schools instead of the generally well-regarded public schools. In Rolling Acres Public Schools, she declared, “there’s two systems. It’s an apartheid system” (p. 140).

“Same opportunity” or “an apartheid system”? Lewis-McCoy examines the relationships among students, families, teachers, administrators and politicians that yield such different views of the same school district. And from the picture that Lewis-McCoy paints, it is not at all the case that Rolling Acres children are in the same classrooms with the same opportunities. While elementary school classrooms in the district are not systematically segregated by race or class, and there is no ability tracking at that level, students’ opportunities varied according to their backgrounds.

Lewis-McCoy writes that “race and class are conjoined twins in a process of inequality production” in Rolling Acres (p. 172). The effects of race and class showed up in small and large ways in the district. Standardized test scores showed persistent race- and class-based achievement gaps. But most important, Lewis-McCoy argues, are the “gaps in everyday schooling experiences” (p. xi).

Three students who failed to get reading logs signed by parents received different responses and consequences from the same teacher, depending on her assessment of their socioeconomic status and home environment, and whether the families were “legitimately” or “illegitimately” busy. A middle-class black student received free breakfast because school staff mistakenly identify him for the program based on race. All students brought home optional forms soliciting parent input on classroom assignments for the next year, but affluent white families were most likely to return the forms.

In one classroom, some of the black families were missing from the parent-run email listserv. Black students were also overrepresented in special education and were more likely to spend considerable portions of their day in separate classrooms for pull-out services. The cumulative effects of these differences created stratified educational opportunities and outcomes for students.

A number of racial and socioeconomic dynamics contributed to these differences in schooling experiences. Middle-class and affluent families hired housekeepers and babysitters to allow them to rearrange schedules in order to take advantage of parent volunteer opportunities and afford time to sort through information about school and extracurricular offerings. And affluent families often held out the threat of exiting the public school system as leverage for getting their child into a particular classroom or program. Social networks were also crucial pathways for finding out information about school opportunities, and these networks were highly stratified by race and class.
For example, parents in an affluent, mostly white subdivision circulated a petition to keep their children out of the classroom of an African-American teacher with a bad reputation, while families in other neighborhoods—and a multiethnic family within the subdivision—were left unaware of these efforts. Middle-class and affluent white parents were often able to act as “consumers,” customizing education for their children through frequent feedback and requests, while most black families, including some who were middle-class, were pushed into the roles of “beneficiaries,” with little influence in their children’s schooling.

Affluent white parents were most likely to write letters to the editor, spark local news stories, or advocate for policy changes with school board members. And while some affluent black families would have been well-positioned to contribute to this discussion, Rolling Acres Public Schools’ mixed record of providing strong educational opportunities for black students created a vicious downward cycle that marginalized black voices. Concern about the public schools caused many black middle-class and affluent families to choose private, parochial or charter schools.

As a result, the voices of the black middle class were largely absent from advocacy for the traditional district schools.

Where they were present, middle-class black voices were less effective when advocates did not themselves have children enrolled in the public schools. As a result, pro- grams targeting disadvantaged students seldom garnered much polit cal support in Rolling Acres.

Halley Potter ( is a Fellow at The Century Foundation.

Barbara Sizemore: Problems with Standardized Tests

Barbara Sizemore Talks About Racism within Standardized Tests

More Barbara Sizemore...

Barbara Sizemore: Segregated vs. Integrated

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

SLAVERY BOOK REVIEW: "The Half Has Never Been Told"

A Brutal Process

'The Half Has Never Been Told,' by Edward E. Baptist

The auction of a baby, from a slave narrative published in 1849.
For residents of the world’s pre-­eminent capitalist nation, American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States. This situation was exacerbated in the 1970s, when economic history began to migrate from history to economics departments, where it too often became an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data to plug into computerized models of the economy. Recently, however, the history of American capitalism has emerged as a thriving cottage industry. This new work portrays capitalism not as a given (something that “came in the first ships,” as the historian Carl Degler once wrote) but as a system that developed over time, has been constantly evolving and penetrates all aspects of society.

