Bringing the Iraq and Afghan Wars Home

to Latino and African American Communities

By José Ramon Sánchez (April 7, 2013)


The Iraq and Afghan wars reintroduced the use of torture to extract information from captives as well as the use of drones and other new technologies of surveillance and attack. The Obama Administration has done less of the former and more of the latter. But largely missed in discussions of these issues is the extent to which these new technologies, even torture to some extent, have become an increasing part of the government’s efforts to control minority communities inside the U.S. In more ways than we care to see, the lessons of war in Iraq are being imported back into the U.S.


The Iraq and Afghan wars had a tremendous impact on political policy. The first very important reason is that those wars exposed the deep ironic vulnerability of the U.S., as the world’s only superpower. Terrorist enemies can skirt around the superpower’s vast and deep capabilities and often flummox its efforts to dominate. Terrorists have always operated in an uneven, asymmetrical, and unorthodox terrain. They wear no uniforms, have no standing armies or clear command structures, and can be found anywhere. They are also now globally dispersed and armed with conventional weapons.


Terrorists can also make themselves formidable opponents by simply making use of the technologies developed by the Superpower. They easily armed themselves with modern technologies like computers and cell phones in order to coordinate and send destruction almost anywhere. All of this blunts the effectiveness of the U.S.’s mighty armed forces as well as limits the usefulness of its expensive and deadly weapons. Modern terrorists have exposed the loneSuperpower’s Achilles’ heel and compelled their determined political leaders to turn to unlawful and, largely, unproductive strategies to diminish the terrorist advantage.


Second, the reality is that the “war on terror” is not really a war and cannot be settled by the use of overwhelming force. Terrorist movements can last forever and can impose a great cost to the blood and treasure of the superpower. They spring, for the most part, from the weakness of a population that views itself colonized and suppressed. For these reasons, the U.S. has resorted increasingly to technological methods of combat. Since these methods are supposedly cheaper and don’t endanger American troops, they can, theoretically, also be used forever.


The third and most important contribution from the Iraq and Afghan wars is the policy of pre-emption. The U.S. launched its war against Iraq because it claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But the Bush Administration actually lied and manipulated the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, and the American people into believing this charge was true. It did so primarily because the Bush Administration was flooded with a group of war minded ideologues called the Neo-Cons (Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and others). This bunch had pushed a plan since the early 1990s totopple Saddam as part of a grand strategy to reshape the politics of the Middle East. The philosophical and political principle behind this strategy was called “preemption.”


All three of these products of the Iraq and Afghan wars are becoming increasingly evident in the strategies now being used to contain minority communities within U.S. cities and to “close the borders” to Latino migrants. The strategies for fighting and containing terrorist threats now being used inside the U.S. has incurred opposition from both the right and the left. Most of these concerns have been over the threats to freedom posed by these strategies. But there are other, equally important, reasons to be concerned. Though it is not yet fully apparent, I believe that very similar strategies are also being deployed today in efforts to control racial minorities in the U.S.


Superpower’s Ironic Vulnerability


U.S. political leaders should have learned what al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden learned from the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Big superpowers have a very difficult time stopping and containing guerilla and terrorist movements, especially on their home turf and in rugged terrain. The Soviets learned it the hard way by suffering defeat at the hands of tribal and rebel opposition in their disastrous nine-year war in Afghanistan. The U.S. should have learned it too since it helped to defeat the Soviets by arming the rebels, including Osama Bin Laden. The Bush administration compounded the problem.


Osama explained how easy it was for al Qaeda to use the 9/11 attack to “provoke” the Bush “administration and to drag it [to us]” to fight a “war of attrition” and “to make America bleed profusely.” Thus, the evidence suggests very strongly that the attack of 9/11 was launched as part of al Qaeda’s plan to lure the U.S. to fight a major war in the Middle East against terrorists. They believed that such a war would give al Qaeda an advantage, weaken the U.S., and eventually cause the U.S. to collapse because the war would be too costly, in blood and treasure, to the U.S. They were not far wrong.


Similar field-leveling conditions now exist in the U.S. with regards to border security. The boundary with Mexico has always been porous, but more so since the creation of NAFTA. The North American Free Trade Agreement opened up the borders between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada beginning in 1994. But it did so primarily for goods and capital. That policy, however, severely disrupted Mexico’s economy. The result is that Mexicans and other Central Americans uprooted from the countryside by new foreign investments and the collapse of the peasant economy have had few options but to try their luck in the U.S. The addition of the drug trade and its concomitant violence simply accelerated theforced migration process.


