November 14, 2007

Paging Dr. Putnam! Paging Dr. Putnam!

A year ago, prominent Harvard political scientist Robert D. "Bowling Alone" Putnam let slip that according to a massive survey of American communities he had completed 5 years before:

In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.

He told Financial Times columnist John Lloyd: "“Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, ‘the most diverse human habitation in human history.’”

Apparently wishing to validate Dr. Putnam's finding, a parents' school advisory board in LA has been putting on a clinic in diverse distrust:

Discord roils L.A. Unified parent panel: Acrimony with racial overtones has plagued the advisory council. The key issue: whether meetings in Spanish should be allowed.

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 10, 2007
For months, parents on a Los Angeles Unified School District advisory council have disagreed over whether their meetings should be conducted in Spanish or English. Such arguments became so abusive that district officials canceled meetings for two months and brought in dispute-resolution specialists and mental-health counselors.

But Friday morning's gathering of the District Advisory Council proved dysfunctional in any language.

By one vote, parents censured their own chairman for alleged bad behavior, leading to a walkout of most Spanish-speakers. The rebuked chairman, Roberto Fonseca, followed them out of the room. Most voting for the censure were African American, adding racial overtones to the back-and-forth hectoring.

Friday's dispute, at the district's downtown Parent Community Services Branch, was the latest in a year of acrimony at the council, which was elected by parents at schools throughout the district. They offer advice on -- and oversight of -- the expenditure of $385 million on federally funded programs for students from poor families.

The goings-on raise another round of questions about parent participation in the nation's second-largest school system, which has been repeatedly criticized by auditors for inconsistent and ineffective parent involvement and outreach. Critics say the district rarely seeks true parental input and instead uses parents to rubber-stamp budgets and programs. District officials insist they are determined to change this perception and are making progress.

Friday's chaos had been building since February, when Fonseca, who is bilingual, started to give his chairman's report in Spanish. Some in the audience objected; arguments and recriminations ensued, and school police rushed over amid concerns that a fistfight would break out, witnesses said.

Police have been present ever since, and on Friday, they escorted several parents outside for what one administrator termed a "timeout."

After the February dispute over language, the district canceled March and April meetings, using the time to develop a Code of Civility, which reads almost like the rules in some classrooms: "Treat one another with respect, without ridicule or criticism. . . . Listen attentively while others are speaking. . . . Under no circumstances, threaten or engage in any verbal or physical attack on another individual."

There was some resistance to this code, because parents had not approved it themselves, district staff said.

When meetings resumed, parents set up a bylaws subcommittee to take on language and other matters. The current bylaws stipulate that parent meetings across the district must be held in English. A school-district lawyer, however, concluded that this rule is illegal and impractical. Many parents serving on local school councils don't speak English. Some meetings consist entirely of Spanish-speakers in a district where more than 266,000 students (and probably many more parents) are English-learners out of a student population of about 694,000.

The bylaws committee never completed its full review but had tentatively decided to leave the English rule in place. District staff, in turn, notified schools and offices that the English rule would not be enforced.

When participants on the advisory council aren't at odds, meetings can be a model of bilingualism. When someone speaks in Spanish, English speakers put translation headsets to their ears and vice versa. And many Latino participants do speak English. The council united to oppose a recent cut in district translation services, a position that Fonseca politely announced to the Board of Education.

Latinos appear to hold the majority of council seats, although African Americans are well represented. A handful of seats are occupied by people of other ethnicities. The council has 63 members, but it will have more than 100 after local elections are complete.

Some observers have described the battle over language as a stand-in for a larger dispute. Federal Title 1 funding started during the civil rights era largely as a mechanism to help impoverished blacks who occupied vast swaths of South Los Angeles. The federal money has yet to eliminate low-academic achievement among African Americans.

But Latinos now have larger numbers in many formerly black-majority schools. And Latino parents are not content to oversee only those funds set aside for English-learners -- these are generally much smaller pots of money than the federal poverty-relief dollars.

Still, the mini-wars at the advisory committee may have more to do with difficult personalities and in-room ethnic tensions than citywide racial politics or competition over resources, others said.

Fonseca, in particular, has been a polarizing figure, although on Friday he kept his cool initially, when a black woman walked up to the podium and shouted in his face: "You are totally out of order!"

