This topic has been bubbling under the surface forever. It’s particularly had me itching in my skin since the RIDE hearings on Achievement First last month. Coming out of those hearings, Keith Catone wrote a brilliant piece on Achievement First and racism. I highly recommend you read it immediately, and then come back to this post. I found his critique of Achievement First’s racism devastating; his analysis of the racism of (some of) the opponents of Achievement First insightful and correct; and his conclusions, uncomfortable if understandable. All of it begs further discussion and a real, thorough-going look at race, corporate education “reform”, and how we real advocates of public education should think through, understand, and respond to the question of racism in the context of our struggle.
(A couple caveats: first, an apology to Keith, to whom I wrote a personal message immediately after I read his post. We had discussed sitting down to talk in person, and I never quite responded to that—my deep apologies! I’ve been incredibly busy through the holiday season and beyond, and as I understand it, so has Keith. Second, Keith and I attended the hearings on different days, so while I have some sense of what he heard, I’m not privy to the details. Third, I’m no expert on racism and education, far from it. I’ve written—too infrequently—on the topic on this blog, first about immigrants and public education, then about the struggle for desegregation in Boston in the 1970s. But I’m firmly convinced that the question of racism is central to the crisis of education “reform” in America, and must be dealt with head-on. Lastly, an apology to you, ô cher lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère—for the length of this article.)
Racism and Schools
The starting point of this discussion is the assertion that our nation’s schools are now more segregated than they were in 1968. This means that not only are there schools where Black and Latino students are the majority, but that the majority of Black and Latino students go to schools where they are the overwhelming majority. The inverse is also true: white students, in their large majority, go to majority white schools. Without running the numbers directly, I’d guess that almost all of Rhode Island’s suburban schools are more than 90% white, while the urban “core” of Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, are more than 75% Black and Latino (I believe in Providence the number is between 85-90%). And, the current segregation of America’s schools has not been an enduring characteristic from time immemorial, but is rather a creation of the dismantling of desegregation programs of the 1960s and 70s.
In this interview from 2005, Jonathan Kozol lays out a clear timeline: from 1965 to 1990, school desegregation programs made serious advances in terms of school integration, equitable distribution of resources, lowering of class sizes, etc. These programs were supported by overwhelming majorities of parents of all races, particularly in so far as those parents had actually experienced desegregation programs in the education of their own children. The declines came as a result of the Rehnquist Supreme Court in the 1990s, which first destroyed court-ordered desegregation programs, then pulled the rug out from under the voluntary programs that some cities had quite successfully implemented. Kozol makes the serious point in this interview that:
The reason that school integration came to a halt in the early 1990s was not because of the objections of either Black or white members of the population. The overwhelming majority of parents of all races believe that racially integrated schooling is better not only for Black kids and Latino kids, but also is better for white children as well. Every poll demonstrates this clearly. Wherever voluntary programs exist, you have four or five applicants for every opening. Do Black and Latino parents believe in school integration? You bet they do. When the opportunity is real.
and later that:
First of all, why do white parents support the programs? I’m not sure, but I’ll tell you what I intuit from talking to so many people in these districts. Number one, they genuinely believe that it will be better for their own children to learn about the world that they really live in when they’re seven or twelve years old and not have to wait until they’re twenty-five or thirty and discover that they don’t know how to negotiate with people of other races. Ultimately, it’s enlightened self-interest.
Second, in the cases of some districts where there are a great many Latino children, many white parents strongly favor bilingual schools. And I don’t mean bilingual in the sense that it’s bandied about in California politics, where it’s an issue only applying to Latinos. I mean bilingual education for all races. I just spent some time in Milwaukee with the teachers from a spectacular bilingual elementary school where the white, Black, and Latino kids by fifth grade are speaking two languages comfortably.
