2013 Summer Reading
Faculty Readers Respond
A lot of the circumstances were similar for both Wes Moores: loving mothers; fathers not present from early on; emphasis on education; racialized constraints; an irascible sense of masculinity; volatile surroundings; second chances seized. Some circumstances were different, though: a nurturing older sister versus an angry older brother; redirection to a different neighborhood versus inertia in a familiar one; private school versus public school; wise mentors versus unhelpful role models; third chances seized versus blown.
What made the difference? There is a great debate taking place in American public life about this question. It is an old dispute that is as intense as ever now. One perspective emphasizes external, environmental, or structural factors (e.g., limited employment opportunities, inferior education, exposure to drugs). This includes "others' expectations," as Wes Moore avers from prison. "We will do," he declares, "what others expect of us." The other perspective focuses on internal, personal, moral qualities (e.g., free will, agency, character). We should seek "control," the author suggests" and not "shed responsibility." Personal choices matter.
Proponents of these two perspectives are at odds trying to answer the question so they can define important principles like justice, fairness, and merit. A lot is at stake, they feel. However, while each perspective offers some legitimate insight, neither provides a complete account.
I have come to think of the different structural probabilities we face like offerings on a menu. The harder the item is to read, due to the size, location, or faintness of the font, the harder the choice is to make. Taste, price, and familiarity surely affect one's consideration. You might be reminded of healthy alternatives very infrequently, know of no one who has actually ordered that low-cal vegetarian dish, or feel social pressure to pick the popular sugary choice.
One cannot control what options are available on a menu any more than an individual can determine an admission or unemployment rate. As constrained as we are by what is actually on the menu, though, we always have options.
The drive to examine all the selections thoroughly and make a wise choice, in my reckoning, is a matter of personal character. This is especially so if a particular item on the menu is difficult to comprehend, due perhaps to its being unfamiliar or illegible, which is to say it would be a very hard selection to make in life. I can choose to stay home and study, turn the other cheek, or ask for help. But in many circumstances, those may be extremely difficult decisions.
To make matters more complex, we are handed a particular menu when we are born and taught to read, and each time we make a choice it leads to the availability of a revised menu with new options. Life is contingent this way. Sometimes the updated menu presents more possibilities. Graduating from the Valley Forge Military Academy opened things up for the author. Other times a new menu is more constrained, as when the other Wes Moore left Northwood High. It is also the case that others may help or hinder each of us in reading the menu like, say, an older role model of some quality or another.
The odds of a black man from West Baltimore serving a life sentence for murder are above average, though his story is not typical of the life most people from that neighborhood will live. The odds of another black man from that setting becoming a Johns Hopkins graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated soldier, and a best-selling author are even more remote. Almost as slim as both of them being named Wes Moore!
As a sociologist, I regard the environmental conditions as fundamental. They constitute the terrain that shapes the journey of one’s life. But as a father, another important role in my life, I find the personal decisions pivotal. I hope my children will make wise choices in any context.
What's on your menu? What will you choose?
Kristie Ford, Director of Intercultural Studies, Director of the IGR Program, and Associate Professor of Sociology
Challenging Dichotomous Depictions of Blackness
Recently, a white colleague, friend, and ally, asked me how it feels to (often) be the only black woman in most faculty spaces where race-related discussions emerge at Skidmore College. I responded that unfortunately I am used to it, but that does not make the experience easier - particularly when feelings of either tokenization or alienation emerge.
My educational experiences have been shaped by the historically white institutions (HWIs) I have attended. As the "other" within these environments, stereotypes prevailed. Based on my skin color, I was presumed to be less capable and intelligent than my white counterparts. After continuously proving (and having to re-prove) this stereotype incorrect, I was then tokenized as the "exception rather than the rule." Strategically framing my educational success in this manner allowed my white teachers to preserve hegemonic narratives of black inferiority.
