Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
** Ella Baker
A dominant narrative in contemporary school reform is once again focused on exclusion and disadvantage, race and class, Black and white. “Across the US,” the National Governor’s Association declared in 2005, “a gap in academic achievement persists between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts.” This is the commonly referenced and popularly understood “racial achievement gap,” and it drives education policy at every level. Once again, whether heart-felt or self-satisfied, the narrative never mentions the monster in the room: white supremacy.
It’s true, of course, that standardized test scores reveal a difference between Black and white test-takers: 26 points in one area of comparison—fourth-grade reading—20 points in another, 23 in a third.
But the significance of those differences is wildly disputed. Some argue—as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein did in their popular and incendiary book The Bell Curve—that genetic differences account for the gap, and there’s little that can be done to lift up the poor inferior Black folks. An alternate theory—popular since the 1960’s with progressives and liberals—holds that Blacks are not inherently inferior to whites, but merely “culturally deprived,” and that fixing the “massive pathologies” in the family and community will require social engineering on a grand scale.
Each of these explanations has its large and devoted following—the first, while difficult for many whites to endorse publicly, carries the reflected power of eugenics and the certainty that what they’d always secretly suspected (that whites are indeed superior beings in so many intimately experienced ways—“I did nothing wrong, and I feel great about being me!”) is true. The second has the advantage of giving a bit more than a pig’s eye for the well-being of Black people while disturbing none of the pillars of white privilege. Either theory can live comfortably beneath the obsessive focus on the so-called achievement gap.
Clearly the second theory is in ascendency: the guys with all the money, the media, the armed forces, and the super-sized megaphones are the autocrats and the authoritarians, the plutocrats, the patricians, and all their various professional political allies—the troglodytes in Congress and the Broad Foundation, of course, but also the smart liberals and data-driven “scientific” progressives (Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Rahm Emmanuel) who are absolutely certain of their righteousness and their own beneficent intentions, who swell with pride when considering the gleaming architecture of their own specific talents that they are so generously willing to share with their inferiors in the service of general betterment, and who are always a bit taken aback and then deeply resentful when the objects of their attention and affection don’t have the good sense to comply with their plans for social uplift (school closings, a longer school day, privatization, cutting sports and arts).
Gloria Ladson-Billings upends all of this nonsense with an elegant reversal: there is no achievement gap, she argues, merely a glancing reflection of something deeper and more fundamental—America has a profound education debt. The educational inequities that began with the attempted annihilation of Native peoples and the enslavement of Africans, the conquest of a continent and the importation of both “free” labor (in chains) and serfs, has transformed into apartheid education, something anemic, inferior, inadequate, and oppressive. Over decades and then centuries the debt has accumulated and has passed from generation to generation, and it continues to develop and pile up. Jonathan Kozol has documented that the debt—far from being ameliorated—grows year by year: Chicago serves 86% Black and Latina/o students and spends around $8,000 per pupil per year while a few miles away in the tony suburb of Highland Park, 90% white, the school district spends $17,000 per student; New York City, 72% Black and Latina/o, spends around $12,000 per pupil annually while suburban Manhasset, 91% white, spends over $22,000. In most states the highest-poverty districts receive far fewer resources, and, according to Ladson-Billings, in “30 states, high minority districts receive less money for each child than low minority districts.”
Ladson-Billings imagines what could be done if the political powers took the “achievement gap” seriously: immediate reassignment of the best teachers in the country to schools for poor children of color, guaranteed places for those students in state and regional colleges and universities, smaller classes, a Marshall Plan-type effort to rebuild school infrastructure.
Ladson-Billings argues that the US also owes a moral debt to African-Americans, a debt that “reflects the disparity between what we know is right and what we actually do.”
Will America educate African-American youngsters? In 1933 Carter Woodson published The Mis-Education of the Negro, and he answered the question this way:
When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.
Woodson had in mind the way education serves the social order, the way American schools satisfy a society with identifiable structures of privilege and oppression based on race, and reflect and promote that racial stratification perfectly. When there is, for example, a pervasive sense that there is nothing about the presence of African-American youngsters, especially Black boys, that is deemed valuable or desirable or important—their presence always a problem, a deficit, an impediment—that gets manifested on the street and in the classroom.
