The Great Unequalizer
by Camille Shen
At its creation, the New York Specialized High School System presented an avenue of opportunity for those without wealth, privilege, or a family name. In an effort to value pure merit rather than background, eight magnet schools offer a world-class education, free of charge, to the city’s brightest students: those who earn a high score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT. For years, the children of impoverished Jewish families dominated these schools, which still remain racially homogeneous today – though now, an influx of Asian-American immigrants have taken their place, while admissions for other minority groups have only abated. Due to rising investments into the New York educational system, one side sees black and Latino students as systematically disadvantaged, while the other side believes that low-income Asian students gain admission through rigorous preparation; to rectify this issue, New York City ought to increase funding for middle schools in impoverished areas to narrow the preparation disparity and invest in the academic potential of low-income minority students.
Emboldened by the injustice of racial inequity, one side believes the current educational system inherently stymies the academic endeavors of black and Latino students. Many of these students find themselves ill-equipped to perform well on the SHSAT and thus comprise just slivers of specialized schools’ populations. In fact, Eliza Shapiro of the New York Times finds that though this demographic “make[s] up nearly 70% of New York City’s public school system as a whole”, they accounted for a mere “10% of students admitted into... specialized high schools”, with Stuyvesant, one specialized city school, “offer[ing] just seven out of 895 slots...to black students”. The chilling reality of this disparity lies not with the academic incapabilities of black and Latino students, but rather, with the public school system that fails to prepare them in the first place. In desperate need of proper funding, such schools simply do not possess the teachers, resources, or capacity to prepare students for the advanced concepts encompassed by the SHSAT. Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic expounds the direct correlation between low-income schools and a lack of educational opportunities, noting that “poorer communities...have less local resources...and a harder time attracting the best teachers”, leading to an overall deficit in “both economic and social capital resources” for their students. Given that nearly all black and Latino students in New York City attend these majority low-income schools, those already crippled by poverty find that they must also hurdle the numerous educational barriers strewn on their pathways to upward social mobility. The black and Latino students locked out of these prestigious institutions remain relegated to a perpetual cycle of generational poverty that stems from inadequate education. Lacking a proper foundation of knowledge, most black and Latino students struggle on the exam, leaving them underrepresented in elite high schools and without comparable educational options. This perspective maintains that the scarcity of black and Latino students at specialized schools derives from their maltreatment by the structure of public education as a whole.
Conversely, the opposite side contends that many of the Asian-American students at specialized high schools also come from low-income backgrounds but surmount these hardships to excel on the SHSAT. Often, poor Asian-American families will scrape together every penny to afford expensive prep classes for their children in hopes of securing them a spot at a specialized school. This mentality is a defining characteristic of Asian households; in my own family, education is non-negotiable. Rooted in a cultural belief that education breeds success, my parents were willing to spend thousands of dollars for a full-time summer program dedicated to preparing students to take the SAT. For us, it meant sacrificing a sunny stint in Europe. But for others, the costs of test preparation could mean forgoing heat, light, or gas– for months. Indeed, a study conducted by New York University affirmed that the city’s majority-Asian neighborhoods are more economically depressed than that of other racial demographics, with less than one quarter of the residing Asian adults possessing an undergraduate degree or higher. This bleak reality falls far from the “model minority” perception of Asian-Americans as high-earning, white-collar citizens. Rather, it echoes the story of the working-class immigrant that New York’s specialized high school system was designed to help in the first place. Like other children of first-generation immigrants, the wheels of my life often revolve around the axle of hard work and the idea that nothing comes free; thus, Asian-American parents believe that the SHSAT is simply another test that can be conquered with enough determination– and hours poring over practice exams. Through this lens of results-oriented dedication, Asian-Americans conclude they rightfully earned the seats allotted to them the same way anyone else could have attained one. As such, this opposing viewpoint believes that impoverished Asian-Americans succeed on the SHSAT by virtue of their unique cultural upbringing, prioritizing the exam as a passage to prosperity.