When reflecting on The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, these memories re-emerged for me, this time in relation to how the next generation of college students of various racial, national, and class identities might respond to it. As we institutionally work to pursue diversity initiatives on campus, how, for instance, might black men in the Class on 2017 feel as they read this book within a predominately white classroom? Or, International students from Europe, Asia, or Africa? Or, students from differing class backgrounds? Will students of varying social identities worry about how they might be "read" in raced, gendered, or classed ways by their peers or instructors? Will they feel tokenized? Included? Excluded? Is this a good way to honor the diversity of life experiences that students bring to Skidmore College? Or, could it (un)intentionally reinforce problematic messages about certain groups of people? What are the benefits of collectively reading this book as a cohort of first-year students? And, what are the potential identity-related costs?
The implicit dichotomous framing of one Wes Moore as "successful and accomplished" and another Wes Moore as "unsuccessful and tragic" bolster common stereotypes of black people in the United States as either the "exceptions" (Rhodes scholars) or "dangerous" (convicted criminals). While the first may seem to be positive, both categorizations reinforce stereotypic narratives of blackness - effectively "othering" blacks through a narrative of exceptionalism or a narrative of pathology. The former allows post-racial arguments to prevail; the latter demonizes blacks who do not seem to conform to U.S. hegemonic ideals of hard work and achievement.
Using this theme of "positive" / "negative" depictions of blackness in relation to the Obamas, in White Bound, Hughley (2012) writes the following: "At one moment Barack and Michelle were framed as powerful exceptions to blackness (when discourse turned to their supposed 'positive' traits that resembled an ideal whiteness), and at the next moment they were seen as unfortunate examples of a dangerous and deceitful racial group (when talk shifted to alleged 'negative' characteristics that threatened whiteness)" (p. 194). The contrast in the two Wes Moore stories similarly reinforces this binary construction of blackness - both within and across the lives of these two men.
As a sociologist, the fundamental component missing for me in this discussion about life circumstances and outcomes is the complicated relationship between agency and structure. In other words, are we autonomous individuals with free will; or, are we actors within a larger system that may limit individual choice; or, are these forces interrelated and informed with and by each other? The author, the afterword by Tavis Smiley, and many of the reviews that focus on the "inspiring" message of the book seem to privilege the element of agentic choice. But, how much choice do individuals have when operating within a system of constraint? While some could read this as an inspiring narrative of overcoming obstacles, others could read it as reflective of the bleak options experienced by many working class and poor families facing systemic raced and classed barriers (e.g., joblessness, under-employment, disproportionate incarceration rates, health disparities, educational inequities, etc.) that impede upward mobility.
In the end, what distinguishes one Wes Moore from the other - luck, choice, work ethic, community support, educational circumstances, access to particular programs or interventions, inequitable policies and practices, or other factors? While it is always refreshing to celebrate the "success" stories, unfortunately the principles of meritocracy do not prevail for many under-served youth, of all races, residing in under-resourced communities throughout the United States.
The “other Wes Moore” is in prison for robbery and murder. This would not surprise most Americans since studies have repeatedly shown that the American public associates African Americans with crime and violence (Pickett et al. 2012). Does it have this association because black Americans commit more crime than other Americans? Or is this racial bias based on long-standing prejudice and popular stereotypes?
Here is what we know from the FBI, which collects data on all criminal arrests nationally. In 2011, blacks represented 13% of Americans, but accounted for 28% of all arrests. They accounted for 38% of all violent crime arrests and 32% of all drug arrests (Sourcebook 2013). There are more black men incarcerated and on probation or parole today than were enslaved in 1850. They have a 1 in 3 lifetime likelihood of being sentenced to prison (Alexander 2010). But does this mean that African Americans disproportionately commit more crime or that police are more focused on arresting them? Well...both. (By the way, we often overlook the problem of men. Sociologists also study why men commit so much more crime than women, but that issue is for another day.)