These efforts to close the borders, however, have produced no real results. Only the 2008 economic recession in the U.S. put any dent in the flow of people across the border. That migration has proven as impossible to contain as the terrorist uprising in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the solutions have, as a result, become very similar. Militarizing the border, new surveillance technologies, electrified fences, and physical barriers have all been deployed along the Mexican border. They have not contained the migration but they have caused death and hardship to many migrants. But, perhaps, the biggest similarity is in the use of detention facilities to remove migrants from society while the government decides what to do with them.


Like the thousands of “unlawful enemy combatants” held hostage in U.S. bases like Guantanamo, these “illegal aliens” are mostly Latino, not criminals, and held hostage in numerous federal detention facilities all around the country without judicial processing, often for years. Recent reports indicate that these migrants have also been subject to torture. Large numbers of migrants have often been placed in solitary confinement for weeks and months at a time. As a result, between 2003 and 2012, 110 migrants died while held in U.S. detention centers.


In Iraq, the U.S. government resorted to private corporate security forces, not subject to legal and government oversight, to provide security, services, as well as to protect high value locations and individuals. One of the biggest beneficiaries of these government contracts was Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and subsidiary corporations. These companies fed at the federal government trough with inflated contracts, performed poorly, and were found to be largely rotting from corruption on the inside.


The U.S. has similarly “outsourced” the detention of undocumented Latinos and others to private contractors. These private corporations enter into agreements with local and state governments who provide the prison space. The local community usually enters into these agreements seeking to remedy local economic problems. They see these prisons as an opportunity to make “money for nothing.” But the reality is that the corporation has little financial risk and usually makes enormous profits from the ill-equipped and badly maintained immigrant detention facilities they operate.


Hard to Control the Insurgents


Clearly, racial and ethnic minorities do not pose any serious threat to destroy or weaken the U.S. the way radical Islamic insurgents or terrorists do. But one major similarity includes the fact that the U.S. could not control the Iraq insurgency with brute force. Brute force actually fueled the insurgency. Similarly, stronger border enforcement did not end the migration of Latinos across those borders. In fact, the U.S. continues to fuel that migration by disrupting the economies and the politics of Latin American nations as well as by demanding the cheap and disposable labor those Latinos provide toAmerican industries.


There are some additional contemporary political and economic realities in the U.S. that create a potential for future radicalization and a threat to the perceived sense of security among some sectors of this society. Many economists have argued that the current economic reality appears to be a permanent rather than a typical cyclical downturn. This has made the growing economic inequality and persistent poverty in the U.S. also seem permanent and hard to eradicate. This potential for a revolt fueled by both growing inequality and racism has encouraged many urban police forces to develop harsh, desperate, and paranoid policies for policing minority communities.


Whether or not economic decline produces unrest is, perhaps, not as important as the belief that it will. Many policy experts have been predicting just that for a number of years. Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, for instance, predicted that sooner or later there would be serious “social unrest from the income disparities in the U.S.” Newsweek reported that, in response to the economic decline and inequality, Americans were beginning to show not just “sadness and frustration, but also an inchoate rage.” Even Moody, the financial corporation, made global predictions that “future tax rises and spending cuts could trigger social unrest in a range of countries from the developing to the developed world.” And the U.S. War College issued a policy paper in 2008warning that the emerging “unforeseen economic collapse,” could lead to “domestic resistance” and the “loss of functioning political and legal order” producing “widespread civil violence.”


Thus, rising inequality in the U.S., continued forced migration from Latin America, fear of minority unrest in the U.S., as well as the need by U.S. police forces to justify their budgets in a time of cutbacks have all created a ramped up effort to try to contain minority communities in the U.S. with radical new military technologies. That these efforts, like those against insurgents in Iraq, will ultimately prove fruitless also seems to be understood to some extent. Witness the crass title of one Economist article on this issue. In September of 2011, The Economist titled an article on drug related violence and migration in Mexico as “Herding Cockroaches.”


Focus on Pre-emption Rather than Justice


We appear to be in the midst of a structural economic adjustment that will likely mean an even greater and permanent decline in middle class jobs and incomes. This can only make matters worse for African American and Latino communities that are already disproportionately locked into the bottom rungs of this society and who expect to be denied any real upward movement.


The persistence of the prison-industrial complex means that police forces around the country are motivated to continue to churn out arrests and prisoners to satisfy economic and political needs of non-minority communities. Thus, witness the widespread use of “stop and frisk” methods of policing that research shows results in the arrest of a very small number of offenders. In recent courtroom testimony, one policeman testified that the New York City police“were expected to issue 20 summons and make one arrest per month.”The presumption of guilt and the use of pre-fabricated arrest policies harassed and essentially paint minority communities as criminal.


