Last night my colleague, Tara Timberman, texted me, telling me to go to CNN and watch Jeremiah Wright’s speech at the NAACP. I’m glad I did. The speech is excellent—a multimodal text that yokes together cultural critique, linguistics, learning theory, music theory, and classification theory. (The coverage of the speech as it was re-aired on CNN was atrocious. CNN cut away to commercial, it seemed, at exactly the points in the speech where cohesion was an asset, where cutting and distraction took away from the overall effect and affect. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez was horrific, doltish, a deer caught in headlights, clearly unsure of how to respond to the speech’s academic grounding, and pedantically labeling the speech at one point "entertaining" as he jumped over the text and language and ideas to tautological discussions of the effects on Obama’s campaign.)
Below in three parts is the speech, uploaded to YouTube by someone who was recording their TV via video camera. The part that most interests me about the speech is this:
In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient. Christians saw Jews as being deficient. Catholics saw Protestants as being deficient. Presbyterians saw Pentecostals as being deficient.
Folks who like to holler in worship saw folk who like to be quiet as deficient. And vice versa.
Whites saw black as being deficient. It was none other than Rudyard Kipling who saw the "White Man’s Burden" as a mandate to lift brown, black, yellow people up to the level of white people as if whites were the norm and black, brown and yellow people were abnormal subspecies on a lower level or deficient.
Europeans saw Africans as deficient. Lovers of George Friedrich Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart saw lovers of B.B. King and Frankie Beverly and Maze as deficient. Lovers of Marian Anderson saw lovers of Lady Day and Anita Baker as deficient. Lovers of European cantatas—Comfort ye in the glory, the glory of the Lord—Lovers of European cantatas saw lovers of common meter—I love the Lord, He heard my cry — they saw them as deficient.
In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as being deficient. We established arbitrary norms and then determined that anybody not like us was abnormal. But a change is coming because we no longer see others who are different as being deficient. We just see them as different. Over the past 50 years, thanks to the scholarship of dozens of expert in many different disciplines, we have come to see just how skewed, prejudiced and dangerous our miseducation has been.
Miseducation. Miseducation incidentally is not a Jeremiah Wright term. It’s a word coined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson over 80 years ago. Sounds like he talked a hate speech, doesn’t it? Now, analyze that. Two brilliant scholars and two beautiful sisters, both of whom hail from Detroit in the fields of education and linguistics, Dr. Janice Hale right here at Wayne State University, founder of the Institute for the study of the African-American child. and Dr. Geneva Smitherman formerly of Wayne State University now at Michigan State University in Lansing. Hail in education and Smitherman in linguistics. Both demonstrated 40 years ago that different does not mean deficient. Somebody is going to miss that.
Turn to your neighbor and say different does not mean deficient. It simply means different. In fact, Dr. Janice Hale was the first writer whom I read who used that phrase. Different does not mean deficient. Different is not synonymous with deficient. It was in Dr. Hale’s first book, "Black Children their Roots, Culture and Learning Style." Is Dr. Hale here tonight? We owe her a debt of gratitude. Dr. Hale showed us that in comparing African-American children and European-American children in the field of education, we were comparing apples and rocks.
And in so doing, we kept coming up with meaningless labels like EMH, educable mentally handicapped, TMH, trainable mentally handicapped, ADD, attention deficit disorder.
And we were coming up with more meaningless solutions like reading, writing and Ritalin.
Here, Wright is touching on the the primary tenants of classification theory: that how we classify structures how we compose and act in the worlds around us. Bowker and Star (1999) in their important book, Sorting Things Out, define "classification is a spatial, temporal, or spacio-temporal segmentation of the world. A "classification system" is a set of boxes (metaphorical or literal) into which things can be put to then do some kind of work—bureaucratic or knowledge production" (p. 10). Wright’s list of perceived deficiencies of the Other and his discussion of US education pedagogy showcases real-world examples of how our perceptions of the Other shapes now only how we view them, but the policies we create. Labels such as EMH, and diseases such as ADD, are social constructs, boxes in which we locate those who do not conform to some pre-set standard that is often based on faulty, if not overtly racist, classist, ageist, and sexist assumptions.
In Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact Fleck (1939) points out that classification studies are studies in the history of ideas (facts are ideas). His unit of analysis is the concept of syphilis—a term for an illness that is essentially a socially constructed idea that has evolved over time. Similar studies have looked at the social construction of HIV/AIDS. The US is currently engaged in discussions of the concept of marriage. Wright’s attempt to redefine as "different" how we interact with those once perceived as "deficient" is significant because he is asking us to embrace each other by embracing our differences—and differences historically situated are not classifications.