The Problem of Urban Inequality. People who live in poor, urban neighborhoods characterized by high rates of unemployment and bad schools are more likely to commit crimes than people who live in wealthier neighborhoods with good schools. Because of the ongoing problem of residential segregation and urban poverty, African Americans are more likely to live in very poor neighborhoods. 34% of black children live below the poverty line compared with 14% of white children (Tonry 2011). Many current public policies and prejudice in the real estate market make it difficult for blacks to move away from such neighborhoods, perpetuating street crimes such as homicide, robbery, and drug sales (Massey and Denton 1993).
The Problem of Criminal Justice System Bias. Just as the American public associates black people with criminality, so do criminal justice professionals such as police, prosecutors and judges. There is tremendous discretion in the criminal justice system—for example, a police officer can choose whether or not to stop, search, and arrest someone—so more criminal justice resources are directed towards blacks and the system is less lenient towards them. This starts with youth. Black juveniles are more likely to be arrested and charged for the same behavior as whites. Once they have a record, they are even more likely to be charged or incarcerated. African Americans are more likely to be sentenced to prison and less likely to be sentenced to probation than whites who have been convicted of the same offenses. For those that are incarcerated for similar crimes, African Americans get longer sentences by at least a year (Hartney and Vuong 2009).
Most of racial disparity in incarceration can be traced to the War on Drugs. But this war is not fought fairly. The fight is on in poor, black neighborhoods, but not in white America, nor on college campuses, where drugs are clearly prevalent. Blacks are arrested for drug crimes at 3.5 times the rate of whites, but many studies have confirmed that both groups use and sell drugs at nearly identical rates (Tonry 2011).
The consequences of racial bias in the criminal justice system are exacerbated for families—children lose their fathers; for the economy—prisons are expensive and few businesses will hire people with a record; and for democracy—for example, enough black felons lost their right to vote to cause Al Gore to lose the 2000 presidential election to George Bush (Manza and Uggen 2006).
I teach a class called Correctional Rehabilitation and Offender Reentry (SW324) where students develop workshops for inmates at a local prison to learn about and discuss the challenges of incarceration and reintegration. Sign up!
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2012. Correctional Populations in the United States, 2011. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus11.pdf
Hartney, Christopher and Linh Vuong. 2009. Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. National Council on Crime and Delinquency. http://nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/created-equal.pdf
Manza, Jeff and Christopher Uggen. 2006. Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Pickett, Justin T., Ted Chiricos, Kristin M. Golden and Marc Gertz. 2012. “Reconsidering the Relationship Between Perceived Neighborhood Racial Composition and Whites' Perceptions of Victimization Risk: Do Racial Stereotypes Matter?Criminology 50:145-186.
Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. 2013. Arrests By Offense Charged, Age Group, and Race, United States. Table 4.10.2011. http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t4102011.pdf
Tonry, Michael. 2011. Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma. New York: Oxford University Press.
In "The Other Wes Moore," the author Wes Moore notes the drastic change in mindset he experienced while in military school, following five attempts to run away. Prior to being placed in military school by his concerned mother, Moore had been uncertain that he belonged at either his inner-city public school or at his prestigious private school. He had not yet developed an interest in academics and was potentially headed down a path parallel to that of the other Wes Moore. Mentorship during military school by Captain Ty Hill, arranged through Moore's mother, was the pivotal event that altered Moore's outlook on life: "[Military school] was a different psychological environment, where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns ostracized." By recognizing that he was in a novel environment where his past had little bearing on his present, by deducing how success was evaluated within the new environment, and with support from his mentor, his mother and others, Moore elected to change his mindset, ultimately paving his way to a successful future.
The power of mindset, studied for years within the discipline of psychology, has more recently entered the realm of neuroscience as its neurophysiological underpinnings are being uncovered. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Carol Dweck of StanfordUniversity designates two distinct types of mindset in relation to intelligence and learning abilities: fixed and growth. Upon facing their own mistakes or errors, those with fixed mindsets give up while those with growth mindsets use their errors to improve. In one of Dr. Dweck's fundamental studies, she tested the growth mindset hypothesis in children receiving instruction in a novel task. One group of children received instruction only, while the other group received instruction along with an article about the positive effect of effort on neuronal growth. The group that read the article favored a growth mindset and performed better at the task being evaluated.