In other words, where desegregation was undertaken in a serious and thorough-going manner, real progress was made in terms of equalizing the resources and opportunities provided to children of all races. In the research that I did, there were clear indications that: 1) school desegregation led to patterns of housing desegregation within cities; 2) resistance to desegregation came not from ordinary white parents, but from organized campaigns led by politicians and the rich; 3) “white flight” was actually a myth, explained in real terms not by the suburbanization of whites fleeing Black and Latino kids, but by lower birth rates among whites and a relative increase in population among Blacks and especially Latinos in the intervening period; 4) real progress was made in terms of narrowing the actual gap in academic achievement between students of color and white students, a gap which was (and is) present in spite of economic factors. There was nothing here that the vast majority of people wouldn’t agree with or benefit from—unless you were one of the 1%, or one of their hangers-on.
Unfortunately, the last generation has belonged to the 1%, in a serious way. Let’s first look at what has happened to cities in the United States. Here, I will admit, I have no sources to point to, but the well-known facts of life in America under the unbroken neoconservative, neoliberal Republican rule of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama. These are the facts: 1) that inner-city neighborhoods, especially Black neighborhoods, were targeted by the racist War on Drugs, which devastated Black communities everywhere; 2) that neoliberalism dramatically restructured American capitalism, destroying unions in the industrial sector and moving entire industries abroad (or more often, to the non-union U.S. South)–evidence of the destructive capacity of this movement can be freely found in the post-industrial cities of Detroit or Youngstown or Bridgeport or New Bedford; 3) that inequality in U.S. society has soared under the neoliberal regime, with the greatest impact on the most vulnerable, i.e. people of color, the very young and very old, the poor.
When it comes to schools, there’s one further aspect I want to point out here. Immediately after the Federal Court ruling desegregating Boston schools, the next very next ruling had to do with a bid by the city of Detroit to integrate its school district with those of the surrounding suburbs. The notion was to create a “mega-district” in which resources would be shared between the urban areas and their suburban parasites, and the children of those areas bussed to different schools in the metropolitan area so as to achieve racial integration. The federal court in the case struck down this plan, thus confining actual school desegregation to the urban areas—or rather, placing the burden for school desegregation on urban districts, and relieving the richer, whiter suburban areas of any responsibility in the matter. This decision, made in the mid-1970s, may have been motivated in part by the fact that major cities were suddenly experiencing massive budget crises, into which suburban areas did not want to be sucked. But it was also clearly motivated by the racism of the representatives of those areas, and the interests of the elite who have ever benefited from the parasitical relationship between cities and suburbs.
Before we move on, let’s take one last look at Rhode Island. Of what I have described in the preceding paragraphs, what’s not to be recognized here? Isolation and degradation of the urban areas, massive restructuring of the industrial base, attacks on unions, parasitism of the suburbs on the metropolitan center, racist “drug war” propaganda and action against the state’s Blacks and Latinos…you name it, we got it. This is where Keith’s criticism of the opponents of Achievement First rings true: much of the suburban opposition is put in terms of “this may be good for those schools, but not for our schools”, and the racist, exclusionary undertones are unmistakable. The problem, I would argue, lies primarily in the racist structure of Rhode Island’s socio-economic and political structure. The racism of the suburban opponents is an echo of a deeper system into which they are embedded, usually without their conscious knowledge. As Kozol put it:
the strongest opposition to integrated schooling among white people is among those who have never experienced it. Genuine participation in integrated schooling, when it’s done in a wise and sensitive way, is consistently the basis for support of integration by white people. When they don’t know anything about it, when their children have never been in an integrated setting, when they’ve never been in an integrated setting, they oppose it. We oppose what we fear, and we fear what we don’t know.
The battle over Achievement First, then, could be an excellent opportunity for activists to give the suburban folks a serious anti-racist education. The key is that defeating Achievement First is only the first step in a long-term campaign around public education, at the heart of which must be demands for school integration and affirmative action, i.e. anti-racist demands.
