Lesson Plan Day 10: power structures, part I (or, you’d better pull up those bootstraps)

Day Ten: Power Structures, part I

Lesson Development: I created this lesson in an attempt to provide students with an accessible simulation of the real world effects that systemic discrimination – specifically racism – has on society. I wanted to create an easy to play game that would clearly illustrate the way privilege and discrimination make it easier and harder for certain groups to acquire and retain wealth, and to get students thinking about how efforts to redress inequality must take into account how the economic “playing field” is not, and has never been, level.

As readers can see in the structure of the card game below, I specifically designed it with the historic economic experience of African-Americans in mind. However, the parallels the game draws to legal discrimination, as well as the consolidation of wealth, allow the game to provide more general lessons on systemic inequality and privilege. There are also references to specific moments in the history of United States’ racial opportunity structure. Part Two of the game is meant to represent the post-Civil Rights era, where white supremacy is no longer inscribed in law, but de facto white economic privilege remains. At the same time, the second phase of the game also provides one more added “bump” for some players, intended to represent the way the GI Bill, which, only two decades prior to the Civil Rights Movement, provided many white soldiers returning from World War II with privileged access to jobs, education, and housing.

I chose to call the game Bootstraps, referencing the false idea that the socioeconomic structure in the US provides all people with equal economic opportunities, an idea invoked by the old expression, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”          

Card Game: Bootstraps (or alternately, Stacking the Deck)

  • This game is played a lot like the card game War: Players get an equal number of cards which they are not allowed to see. To play, players simultaneously overturn their top card onto the table. Whoever has the highest card value gets to take the other players’ overturned cards and shuffle them into their stack. Repeat. The winner is whoever manages to get everyone’s cards, or whoever has the most cards when the game is stopped.
  • Start this game with two decks. Making sure students don’t notice, remove ten face cards from the decks and set them aside for the dealers pile. Then, stack the decks so that both have an equal number of cards, but one has nearly all of the face cards.
  •  Part 1
  • Divide the class into two groups. Somewhere between half and two thirds of all players should be in one group. It would be ideal to divide them by eye color (for example, a brown eyed group and a non brown eyed group), though if this does not achieve the desired sizes of the two groups, another method of division based on physical appearance should be used (ie hair color, jean-wearing, etc.). The larger group gets dealt from the face card deck. The other groups get dealt from the numbers deck. Players must not be aware that the decks are different.
  • Deal each student X number of cards (the number will depend on the total number of players) from their respective deck, and then have players cluster in groups of three or four, making sure players from different groups are appropriately mixed. The game will not work if it is only played between members of the same group. If a single player winds up with all the cards from their cluster, they should go merge with another cluster, joining smaller ones first.
  • If a player looses all their cards, they should sit and watch their cluster continue playing. A player can get back into the game by knocking on the table if they see doubles (two cards of the same number or face) appear in the round. These players must knock before the winner of the round takes the cards for themself. If the player knocks in time, that player wins the cards from that round and rejoins the game. False knocks render a player’s next knock ineffective.
  • If a player from the larger (privileged) group has not gotten back in after three rounds, they are granted a card from the dealers pile (players from the smaller group must keep trying to get themselves back in without assistance from the dealer).
  • Freeze the game after a few minutes. Ask players: Who is winning? Why? Does this game seem fair?
  • Part 2
  • Everyone keeps their cards. From now on, all players must knock until they get back in (players from the larger group aren’t granted a card from the dealer after three rounds anymore). Before this new rule goes into effect, however, the dealer should grant a face card to anyone in the larger group who is currently out. Resume playing.
  • Part 3, processing the game
  • After a few more minutes, freeze the game again and see who is winning. Ask players to hold onto their cards and form a circle for discussion. During the course of processing, reveal the truth about the decks when it seems appropriate. Processing questions include the following:
  • · How did you like that game?
  • · Who is winning? What group are they from? Why do you think that is?
  • · If you were winning, how did you feel about it?
  • · How did it feel to be losing?
  • · Did the game seem fair? Why or why not?
  • · What happened after everyone had to knock to get back in? Was it more fair? What would make it more fair?
  • · Why do you think we played this game? What might it represent?
  • Discuss how certain groups such as African-Americans (in addition to other groups of color) have historically been prevented from gaining wealth by the legal and social structure of the US, and how this has affected wealth to this day. It may be necessary to review to the household wealth gap by race that we discussed previously. Even after laws were changed to supposedly provide equal opportunity to all groups, inequality persists. This parallels the game, in that changing the rules to be more even or “fair” was not enough to change which group ultimately acquired more cards because players were still suffering the effects of the previous, obviously unfair rules.
  • Discuss the specific ways the game mirrors the structure of opportunity: for instance, how it often takes money get a good education, get into college, and subsequently secure a well paying job that might allow you to buy a house, etc. In the game, it takes powerful cards to acquire more cards and to hold onto those cards.
  • The game also mirrors something else: consolidation of wealth.
  • · How many people were left with cards at the end? How many were not?
  • · Which group were the players with the highest number of cards from?
  • · Out of the players who still have cards, how many do they have?
  • Wealth Gap (draw on board): The wealthiest 1% of the US population own 33% of all household wealth. The poorest 50% only own 2.5% of wealth. The other 49% of the population own the rest (64.5%)…
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3 thoughts on “Lesson Plan Day 10: power structures, part I (or, you’d better pull up those bootstraps)

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