Police commissioners and mayors, like those in New York City, suggest that these pre-emptive tactics are what continue to keep their cities relatively crime free. They are not, apparently, aware of the bitter irony of their claims. New York City had the lowest murder rate in thirty years! No one knows quite why crime has dropped since it has also gone down in other cities where NYPD policies are not followed. But at a time of dramatic declines in crime, the NYPD is ramping up the use of more intrusive and murderous police strategies.


Thus, the NYPD continues to use suspect and unconstitutional policies like stop and frisk as well as biometric screening. Stop and frisk policies often produces fractious confrontations with innocent young African American and Latino young men and women as well as unnecessary police shootings. The criminalization of entire communities is exactly what the Iraqi people suffered at the hands of U.S. soldiers during the war.


Examples or this criminalization abound. New York City police have turned to stalking minority “troubled youths” on Facebook. They began to use face-recognition technology in 2012 to pre-empt crime. They are following young African American and Latino youth on Facebook and on the streets before they become offenders. The police spend countless hours “daily monitoring the teenagers’ chatter – alert for talk of fights, party plans and criminal activities.”


The New York City police have also introduced a citywide surveillance systemwith live video feeds and a huge database. They hope to be able to determine when “too many people congregate” so that the police can dispersed and intimidate them “simply by the risk of being identified – before dissent can coalesce.” Minority youth are also subject to police attention in the public schools, which have long been criminalized.


As investigative journalist Annette Fuentes argued, heightened security in these schools has come despite the fact that “school violence is not exploding.” The presence of police in schools along with weapons detectors and surveillance cameras do but one thing - deliver more minority youth to the prison industrial complex. And because minority communities are so highly criminalized and militarized, private corporations have been the main beneficiaries, profiting greatly by supplying the technologies placed in the schools and communities.


The shooting last week in Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York of a young African American teenager and the resulting riot demonstrated two main things. One is that the police are increasing threatened by communities that they fear and don’t understand. Like in Iraq, they will shoot first and ask questions later. Second is that these minority communities see themselves as an occupied people. They distrust and fear the police. And some like that teenager are maybe willing to take a stand and resist even against overwhelming odds.


It’s true that there have been no recent significant civil rights or social justice movements that spring from racial or ethnic minority communities. However, the Occupy Wall Street Movement as well as sporadic protest to police brutality around the country not only raise the concern of government authorities, but accelerate the use of Iraq war techniques and technologies. So, while the civil unrest remains just a potential right now, police and other authorities are gearing up for that potential by turning to the containment strategies learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those strategies are spilling into as well as being tested and utilized in minority communities.


Some of the newest products of the wars, like biometric screening, are just now being introduced into urban policing. But there is already some use in border security, which would impact greatly on Latinos. The police departments around the nation see such criminalization and technology strategies as practical attempts to contain crime and to justify the size of their budgets. The New York City Police Department, for example, has 6,000 fewer officers today than in 2001.


Some may argue that these developments in urban policing are simply the evolution of criminal justice technology. It may even just represent the tapping of a new market by venture capitalists. Some financial experts estimate that “the worldwide drone market could grow to $90 billion in the next decade.” These things are all true. But they don’t change the fact that there are deep parallels between the “war on terrorism” and the war on minority communities.


Now some will say that all of this is mere coincidence and they would be right, but only partially. Admittedly, no one can point to a big conspiracy behind these developments. What we do know is that the Iraq and Afghan wars have introduced new strategies and policies for handling threats to U.S. security. And now, these new methods and policies are flowing into the U.S. for political and financial reasons. As Latinos, we have to be aware of how these flows are directly impacting on Latino and other minority communities around the country.


Take a look at my article on this issue at this site

I am better off today because we no longer have a president who would launch us into unnecessary wars, eliminate what ever safety net still exists, and keep us in outdated and ineffective 20th century (energy, manufacturing, financial) policies. That being said, I am incredulous how many people who claim to believe in capitalism seem to think that the government has a bigger impact on their lives than capitalism has. Those of you who are unemployed or working for less than you were 4 years ago seem blind to the fact that corporations have a lot to do with that. Not only have corporations shipped a lot of your jobs overseas but in this recent economic recovery they have restarted production with a vastly shrunken workforce. They have eliminated more jobs by resorting to automation and computer software. They did not do this because of Obama. They did it because YOU cost too much. They did not want to pay your salaries, help you pay your mortgage, help you put your kids through school, or pay for your food. And they will continue to do this in the future.

All a president can do is to affect this process of economic structural change around the margins. Obama can make your standard of living better and a little cheaper by supporting education and maintaining a safety net to protect you when employers release you or drop your health care insurance. Romney will make it easier for employers to do what they are doing to ship jobs overseas, shrink their workforce, and make you absorb more of the costs of keeping you alive…even if you die doing it.