In order to close the gaping racial disparity in specialized schools, New York City ought to increase funding for middle schools in impoverished areas and decrease the budget for the Department of Corrections. Allocating more funds to public education in low-income districts targets the academic inequity at its root: the systemic correlation between poor neighborhoods and poor education. Although public schools in low-income areas of the city receive slightly more funding in the status quo than their affluent counterparts, the vast discrepancies between schools with the highest and lowest levels of impoverished students renders the difference ineffectual. This disparity becomes profoundly critical as increased school spending has led to a prominent development in student learning. Black and Latino students living in low-income neighborhoods not only lack access to and means for test preparation, but underfunded public schools leave them without a foundation to perform well on the advanced SHSAT. However, with well-financed schools, poverty-stricken students from all minority racial backgrounds – African-American, Latino, and Asian-American – will reap the benefits of more enriched academic resources, alleviating the need for expensive test preparation as the sole means to pass the SHSAT. Further, financing the costs of such indispensable resources could easily come from the city’s ever-expanding budget for the Department of Corrections. A 2017 report from New York City’s Comptroller’s office revealed that despite record-low prison populations, annual costs continue to ascend due to “mismanagement” and “failure of accountability”. By redirecting squandered funds to public schools, the city both reduces bureaucratic inefficiency within one agency and buttresses another in dire need of repair. This appropriation acts as an investment in the city’s future, one where not only the white, privileged, and wealthy can expect to succeed, but also those whose abilities have been historically hampered by a system of educational inequity.
While one perspective asserts that black and Latino students face intrinsic disadvantages in the structure of education, others affirm that Asian-American students overcome their own economic burdens to earn admission into specialized schools; nonetheless, increasing funding for impoverished middle schools would bolster academic preparedness across all low-income ethnic groups. One hundred years ago, New York City was the symbol of the American dream. To this day, the city’s symbolic landmark – the Statue of Liberty – still proudly beckons over the “poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to reverse their fortunes and achieve prosperity. New York City public magnet schools ought to do the same for the city’s disadvantaged and impoverished, and open the door for its own young, brilliant minds who, too, yearn for a better future.
by Camille Shen
In the wake of Tumblr’s recent ban of all adult content site-wide, user stravinskow commented, “I can’t believe the last meme of 2018 is tumblr’s death.” Stravinskow’s lamentation is just one of many in the flood of complaints, criticism, and of course, memes against Tumblr’s latest corporate decision to censor “not-suitable-for-work” content. This modification was precipitated by the blogging site’s removal from the App Store in November due to the existence of child pornography on the website, but still came as a sudden shock to many. Now, as users ready themselves to press “f” to pay respects to Tumblr as a whole, it is likely that their beloved community is indeed in danger of an early funeral– even if the platform itself survives.
This is not the first time Apple has removed an app from its store for violating its guidelines. In 2015, it pulled the plug on a war-simulation game for portraying a real terrorist group as the enemy, and more recently, an app formed by a religious group that denounced homosexuality as sin. As a private market, Apple has every right to discern what goes on its “shelves” for consumers to buy and download– even if it means purgation of more popular apps, such as Tumblr. And without Apple’s permission to sell a product in their sanitized, wholesome environment, starting or maintaining a mobile business is nearly impossible. So from this perspective, Tumblr’s decision makes sense: if it wants to survive, at least in our pockets, it needs to stay on Apple’s good side.
But the pull from the App Store was just one deciding factor for Tumblr to prohibit all NSFW content. In fact, the ban was a long time coming: according to Vox, the company could not continue selling ad space next to the pornographic content that often appeared on its website. This decline in profits was part of a series of disastrous years after Yahoo famously bought Tumblr for over a billion dollars in 2013. Since then, Yahoo has written down the blogging site’s value to a less than half of that: a mere $482 million. Now, both Yahoo and Tumblr have become Verizon’s newest acquisitions, and the telecommunications giant plans on learning from Yahoo’s mistakes by finding a way to profit off of the huge fandoms and communities comprised of young people. And, as it seems, the only way to maximize profits is to monetize safe-for-work content and discard the rest.