Slavery plays a crucial role in this literature. For decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction before the Civil War (a conflict that was therefore unnecessary). Recently, historians like Sven Beckert, Robin Blackburn and Walter Johnson have emphasized that cotton, the raw material of the early Industrial Revolution, was by far the most important commodity in 19th-century international trade and that capital accumulated through slave labor flowed into the coffers of Northern and British bankers, merchants and manufacturers. And far from being economically backward, slave owners pioneered advances in modern accounting and finance.

Edward E. Baptist situates “The Half Has Never Been Told” squarely within this context. Baptist, who teaches at Cornell University, is the author of a well-­regarded study of slavery in Florida. Now he expands his purview to the entire cotton kingdom, the heartland of 19th-­century American slavery. (Unfortunately, slavery in the Upper South, where cotton was not an economic staple, is barely discussed, even though as late as 1860 more slaves lived in Virginia than any other state.) In keeping with the approach of the new historians of capitalism, the book covers a great deal of ground — not only economic enterprise but religion, ideas of masculinity and gender, and national and Southern politics. Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development.

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system. After the legal importation of slaves from outside the country ended in 1808, the spread of slavery into the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico would not have been possible without the enormous uprooting of people from Maryland and Virginia. Almost one million slaves, Baptist estimates, were transported to the cotton fields from the Upper South in the decades before the Civil War.

The domestic slave trade was highly organized and economically efficient, relying on such modern technologies as the steamboat, railroad and telegraph. For African-Americans, its results were devastating. Since buyers preferred young workers “with no attachments,” the separation of husbands from wives and parents from children was intrinsic to its operation, not, as many historians have claimed, a regrettable side effect. Baptist shows how slaves struggled to recreate a sense of community in the face of this disaster.

The sellers of slaves, Baptist insists, were not generally paternalistic owners who fell on hard times and parted reluctantly with members of their metaphorical plantation “families,” but entrepreneurs who knew an opportunity for gain when they saw one. As for the slave traders — the middlemen — they excelled at maximizing profits. They not only emphasized the labor abilities of those for sale (reinforced by humiliating public inspections of their bodies), but appealed to buyers’ salacious fantasies. In the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in slave-trade notices to describe young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness. “Slavery’s frontier,” Baptist writes, “was a white man’s sexual playground.”

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal. Violence against Native Americans who originally owned the land, competing imperial powers like Spain and Britain and slave rebels solidified American control of the Gulf states. Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. 

In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose. He relates how in the 1830s Southern banks developed new financial instruments, bonds with slaves as collateral, that enabled planters to borrow enormous amounts of money to acquire new land, and how lawmakers backed these bonds with the state’s credit. A speculative bubble ensued, and when it collapsed, taxpayers were left to foot the bill. But rather than bailing out Northern and European bondholders, several states simply defaulted on their debts. Many planters fled with their slaves to Texas, until 1845 an independent republic, to avoid creditors. “Honor,” a key element in Southern notions of masculinity, went only so far.

By the 1850s, prosperity returned to the cotton economy, and planters had no difficulty obtaining loans in financial markets. As the railroad opened new areas to cultivation and cotton output soared, slave owners saw themselves as a modern, successful part of the world capitalist economy. They claimed the right to bring their slaves into all the nation’s territories, and indeed into free states. These demands aroused intense opposition in the North, leading to Lincoln’s election, secession and civil war.

Baptist clearly hopes his findings will reach a readership beyond academe — a worthy ambition. 

He pursues this goal, however, in ways that sometimes undermine the book’s coherence. The chapter titles, which refer to parts of the body, often have little connection to the content that follows. Presumably to avoid sounding academic, he sprinkles the text with anachronistic colloquialisms (“the president was all in” is how he describes Franklin Pierce’s embrace of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854) and with telegraphic sentences more appropriate for Twitter. 

Occasionally, he deploys four-letter words that cannot be reproduced in these pages. This is unnecessary — his story does not require additional shock value.

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.


Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
By Edward E. Baptist
Illustrated. 498 pp. Basic Books. $35.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Vladimir de Jesus, a community college student, dreams of becoming an art teacher. But after first enrolling at LaGuardia Community College in 2008, he’s still working toward his degree.
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On a Friday afternoon last spring, Dennis D’Amelio, an artist and teacher in late middle age was presiding over a class in color theory atLaGuardia Community College, whose location in the immigrant hub of western Queens makes it one of the most ethnically diverse colleges in the country. It was the end of the semester and the students were tackling a challenging assignment — a test of the reactive properties of color, which required the meticulous rendering of small sequential blocks of paint, an exercise that would serve as a lesson in deductive reasoning and consume hours.
Vladimir de Jesus, a child of Puerto Rican parentage and Soviet enthusiasms, had arrived early with various supplies and considerable energy. At 23, he had been at LaGuardia sporadically over six years, amassing fewer than half of the credits he needed to progress to a four-year college.
For all of that time, and really for so long before it, he had known that he wanted to pursue a life in the arts. In an essay he wrote in March, he talked about painting and drawing pastels as a young boy, and the link that art provided to his mother, who had also painted and who died in the early 1990s of AIDS, a disease that also claimed his younger sister.
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Degrees and Difficulty
Articles in this series will look at the obstacles confronting LaGuardia Community College's 50,000 students, most of them low-income.
After the deaths, the family moved to Puerto Rico, living for several years in cars or in shelters, before returning to New York, where Mr. de Jesus attended Washington Irving High School, which has a long record of dismal performance. He eventually dropped out and earned an equivalency diploma.
Mr. de Jesus is tall, with an angular face and long hair he often wears in braids, and much of his skin is covered in tattoos — of Che Guevara and roses and the words of Bob Marley.
“All I cared about was art and global history,” he told me one afternoon in the apartment he shares with his father and stepmother in subsidized housing on Roosevelt Island. “I was really rebellious, and I was cutting classes all the time.” At 17, he had a child.
As a community college student, Mr. de Jesus is both prototype and outlier. The majority of community college students come from low-income families, and many arrive at school, as he did, with competing obligations (29 percent of community college students in the United States are parents), as well as the need for extensive remediation. The widely held impression that community colleges are essentially vocational is inaccurate. Data released by the American Association of Community Colleges in September indicated that most of the associate degrees awarded in 2012 were given in the liberal arts and sciences, outnumbering those for nursing, say, or marketing.
In recent years, mounting concerns about inequality have fixated on the need for greater economic diversity at elite colleges, but the interest has tended to obscure the fact that the vast majority of high school students — including the wealthiest — will never go to Stanford or the University of Chicago or Yale. Even if each of U.S. News and World Report’s 25 top-ranked universities committed to turning over all of its spots to poor students, the effort would serve fewer than 218,000 of them. Community colleges have 7.7 million students enrolled, 45 percent of all undergraduates in the country.
Vladimir de Jesus started studying at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens, in 2008. Although he has a high GPA, Mr. de Jesus, 23, an artist, has fewer than half the credits he needs to transfer to a four-year program.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
LaGuardia was founded in 1971 out of the struggles for a more egalitarian world that had characterized the previous decade. At any time, it has approximately 50,000 students from 150 countries who among them speak 129 languages. In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio chose the college as the site of his first State of the City address. Gail O. Mellow, the president of LaGuardia and a community college graduate who went on to get her doctorate, has been an entrepreneurial and enlightened leader, forging relationships with Goldman Sachs, for instance, and the Japanese government. The school recently won a $2.9 million grant from the United States Department of Education for a proposal to enhance student engagement; it was one of 24 colleges to be awarded money, in a competition that drew 500 applicants.
And still its challenges, like those of nearly every other community college, can appear insurmountable. More than 70 percent of LaGuardia students come from families with incomes of less than $25,000 a year. The college reports that 70 percent of its full-time students who graduated after six years transferred to four-year colleges, compared with just 18 percent nationally, but only a quarter of LaGuardia students received an associate degree within six years.