You decide what you prefer…a president who will provide you with some support to make it through this economic shift or a president who will provide corporate bosses with the support they want to make it more profitable for them to make it through this current economic shift.

Puerto Rican Googling

Posted: June 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

I used Google’s new search tool to see what it might reveal about national interest in Puerto Ricans and the major Parade that took place yesterday in New York City.  The parade has been controversial in the past because of random violent events.  This year, like in the past, many business along and near the parade route keep their businesses closed in anticipation of violent behavior.

The Google analysis shows, as expected, that the main interest in Puerto Ricans in the week leading up to the parade was from states with significant Puerto Rican populations.  This includes New York, New Jersey, and Florida.  I will probe this in some future post to see if there are any findings worth investigating further.

Recently, some commentators have mused about whether the U.S. would be better off with a queen or king.  These nostalgic murmurs were inspired by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth in England this week.  The Queen and her subjects are celebrating 60 years of rule.  Most of the talk has been about whether “Yanks” are “missing out royally without a queen“.

May 12, 1937.  Queen Elizabeth, second from left, and King George VI, second from right, are seen on the balcony of London’s Buckingham Palace following the coronation of King George VI.

What exactly does a queen or king do for a society besides rule?  In most cases, modern royalty don’t make many decisions.  They leave the day-to-day running of the state to elected government officials.  That is the case in England too.  The prime minister makes domestic and foreign policy.  And yet the Queen is still the head of state.

Her contribution goes beyond having her face and name on the nation’s currency, armed forces, and on the taxes levied and the laws written and passed by Parliament.  These are important symbols of her authority but they do not account for the most important function of royalty.  While many believe that the Queen’s most important role is to serve as a unifying force in England, I think it has to do with gathering power for the state.

While unifying the nation is an important role, most seem to forget  that queens and kings serve as heads of state.  What this means goes beyond holding a title.  A head of state has the awesome power to rightfully take life, liberty, and property.  That power has to come from somewhere.  Why would people willingly give the state that right to rule them?  Modern humans lived the majority of time on this earth (35-40,000 years) without needing a state.  It has only been in the last 5-6,000 years that humans began to accept the idea of Leviathan.  Traditionally, many have argued that royalty’s right to power and rule was granted to queens and kings by God.  The people needed to be ruled and God created royalty to do so.  Later, political theorists, like Locke and Hobbes, made the argument that states were created by a contract with the people in exchange for peace or property protection.  These make for a good stories and each story has been historically persuasive for many.  But these stories are also just not true.

What is true is that it is the people being ruled who give a queen or a king or a president the power to rule.  The state is a Leviathan as Thomas Hobbs once said, an artificial monster with enormous powers over its subjects.  And yet that power comes to the state from the subjects themselves.  We do so not through a contract.  We give the monster life.  Every minute and every single day, people give the state it’s power.  They do so by BELIEVING in this abstract body, by RESPECTING it, by giving it CREDIBILITY, and by OBEYING it.  This is, for the most part, not a conscious process.  In fact, it is better if it is not conscious.  Power flows a lot easier to the queen if subjects don’t have to plan or think about how they give the queen power.  The power to take their life, their liberty, or their property is easier to accept and to give to the queen when subjects do so because of habit, faith, or love.

The British continue to support the institution of the Royal Family because it serves the vital function of siphoning power from the people in a way that does not create waves or jeopardize the continuity of state power.  Unlike our president, who has to try to siphon power form the people while also governing them, the Queen’s job is much simpler.  She can simply draw upon the adoration and love the people have for her.  She never has to reject their pleas for help, impose burdensome new taxes, or pit one group against another.

As long as the people love the Queen, the British state can maintain a stable source of power for the Parliament and the Prime Minister to use in governing.  This is what makes the Queen so important to British politics and to the British people.  She represents a unique institution that solves in a gracious and effective manner the modern problem of how to gather power from the people into the state.  If that siphoning of power does not occur, the state cannot embody the power necessary to permit government to rule.

In the 1970s, many New York City officials advocated a policy of “planned shrinkage” for some city neighborhoods.  On May 6, The New York Times published a section about the existing and rising Powers of New York that included not a single Latino.  There is, I would argue, a connection between the planned shrinkage of many Latino neighborhoods more than 40 years ago and the dearth of recognizably powerful Latinos in the City today.