The Achievement Gap and the Reformers
There is an enduring “achievement gap” between students of color and white students in the United States. I think the best, most concise summary of this question is provided by Brian Jones in this article. I put the term in quotations because I think the causes of the gap are well-known and yet little discussed: poverty, racial discrimination and isolation, lack of equity in school funding and in all aspects of life as it’s experienced by people of different races. After all, “The median Black family has just 5 percent of the wealth of the median white family (with Hispanics much closer to Blacks than whites)–this is one of the most important ways that advantages and disadvantages are passed down over generations.” (This is part of a broader argument for affirmative action programs.) In short: destroy the inequality of wealth, eliminate racial isolation in society, and the “achievement gap” will disappear. If the statement seems simplistic, it’s not: though all the evidence points to this conclusion, the actual process of destroying racial and economic inequality in society will be an enormous, generational struggle.
This is where the Corporate Reformers enter the fray, from a skewed angle. They are not afraid to talk about race, it seems. They love to point to the “achievement gap”, and to data indicating that they can close the gap. But this argument, the evidence for it, and the practices they employ on the basis of it, only make sense from the distorted angle of an unquestioned acceptance of the actual inequality of our society. In other words, since we can’t possibly fix economic and racial inequality in society, let’s find a solution that at least funnels public money into private hands while we put up a neoconservative show of not being racist.
But the facts speak otherwise. It first struck me when I went to look up the Bushwick AF school in Brooklyn, whose principal is the son of a Jamestown school committee member. At the top of the page, it proudly proclaimed that the school was 99% Black and Latino. But this is precisely the sort of racial isolation that’s at the heart of our schools’ race problem, I thought. It’s essentially an argument for “separate but equal”. And so when Keith talked about the paternalism of the Corporate Reform crowd, it really struck a chord. This is precisely the issue—the corporate reformers share the paternalistic, colonialist outlook of the 1% of past centuries. It’s precisely the “let’s civilize the savages” theory that was used to justify European colonialism (and the American genocide against the Native Americans), translated into the language of 21st Century “education reform”.
Charter schools do not close the “achievement gap”. They take a select portion of the student body of urban schools, weed out the “undesirables” from that population, and then claim success when their rarefied sample of students performs marginally better than their peers in the public schools on standardized tests—which are, in themselves, racist. That this is taken as somehow contributing to progress on the problems of race (though perhaps not racism) in our society, is an indication of just how backward the national discourse on race has become. It should also be pointed out that the charters drain the urban public schools of both resources and talented students, thus rendering the public schools “a school system of last resort”. It’s a re-creation of the school system that was declared unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education decision that kick-started the civil rights movement in 1954.
Where does this leave us in Rhode Island? For one, it should be clear that not only is this model not good for schools in suburban areas, but it’s really especially not good for Providence schools. If anything, it’s worst for Providence schools. But if it’s not good for the suburban schools, there’s a link. Keith points out that the funding formula opened the door for the siphoning of money into the charters, and out of the Providence schools, certainly necessitating the closure of more schools in the future. This fact has led even otherwise corporate-reform-minded individuals to reject Achievement First, or at least to call for slowing down its introduction in Providence. But it’s that same formula that, in the name of providing urban schools with much-needed funds, has taken them out of certain middling suburban districts, in particular the regionalized districts that regionalized precisely because of the wisdom of economies of scale, and because they themselves were not Barrington (which, by the way, got a huge boost in the funding formula), possessing a large and generous tax base in a well-to-do community. (White) people in these communities may well express their opposition in terms underpinned with racism; but their racism is, in this case, the self-defeating Trojan Horse that blinds them to the actual commonality of interests with Blacks and Latinos in the urban districts. True, they do not suffer the marginalization and demonization of urban communities—but neither do they benefit from it. It’s a classic case of Frederick Douglass’s dictum, they divided both to conquer each.