Over the past decade, while the amount of money going to community college students in the form of federal Pell grants has risen significantly, financing for the colleges themselves, which rely to a great extent on government appropriations and foundation grants, has risen only modestly. In 2010, Congress rejected plans for an $8.8 billion aid package that would have been directed toward helping community colleges raise graduation rates.
Among individual donors, community colleges ignite little charitable impulse. An endowment fund begun at LaGuardia in 2003 has raised $11 million, of which $8 million has been spent. To put those sums in perspective, Prep for Prep, the organization started in the 1970s to help channel bright, disadvantaged New York City children into top private schools and ultimately the Ivy League, raised $3 million on a single night in June when it held its annual gala.
Disturbed by the grievous imbalances in higher education, Dr. Mellow has written and spoken frequently about the problems that community colleges face. As she and others have repeatedly pointed out, although community colleges serve the most vulnerable students in the country, private research colleges spend three times as much per student as community colleges do. Community colleges represent the only sector in higher education where over the past five years, revenues per student have actually declined when adjusted for inflation.
The hallways of LaGuardia Community College are crowded with students in the mornings.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
Vladimir de Jesus started taking classes at LaGuardia in September 2008 but left after his first semester. When he returned to the college in the fall of 2012, he had already declared a major in fine arts, with the goal of transferring to Hunter College to earn a bachelor’s degree and, eventually, getting a master’s and teaching studio art and art history. From a certain vantage point on Roosevelt Island he can see Hunter across the river on Manhattan’s East Side. But getting there has proved more difficult than he had envisioned.
I first met him late last winter in an English composition class taught by Noam Scheindlin, a young scholar of Proust and Georges Perec who displayed a dazzling talent for making complex literary ideas relevant to students’ lives. Mr. Scheindlin will be eligible for tenure in two years, which makes him unusual at LaGuardia, where only 39 percent of the classes are taught by instructors who are full-time members of the faculty.
In Mr. Scheindlin’s class, many of the students were foreign born, having come from Ecuador, Yemen, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan. Almost all struggled with aspects of vocabulary (words including “stable” and “infelicitous”) or analyzing texts. One morning, during a discussion of a Julio Cort├ízar short story that centered on the idea of a narrator, a young woman paused to ask, “When it’s not true, it’s fiction, right?”
Mr. de Jesus began the winter semester auspiciously; he received an A for an early personal essay. In addition to his English and art classes, he was taking a remedial course, Math 96, which is algebra-based and focuses on linear and quadratic equations.
Passing this class, which teaches math that most affluent children study in eighth or ninth grade, is required for graduation and the ascent to four-year programs. But at community colleges across the country, the basic math requirement has been a notorious hindrance to advancement. More than 60 percent of all students entering community colleges must take what are called developmental math courses, according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, but more than 70 percent of those students never complete the classes, leaving them unable to obtain their degrees.
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LaGuardia Community College
30TH ST.
Mr. de Jesus was taking Math 96 for the third time last spring, having failed it twice. On one attempt he had fallen short by just a few points on the final exam; on another, he did not bother to show up for the exam at all because he was already failing. But in math, too, he had started the spring semester well, with grades in the 80s and 90s on the initial exams, his professor, Yelba Gutierrez, an adjunct at the time, told me.
When Mr. de Jesus came to school, he was present and engaged. In his English class, he typically offered observations that were sharper than those of the other students. But as the semester wore on, he had trouble getting to his classes on time — or at all.
In this habit, he was like many others. “You’ll see them come the first few weeks and then they disappear,” Ms. Gutierrez said. One morning in May, 10 of 28 students in her class were absent. One woman who had come explained that she hadn’t completed a particular assignment because in addition to school, she had a full-time job and slept only four hours a night.
Among community college students, work and child rearing present the biggest barriers to consistent attendance. Relative to their peers, LaGuardia students face some of the longest commuting times in the country. Mr. Scheindlin’s class, for example, met twice a week at 9:15 a.m., and on some of those mornings Mr. de Jesus had to take his 6-year-old daughter, Svetlana, to school, traveling from Roosevelt Island to the Tremont section of the Bronx by way of the F and D trains and then the B42 bus, before he could get to LaGuardia’s campus, more than an hour away.
