Little Hope in Baltimore for the '2s,' '3s,' and '4s'

04/29/2015 04:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

In virtually all the university courses I teach in the field of education, I conduct what invariably turns out to be a valuable and poignant activity for the pre-service teacher educator enrolled in the course. The simulation represents the ways in which our society, along a continuum of very high to very low, encourages and enhances to discourages and reduces the individual's motivation to learn and succeed in life.

I begin by alerting students that we are going to engage in a class activity. I travel around the room placing a playing card face down on each student's desk. (I always include a "Joker" card.) I tell them not to look at their cards. I then stand in front of the room and provide directions. I model by taking a remaining card from the deck, and without looking at it, I place it face outward upon my forehead.

As an aside, on a couple of occasions, as I displayed a card on myself, students broke into loud and sustained laughter. As an out gay professor, the card I chose was a "Queen," which was quite fitting in my case.

I tell students that they will circulate around the room with their cards upon their foreheads, and they will respond or treat others in terms of their cards. The "2" card is the "lowest of the low," and "Ace" is the highest of the high, with other cards on a continuum in between. They are not to tell each other what are their cards. They can use body language and verbal language, but no touching one another in any way.

When they begin to realize what their cards are generally or specifically, they are to line up in ascending order from "2s" at one side of the room to "Aces" on the other side. Again, they cannot tell or correct other students if they place themselves out of order in the line. I am continually surprised how quickly most students determine their cards.

After students arrange themselves in a single-file line, I begin at the "lower" end by asking each student in turn to announce what they have determined as their card. After announcing, students can then look at their cards. I am always curious to see where the students with the "Joker" card situated themselves in the line.

Once each student has had a chance to announce and glance at their card, I engage the class, while remaining in their line positions, in a discussion by asking the following questions:

• For the people on the lower end of the room, how did you determine your position?
• How did people treat you?
• How did that feel to you?
• For the people in the middle section, from people who determined they are around "5" through "9," how did you determine your position?
• How did people treat you?
• How did that feel to you (to be treated sort of "average")?
• For the people on the higher end of the room, how did you determine your position?
• How did people treat you?
• How did that feel to you?
• For the "Joker," how did you determine your position?
• How did people treat you?
• How did that feel to you?
• For everyone else, how did you respond to the "Joker"?
• How does this activity simulate the ways people treat each other at this school, in our society?
• For the people on the lower end of the room (then in the middle section, then on the higher end of the room) imagine you are a student in the early school years, how might your card affect your self-esteem and motivation to learn and succeed in school and in later life?
• How does this activity simulate the concepts of privilege and subordination in terms of social identities?
• Continue discussion.
• Students then return to their seats.

Baltimore City

I convey this activity now in light of recent events in Baltimore, Maryland in which we have witnessed a number of protest demonstrations with some violent clashes with police, all sparked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, an unarmed African American man who died in police custody of an apparent partially-severed spinal cord for simply running when approached.

Baltimore City is not unlike many inner cities throughout the country where unemployment rates for black youth tops 50 percent, and black adult unemployment hovers around 20 percent. Blight saturates neighborhood. Local schools, in areas with dwindling funding, results in lack of resources and low teacher salaries, high student dropout rates, and diminishing educational outcomes for those who remain. Community services are few, and generally, hope for the future is a scarce commodity.

Without condoning the clashes with police, rock throwing, looting, and arson against local businesses, when a society generally and police forces more specifically consistently treat its citizens like "2s," "3s," or "4s," when people see no hope for a better future, when parents fear for their children's very lives, the inevitable eruptions should can come as no surprise.

As a white man, in terms of race and gender, I am according automatic and unearned benefits and privilege withheld from people of color and women. I was born at the higher end of the classroom as, yes, a "Queen" at the very least, but more likely a "King" or an "Ace." For white people who cannot seem to understand reactions of a community to the death of one man, all you have to do is look in the mirror to determine your card. Then imagine you were dealt a "2," "3," or "4."