But what does this mean for Tumblr users? It is no secret that Tumblr has had a problem with porn and porn bots since its early days– many users have called for their removal on multiple occasions, though never with any success. However, while 20% of people on Tumblr consume pornographic content, it is only produced by 1% of its users. The vast majority that this ban affects are regular people participating in niche communities: artists, writers, cosplayers, and other content creators. So, decidedly not child predators, but rather, users who produce NSFW content for specifically targeted audiences. While Tumblr has attempted to differentiate between sexually artistic expression (allowed, in most capacities) and sexual obscenities (prohibited), the rudimentary algorithm it hastily implemented has created a blurred line between the two and left many mistakes in between. In fact, a post that has now gone viral shows that the Tumblr staff’s post announcing the new nudity policy was flagged as inappropriate by its own algorithm. This is just one example of the countless incorrect bans of safe-for-work content, ranging from memes to cat pictures to even classical paintings of Jesus Christ. There is a fine line between nudity used in a sexual context and nudity used for educational or artistic purposes– one that Tumblr expects a few lines of simple code to walk.
But moreover, to institute a blanket ban on all adult content, including the particularly vague “female-presenting nipples”, would stifle the culture of open discussion of sexuality that Tumblr has built its success upon. A large part of the adult content that existed on Tumblr was aimed at the queer community and celebrated a sexuality that is often rejected by mainstream media. This exposure to a spectrum of normalized sexuality was especially important to marginalized LGBT+ groups, who often cannot find accessible and secure spaces to bond over sexual identity. Now that “female-presenting nipples” have been banned, many queer women find their interests and orientation vilified by yet another popular social platform, discouraging further discourse and interaction within LGBT+ communities. In addition, sex workers who appealed to queer groups once flocked to Tumblr for its low-risk, easy-to-use structure and free communication around the topic of sex. After the ban, they are left to search the Internet for an alternative, though few websites exist that are safe and suitable for their line of work. Queer and sexual communities, paired with the staggering number of fandoms, constitute the overwhelming majority of Tumblr’s user base. As they flee to other websites in wake of the purge, they take with them an undeniably vital aspect to Tumblr’s identity: uncensored self-expression. Now, what is left is a pale imitation of “positivity” marked by the fear of flagged content and banned blogs.
But even after a torrent of scathing criticism from its users and speculation of imminent collapse circulating the Internet, Tumblr probably isn’t going anywhere– for the time being, at least. The reality is that there simply aren’t many better alternatives to such a uniquely structured, established blogging site: other platforms similar to Tumblr are either still in beta mode or have dwindling user populations, such as the ancient LiveJournal, the start-up PillowFort, and the new Twitter-like Mastodon. Fearing they will lose an audience and community that is often built up over several years, most users are planning to stay on Tumblr and adapt to the new policy change, whether they like it or not. In this sense, the ban may prove beneficial for Tumblr, and perhaps be the change it “needed” all along to foster growth: it will easily be able to monetize more content and generate more ad revenue than before, even if it means giving up some users in the process.
However, the ban will only ensure that the business side of Tumblr makes it out alive. It won’t meet its end here, but by destroying its hundreds of niche fandoms and communities, it certainly will lose what made it different. Tumblr was once a space for people to candidly and unashamedly express themselves, and that is what gave them the edge over hyper-sanitized, more mainstream platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. This is not to mention the pivotal role it’s played in the growth of Internet culture, absurdist gen Z humor, and of course, the modern meme. Now, the latest memes about the ban all share a similar theme: whether it is “staff” shooting “tumblr” in the head, “staff” as Oprah freely handing out bans, or “staff” as the iceberg that S.S. Tumblr is headed toward, corporate always seems to be the bad guy. And for good reason, too– because at the end of the day, it won’t be Tumblr the company that takes the fall, but Tumblr the community.