In March, he suffered further distraction when he learned that two close childhood friends had been shot in a house in Pennsylvania, in a drug-related crime. “That really put me in a depression,” Mr. de Jesus told me a few months later. “They were my homies and I loved them so much. Wrong is wrong but they were supporting their families. They messed up their lives and they couldn’t get good-paying jobs.”
Mr. de Jesus playing with Svetlana, his daughter, on Roosevelt Island before bringing her back to her mother’s house in the Bronx. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
On some occasions, Mr. de Jesus didn’t make it to class, he told me, because of flare-ups from the ulcers that had afflicted him for a few years and, he said, had caused him to be hospitalized at 21 and lose 30 pounds. He attributed his illness to the constant anxiety he felt about money and life. In addition to caring for Svetlana, he worked when he could as a freelance tattoo artist, though the money was uncertain.
“In a week you can make $500 or no hundred dollars,” he said. In a good month he might make about $700. Although he receives financial aid, he is responsible for a portion of his tuition (which for a degree student is approximately $4,500 a year) as well as his daughter’s fees at a Catholic school. He also gives his father $200 a month toward household expenses. Not much is left. “You don’t just want to waste all of your money on transportation and food,” Mr. de Jesus said. “You want to buy a shirt. You want to pay your phone bill.”
When Mr. de Jesus told his father that he was going to have a baby with his high school girlfriend, the announcement was not met favorably. “I was against him having children at such a young age,” Frank de Jesus, a former tool and die maker and bus driver told me one afternoon as he sat in his living room, where a wall of bookshelves included the works of Wilhelm Reich, Friedrich Engels and at least 14 volumes of Joseph Stalin’s writing. “I thought his life would be ruined. I didn’t make it difficult for them to stay together but I didn’t make it easy,” he said of his son’s relationship. The couple broke up not long after Svetlana was born; Vladimir shares custody of his daughter.
Named for Lenin, the younger Mr. de Jesus did not grow up in a house distinguished by an impoverishment of words; education was paramount. As a young man, Frank de Jesus had wanted to be a doctor. His mother was a teacher and his father was a waiter at the Carlyle Hotel. A rejection from the Bronx High School of Science was dispiriting, Mr. de Jesus told me, but he went on to take classes at Columbia University and the City College of New York before falling away, into the political movements of the late 1960s when he joined the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican civil rights group, in East Harlem.
He read mightily to his children — “The Hobbit,” works of Taoism — and his son has taken the same approach with Svetlana, accompanying her frequently to Barnes & Noble. One day when I was visiting the family, she emerged from her room, pulled the Bible off the shelf, sat on the floor of the living room and began reading it.
Mr. de Jesus in the halls of LaGuardia Community College. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
There are times when regardless of personal circumstance, parenthood can feel like a series of quotidian decisions that amount to a crude choice between your own success and the sparkling future you wish for your child. In a sense, any time someone in Mr. de Jesus’ position sits down with his child to help her understand addition, for instance, he is neglecting the work that will, in his own life, propel him forward.
Unlike the students at private universities, who are offered an array of supports — academic, social, psychological — community college students rarely get the help they need from their chronically underfunded institutions. Many students come to community college struggling with how to navigate bureaucracies, and battling issues with executive function and time management. They arrive, in effect, having little understanding of how to be students.
“People will say, ‘How come these kids can’t get their act together?’ ” Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told me. “And part of it is structural, obviously, the result of growing up in chaotic environments.” A recent examination of studies on student support services conducted by the center showed that students given individual “coaches” for two semesters or more — coaches who actively helped them address various challenges in their lives while keeping watch on their academic performance — were more likely to remain in college and finish.
Toward the end of last semester, Mr. de Jesus had fallen behind on his math homework. There were domestic complications: the death of his grandfather, and the stresses of a college student’s typically strained romantic life. At one point he lost the lab work that he had done in class, which would make up 5 percent of his total grade. Not having a computer of his own, he had been checking laptops in and out of the library. In the process of returning one, he had left the lab work behind. When he went back to retrieve the papers, they were gone.
