Racism and Reform: A Professional View

Few topics of discussion generate as much acrimony as racism in education. A recent book review in Education Next illustrates this point.

Mark Bauerlein reviewed the book “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. A book review usually starts by describing the central arguments of the book in as neutral a way as possible, then ends with a critique of those arguments. That way, both sides get a fair hearing and the readers can weigh the arguments for themselves. This was not the format Bauerlein followed.

From the opening paragraph, he was all over Delpit. Turgidly, Delpit’s argument is that the classroom is a middle-class white space. Black students do not succeed in this space because their behaviors either do not conform to, or are constantly being misinterpreted by, the white middle-class educators in this space. This causes black children to internalize the negative view of them held by their educators. They end up becoming either “invisible” or “hypervisible” as a result. A possible antidote to this is for the white middle-class classroom to become more sensitive to the values of black children by being more “collaborative”. Another possible antidote is for the curriculum to be more “afrocentric”.

There is nothing new under the sun, it seems, as far as Delpit’s arguments go. They are the well-worn critiques of cultural insensitivity in public education to which anyone who has been through a college teaching program has been exposed.

At the same time, Bauerlein parades out some familiar tropes himself. He explains that making schools more culturally sensitive will not improve the college or work readiness of black students. He criticizes Delpit’s approach that focuses on educational inputs and ignores “outcomes”. He suggests, although does not outright claim, that we would be better served with following a model of school accountability where we export what the best schools do to every other school. Throughout his review, Bauerlein is confident that Bill Gates, Teach for America and other familiar figures of education reform are genuinely committed to closing the achievement gap. He cannot figure out why Lisa Delpit questions their motives or believes that Gates and his rich pals are using poor black children as convenient vehicles for tax write-offs.

Joanne Jacobs steps in to buttress Bauerlein’s ravaging of Lisa Delpit by citing what she calls the “no excuses” schools that tell their students to leave street culture on the street.

While I do not agree with much of what Delpit says, I cannot sympathize much with Bauerlein or Jacobs either. Taken together, Bauerlein and Jacobs demonstrate a neat, simplistic way of thinking about schools that is downright scary. To say that street culture can be left on the street is unrealistic. Culture is a way of life, not a location. One does not merely shed it when stepping into another place, whether it is the schoolhouse or the work environment.

Indeed, the way Bauerlein and Jacobs respond to Delpit’s book only serves to lend credence to Delpit’s thesis. While white students get a nice, humanistic education, black students get “no excuses”, a philosophy that usually demands that black students act in a manner agreeable to their wealthy and overwhelmingly white school masters. There is a white paternalism, almost an inverted and domestic imperialism, underlying the philosophy behind charter schools and Teach for America. The thinking seems to be that all black students need is to be taught to walk in a straight line, to march quietly through the hallways and to sit with hands folded as their young, white, privileged (and non-union) teachers model for them how to act properly. Is this a new incarnation of the White Man’s Burden? Are these the ghosts of white paternalism that salved the conscience of many a God-fearing slave owner during the antebellum era? Was it not popular for slave owners to believe that enveloping the savage African under the wing of the benevolent, Christian southern gentleman would bring the black race along towards civilization?

The parallels are indeed scary.

On the other hand, my issue with Delpit is her tendency to descend into “culture talk”. I encountered “culture talk” in college when I was required to read The Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook. This is the book that portrays people as functions of their cultures. Asians are passive and respectful. Whites are industrious and individualistic. Blacks are celebratory and collaborative. The book boils the characteristics of billions of individuals down to one or two behavioral stereotypes, then recommends that schools gear themselves to be “sensitive” to these stereotypes.

It is a world view where individuals do not exist. People’s character traits are determined by their race or culture. They can be segregated into neat categories and educated accordingly. Rather than train teachers to hone in on what makes each individual child tick in order to enable them to communicate with each child effectively, the CLAD Handbook seeks to train teachers to hone in on race in the belief that to know a child’s race is to know the child.

Here is where Delpit and the culture talkers have something in common with the education reformers. Both of them seek to simplify teaching. They lay down very broad prescriptions. “Do this, and achieve this outcome”. It is as easy as heating up frozen pizza. All one has to know is how high to preheat the oven.

In my experience, teaching children is a matter of human interaction. It is a matter of finding that basic place of human decency that all people have and then acting upon it. It is a matter of showing children through actions that you are “for them”, you are on their side and have their best interests at heart. It is a matter of communicating clearly in a way that melts cultural barriers, instead of going around cultural barriers because they are so impenetrable.

How does a teacher do this? Is there an “outcome-based way” that can be statistically “quantified” and “exported” around the country to ensure “success”, as the education reformers seek to do? Can a teacher merely take “no excuses” and tell them to leave their street selves “on the street”? This would be real easy for me as a teacher. I would not have to go through the messy process of knowing about my students as human beings. Instead, I can merely demand that they act the way I want them to act, since I know best as their white, educated teacher.

In her book, Lisa Delpit tells the story of a white teacher whose students labeled him “black” because he made his curriculum “afrocentric”. It was a show of respect, an acknowledgment by his students that he understood them. I told a similar story in a recent blog post where a few of my black students said that I was black. I too took it as a compliment. Yet, I was not black because I was “afrocentric”. I believe I was “black” because I tried to respect my students, no matter their race, as individuals. In short, I was black because I did not see black and did not preoccupy myself with factoring in a student’s race when communicating with them. This has everything to do with me growing up as a poor city kid where the students I teach now could have easily been my friends and neighbors when I was in school.

What this tells me is that the culture talkers and education reformers both speak from ivory towers, laying down pronouncements and solutions applicable everywhere at anytime. Teachers, on the other hand, have to learn how to communicate with their students as people. One cannot read a book or do a study on how to communicate. One must merely learn by doing. This is what makes teaching an art, a craft, a skill, a profession. There are no easy answers and no handbook solutions. We must all find our own ways through struggle and experience.

It is not what either side wants to hear. The education reformers especially would like to reduce teaching to the Taylorist motions of automatons. We, as professionals, must stake our claim to teaching as an art. Outsiders can give their critiques, but they should not be allowed to dictate policy. Once that happens, we can watch as all of the useless prescriptions of educrats fizzle away into irrelevance.

Additionally, teachers communicate with their students easier when they come from the communities in which they serve. One of the most ominous impacts of the education reform movement has been the disappearance of the black educator. Many veteran teachers, including a healthy proportion of minorities, have been hounded out of the system in order to make way for cheaper and whiter teachers. It has happened in NYC and Chicago especially. This does not strictly mean that black teachers teach black students best. But it does mean that teachers who come from the same communities as their students have an easier time of reaching them. Me being raised in a poor urban community helps me communicate with my poor urban students. Today, it is a sad fact that outsiders are preferred over community members to not only educate poor students, but to run the school systems of poor students as well. (See the abolition of democratically-elected boards of education in favor of mayoral control in major urban areas.) Again, this reflects the paternalistic mindset that underlies much of modern education reform.

Delpit is correct to point out the racism in today’s schooling. Her detractors in this piece are her best pieces of evidence.

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3 responses to “Racism and Reform: A Professional View

  1. Well said, my esteemed colleague, but n.b. that her name is Delpit ( I read her book “Other People’s Children”).

  2. Thank you ! Teaching is all about finding the common ground-letting students know that we care as a human being. There are no easy fixes or prescriptions.

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