I will never know what it is like to be black. Despite the fact that I grew up in black neighborhoods, went to mostly black schools, keep black friends, teach black students, listen to black music and, sometimes, use black slang, the truth is that I will never come close to knowing what being black in America is like. Furthermore, I cannot begin to fathom the types of advantages conferred upon me merely for being a white man (a tall one at that). Despite the fact that I grew up poor and my ancestors were Eastern Europeans who never owned slaves, I know on some level that the color of my skin has played a role in where I am today. When approaching the race issue, a healthy amount of deference must be paid to these factors.
Education reform, and the backlash against it, largely turns on issues of race. Elitist reformers try to occupy the moral high ground by implying that their programs are designed to uplift the chocolate parts of urban areas. The results of these reforms, especially in places like Washington, D.C., speak for themselves. The “achievement gap” is as wide as ever. In New York City, the schools that have been closed have been the ones that serve minority students. After 10 years of No Child Left Behind, not to mention the Race to the Top initiative that has accelerated NCLB’s goals, it is safe to say that the elite’s concern with children of color has proven to be disingenuous.
On the other hand, the people who stand against these reforms do have a genuine concern for children of color. Educators, parents, students and concerned citizens that have endured these reforms are under no illusions as to what they have done to inner city schools. The reason why so many veteran teachers like me harbor a deep mistrust of the Teach for America program is because we know the philosophy that gave birth to it. Teaching in the inner city is not charity work. If you are not in it for the long haul, then you should not be in it at all. If your concern with the schooling of brown children is about allaying your own liberal guilt, then your concern is not real.
Ironically, the activists who are genuinely concerned with children of the inner city are divided on the race issue. On the one hand, there are those who point to the persistent achievement gap and segregation in public schools as evidence that race needs to be the starting point for the battle against education reform. The other hand points to the impacts of poverty on schooling and believes class struggle needs to be the centerpiece of public education activism. These types of squabbles over strategy and priority have traditionally torn leftist movements asunder in the past. The one thing both camps have in common, and the thing that distinguishes them from the elitist education reformers, is that they actually believe what they claim to stand for.
Unfortunately, a genuine concern for public education is not enough to take back our schools. At some point, we will need actual victories and concrete plans. I do not know how to reconcile the two camps and I do not know which side has the better strategy. What I do know, however, is a little bit of history.
Historically, movements that have centered on racial issues have had some success. The abolitionist movement, despite initially being reviled by most whites, helped nudge the north and Lincoln over to its cause. The civil rights movement was wildly successful in getting the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed through Congress. During the 1990s, the culture wars led to more sensitive treatment of minority topics in public schools and universities, ushering in the era of “political correctness.” This was on the heels of decades of affirmative action programs that were, albeit, continuously weakened over the years . With the exception of abolition, these victories were limited, but they were victories nonetheless.
On the other hand, movements that have centered on issues of class have largely failed. The Populist Party of the late 1800s took form after uniting white and black farmers in the west. Indeed, many of their early victories on the local level were due to the combined voting power of black and white men. But with the advent of women’s suffrage in western states, the co-opting of the Populists by the racist Democratic Party and the institution of Jim Crow in the south, ruling elites were effectively able to drive a wedge between the races of the lower classes. The communist protests of the early 1920s were viciously suppressed by the Palmer Raids. The Black Panther Party, which really was a movement that attempted to fold all oppressed people under the umbrella of communism, was hounded and eventually destroyed by the FBI. (You can read my treatment of the Black Panthers here). Martin Luther King himself was assassinated when he started concentrating on the rights of poor workers. Something seems to scare the ruling elites about overtly class conscious movements, causing them to work overtime for their destruction.
In a book that I often cite on this blog, “Downsizing Democracy”, the authors dedicate some time to modern civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. They point to their fights for fairer hiring and promotion practices in corporate America, as well as their battles over use of the “N” word, as bread and butter issues of middle class blacks. It is unlikely that the poor minorities of the inner cities cared much about these things. Perhaps they have learned from history to keep issues of poverty and issues of race separate.
In the end, I do not know the best route to take for public school activists. As a white man, it is easy for me to lump race in with issues of class and tell black leaders that they should hitch their wagons to the star of economic equality. What I do know for a fact is that whether we stand against education reform because it is racist or because it is classist, our convictions are genuine and born out of first-hand experience with what has been happening to our schools. Perhaps this should be our starting point. Perhaps instead of trying to push our individual agendas to the forefront, we should unite over the issues that promise victories against education reform. I have no answers to provide in this regard. But perhaps education activists can unite behind the practical question of from what direction is our next victory likely to come?