In 2011, Dr. Yu-Hao Lee of Michigan State University expanded on Dr. Dweck's findings. Dr. Lee and colleagues used electrode headsets to measure event-related potentials, or cortical brain activity, while participants completed an online task structured with a simple set of rules that were designed to elicit errors. The researchers measured an event-related potential that peaks in activity after the participant recognizes their error. This peak is called the error-positivity potential. The results showed that the error-positivity potential was enhanced in participants who identified as having a growth mindset. Importantly, those participants also had a higher rate of accuracy post-error indicating that participants with a growth mindset learned from their mistakes.
Perhaps most significant to the idea of changing one's mindset is the elucidation of the brain region associated with generating the error-positivity potential. Neuroscientists believe the potential is generated in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region known for monitoring behavior and increasing control of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, in turn, functions in executive decision making, planning, and other complex cognitive behaviors including working towards a goal and predicting future outcomes.
Neuroscience research underlying mindset has led to an increased understanding of its neurophysiological mechanism while supporting the psychological notion that mindset is malleable. Our environment, experiences, influences and knowledge can induce a growth mindset, thereby altering future outcomes—a concept which can and should be immensely empowering. In describing the significance of his military school experience and his mentoring experience, the author Wes Moore provides a wonderful example of how adopting a growth mindset can lead to future success.
Though a memoir, The Other Wes Moore is of a piece with a long artistic tradition of fictional narratives that hinge on similarly-named or like-featured main characters. In the world of literature, we have Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, where the novel’s eventual outcome rests on the physical similarities between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. In music, we might consider that favorite children’s tune John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
To be clear, this memoir is no A Tale of Two Cities. The Other Wes Moore hardly measures up against Dickens’ deep appreciation for language and his novel’s capacity to set two similar things side by side for analytical effect. Nowhere in his meditations on how his life took a different (and better) turn than did the other Wes Moore’s does this author begin to plumb the depths as deeply as does Sydney Carton. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”
But, there is a bigger problem here, for this memoir is a book in search of an argument. As Moore acknowledges, the first question everyone who reads his book asks is “what made the difference,” and all Moore offers as an answer is “I don’t know.”
In fact, though, the book does seem to offer an answer, hidden here or there. Take the dedication of the book, for instance, where Moore acknowledges “the women who helped shape my journey to manhood.” Or, study the power of military life – “a code that would instill discipline, restrain passion, and order his steps” – on his journey. Finally, consider the observations Moore made in South Africa after witnessing the ceremony inducting a young boy into manhood: “He was now a man. His community welcomed him.”
Both the author and the other Wes Moore were born into lives disadvantaged by race and poverty, so those themes do not resonate here in analytical ways. Moore says as much. “No accident of birth – not being black or relatively poor, being from Baltimore or the Bronx or fatherless – would ever define or limit me.” What this is, then, is a narrative of the formation of a man and of personal character, which is, to be sure, an understudied and (arguably) undervalued virtue in the contemporary world. I do not think it is luck that sent one Wes Moore one direction and the other Wes Moore down a different path, and Wes Moore, I suspect, does not think so either.
Let me offer one line of inquiry as an example. Towards the end of the book, both Moore and Tavis Smiley make several quick references to divinity. In one, Moore leans on faith as he takes his first leap from a plane during his paratrooper training, and, in another, he notes that he has worshipped in Korea alongside other members of the world’s largest Christian congregation. Add to these references Smiley’s confidence that life is all about trying and then allowing God to “take care of the rest,” and Moore’s listing “my God and Creator” as the first name in his acknowledgements. “To Him goes all the glory.”
There is, you see, a line of religiosity running through our Wes Moore that is not acknowledged outright in the book and which seems to be unmatched in the other Wes Moore – at least until his post-conviction conversion to Islam. Might this have had something to do with the different outcomes? Might our Wes Moore have been more receptive to his particular journey because of the time he spent living with his maternal grandfather who was a minister? Might that background have rendered him more receptive to the military’s code of discipline, restraint, and order?