The final exam for Math 96 would make up 35 percent of the total grade, and as the day of the test approached, Mr. de Jesus knew that with the demerits he would face for his poor attendance and his unfinished homework, there was little chance he would pass. On the morning of the exam, he didn’t show up, and he failed the class for the third time. As it happened, more than 40 percent of the students in the class also failed.
Clockwise: The atrium of the college’s E Building; a display for the Chinese Student Club in the M Building; Mr. de Jesus during a philosophy class, which is one of his favorite; taking notes on Plato. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
“This whole thing with math just hits your spirit in the wrong way,” Mr. de Jesus remarked recently. “It demolishes your spirit. You become lazy.”
When I conveyed his sentiment to Dr. Mellow, LaGuardia’s president, she agreed and praised his wording. Dr. Mellow stands on one side of an intense debate among educators about the necessity of algebra for students who do not plan to pursue concentrated study in math- or science-related fields.
“I once got a note from a student who said, ‘This developmental algebra is a stainless-steel wall and there’s no way up it, around it or under it,’ ” she told me in her office one afternoon recently.
What makes algebra so hard for community college students? One factor is that many have been taught so poorly before they arrive. They have developed a debilitating reliance on calculators, Abderrazak I. Belkharraz, the chairman of the LaGuardia math department, told me, “for things as simple as what is the cosine of pi over two.” And the pedagogy tends to focus on computation rather than the underlying concepts, leaving the practice of math to seem far removed from the students’ experiences.
A few years ago, the Carnegie Foundation decided to tackle the algebra problem, believing that if developmental math were reconceived, the overall effect on graduation rates could be tremendous. The foundation devised two curriculums, one in quantitative reasoning and another that was more statistics-based; both were aimed at imparting the kind of mathematical knowledge more useful to students in their daily lives. “You want to be able to understand risk. If you smoke, what is the probability of getting cancer?” Dr. Mellow explained. “If you have unprotected sex, what are the chances of getting pregnant?”
An endowment fund begun in 2003 at LaGuardia Community College has raised $11 million, of which $8 million has been spent.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
LaGuardia is one of more than 20 colleges around the country experimenting with these curriculums. Nationally, the program is in its third year and the results have been impressive, with students passing the classes at a much higher rate than students who took the standard, algebraically based remedial math courses.
To move on to Hunter, Mr. de Jesus needs to accumulate 60 credits, in addition to passing Math 96, a course that confers no credit. In his six semesters at LaGuardia, he has acquired 27 credits.
In the spring, he decided that he would not take algebra again this fall and would instead postpone it for a time when he could focus on it exclusively. He ended the term with an A-minus in art and a C in English. Mr. Scheindlin said that when the papers in English composition became more research-intensive, Mr. de Jesus seemed to produce them hastily. “Here’s a very, very intelligent student, with an intelligence of the best kind, an intelligence guided by an intuitive sense of how to make connections,” Mr. Scheindlin said. “There’s no question in my mind that had he had the time to do the work, he would have written really wonderful work.”
Over the spring, Mr. de Jesus looked for additional work in art galleries in Manhattan and Brooklyn to supplement his income, but he had not found anything and he remained conflicted about the wisdom of taking a full-time job. “If I had a regular job I’d have such a hard time staying in school,” he explained one afternoon over the summer. “I see people leave all the time for jobs that pay $15 an hour.”
When he first started at LaGuardia in 2008, he worked at a clothing store, the Children’s Place, while attending classes and helping to care for his infant daughter. But the schedule became too overwhelming, and he dropped out that December. It took him four years to return.

During his time at LaGuardia, Mr. de Jesus has been particularly moved by his art teacher, Mr. D’Amelio, who inspires his students to believe that art is not inimical to making a living and that a career born of passion is not simply a right of the privileged. Twice over the past few months Mr. de Jesus has shown his paintings at a gallery on Roosevelt Island. In February his work was selected for inclusion in an exhibition at LaGuardia about race in the 20th century.
This semester he is taking a class in the philosophy of art and another in design. He began the fall term with a 3.49 G.P.A., but he has been unable to shake his despondency. His worries about money have escalated to the point that he has recently begun to think about a job with the Sanitation Department.
“I don’t just want to be in school. I want to learn in school,” he said. “I know that I can pass these classes, but my mind is always elsewhere. I’m thinking all the time of the future, the future, the future, but I’m stuck here in this present.”