Back in the 70′s. NYC Housing Commissioner Roger Starr and others advocated withdrawing city services like fire and police from communities that were too poor and unnecessary for the city’s survival.  The idea was to protect cities during a fiscal crisis by withdrawing scarce resources from decaying neighborhoods and “undesirable populations.”  This policy of planned shrinkage caused the South Bronx and other poor communities to burn to the ground as a result, many have said.  The consequences for the Puerto Rican and Latino community were devastating.  Made homeless, jobless, and scattered from their homes, these communities quickly lost the fervent and militant core of community organizations and leadership that had existed there.  They also lost something less tangible – community knowledge and memory.

Many Puerto Ricans, pushed out of the Bronx, moved away to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida where they often tried to reassemble their lives and recover an economic, social, and political stability.  They were not always successful.  Was it perhaps because they took with them the knowledge of how to organize tenants, how to mobilize a neighborhood, and how to draw upon the resources made available by work and community that did not fit well with their new community?  They left behind, in the Bronx, the opportunity to build on the political and power achievements of the 1960s and early 1970s.  As a result, Puerto Ricans and, by extension, Latinos lost an opportunity to build on the foundation of power that had been created since the 1950s.

The “Planned Shrinkage” Legacy

The consequence is that today Latinos are an important demographic and economic force in the city, but largely devoid of political power.  There are many more Latino elected officials today than there were in the 1970s. Aside from the two Puerto Rican Congressional Representatives from New York, there are many more local Latino elected officials.  In the New York State Legislature, there are 6 Latino Senators and 14 Latino Assembly members. In New York City, Latinos hold 11 positions in the New York City Council (21.6%) and are 28.9% of the total population.

The Latino community has been shrunken, pushed, dismissed, and scattered.  People who are on their way out don’t get much attention.  This is as true of fired employees as of term-limited politicians and community groups.  Not only has the Latino population gone through a constant churning since the 1970s with new waves of Latino nationalities replacing earlier displaced Latino settlers, but also policy makers now expect, and probably look forward to, an overall shrinkage in the city’s Latino population.

Planners recently predicted fewer Latinos would live in New York City in the near future.  In 2006, demographers announced, “after 2010 more Hispanic people will be leaving New York than arriving.”  Despite this constant population churning and possible shrinkage, Latinos can point to many political achievements during the last 20 years. A Puerto Rican, Fernando Ferrer, ran for mayor in 2001.  For a brief period, Puerto Ricans chaired the Bronx Democratic County Committee.

These and other political achievements come with a caveat, however.  Not only have these positions not delivered power, but they have also been coupled with many corrupt Latino politicians, especially in the pivotal area of the Bronx.

‘splaining the Political Tragedy of the “Four Amigos”

There are many reasons for the lack of power and the prevalent corruption. We can point to the diversity of the Latino population in New York, to its relative youthfulness, and to its general poverty.  But I believe that the planned shrinkage, housing and residential devastation of the 1970s left a deep, unhealed gash on the ability of the Puerto Rican and Latino community to both build and capitalize on earlier political organizing achievements as well as to hold their elected officials accountable.

The best example of this complex and contradictory process is the strange story of a “gang” of mostly Puerto Rican elected officials, sometimes called the Four Amigos.  This small group made a dramatic and desperate, yet ultimately failed, attempt in 2009 to wrestle power for themselves if not for Latino New Yorkers.  Their efforts illustrates, more than anything, the increasing divide between Latino elected officials and an unorganized and fragmented Latino electorate.

The three Puerto Rican officials, Pedro Espada Jr., Hiram Monserrate, Ruben Diaz Sr., and non-Latino Carl Kruger had grand plans.  Their stated reason for rebelling was that Latino lawmakers needed a greater voice in government. “We have a black president, a black governor, and we have a concern that we have to be sharing power,” Mr. Díaz said at the time.

Now, three years later, Monserrate and Kruger are headed for jail, while Espada was just convicted for corruption.  Only Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, remains in office.  But the crafty coup they executed in an attempt to wrestle power from the State Senate blew up in their faces way before they found themselves in legal trouble.  What went wrong was not simply blowback from taking on the political establishment.

The main problem was that they had very little organized community support.  And they lacked the support of unions or party faithful while representing the poorest borough in the city.  There was nothing substantial standing behind their quixotic efforts or to protect them from the expected backlash.  In fact, they were opposed by some community organizations and constituents because they took positions that went against their community’s and the city’s interests.  This was particularly the case with their rejection of the Ravitch plan to increase bridge tolls to pay for mass transit increases.  They were essentially alone.

In fact, the Four Amigos had actually made a strategic decision to seek friends in the suburbs and among Republicans.  They must have decided that they could not find friends among fellow Democratic Party apparati or community organizations.  Nor could they find friends with any power within their communities.  So, they took a radical step into the foreign landscape of Republican and suburban political alliances.  They hoped such extraordinary alliances would deliver them the power they otherwise could not gather from their own communities or political party.