I am not suggesting that faith is the answer to the question of what made the difference, for we do not have, in this book, enough of the story of either Wes Moore to say for certain. But, what we do have is a story about the formation of character that begs us to reflect deeply on what social factors shape a person’s character, what virtues our society might value and, yes, even privilege, and what factors turn immature young men and women this way or that on the path of life. For ultimately, the two men at the core of this text do not share nearly as much as the advertising blitz around the book suggests. Yes, “his name is my name too,” but there is not much in a name here. What matters most is that one Wes Moore lives in, to quote Dickens, an “age of wisdom,” an “epoch of belief,” and a “season of light,” while the other seems to have given in to the temptations of “the age of foolishness,” “the epoch of incredulity,” and ‘the winter of despair.”
My first encounter with this book was when I heard an interview with the author on National Public Radio while driving home in my car. After listening to the interview I knew this was a book that I wanted to read for the simple reason that it started me thinking about all the people with the same name and the different paths that their lives may have taken. All you have to do is search for a friend on Facebook and you are quickly overwhelmed by how many people have the same name as that friend you are trying to get in touch with. Or if you are old school, look in the phonebook and you quickly realize how common your name is. Unfortunately, our names are not always as unique as we would like to believe; however, our lives tend to have a relative degree of uniqueness that makes how we experience the world and our journey in it different.
Even though the backdrop for the journey for both Wes Moores takes place in a challenging underserved and under resourced urban environment, this same story—of similar circumstances but two different fates--plays out all over the United States from the poorest of communities to the most affluent. Many of us are aware of dual Wes Moores who have had all the support and resources they need to live the “American Dream,” yet one goes on to be all he can be and the other ends up in jail or does not achieve a life commensurate with the opportunities given to him. Do the Wes Moores with resources have a better chance of being successful? Of course they do. Being in an environment where success is the expectation and is modeled on a daily basis is an advantage and a substantial factor in determining a positive future outcome, though it is not a guarantee. This plays out in the book: the author’s family endures great sacrifice to continue to provide him with the support and structure that the Wes Moore in jail never gets, but at every turn the author resists. He is given the opportunity to attend Riverdale Country School, a well-respected high school, and he performs poorly. He is sent to Valley Forge Military School and he tries to run away on several occasions. It ultimately takes the commitment of the village (the military academy and his mother) to create the tipping point for the author Wes Moore to start his journey to success. Without this intervention the two Wes Moores could have had similar lives.
The Other Wes More: One Name, Two Fates is an excellent choice as a first year reader because it will provide students with an opportunity to personally reflect on their journeys to Skidmore. What were the events, opportunities, personal and systematic interventions, and privileges that shaped them into who they are? That was my personal experience as I read the book. Even though we are decades apart in age, I travelled a similar path as the author Wes Moore during his time in the Bronx, New York. I lived about ten city blocks from where his grandparents lived (and still have a family home there), my family and I are from Jamaica so I know about West Indian rules, I played basketball on those same courts, and I encountered some characters very similar to those he talks about. The book made me pause to think about others like me who grew up in similar situations—those that “made it” and those that did not. This book reinforces for me why the work that I do in creating equity and access in higher education is important.
I hope this book will serve as a catalyst for our incoming students to create and shape “The Other Skidmore,” the Skidmore that lives up to the ideals of creating an environment where all students feel a part of the community, where differences are valued, and where the image of Skidmore reflects, respects, and celebrates the journey that every member of the student body, faculty, and staff took to arrive here. “We are all Skidmore.”
Defining and understanding the ways people differ from one another (particularly as differences pertain to adverse outcomes such as mental illness, criminal behavior, etc.) is largely the domain of my academic discipline, clinical psychology. Thus, I spent a lot of time considering the psychological differences between the two Wes Moores, and how such differences may help to explain these men's vastly different trajectories.