Conclusion: Anti-racist demands must be the heart and soul of our struggle
The United States was founded on racist premises, and racism has been at the heart of our nation’s history at every moment along the way. It has always had a material foundation, first with the centuries-long genocide of the native peoples. It divided the laboring classes, first in the institution of slavery, then in the competition between Black and white wage workers after the end of Reconstruction. It took on new forms in the conquest of the northern part of Mexico and the institution of migrant labor that still forms the basis of the agricultural economy of this country. And it has reared its ugly head with every new wave of immigration the country—a country of immigrants—has experienced. It is a material phenomenon which will only be defeated when the physical economic system in which a small elite benefits from racism of all forms is itself completely smashed. In the meantime, racist ideas must be challenged at every step, but without any illusion that simply changing people’s minds will somehow abolish racism. That is impossible without system change. And it means that how we take on those ideas differs, depending on who holds them and to what end; and that the racism of ordinary white people will be most effectively changed when our struggle changes the material foundation of society.
This was what made me most uncomfortable about Keith’s conclusion: he seems to accept that the racism of individuals and the racism of social institutions is one and the same—and he, rightfully, wants no part of it. I would maintain that this attitude leads us (the activists) to a position of scornful non-engagement with people that we want, eventually, to win to our side. These are people who accept racist ideas to their own detriment. They are people who live in relative comfort in their largely white suburban communities, communities that are going to come under increased financial strain as the current economic crises continues (and in my opinion, it will do so until a major cataclysm clears out the current capitalist crisis). They are people who may be led either to continue trying to use racism to wall themselves off in a delusional escape from the crisis of the system, or to supporting a broad, mass, anti-racist struggle that transforms their world in ways they can’t currently imagine.
As a side note, I think it’s of little use to criticize the demands of people in urban schools when they don’t specifically take up the question of racism within a three-minute time period. Keith says, “When I hear people pretending that all that’s wrong with Providence public schools are faulty facilities and the lack of recess, I hear a uncritical denial of the systemic and individual racism and classism that plague our classrooms in the forms of bad policy and educational malpractice.” Again, I was not at the same hearing he attended, but I think I know the people he’s talking about here, and I venture to say that they were not “pretending” that these are the only problems of the schools. In fact, they’re not wrong to take them up, and they can be understood very simply in the terms of the racism of our society. Who wouldn’t imagine that the lack of recess at urban schools must have a connection with the assumption that Black and Latino students are likely to go without the freedom to go outside as adults? This has, in fact, happened to a huge portion of the adult population of people of color in the United States. It’s called prisons. So rather than criticize well-meaning activists, let’s extend the conversation and engage ourselves fully in the process of building an inclusive, anti-racist movement for public education with a broad, transformational vision.
Let’s think of this: imagine that Rhode Island undertakes two major initiatives at once. On one hand, the state decides to start taxing the rich at appropriate rates, including the “non-profit” institutions of Brown University and the Providence Place Mall (together, their property taxes would contribute $50 million per year to the city of Providence). On the other hand, the state reorganizes the 36-odd school districts into one consolidated district, fully funded directly by the state of Rhode Island itself. (If the state wants to take part of the property taxes that are now used by the local districts to fund this, that’s fine with me—so long as property taxes are no longer the primary basis for school funding.) The new consolidated state-wide district would provide its teachers with a state-wide contract that combines the most generous provisions of all the existing contracts. The state coordinates the existing teacher-training programs with the universities, implementing a strong affirmative action program that aims to recruit and train Black and Latino teachers in large numbers, thus overcoming the racial gap between students and teachers that exists particularly in urban districts. The state provides quality neighborhood schools at the K-8 level to all areas, with reduced class sizes, and a particular emphasis on funneling resources to the schools in the most economically and racially disadvantaged areas. And at the high school level, the state manages a system of racially-integrated high schools, in which kids in the suburban areas leave behind their provincial communities and learn about the real diversity of their society, long before they get to college or beyond. This system would open up tremendous space for educational innovation and experimentation, free from the constraints of budget crises.
This vision could only be achieved by a serious struggle from below, one that puts anti-racist demands at the heart of its program, one that promotes activists of color while carrying out systematic anti-racist education among the white parents, teachers and students who stand to benefit from the struggle. Only a unified struggle along these lines can ultimately guarantee victory to our movement to defend and advance public education.