Each of the Amigos came into politics from outside the Democratic Party system and they had contentious relations to the party during their terms in office.  Diaz was a pastor when he entered the City Council in 2001.  Espada was the head of the Soundview Health Center when he was elected to the New York State Senate in 1993.  The Health Center served about 45,000 patients a year, including a computer literacy program and a senior lunch program.  Monserrate was a policeman before he got elected to The City Council in 2002.  And Carl Kruger was the only one with some party connections among the group of Amigos.  He was Assistant Director of Member Services for the New York State Assembly for a decade, as well as the Chairman of Brooklyn Community Board 18 before he became State Senator in 1994.

What makes the group stand out is not so much what they did before they came into office but rather their tenuous connection to the dominant Democratic Party in the City during their rise to and stay in office.  Each was essentially marginal to the Democratic political apparatus.  And though, each was able to garner enough public support to get elected, the support did not come with any stable or organized community, labor, and party organization.  Ultimately, this made them not only weak but also unaccountable to the public’s interest.

A Community Caught in Political Shrink Wrap

Why did Latino elected officials embark on such a risky and ambitious venture?  Again, the answer can be traced, in large part, to the planned shrinkage of Latino communities, especially in the Bronx.  This shrinkage depopulated neighborhoods, reduced population density, reduced the amount and quality of interactions between residents, and introduced the conservative influence of single and two-family home ownership to replace the burned down tenements.  The result was a Latino resident population with few longstanding ties to the community, with little community memory, with constantly shifting Latino national origins, and with increasingly conservative values drawn from homeownership.

The demographic changes caused by the planned shrinkage of so many Bronx communities are clear and striking when mapped.  This one section of the Bronx near Crotona Park was a typical densely populated block of tenements up till the mid 1960s (Below left).

In fact, “three thousand people lived in 51 apartment buildings on the two blocks at the center of the neighborhood. Today, only one of those buildings remains standing, No. 1500, built in 1915, at the corner of Boston Road and what was then Wilkins Avenue.”

By the 1980s, this same section was completely devastated of houses and population, as the map (Below right) shows.  The empty, rubble-strewn blocks that were left behind by the epidemic of fires attracted a lot of national and public attention.  Eventually, local and national political interests committed public resources to building private detached homes on those lots.  This deeply flawed urban policy brought suburbia to the Bronx, ignoring decades of urban planning principles as well as the desperate housing needs of city residents.

The result was a shrunken residential population, an unstable tenement population of tenants competing for scarce rental apartments, and an increasingly conservative Latino and African American population of homeowners.  The construction of single-family homes, like those at Charlotte Gardens, in the 1980s remade the political as well as the residential landscape for Latinos in this and other parts of the Bronx.

This aerial view (below left) of this area in the Bronx demonstrates the absurdity and dysfunction of this urban plan.  The remaining “New Hope Plaza at the corner has homes for some 100 people in 38 households (and three stores too), while the entire rest of the block has just 18 housing units, fewer than half the number in New Hope Plaza.”

There is no question that the shifting tides of incoming and outgoing Dominican, Honduran, Puerto Rican, and Mexican residents in this part of the Bronx bring hope and energy.  But the differences in citizenship status, immigration history, political focus, employment and economic status, as well as knowledge of the city between these different Latino groups are often too difficult to bridge.  The results are often a lack of real community cohesiveness and leadership that cannot overcome the structural damage done by planned shrinkage.  Thus, while Latinos have numbers on their side, they have very little else that can help deliver power.  We should no longer be surprised that the New York Times can published a list of powerful New Yorkers in May 2012 and not include a single Latino on that list.

I had no idea what to do with my life when I graduated from college so many years ago.  After some good and not so good jobs, I decided to become a college professor.  I considered and quickly rejected high school teaching.  I knew that high school teaching could be an incredible and wonderful experience. It was the teachers at one excellent public high school in Brooklyn that kept me from being one more Latino dropout.  As good as high school had been for me, though, I also found it lacking.  I did not know then that it was the desire to do research that drew me to college teaching.

Unfortunately, the role of research in college is increasingly under attack today.  College administrators, even in predominantly “teaching” institutions, demand that faculty produce more research and publications.  But they have also contaminated the environment for research.  Research is particularly threatened by, among other things, the hot, new national obsession called “outcomes assessment” or OA.

College administrators and outsiders dismiss faculty resistance to OA.  We appear to administrators as simply uncooperative and selfish.  In reality, we have a real and justified anxiety about OA.  Most of us believe that outcomes assessment will undermine if not destroy what Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust once called the transformative, yet “creative and unruly” process that is university learning and teaching.

