by Mike Spangenberg
Like so many other forms of injustice, educational inequity may be a multifaceted reality. But it is not mysterious. Putting the lie to the idea that explanations of educational oppression are ephemeral and elusive is crucial. Educational oppression is a form of racism and classism. And it is done on purpose. More of us need to say so clearly, without equivocation.
One of the most pernicious narratives we White people use to prop up a system of White supremacy is the notion that this system is really difficult to grasp, amorphous, vexing. Oh, and maybe it doesn’t exist at all.
Here’s a recent example of this narrative in action in Minnesota.
Recently released U.S. census data show that income for Black residents of Minnesota plummeted in the last year, making the state the 45th worst in the country for median Black income. This result, the local paper pointed out in its condescending subheadline for its liberal northern readers, puts us “behind Mississippi.”
In a follow-up piece, the paper says these data “defy easy explanation.”
Except that they don’t. Here’s an easy explanation:
We provide Black children with a criminally inferior education. This includes everything from denial of resources and limited course offerings, to White supremacist curricula, to culturally incompetent (if not culturally hostile) educators, to lowered expectations as a result of individual racism. Young people who heroically persist in spite of this miseducation are then met with discriminatory policing, discrimination in hiring for jobs, discrimination in pay once they get a job, and discrimination in workplace treatment as they strive to sustain that job. When they try to buy a house to build wealth, they face discriminatory lending practices compounded by good old neighborhood racism, which means they’re more likely to end up in a neighborhood with a school that will provide a criminally inferior education to their children. Repeat.
There. That was one paragraph. Data like these only defy explanation if one starts from the premise that MAYBE there’s racism…BUT MAYBE THERE’S NOT! If we treat individual and systemic racism as unsettled questions, or perhaps provocative theories, then of course the data seem confusing.
Watching dominant coverage and discourse that dances around racism as the obvious cause of so much disparity sometimes feels like this:
*Observes that thrown objects keep falling to the ground*
“Things that I throw keep stubbornly falling to the ground. This reality continues to vex me. What is going on??”
“Whoah! Don’t impose your magical theories on me. Some people say there’s gravity, but some people say there isn’t. How do you explain that?”
“Well, I may not be able to easily explain every element of how gravity works, but the evidence for its existence is beyond overwhelming, don’t you—“
“THEN HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN BIRDS?!?”
Dissembling, obfuscation, and misdirection about racism characterize discourse and coverage of every facet of our lives, including education. Indeed, we set up massive non-profit apparatuses to study and think hard about the vexingness of educational oppression. These apparatuses spend incredible amounts of energy raising and spending money ostensibly to combat the effects of White supremacy, but precious little energy saying its name and interrogating their role in its perpetuation.
The media equivocation on race is near universal. Minnesota Public Radio has a habit of referring to a “stubborn achievement gap” in the state, as though it were some Syrah stain that just will not get out of a favorite cream cardigan. It takes some kind of willful denial to live in a society that has its foot on the neck of people of color and then call their struggle to rise up “stubborn.”
But it’s essential for the status quo to perpetuate the idea that racialized oppression defies understanding or explanation. That it is something that might be happening, somehow, but that no one is actually doing it.
This is the lie we must name. It isn’t mystifying. It isn’t ethereal. It isn’t theoretical. Individual people, and the systems they control, intentionally and explicitly oppress people of color. It is done by people, largely White people. It is done on purpose.
You’ll often find the most conspicuous examples of White people asserting our supremacy when we perceive that our positions of relative advantage are threatened. In education, this often takes the form of proposals to splinter enclaves of Whiteness and affluence. Just a couple recent examples:
Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her oft-shared podcast and written reporting, documents how, despite signs of success, White people in Missouri have a decades-long track record of fighting efforts to integrate schools. Most recently, when families attending predominantly-Black Normandy schools were given the option to attend school in another district, White people in neighboring districts went berserk. The recordings of packed school board meeting with parents prefacing baldly racist statements with “this isn’t about race,” seem shocking, but shouldn’t. This is how White people react when our positions of advantage are challenged.
In Brooklyn right now, there is a proposal to relieve overcrowding at a predominantly-White school by merging with an under-enrolled predominantly-Black school. The White parents are predictably losing their shit.
In Minneapolis, we have a strikingly similar situation. As a whole, Minneapolis Public Schools have more high school seats than high school students. But Southwest High School, in an affluent, White corner of the city, has been getting crowded. In a just world, students in each of the city’s high schools would be receiving a quality education, and you could just move some students to another high school. But we don’t live in a just world. We live in a world where White people sit in unearned positions of advantage and fight passionately to preserve those positions.
So despite the fact that the city does not need any additional high school seats, despite the fact that Southwest already has three times as many course offerings as its counterpart in North Minneapolis, despite the fact that Southwest has a graduation rate of 81% compared to 37% at North, and despite any number of injustices our schools perpetuate against low income kids of color in the rest of the city, the district endorsed a plan to preserve, protect, and subsidize the position of advantage held by White people like me in southwest Minneapolis.
Here are photos of progress on the expansion of Southwest High School, for which the district is paying $40 million.
Southwest parents don’t even try to mask their assertion of supremacy, loudly threatening the school board that the “good” parents will leave if their wishes aren’t granted.
This pattern is what happens time and time again when the advantages and privileges of White people are threatened. This is racism, pure and simple. And we need to call it that, pure and simple.
For as long as we perpetuate the elusiveness of oppression, we can’t be expected to do much more about it than engage in thought-provoking conversations over light appetizers at a non-profit-sponsored conference. If we state plainly the realities of White supremacy and other forms of oppression, we might have to do something about them.
For those of us who are White, we cannot allow the dissembling, obfuscation, misdirection, and, critically, silence about racism to predominate the White spaces we occupy. We have to break the unspoken compact not to infringe on the comfort of others by speaking racism’s name. We have to start conversations with it, and insist others start there, and stay there, too.
Racial oppression may be complex, but it is not mysterious. White people take actions to protect our existing privileges. These actions result in the continued oppression of others.
Any path to dismantling White supremacy cannot possibly involve merely prodding it tangentially and implicitly. We have to call it what it is.