In particular, I was struck by the "other" Wes Moore's deficit in emotion regulation. Emotion regulation refers to the ability to monitor emotional experiences and respond to emotions in a way that is both flexible and socially appropriate. This skill allows us to listen thoughtfully to our bosses while being criticized, and to thank them for their constructive feedback (rather than react defensively and get ourselves fired). This is tremendously important in adult life, and difficulty with emotion regulation is associated with various negative social and mental health outcomes - not the least of which is criminal behavior. To be fair, most adolescents and young adults struggle with emotion regulation given that their social and neurological development is still unfolding. Yet the other Wes Moore was especially disadvantaged, as evidenced by stories in which he was unfazed by police presence while wielding a weapon towards a young man over a single punch, and later in his life opened fire in city streets following another fight. In fact, these stories capture the most common form of violent crime in the US; rather than premeditated acts, violent crime is more often triggered by someone doing something stupid, and is quickly escalated by impulsive responses and the presence of a weapon. Therefore, it is in high-crime neighborhoods in particular where the ability to override primal, emotional responses (e.g., the urge to retaliate) is so important. And yet, tragically, children with a history of trauma and living in high-crime neighborhoods tend to experience greater difficulty with emotion regulation, representing yet another way that many urban youth are disadvantaged. Emotion regulation represents the kind of psychological privilege that is not measured on an IQ test or on classroom exams. And yet the data roundly support that skills like emotion regulation play a tremendous role in determining a child's ability to achieve, both inside and outside the classroom.
Such skills are not immutable. From a psychologist's perspective this is, of course, encouraging. It suggests that interventions may be helpful, and in fact they are. Researchers whose focus is designing psychotherapy programs for children from high-risk backgrounds have demonstrated that interventions targeting skills like emotion regulation and parent-child communication effectively improve school performance and decrease criminal behavior. In terms of both finances and human lives, such interventions are well worth the initial cost. I hope that this wonderful book and its call to arms in the final pages help to inspire greater attention to the fact that these underprivileged communities are not without hope. There is a tremendous amount of good to be done at the intersection of psychological science and places like West Baltimore.
The Other Wes Moore provides an outstanding opportunity to test a multitude of theories useful in understanding aspects of human development. The narratives about these two men, who share the same name and similar beginnings, allow for the study of individuals situated in a realistic context of everyday struggle. They also offer insight for parents, as well as childhood professionals and practitioners.
Theoretical Foundations. Maturational theory holds that genetics and innate biological processes are responsible for much of development and would argue the genetics of these men determined their fate. Some developmental theorists recognize the influence of the environment on the child’s development. According to this view, the interactions with caregivers early on in these men’s lives impacted all other future relationships and experiences. Resolution, or continued struggle, at points of crisis in each Wes Moore’s life very well may have determined the manner in which these men matured emotionally, socially, and cognitively. Many developmental theorists would state that these men’s behaviors were reinforced by environmental factors. At pivotal points in their lives the biological, cognitive and socioemotional state of the Wes Moores affected their decisions, which led to their successes and tragedies.
Theoretical Application.The study of the interactions between the biological and environmental influences attributed to these men’s development both enlightens and provides understanding for their life journeys. Both individuals in this story were genetically endowed with the ability to choose. After analyzing their lives, it is apparent that both nature and nurture impacted their journeys and choices. Behaviors they displayed such as choices to be involved in illegal drug and gang activity, having multiple sexual partners, joining the job corps, making decisions about continuing education or military service, etc. were certainly reinforced and shaped by their environments. The biological predispositions and environmental influences inevitably played a large role in shaping the story of their individual lives; however, they still had the ability to choose.
What matters. Wes Moore begins and ends his narrative with the challenge to deeply consider the significance of choices and the accountability for those choices that will certainly follow. He emphasizes understanding where you have come from as a spring board to where you are going. Lastly, Moore calls readers to action, to make a difference in what they do with their life and how they impact the lives of others. Moore quoted Colonel Murphy’s indelible words, “When it is time for you to leave this school, leave your job, or even leave this earth, you make sure you have worked hard to make sure it mattered you were ever here.”
I extend that same challenge to all those entering the Skidmore community, work hard, make a difference in your journey on this earth.