If outcomes assessment meant only that we discuss, decide, and implement a more explicit plan of what we hope to accomplish in our courses and with our curriculum, there would be few complaints.  Unfortunately, outcomes assessment imposes a very large cost.  That cost includes the following:

  1. A blind and unfounded faith in “evidence based” analysis
  2. A distortion of the nature of learning.
  3. The loss of valuable research and teaching prep time
  4. A refusal to acknowledge the failure of OA in other countries

Ambiguity of Outcomes

Most people assume that empirical data is always more useful than intuitive knowledge. It’s not, especially when we do not have “good” data going in, “good” coming out, and unambiguous results.  The reality is we have none of those things with OA.  There are no measures of learning or outcomes that can avoid messy interpretation.

One does not have to be a post-modernist to accept the deeply relativist nature of all social science.  Peter Winch raised these unresolved questions about the inherently interpretative nature of social research as far back as 1958.  Data or statistical findings, Winch argued, “are not the ultimate court of appeal for the validity of sociological interpretations.” OA would have us believe otherwise.

Even economists, supposedly the most “scientific” social sciences, fail to unambiguously predict economic reality.  They could not predict the Great 2008 Recession.  As Noble Prize winner Paul Krugman explained “the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.”

Management studies have found that employee performance reviews, which are closer in form to learning assessment, are infused with subjective bias and ambiguous.  Thus, UCLA Management Professor Samuel A. Culbert argues that these ubiquitous workplace attempts to evaluate employees are actually “subjective evaluations that measure how “comfortable” a boss is with an employee, not how much an employee contributes to overall results.” Management evaluation research, thus, cannot overcome subjective bias despite having easily measured goals like productivity and profit.

Obviously, social research is not pointless.  It generates some truths.  Those truths require, however, the recognition that data has many different forms.  The key to squeezing what is usually a temporary small sliver of truth out of our peculiar professional obsession is to rely on peer interpretation and debate.  Measurement and data by itself offer no panacea.

Some supporters of OA, to their credit, have a sense of this.  Thus, they seek to create a “culture of assessment” wherein academic departments and divisions would devote considerable effort and time to continuous discussion and debate over their findings, working to improve curriculum and produce better learning.  The payoff from such debate will not be worth the effort, however.  The problem goes beyond the ambiguity of results.  The biggest problem is that OA purposely examines only a small portion of the learning environment.  The best illustration is the sports world.

Athletic competition produces clear outcomes and most of these outcomes depend on the learning of student athletes.  Or does it?  Is it fair to assume that a team or athlete failed to learn if they do not perform well in competition?  It may.  Has the coach failed them?  Perhaps.  In many cases, it may also be true that the coach has done an excellent job, employed productive and well conceived methods and techniques to train the athletes.

Putting aside the intrinsic differences between athletes, the reality is that athletes and teams can fail for many other, hard to pin down reasons for which the coach is not directly responsible. They can fail because they did not give their best effort, because they were distracted, because they were too preoccupied with personal problems, because they got anxious and “choked,” etc.

Football coach Bill Parcells understood that coaches are often unfairly blamed for failure.  He always asserted that since coaches are asked “to cook the dinner at least they should let you shop for the groceries,” meaning choose who to coach.  Any fair assessment of coaching and learning must recognize the roles played by students and by external factors.  Astute observations and intuition are the usual methods.  Anything more sophisticated is not worth the effort.  What happens on the playing field or the classroom is just too complicated and subject to multiple influences.

Distortion of Learning

Learning is not just about what a student got about the course material but how the material got them.  The best outcome is when an instructor sparks students to pursue knowledge themselves, exposes students to a world they did not imagine existed, helps them to use their eyes in different ways, exposes the deep ambiguity of that world, and yet sets them on a quest to change the world.  Doubt, in this sense, is as important an outcome as knowing.

If all that we aimed for were teaching what we already know, we would do our students and ourselves a grave disservice.  The wise, Socrates once said, are those who know how little they know.  Wisdom often means asking the right questions rather than thinking you have the “right” answers.  But you can’t assess questions.  OA threatens, then, to marginalize our primary responsibility as teachers – to invite and guide students into the unknown.

It’s difficult to know when we ever reach those goals, no matter what new assessment tool can be dreamed to measure it.  At best, the something extra that we seek to impart in our teaching involves our ability to get students to join us on a journey into the unknown.  That journey is really about research.

Students embrace and take a journey into the unknown at different stages of their college career.  It’s hard to predict when it is that students begin to “own” their thinking, when they awaken to the idea that they can generate rather than simply replicate existing knowledge.  But we do know that this does not happen without some contribution from faculty committed to lighting their fire and who are in a good position, because of their own research quest, to provide that fire.

