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The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations … Through Mathematics Education
a young child looking into the camera with his head down on a desk.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations and Its Role in Maintaining White Supremacy Through Mathematics Education (An Excerpt)

Authored by: Laurie Rubel (City University of New York / University of Haifa) and Andrea V. McCloskey (Pennsylvania State University)

The phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was coined by President George W. Bush (3) in 2000 in a speech to the NAACP that marked the launching of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Bush asserted, “Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there’s racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten” (George W. Bush’s Speech to the NAACP, 2000). After promising that his administration would enforce civil rights, Bush announced that he would be confronting “another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations…” (George W. Bush’s Speech to the NAACP, 2000). He acknowledged that educational achievement gaps fall along socioeconomic and racial lines, but evaded discussing any systemic causes of these gaps.

Instead, Bush argued that it is these school achievement gaps that produce discrimination, as if their direction of causality pointed in only one direction. Through this logic, fundamental and underlying systemic inequities are overlooked by a focus that is limited to the outcomes of those inequities. Bush then offered a prelude to his vision for NCLB, as a great movement of education reform [that] has begun in this country built on clear principles: to raise the bar of standards, expect every child can learn; to give schools the flexibility to meet those standards; to measure progress and insist upon results; to blow the whistle on failure; to provide parents with options to increase their option, like charters and choice; and also remember the role of education is to leave no child behind. (George W. Bush’s Speech to the NAACP, 2000)

The NCLB Act passed in 2001 as federal legislation with broad, bipartisan support and heralded the current era of high-stakes accountability in education. Positioned as a way to identify teachers and schools “in need of improvement,” at its core is a vision about standardization of curriculum and assessment that requires districts to disaggregate and report testing data in terms of race and socioeconomic status. The logic of accountability is that educational equity and justice can be achieved by holding school districts accountable in this way, using performance as measured by standardized tests. Effectively, standardized test scores were legislated to be the most significant measure of learning. Differences between racial groups on those tests are viewed as products of ineffective schools or as evidence of low expectations of individual teachers—all forming “soft bigotry.” An essential problem with this orientation to education is that it sidesteps any discussion of broader, systemic, structural racism and thereby fails to acknowledge or address the role of white supremacy in US education systems. Beyond its fundamental role in the articulation of NCLB, the term “soft bigotry of low expectations” and its ideology continue to be at the heart of discourse about education and US schooling. We will show how this ideology is used by the American political far right and, perhaps surprisingly to some readers, by the political mainstream, as well as by mathematics education organizations. In all cases, as we will demonstrate, SBLE ideology is ultimately used to defend or maintain white supremacy in mathematics education.

SBLE and White Supremacists in the United States

As described above using the example of Rubel’s (2017) paper, recent scholarship that challenges the role of white supremacy in mathematics education has, at times, been met with intense backlash from the political far-right media and its white supremacist readership, as well as with violent, misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic personal attacks on the scholars themselves (Gutiérrez, 2017b, 2018). This accompanying violence attests to the deeply political and controversial debates around mathematics education and to the personal risks inherent in challenging the status quo. Our analysis reveals examples of how white nationalists use accusations of SBLE to defend white supremacy through two central tactics.


Tactic 1: The Racist Pot Uses SBLE to Call the Kettle Black

One way that white supremacists counter critiques of racism is through a tactic known as “blame-shifting.” This tactic is a self-defense maneuver in which white supremacists defend themselves against the charge of racism by shifting that charge onto the critique itself. Consider the example of the November 2017 attack on mathematics education scholar and activist Rochelle Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez (2017a) presented two ways in which school mathematics operates in US society as whiteness: (a) when the mathematics created by white people is the only mathematics that is taught in school and (b) when mathematics is used as a way to sort, filter, and judge people (see Gutiérrez, 2017b, 2018 for her analyses of this attack). One strategy used to attempt to delegitimize these arguments was to blame-shift by asserting that Gutiérrez’s resistance to white supremacy was itself racist and an example of SBLE. Figure 1 shows a representative example. Gutiérrez’s critique was that mathematics operates as whiteness in that only what is seen as European or White mathematics is valued and taught in schools, even though a myriad of cultures produced significant mathematics. Referencing SBLE here implies that Gutiérrez’s thesis of mathematics operating as whiteness instead underestimates Black students, lowers expectations in mathematics for them, and is an indicator of implicit, “soft” bigotries. Thus, a “reverse” charge of racism is used to redirect Gutiérrez’s critique of racism, a blame-shifting process that may represent an effort to distract many social media readers. Blame-shifting in general is a known manipulative psychological tactic that can evoke defensiveness or even a mistrust of one’s own intentions and judgment. (4) Consider the image selected to accompany the charge in Figure 1. In relationship to the text that accompanies it—the explicit deployment of SBLE in the context of a Twitter discussion about mathematics education in the United States—an image of cheerful Africans in ethnic dress, is placed inappropriately. The image at once evokes an array of negative stereotypes about African Americans and distances African Americans as others from an American belongingness; along with the accompanying charge of SBLE, the image of Black people who are smiling and cheering casts African Americans as somehow gleeful yet duped. As a rhetorical move, this blame-shifting is a dog whistle to other white supremacists, messaging that functions to stoke collective racial anxiety (Boyce, 2017). This kind of blame-shift maneuver, using accusations of SBLE, is used by white supremacists to stifle any attempts to redress past and current racism by asserting that the plea for justice is racist itself.

Click here to read the entire article. 

Excerpt Citations:

2 Dog-whistling is the practice of sending a message that takes on a different or additional meaning for a specific subgroup. Just as dogs can hear sounds at frequencies that humans cannot, the targeted subgroup is meant to hear something different in the message than other readers do.

3 Michael Gerson, Bush’s head speechwriter, is credited with penning phrases such as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “axis of evil.” He is also credited as having been highly influential in developing the direction of Bush’s policies in addition to their accompanying rhetoric. Gerson described the governance strategy of Bush’s administration as an “activist approach,” and described the No Child Left Behind initiative as activism focused “on minority education problems” (Baker, 2006).

 4 In the psychological literature, this is referred to as “defensive projection” (Newman, Duff, & Baumeister, 1997).



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