Education, of course, is never neutral. It always has a value, a position, a politics. Education—teaching and schooling—either reinforces or challenges the existing social order. The largest, most generous purpose of education is always human enlightenment and human liberation, and the driving and undergirding principle is the unity of all humanity: every human being is of incalculable value, entitled to decent standards concerning freedom and justice and education, and any violations, deliberate or inadvertent, must be fought against, testified to, and resisted.
But because schools serve societies—in fact, in many ways all schools are microcosms of the societies in which they’re embedded—every school is both mirror and window onto a specific social reality. If one understands the schools, one can see the whole of society; if one fully grasps the intricacies of society, one will know something about how its schools are organized. In a totalitarian society, for example, schools are built for obedience and conformity; in a kingdom, the schools teach fealty; in a racialized society, educational privileges and oppressions are distributed along the color line. In an authentic democracy we would expect to find schools defined by a spirit of cooperation, inclusion, and full participation, places that honor diversity while building unity.
And that takes us to the necessary and challenging task of naming our moment—necessary because if we fail to analyze our conditions concretely we are rudderless; challenging because this moment, like every other moment, is dense with possibilities and packed with energy—it refuses to stand still and it will not be nailed down. Every analysis is partial, contingent, and unfinished. But without at least an attempt to understand in a systematic way the world around us—the apparent as well as the hidden forces at work—we are at sea.
The word “moment” is itself elastic, wobbling at the edges between a sense of the airy and the ephemeral, on one hand, and a claim to the momentous on the other. The moment is passing and profound, transient and memorable: it can be an event or a happening and it can, as well, define an epoch, a period, or an era. So we must try to name and illuminate with uncertainty and humility. We reach for the magnificent, knowing that we can never capture it and pin it to the board and, if we did, we would kill it.
We are living in the midst of an historic sea change—a dramatic and irreversible cultural, economic, and political shift—in terms of global power. The financial crisis and the cyclical economic adjustments of the day grab the headlines and draw most of the attention but just below the surface, roiling and churning, more profound upheaval is well under way: the decline of US empire and the eclipse of the “American Century” which in all likelihood (but not necessarily – it depends in part on us) will be as messy as the end of the British, French, Japanese, or Spanish empires; the turn from an economy with industry in the imperial centers to one where major production is in the colonial and post-colonial regions, which may well be (again, not inevitably) as murderous as the great leap from agriculture to industry; an unprecedented ecological dislocation that is already re-drawing all existing maps and propelling millions of environmental refugees out of their homes and into a shrinking world. The center cannot hold, and we are—each and all of us, whether we recognize it or not—in the mix and on the move, witnessing and participating in the end of empire and the creation of a new social order in one way or another.
When the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc collapsed in the 1980’s the US proclaimed itself the unrivaled leader of a uni-polar world and moved even more aggressively to dominate global resources, labor, and markets, with profits flowing exclusively toward the metropolis. Wealth poured in and businesses boomed. The export of industrial production to the Third World forced millions from rural areas to cities in Asia, African, and Latin America and drove down wages for workers in the imperial center, resulting in even greater spikes in profits. These realignments reduced metropolitan economies to service and branding, information and entertainment, credit and financial management and were accompanied necessarily by a bloated military establishment built to keep these unjust relationships intact and relatively stable.
Today however the imperial dream of an unchallenged and grotesquely lopsided world is coming to a painful end. This is not the heralded “end of history,” that weird ideology manufactured by the intellectual servants of power to explain and justify the imbalance and the injustice; rather it is the end of the arrogant hope for a thousand year Pax Americana. The evidence of terminal rot at the center is everywhere and the accompanying collapse is all around us: an economic and financial emergency based on deep structural problems; an environmental crisis which cannot and will not be ignored; the demographic changes caused by globalization and immigration leading to the fateful narrowing of a European-American majority in the US and challenges to white supremacy in Europe and elsewhere; the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” openings combined with the stalemate and impending defeat of western military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire region; and the various challenges to US hegemony from a number of directions including Europe, North Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and oddly jerry-rigged entities such as the BRIC alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China).
Another world is possible, as the hopeful slogan from the World Social Forum has it, and in fact another world is inevitable. But will it be a better world? Not necessarily—a world of permanent war and sprawling work camps, massive prisons and constant control, environmental disaster on an even more gargantuan scale is also a possibility. Nothing is guaranteed, and nothing is settled once and for all. Everything is dynamic, in motion, on the move and on the make, incomplete, unfinished. As Randy Newman sings, “The end of empire is messy at best/ and this one is ending like all the rest.” And as we must continue to remind ourselves: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”