Saturday, March 15, 2014

Thoughts & questions on race and grassroots education reform

Riffing off of my last post, I have been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of race and the grassroots education reform movement. Here are some thoughts/questions I have come up with:

1.  What a person knows about race dynamics constantly evolves, no matter how long or how much one has been involved in struggles against racism, or how involved one has been in communities of color. Once we understand once, we will continue to learn and to struggle to understand the next time. Dynamics change, laws change, circumstances change, younger people come in with their own unique perspectives, perspectives that have been influenced by current times, not the past (even if they have studied the past).

White people may know people of color personally--they may be members of our families, friends, co-workers, co-activists, neighbors, students, or teachers, but those are personal relationships which may not manifest the same shifts that take place in society.

Furthermore, what was once considered an acceptable compromise or alliance may not be so in a different context or era. If we claim that progress has been made, then we can not expect people of color to make the same compromises and alliances that their predecessors made. Why should they?

2. Some white progressive  (or other) public education activists seem to think that their first priority is to preserve public education and that those efforts will inevitably help to address structural racism. Are those efforts enough? I don't know, but it seems too simplistic to me. Too often, white public education activists seem to say, "You are hurting our common cause by bringing internal issues of race up" rather than "I am hurting the cause by not addressing issues of race."

3. Some white educators who teach a majority of students of color seem to think that because of that, they are engaged in social justice work, or in anti-racism work. But even if you serve students of color and serve them well as an educator, does that mean you're engaged in social justice or anti-racism work? I'm not so sure. It seems to me that there has to be something more to such work. Also, you can teach mostly or all white students and be engaged in anti-racism or pro-social justice work, as well.

4. Speaking of social justice, I hear that phrase batted about so much so that I wonder if it has lost its meaning somewhat. Or, maybe people just don't seem to know what they mean when they say it. How does one define social justice? Well, here's the definition of "social justice" from John Rawls and Aristotle via wikipedia:
Social justice is the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.[1] Classically, "justice" (especially corrective justice or distributive justice) referred to ensuring that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles,[2] and received what was due from society. "Social justice" is generally used to refer to a set of institutions which will enable people to lead a fulfilling life and be active contributors to their community.[3] The goal of social justice is generally the same as human development, and the relevant institutions are usually taken to include educationhealth caresocial securitylabour rights, as well as a broader system of public servicesprogressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealthequality of opportunity, and no gross inequality of outcome.
Sounds good to me. But do all stakeholders agree on this? In any case, just because you call something "social justice" doesn't mean that it is.

5. I'm wondering if there's a disconnect between public education activists who are anti-charter and parents of color who send their children to charter schools. I see a certain amount of judgement of people of color who send their kids to charter schools, especially the for-profits and "no excuses" chains. While I am troubled by the proliferation of charter schools, and especially of those of for-profits and no excuses variety, and have problems seeing them as public democratic institutions, I am also loathe to judge people who send their children to them. I'm not seeing where most people of color are gung-ho about sending their children to such charters, but rather that they see it as the least bad option. Or maybe, it's matter of values matching up. Even as I acknowledge that the "market" is rigged in well-endowed charter chains' favors, I find it problematic to assume that people whose children go to them are simply pawns of that system. We need to find out why people of color send their children to charter schools when they do. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students. I don't think that that means we should destroy the traditional public schools system--I think we should make it better for all students, but "rigged market" aside, we need to explore what might cause people who would otherwise support public schools to leave them.

6. When people say "we need to reach out to communities of color" and the group they are addressing includes people of color, there is something wrong. That "we" is excluding and sounds like the people of color already in the group are invisible. Furthermore, whose movement is it? Who owns it? If said policies are affecting mostly communities of color, should white people put themselves in charge of the movement?

7. Sometimes, I see or read about injustices that happen to people of color in the education sector and I am outraged or troubled and I want to write about them. I can use any megaphone I have to try to get others thinking about these things, to try to effect change, and I can use my white privilege to try to get through to those who don't see a problem. But in doing that, am I co-opting the outrage? Am I associating the problem with me, a white woman, rather than "making space for people of color to share their experiences directly," as a friend of color recently spoke of? By listening to and talking to someone who might not listen as easily to my black, native American, Asian or Latina equivalent, am I perpetuating their racism?

Where's the line between being an ally and an activist and being patronizing or speaking for people of color? I mean, I know where the line is in some cases. I am not Trayvon Martin, for example, and it made me cringe to see white women saying #iamtrayvonmartin. I remember thinking, No , you're not. If you were Trayvon Martin, he wouldn't be dead. That's the whole point. Maybe I shouldn't have published this piece, for example. But the guy was making all of these racist assumptions (based on inaccuracies to boot!) and it made me mad. But was it my place to rant about it? Was I co-opting?

8. Even in 2014, inequality is not just "about class, not race." It's seductive to think so, and I went through a phase of thinking this, but espousing such a point of view means ignoring the role of history on conditions today and it means telling a person of color that the prejudice they experience does not exist. Even if it is more about class now than race, race very much determined class, and still does at least to a certain extent. I refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates:
When you hear people claiming that "class" can somehow account for the damage of white supremacy, or making spurious comparisons between Appalachia and Harlem,  you should be skeptical. I have made those comparisons. But learning is the entire point of researching, writing, and reporting. I am learning that you can not simply wish the past away. 
White-supremacist policy is older than this country. It begins with the slave codes in mid-17th-century colonial Virginia. It proceeds through the the 18th century, inscribing itself into our Constitution. It moves into the 19th century with such force that slaves alone were worth more than all the productive capacity of the country put together. War was waged to assure slavery's continuance. The war was lost. We had a chance to do the right thing. We didn't. So white supremacist policy endured. Even American liberalism's proudest moment -- the New Deal -- would be unimaginable without its aid. This era of policy did not close until the late 1960s, well within the living memory of many Americans. 
In the face of this, liberals today are arguing that 300 years of immoral policy can be undone by changing the subject. If only we can fool white racists by helping black people under the guise of "class," maybe we can get out from under this. But the math says that black people are a class unto themselves. There is no "black and white" elite, no "black and white" middle class, no colorless poor. And when you consider that white supremacy is a dominant strain in our history, how could there be? 


1 comment:

  1. Good post. And this: "I'm wondering if there's a disconnect between public education activists who are anti-charter and parents of color who send their children to charter schools."

    Um yeah, no s***! See this, for example: http://horacemanifesto.tumblr.com/post/80396504281/the-racial-myopia-of-diane-ravitch

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