Rise of the Revolution
By: Camille Shen
In decades past, American high schools have celebrated March 14 as Pi Day, a day to laud and examine the irregularities and intricacies of the mathematical constant pi. But this year, on March 14, 2018, the festivities were forgotten as thousands of students flooded onto football fields, tracks, bleachers, parking lots, and even the front of the Capitol building to demand stricter gun control. Like the endless digits of pi, this walkout seemed to be the first step in a seemingly never-ending campaign to reduce gun violence. But the unique circumstances of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre and its victims may, for the first time, bring the end of the senseless killing into sight.
America is certainly no stranger to mass shootings. Data from the Gun Violence Archive reveals there is a mass shooting – defined as four or more people shot in one incident, not including the shooter – nine out of every ten days on average. But these are just statistics; while shootings in the past have shaken the country enough to incite feeble requests for increased gun control and abundant offerings of “thoughts and prayers”, the nation ultimately moves on. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Sutherland Springs. Orlando. Las Vegas. And now, Parkland. Each time, no profound change was ever made to prevent the same tragedy from occurring again– until February 14, 2018. Where adults have failed to protect their children in the past, children are now striving to protect children. Enough is enough, they cry. But what made the Parkland shooting the point of “enough”? Why not after the countless mass shooting that came before? Why this one?
To understand a movement, start with its heart, its voice: in this case, the teenagers. The mobilization to end gun violence has been led nearly exclusively by a group of 17 year olds, including three MSD student activists, Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky, and David Hogg, among others. These teens, along with thousands of others across the nation, have been born into the era of mass shootings; with massacres headlining the news seemingly every week, they are no longer fazed by such instances of senseless violence. However, they are also just old enough to make a change and perhaps even more importantly, possess the power to do so with social media at their fingertips. During the shooting, students posted on Snapchat and Twitter horrifying videos of children huddled beneath desks as shots and screams rang through the halls. Now, they post angry and impassioned calls to action, organize protests like the walkout and March For Our Lives, and engage in Twitter debates all through a few taps on the screens of their phones. Where Sandy Hook children were too young to stage protests and Columbine victims grew up in an age without extensive technology, Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are in a position to create a massive effect: enacting legislation, electing gun reformers into office, and above all, saving lives.
These teenagers benefit from two different kinds of invincibility: one typical of the coming-of-age spirit and the other from being victims of tragedy. After the shooting, students went to Twitter to unleash a storm of burns, drags, and roasts against the NRA and Republican figures such as Dana Loesch, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio. Sarah Chadwick, a junior from Stoneman, tweeted on February 23, “We should change the names of AR-15s to “Marco Rubio” because they are so easy to buy.” But unlike Rubio’s agenda, the teen victims have been met with an outpouring of support. As such, it makes it nearly impossible for the NRA or Republicans to hurl the same attacks back at them without committing political suicide. The Republican lawmaker aide who called the survivors “crisis actors” was terminated within hours of the claim, his Twitter account deleted altogether shortly afterward.
Unfortunately, this relentless support for gun control measures seems to be unique to Parkland, a predominantly white and affluent suburban area. Where African American activists against gun violence in urban communities have been met with little funds or assistance in the past, despite having the highest gun violence rates in the country and fighting for change for decades, Parkland received an astonishing national response in a mere amount of days. But these students realize their power in white privilege. During the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., a heavy emphasis was put on young activists of color to speak out about the daily violence occurring in their communities. In doing so, Americans were given a taste of the bloodshed that runs rampant not just in the mass shootings on the front page of the news, but on the streets of cities like Chicago, south Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and countless others.
