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? 


On strange bedfellows in ed reform skepticism

Lately there has been some debate over whether progressives align themselves with the Tea Party to defeat the Common Core. I would argue that progressives should be skeptical of aligning ourselves with Tea Party at all because it is an affront to anti-racism and it may lead us to win the battle but lose the war for public education.

Within the progressive white education reform movement, there seems to be a troubling double standard, among some members. Why is it an unacceptable violation take Gates money, find common ground with Gates, or consider any potential merits of the Common Core, while working with the Tea Party (many members of which don't think public education should exist) on one issue is acceptable because it's "pragmatic"?

 Nancy Flanagan brought it up a couple of months ago and concluded:
Agreeing with the folks who see the Common Core as tearing children from the arms of their parents is a dangerous business. Let's have a rational conversation about the uses and misuses of content standards.
I agree: Public education advocacy work should be about policies and not about aligning ourselves with individuals or groups--in this case policies about standards and discussions about their use. If individuals or groups endorse the same policies I do, so be it. If your elected official happens to be a Tea Partier, you should still call them to express your views. Just because members of the Tea Party are in power doesn't mean we should abdicate our rights and powers as citizens, or that we should give up hope that people can change their opinions. I will never surrender my rightful role in the political process or give up give up efforts, if I think they might be fruitful, to change someone's point of view.

Jose Vilson addressed the issue on his blog and at the NPE:
There’s a big difference between having a difference of opinion, as so many do with our union representatives, for example, and a difference of vision. The difference is in how we view others in the same tent. Do we see each other as equal, capable of leading this movement, or as subordinate, a step towards a goal that eventually excludes? Inclusion along race, gender, and class lines matters. Examining the ways in which we hinder ourselves is so crucial to this work.

Some have responded to this by saying that saving public education is the bigger picture. But whose bigger picture? Don't they understand that for people of color, the bigger picture includes one where they are not considered as less than others because of the color of their skin? Asking people in the public education advocacy community to compartmentalize racism and "balance it" with other concerns is not reasonable. None of us should be doing that, none of us should lose sight of the components of the bigger picture. Part of white privilege is having the luxury to compartmentalize issues, i.e., saying this is about race and this isn't, or even though this is about race, I can see past that to the bigger picture. And in that case we're also, as white people, controlling the conversation, i.e., "This is/isn't about race because I say it is." or "Race doesn't matter here as much as preserving public education because that's the issue that is most important to me." Of course it wouldn't matter as much to a white person because it doesn't have to. No one is going to shoot one of us for walking down the street or stopping in a gas station while being white. Furthermore, what if the Tea Party's bigger picture includes the end of public education?

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates on supporting Ron Paul and Rand Paul is instructive here. The War on Drugs and War on Terror/ NSA over-reach are awful policies that Ron and Rand Paul are against. But both have also promoted all kinds of racist bile. (And also think public education should not exist). I agree that the War on Drugs needs to end but I can not see getting it to end by propping up men such as Ron or Rand Paul even if temporarily. If you read some of TNC's thoughts about his peers' embracing of the Pauls you can get an idea of the position that any alliance with the Tea Party regarding Common Core puts a person of color from our public education community in:
To those who dimly perceived something wrong, something that could not be put on a placard, or could not move the party machine, men such as this become something more than political operators, they become symbols. Substantive charges against them, no matter the reasons, are dismissed. The movement they represent means more. But as sure as the followers of Farrakhan deserved more than UFOs, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, those of us who oppose the drug-war, who oppose the Patriot Act deserve better than Ron Paul. 
It is not enough to simply proffer Paul as a protest candidate.One must fully imagine the import of a Paul presidency. How, precisely, would Paul end the drug war? What, exactly, would he do about the Middle East? How, specifically,would the world look for women under a Ron Paul presidency?  
And then the dispatches must be honestly grappled with: It must be argued that a man who could not manage a newsletter should be promoted to managing a nuclear arsenal. Failing that, it must be asserted that a man who once claimedthat black people were knowingly injecting white people with HIV, who fund-raised by predicting a race-war, who handsomely profited from it all, should lead the free world. If that line falls too, we are forced to confess that  Ron Paul regularly summoned up the specters of racism for his own politically gain, and thus stands convicted of moral cowardice.

It's a no-brainer and it should be. I, Rachel, might protest Big Data or the Common Core but I protest far more any person or group who thinks people of color as less than white people or who thinks the Civil Rights movement is bogus. I'm willing to talk and listen to them but I'm not willing to prop up people of such political views even temporarily.

I have written a few times about the shortcomings of single-issue advocacy. Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst defend their support of anti-gay, anti-poor people, and otherwise right-wing legislators by saying that their issue is education reform and not GLTB rights or poverty. And our community is always criticizing TFA for taking Walton money. Well, this is not dissimilar. To quote myself:
When reformers see fit to hand over the reigns of a sacred, public, democratic institution to people who hate the government, how is that supposed to work out? How can these education "reformers" imagine that anti-intellectuals can have anything of substance to offer to the intellectual pursuit of education? Is getting your questionable education reforms passed really worth empowering people who don't value knowledge-based education, public or otherwise? At some point, being anti-science and anti-intellectual means you're anti-education. If you have disdain for the creation of knowledge, or for knowledge itself even, you can't really be trusted to oversee the reform of one of our society's principal mechanisms for generating and transferring knowledge. 
The problem with a single-issue approach to education reform is that students don't lead single-issue lives. Democrats and neo-liberals who support decision-makers who would use their power to crush the Democratic party (through a war on unions of all stripes), who hate gay people, who deny climate change science, who support the disastrous Wars on Drugs and Terror, who don't even have the support of the saner members of their own party, who sell their states off to the highest bidders are acting irresponsibly and short-sightedly. 
Do we really want to employ a pyromaniac to fix our fireplaces if it means giving him the opportunity soon thereafter to burn down our homes? When I do the calculus, I don't see children or students, public or knowledge-rich and meaningful education winning. I see homo-phobic, poverty-criminalizing, anti-intellectual, knowledge-agnostic, right-wing ideology winning and I have yet to understand why any self-described liberal or education reformer would support that.

To read some thoughts and questions I posted as a follow-up to this post, go here.