Later, though, on one motion, an impatient Fonseca tried to shut down public comment. "I will not allow members of the public to speak," he said.

Chris Downing, an administrator with the parent branch, intervened, as he frequently has: "The chairperson does not have the right to violate the law." Downing then turned to the unruly audience: "Raise your hand if you want to have a nice calm meeting. . . . Take a deep breath."

Later, Fonseca ruled that a two-thirds vote would be needed to censure him. The district's lawyer, John Walsh, disagreed, but Fonseca spoke out again and again: "Two-thirds! Two-thirds! Two-thirds!"

The resolution stated in part that Fonseca "recognized only those who upheld his views and denied the opposition the right to speak."

Those who walked out included Guadalupe Aguiar, one of the parents who felt that Fonseca was treated unfairly, especially because Friday was the last meeting before new elections. She added that she considers it racist when parents are told that, in America, they have to speak English.

In some respects, though, Aguiar spoke for a clear majority of parents.

"I am here to bring information to my school," she said in Spanish. "So far, I have not brought anything. It was the same thing last year and the year before. . . . Your children are failing just as mine are."

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

5 comments:

bj_double said...

English-learners is such an optimistic euphemism.

kill me now said...

"when Fonseca, who is bilingual, started to give his chairman's report in Spanish. Some in the audience objected..."

"Later, though, on one motion, an impatient Fonseca tried to shut down public comment. "I will not allow members of the public to speak," he said."

"Later, Fonseca ruled that a two-thirds vote would be needed to censure him. The district's lawyer, John Walsh, disagreed, but Fonseca spoke out again and again: "Two-thirds! Two-thirds! Two-thirds!"

This is a textbook case of the Petty People with Power Syndrome. I won't make the racist comment that Fonseca runs things like any other Latin American dictator, oops. I'm laughing and crying simultaneously.

This guy is not one of a kind. I'm starting to get flashbacks of a 1000 page + history text about frequent assassinations of Latin America leaders who are replaced by guys who think and act just like the guy they knocked off to gain power. That and one about Salvador Allende are blended together in my memory like a stream of consciousness novel. I'm sure to have dreams of Castro, Vicente Fox and Alberto Gonzales tonight.

How many decades before the Reconquista is complete? Any room left in Canada?

Why God Why said...

Those who walked out included Guadalupe Aguiar, one of the parents who felt that Fonseca was treated unfairly, especially because Friday was the last meeting before new elections. She added that she considers it racist when parents are told that, in America, they have to speak English.

Yeah, what the hell, eh? Don't these stupid mayates realize that Spanish is the language of America?

David said...

But I thought diversity was our greatest strength.

Evil Neocon said...

This brings in intriguing questions of political power.

Historically, Democrats have gotten votes out of Blacks, various interest groups (feminists, gays, etc.) and unions which historically have been white (and now trend mostly Mexican). This has been the Democratic Alliance since 1968 or so, repudiating the old New Deal alliance which centered on the Unions and then moved outward. In other words Dems became Yuppies shopping at Trader Joes and listening to NPR in their upscale Volvos or BMWs. "Reagan Democrats" i.e. white union members who had it up to here with Yuppie Dems were the first to defect.

Can Republicans pick up Black voters to threaten control of parts of the South? It's clear that Dems have the lock on white yuppie voters. But as Blacks are more threatened by Hispanic advances which will marginalize them and eliminate the usual route for upward mobility (government patronage jobs, Affirmative Action, etc.) can they be picked up by the GOP? Possibly. Republicans are certainly trying (Lynn Swann, Michael Steele). And Dems are waving the bloody shirt (Jena 6, etc.) to enforce racial solidarity with Dems.

What if a conservative Republican stumped for votes on the open platform of faction-alliances between working class whites (mostly union members), Blacks, and Law-and-Order culturally conservative people? Explicitly promising to preserve Black political patronage in government and Affirmative Action at the expense of Latinos? Depending on the area and the degree of threat, he just might win. I certainly expect it places like Atlanta, or Dallas, or even Charleston where such a hypothetical candidate could point out that yuppie whites will inevitably replace the Black population with a Mexican one. Call it "Son of George Wallace." Little known is the second career of the segregationist who after being shot underwent a religious experience and openly campaigned on a working white-Black alliance.