Since the days after February 14 and the walkout a month later, many have responded to the call for gun control. A dozen companies have cut ties with the NRA, Dick’s Sporting Goods has stopped selling assault weapons, and Florida, historically pro-gun, passed a bill to ban bump stocks, raise the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, and allow police deputies to confiscate weapons from the mentally ill. But even with these changes, it is not enough for the students of Stoneman Douglas. "Gov. Scott is trying to look like he's taking a step in the opposite of the direction of the NRA, but... it's a baby step,” Cameron Kasky, a junior, says. But there isn’t much else that can be done– in the status quo, the only way for teens to make change happen is if the adults choose to enact it. As such, students like Kasky are seeking to increase voter registration and participation among their peers once they reach the age of 18. By doing so, they hope a teen political movement may emerge in the coming years to manifest change when adults cannot be counted on to do so. Because even if the walkout, March For Our Lives, and countless other protests don’t gain government attention and gun reform won’t be passed in Congress this year, or even the next year– these politically active teens will become the future generation molding the political landscape. And maybe then will massacres like Stoneman Douglas not be forgotten, but prevented; maybe then we will be able to once again celebrate February 14 as Valentine’s Day and March 14 as Pi Day in our schools without tragedy and fear in the back of our minds– but it starts with the students.
By Camille Shen
In response to last year’s first-ever Women’s March, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote?” This year, marchers have answered the President’s inquiry with a brand-new rallying cry: “Grab ‘em by the Midterms”. The Women’s March has transformed from an angry and impassioned mobilization protesting Trump to a movement urging women to vote Democrats into office as a means to manifest change. This new objective has made it clear that women across America are ready to make political and social advancements happen.
This year’s march, with a total of between 1.6 and 2.5 million participants, was far from the previous year’s attendance of over 4 million. However, what the march lacked in numbers it made up for in spirit. In the midst of the #MeToo movement and government shutdown, the tumultuous political climate gave many a reason to march– spurring a special ferocity in the protests for sexual violence and immigrant rights. The pink cat-ear hat worn by thousands of marchers, a reference to Trump’s comment claiming he could grab any woman’s genitals without her consent, has become an emblem of both the movement and the persistent battle against sexual harassment. With the recent exposures of powerful men for their sexual abuse of women, #MeToo has generated additional momentum to the march as celebrities and ordinary citizens alike come together to express their solidarity with victims. In Las Vegas, the “Power to the Polls” rally made the fight for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program into a point of unity; activists proclaimed that the government shutdown should not end until dreamers, or immigrants brought to the United States as children, earned legal status.
Yet, immigration and sexual violence have also become areas of contention. As the movement becomes synonymous with progressive issues, it has created a division between the far left and those who dislike Trump, but do not agree along the lines of abortion, healthcare, and other policies. Furthermore, the overall pivot to voter registration and participation has caused the march to lose support. Organizers of this year’s march had put particular emphasis on “Power to the Polls” in an effort to dismantle Republican control of Congress through mass voter participation in the upcoming midterm elections. However, this shift in focus prompted many to sit out on this year’s march, as they felt it had become too fixated on electing Democrats at the expense of other issues, especially those concerning people of color. Many believe the march caters mostly toward middle class, straight, white women, creating an exclusive basis on which to fight oppression, much of which affects and requires the support of the very minorities it has alienated.
Despite disagreements on agenda and inclusivity, a once-rare popular mobilization against a sitting President looks to be a regular occurrence for the next two years of Trump’s term. After the shock of Trump’s election in 2016, the winning battle for women’s rights had suddenly been threatened with the new administration, inciting fury and passion that characterized the first march– and impacts of the second have already manifested. A record number of Democratic women have announced their intent to run for office, indicating growing momentum for the Democrats in the status quo. This growth could impact not only midterms, but the 2020 election as well, if supporters of the march continue to advocate for voter awareness and succeed in electing progressives into office.
