By Guest Contributor Tressie McMillan Cottom, cross-posted from TressieMC
When Suzy Lee Weiss wrote her now infamous, high profile screed about how diversity initiatives in college admissions unfairly penalize white middle class kids who don’t have the good fortune of gay moms, Indian headresses, or African poverty, I condemned the Wall Street Journal for running it.
My thinking is that permanent records of our intellectual and emotional development should not be used as fodder for pushing an editorial agenda of a for-profit company. I sincerely hope Suzy Lee Weiss comes to understand why Indian headdresses, queer parents, and geopolitics that reduce a continent and a people to poverty porn are not useful tools in presenting one’s self as educated or human. Thus, my critique focused on the cynical editorial decision to profit from her while ultimately, implicitly betting that she’ll be at 30 who she is at 18. The Wall Street Journal did not leave a lot of public room for Suzy to grow.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I stood up and cheered after reading the Colorlines story about Aamira Fetuga. Aamira is an eight year old in Tennessee, where legislation to tie welfare subsidies to school performance and attendance had passed committees in both the House and the Senate. I thought this was one of the most draconian, punitive pieces of legislation since the Black Codes. It sought to do nothing less than construct compulsory schooling as a legal weapon against poor parents (something I have talked about before). In organizational theory we caution bureaucracies from making costly rules to outlaw something that happens so rarely as to be a non-issue. In the Tennessee law, an entire legislative system was being brought to bear on a statistical minority: willful, ignorant parents who don’t care if their kids go to school. It’s the flip side of the “welfare queen.” The problem with both is that it is impossible to apply such laws to the mythical outliers without also punishing parents who cannot make PTA meetings because they work shift labor without sick or vacation leave. One person’s “welfare queen” is another person’s grandmother caring for the children of her children, who are trapped in segmented labor, an ineffective health system with a chronic disease, or a victim of crime and violence.
No matter how you looked at it, the law was absolutely using children to further a political goal.
Aamira Fetuga was just such a child and she resisted. She followed the legislators around asking the tough questions many adults, like myself, only asked while sitting on our duffs. And she seemed to have made an impact.
What is the difference between Aamira being used in a political battle and Suzy being featured in a media war for page views?
I would argue there’s a lot.
Suzy Lee Weiss was trafficking in snark for no other discernible purpose but to self-aggrandize her fait accompli and to mock what many in the culture wars feel are the sacred cows of “political correctness.” She is not arguing for any real change that does not amount to “look at me.” Not that I would consider it valid, but even an argument for a more transparent application of admissions discretion that takes into account economic diversity or some such position would have moved her argument from snark to critique. As it stands, the point was to poke liberals, throw some red meat to Wall Street Journal readers, and put her name in the paper. It worked.
In contrast, Aamira is participating in a basic democratic process. That we construct lobbying as the vehicle for the wealthy says more about us than it does about the activity itself. Lobbying used to be thought of as participatory democracy. Demanding that your elected leaders be held accountable to your interests is, ideally, part of our messy republic. That a child should participate only violates an arbitrary convention about age of consent, not a real law or social more. In fact, what Aamira was doing has a long history. When the Civil Rights Movement launched the Children’s Crusade it did so knowing full well the social conventions of “childhood” as protected and precious. The point of engaging children was to draw a stark contrast between the construction of white children as valuable and black children as animals, unworthy of social protection or rights.
The proposed law in Tennessee sought to do the same: make poor (mostly black and brown) children dehumanized fodder for political points. Aamira showed up, a living, breathing real child to draw into stark relief the difference between how the law would construct her and who she is in actuality.
That strikes me as fundamentally different than what Suzy Weiss did. Aamira’s is an act of supreme democracy. It deflects attention from herself to draw attention to larger issues of representation, equality, and social welfare. It made no one any money and to the extent that Aamira becomes a media darling, it will be an indirect consequence and not the raison d’être.
IF you have a problem with Aamira being “used” in this way, then you must also have a problem with punitive laws that first used Aamira as cultural bait, political capital, and social scapegoat.
When you draw children into the war, don’t be mad when they show up ready to fight.
Rock on, Aamira. You shame me and inspire me. And I am riding for you.