Race and Education in America

The reason why race is so important to discussions about education reform is that the legacy of racism in America is an indelible psychic scar that not only continues to cause pain, it is an active, living force in American social life. Racism was not merely an impolite or inelegant way of looking at the world, racism was not just a collection of bad ideas and sentiments, it was, and continues to be, a social system of unequal distribution and oppression.

In brief: the history of race in America is fundamentally a history of plunder. Basically, it’s all a matter of patterned, systematic extraction of black labor, wealth, and income to the benefit of institutions that operate to their exclusion. The American story of race has a deep history but it is not a relic of history. What began with slavery (the malicious plunder of bodies, labor, and children) begat Jim Crow—another more complex version of plunder.

During and after Jim Crow, redlining was a way of taking housing opportunities and the possibilities of wealth accumulation through real estate. Segregation was a way of restricting access to vital goods and services. Make no mistake about it, the wealth gape between white and black Americans was a very specific and fine-tuned project of social engineering. “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” (President Johnson)

Not having the right to vote or having that right restricted prevented people from having control over where their tax dollars went. Meaning: voting restrictions are not only unjust in a constitutional sense, they are more importantly a way of stealing wealth and access to resources.

The process of plunder—the social and psychological mechanisms used to control both black people and poor white people—manifested deeply held and terrifying side-effects in both black and white America. White supremacy became a religion of sorts. Racial division was very much a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow and not a precondition. So unfortunately, once Jim Crow ended newer and ever more complicated techniques of racial plunder were allowed to spring up in the place where racist ideas, sentiments, and unconscious biases were left fallow, untilled and prime for exploitative profit-seeking and the consolidation of power.

The U.S. Constitution had abolished slavery but allowed one major loophole: crime. Slavery is alive and thriving in America, primarily as punishment for poverty, petty theft, non-citizen status, and nonviolent drug offenses. The current mechanism of plunder is mass incarceration and restricted access to education.

The payoff of this complex form of social control and plunder is pretty straightforward: if you are a young black man in Chicago you are more likely to go to prison than college. However, the mechanisms of the system are manifold and constantly changing. They are not easily identified, summarized, schematized, or theorized over. That is precisely what makes these social systems so dangerous and powerful.

Charter schools destroy the institutional memory of local brick-and-mortar public schools. Get-tough and “no-excuse” tactics groom students for a life of incarceration. Lack of epistemic resources  in ghettos (libraries, bookstores, museums, schools, experts) starve young, growing minds of emotional, educational, and developmental nutrition that effects the rest of their life (i.e. The Bronx has no bookstores and therefore low reading scores.) Overcrowding in poor, metropolitan areas restricts access to one-on-one time with teachers. Bad schools breed truancy which lowers enrollment rates and sucks out funds from public institutions. Institutionalization (meaning the psychic legacy of intergenerational incarceration) manufactures an entrenched culture lacking a sense of self-respect and cultivates maladapted responses to conflict, which furthers the cycle of violence and incarceration.

The problem here is that these very complex set of social systems are only a small fraction of the ones that continue to perpetuate the legacy of racism today. This stuff is, frankly, incredibly hard to talk about. It’s all as equally depressing as it is complex and therefore not very conducive to kitchen table conversation.

However, the brutal reality is that if we can’t find the inner courage to talk about race, racism will win. Racism survived the bloodiest conflict in the history of America (bloodier than every other conflict combined), it survived the heroism of the civil rights leaders, it survived the election of the first black president, and it did so with a vengeance.

The fact is that we can’t afford to defer the conversation about white supremacy for even a single moment longer. It has proven itself to be the most obstinate social institution in the entire history of America. How could we even possibly think we could fight something so tough if we can’t even talk about what it means to fight it?

White supremacy never sleeps—it never slows of its own accord—so, neither can we.


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