While the Women’s March has a ways to go in terms of truly uniting liberal females– in all its diversity– the support for DACA and #MeToo have been a step in the right direction for inclusivity and solidarity, even at the expense of some moderate voters. Simply protesting these issues, however, is meaningless without action. By recognizing the first step to change as targeting national voter registration to elect progressive women into office, the Women’s March has established that a new era of female politics is on the horizon. Thus, it looks like 2018 will give Donald Trump the voter engagement he asked for, though perhaps not how he pictured it when the wrote the tweet. The call to voter action indicates that even as women’s rights still have a long way to go, the fight for gender equality persists, with November midterms as just the beginning.
By Camille Shen
In a world where Donald Trump communicates to the American public through Twitter, the prospect of a global leader ruling his nation through social media seems plausible some time in the near future. For ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, that time is now. Puigdemont suggested in early January to preside over Catalonia through Skype, and it seems that with the results of the December elections, Catalans won’t have to take him up on that offer (for now).
Puigdemont, of course, is in exile after a series of tumultuous events occurred in Catalan politics. On October 1, Catalonia held an independence referendum that Madrid deemed illegal under the Spanish Constitution. As such, the Spanish police were ordered to physically bar Catalonians from voting; unionists were urged not to vote at all. The result was a referendum in which 90% voted in favor of independence, but only 42% of the electorate participated. In response, Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, a passage that allows the national government to adopt “necessary methods” to force a regional government to comply with its interests. This effectively removed Catalonia’s regional government, imposed direct rule on the area, and dismissed its Parliament. Puigdemont called Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s sacking of the entire Catalan government one of the “worst attacks against the people of Catalonia” since Franco. On December 21, the Catalan people elected a brand-new Parliament to fill those empty seats. The outcome: a majority in Parliament for the secessionist movement, but a majority popular vote for the unionists.
Polls have consistently predicted a hung Parliament; however, Catalonia’s three pro-independence parties, JuntxCat, ERC, and CUP together won an absolute majority of 70 seats of the total 135. Secessionists won 47.5% of the popular vote, while the unionist bloc took 57 seats and 43.4% of the vote. Puigdemont’s JuntxCat party took the most seats, the former President describing the victory as won under “exceptional circumstances, with candidates in prison, with the government in exile and without having the same resources as the state.” This comes as a significant blow to the Spanish government, who had hoped to put an end to the independence movement with the election. Furthermore, Rajoy’s conservative People’s party saw a major defeat, securing only 4 seats and hence, for the first time, rendering them unable to form a parliamentary group of its own in the Catalan parliament. This loss has implications that reach far beyond Catalonia, as it could signify the end of its hegemony over the center-right in Spain. Rajoy’s already low popularity ratings coupled with this crushing loss may spell out end of the People’s Party’s control in Madrid and usher in an ever-growing far-right movement.
However, while the separatist movement’s triumph may reinvigorate its supporters and grassroots, this can only lead to further tensions with the Spanish government. Madrid has been a staunch opponent of secession, and given their response to the October 1 referendum, it can be expected that Rajoy will continue to do everything within his power to prevent secession– possibly even an extension of direct rule. But with little power in the Catalan Parliament, it is unclear how Rajoy’s People’s Party will fare in the future. On the other hand, the Catalan Citizens party, which won the most seats of any party, 36, believes the election has demonstrated strength among Catalan unionists. Inés Arrimadas, the party leader, stated, “We have sent a message to the world that a majority in Catalonia is in favour of the union with Spain. For the first time, a constitutionalist party has won a Catalan election.”
As 2017 draws to a close, the new year seems to bring only uncertainty for the future of Catalonia as the region battles between separation and union. While the outcome of the election gave pro-independence parties a much-needed advantage in Parliament and bolstered morale among secessionists, pro-union leaders still came out with a victory of the majority of the popular vote. However, one thing is clear: even under the “worst attacks”, the election has demonstrated that Madrid’s previous hardline tactics will not work to suppress the voice of the Catalan people.