The Threat to Research and Learning

Something has to give when heavy demands are placed on faculty to develop an “outcomes assessment culture.”  That something is the time to do research.  It has already happened to pre-college teachers.  They complain that the No Child Left Behind law’s exceedingly large demand on test scores has created a situation where the extra time necessary to prepare students for tests reduces the time available to teach.  One high school teacher stated “I have so many state standards I have to teach concept-wise, it takes time away from what I find most valuable, which is to have them inquire about the world.”

OA at the college level has not yet imposed test scores as a measure of student learning.  But it is already clear that the focus on “learning outcomes” and the time necessary to fulfill demands for measurements, rubrics, reports, loop backs, and curricular adjustments will consume more and more faculty time.  Studies show that over 70 percent of college faculty already work more than 40 hour a week, with a large portion working more than 70 hours.  OA will consume more of the little time the faculty has to conduct research.

Failure of Outcomes Assessment Practice

In places as far a field as South Africa and Australia, OA or Outcomes Based Education (OBE) has proven to be a controversial if not disastrous educational reform.  OA proponents here, however, have not learned anything from this dreadful foreign experience.

New Zealand dropped its OBE approach to education in 2007 after ten years of implementation.   OBE in New Zealand had promised but not delivered “a brave new world.” Papua New Guinea also experimented with OBE, primarily because of Australian influence.  Resistance soon emerged there too, primarily from educators who recognized very early that OA was a “dismal strategy.”

Australia tried OBE for 10 years in the pre-college levels.  Western Australia, in particular, encountered tremendous resistance from teachers, students, and parents leading to an educational “meltdown.”  Teachers, especially, found themselves “drowning under a deluge of convoluted documentation.”  Another commentator noted that, for Australian teachers, “OBE suffers from assessment overload.” As a result, the implementation of OBE actually “divided the educational community and destabilized education in Western Australia for well over a decade.”

OA also has several historical antecedents.  These efforts also failed.  The OA focus on efficiency and rational outcomes can be traced to the discredited time motion studies of Frederick Taylor.  Beginning in 1913, Taylor sought to eliminate wasted motions in the production process in hopes of increasing profit and presumably wages.  Taylorism did not just resemble OA, this method was directly applied to education in an attempt to mechanize and routinize teaching.  It was abandoned after almost two decades of wasted efforts and resources.

In the 1960s, behavioral methods were applied to education in an attempt to establish definitive behavioral objectives in the classroom.  Commentators pointed out that teachers and schools attempting to comply with the hundreds of behavioral objectives in the classroom found themselves “bogged down with such a load.”  Behavioral methods proved tremendously impractical, wasteful, and obtuse.


Why are college administrators so interested in force-feeding the faculty a radical new method that has not succeeded and that has actually proven disastrous elsewhere? Is it that college administrators cannot resist the corporatization of the university, driven perhaps by business minded trustees?  Outcomes assessment may be, in that sense, just a modern manifestation of Taylorism, an attempt to micro-manage the faculty on what is being increasingly defined as an educational assembly line.

But even if administrators have a simple well-intentioned interest in reform, their investment in OA demonstrates a vast misunderstanding of the mission and core values of the university.  Whether they are pushed by misinformed outsiders and trustees or are self-motivated, college administrators have not defended what they were hired to protect, manage, and expand.

The university is an ivory tower, an odd, yet enormously fertile place. Though the university may appear aloof, it is not just a smug, self-indulgent place. It is productive and creative.  The open and pure pursuit of knowledge in the university has led, according to most experts, to the generation of “more world-changing ideas than the competitive sphere of the marketplace.” Progress and development originates in the open and horizontal structures found in universities rather than in businesses.  But OA threatens to tear apart this non-commoditized source of economic, cultural, and social innovation.

The university’s open and unstructured culture is a virtue rather than a shortcoming. It should be enhanced rather than overturned.  The Harvard President and Historian, Drew Gilpin Faust understands this.  She explained the university as a place where the “search for meaning is a never-ending quest that is always interpreting, always interrupting and redefining the status quo, always looking, never content with what is found.”

The university’s core is unstructured, unsettled, dedicated to an open-ended quest for knowledge and meaning, enliven by doubt as much as fact, and committed to teaching others to take similar uncharted journeys into the unknown.  It does not fit OA’s measurements, rubrics, and standards.  Nor does OA fit the university.  Taken to it’s logical conclusion, OA will erode knowledge and learning by shrinking faculty’s ability to do research. What we need is a culture of learning, better yet, a culture of inquiry.  But inquiry, lying at the core of the university mission is, ironically and tragically, what does not fit into assessment rubrics.