I doubt Dr. King would support bad schools
January 18, 2016

Here we go again. Another year of invoking the name of Dr. Martin Luther King and walking away with little to show for it.

Out of all the contributors to black thought and American life we pretend Dr. King is a shared hero, the single unifying point of racial and economic re-calibration. By “we” I mean the interracial spaces where careful narrators have made him a saint, a metaphysical property, rather than one actor in a large complex story with several new chapters since his passing.

That’s illogical, but so what?

I’m not sure I can contribute much by adding to that conceit. I am not a dreamer. I’m a latter-day education activist who believes in the abolition rather than reformation of racist systems of education.

By racist I mean systems that explain away abysmal rates of proficiency for people of color by blaming students and their parents for the disaster rather than reflecting honestly on their own efficacy.

There is one way forward for me. It starts with a rebirth in the systems that develops black minds. Liberating black children from schools that harm them is job one. That and erecting new schools designed to produce literate, numerate, and intellectually engaged black people capable of building better communities for their children.

If that is the vision, it has a few points of contention ably illustrated by recent writings from two other black education activists.

A few days ago The Seventy Four ran a piece from Derrell Bradford that compared the “white moderate” found in King’s stinging letter from a Birmingham jail to today’s opponents of school reform. It was ballsy in the way it aligned Dr. King with a reform “movement” often downcast as the product of plutocracy.

Bradford tells an ironic truth about how the left-wing fight against making schools accountable for results is an affront to social justice, and a firewall to black progress.

Bradford says:

This devotion to “order” over “justice,” as King described it, is on display in both the  anti-testing (opt-out) and anti-charter movements, which both trouble me deeply. On the one hand, they send a clear message to minority families about who has the power to make government responsive and who doesn’t. On the other, they work to shatter the pillars of equality and freedom that have long been in short supply in communities of color.

Offering a different opinion, Jose Vilson blogged (or, sub-blogged) on Medium, not really tackling the problem, but assailing Bradford for co-opting Dr. King in a “disingenuous” attempt to support school choice. It’s a bitter post that rightfully scolds some nameless, faceless group of people for missing the deeper meaning of King’s work.

It also self-righteously grants social justice credibility to people who defend the traditional education hegemony over those of us who feel “the system” won’t be right until it’s born again, this time with black people in mind.

Bradford’s piece focuses on dominant white liberals who talk a good game about integration and social justice while blocking access for poor families to better educational opportunities.

Vilson’s focuses on Bradford.

While I respect both of their black minds, and I disagree with both from time to time, Bradford’s take here is the one that leads to more freedom for black people.

Will the real Dr. King please stand up?

Our obsession with reanimating the hologram of Dr. King to divine some sort of moral authority in social disputes is time wasted. But, as a hugely important historical thinker, strategist, and philosopher, we can’t discount his voice either.

I can’t speak for him, but I take note of a few things that seem important for today’s struggle.

In a private moment with two black educators Dr. King expressed reservations about school integration because white teachers and school systems saw black students as inferior. He said “[p]eople with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.”

He was aware of systemic problems in the education system, saying “[i]n elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools receive substantially less money per student than the white schools. One-twentieth as many Negroes as whites attend college. Of employed Negroes, seventy-five percent hold menial jobs.”

The day he died Dr. King was enacting a “poor people’s” campaign for full employment and an economic bill of rights to address rural and urban poverty.

Put it all together and it speaks to a need to put our kids in schools that keep us in charge of their development; schools that help them keep pace with other children; and schools that send more of them to college so they can escape menial work and be prepared for high-wage, high-growth opportunities.

That is the aim of most people I know attempting to “reform” public education. Their brass ring is higher levels of achievement for people who have been previously written off.

Today black children are most likely to have failing schools. They get the worst teachers. We are turning them over to the very people Dr. King feared as our teachers, and research shows that has an impact on academic outcomes, absences, and suspensions.

Forget the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” watch groups like the Badass Teachers Association to see the cold white ass of straight up institutional racism.

They fight data gathering for civil rights purposes, interventions in sputtering schools, and new school options poor families. The result of their agenda is poor black families ghettoized into schools everyone else runs from, and the placid promise that one day things will work.

They tell us not to expect proficient children until the economy of the United States has fully transitioned from capitalism to socialism, or until schools are funded to some undetermined level, or until some improbable thing happens.

Their activism amounts to little more than the pursuit of a middle class educational hegemony – for themselves.

We need new schools, new teachers, and new practices. We won’t get there by defending old schools, old teachers, and yesterday’s game plan.

There are millions of jobs unfilled in this country. There are millions of people of color that need jobs. The missing link between the two poles is education and training.

Something tells me Dr. King would be the first person to understand that math.



  1. When you wrote: ” I’m a latter day education activist who believes in the abolition rather than reformation of racist systems of education.” I don’t know which systems of education you were referring to, but the first thing that came to mind was New Orleans, where I taught for two years before the storm. Is that a system you considered to be racist? The school I worked at had only two white teachers and other professionals. I was one of them. I don’t consider my self racist, but I was accused of that at that school until people met my African American wife and two sons, but that is really beside the point. NOPS was a largely black schools system with a largely black staff. Sure it had its problems and sure there were some incompetent and corrupt employees, But remember this is Lousiana. The land of Huey Long and citadel of corruption and ignorance. The thing is many of these black, middle class professionals were let go and not permitted to return and were replaced with young white dilettantes. Would not it have been better to retain these teachers, who knew the community, invest in them and improve the system. This would produce and generation of black educator to pass on what they learned. Remember, Dr. King was a strong supporter of unions. Indeed, he went to Memphis to speak to the striking garbage collectors union. I am sure he I have no illusions about the racist nature of education in Louisiana. It is still a white controlled state with a White in charge(get it?). I return to NOLA every year and there is a great deal of unhappiness about the choice schools.

  2. I’d agree that NOLA has a long history of systemic racism, especially in the schools.

    We have lots of “leaders” who are strong supporters of unions, but put their own kids in private school. Nowhere is that more prevalent than NOLA. Lots of focus on the teachers who couldn’t pass a basic skills test after Katrina, but little focus on the generations of underclass students who were abused in the previous system.

  3. Great post.

    • Thanks Amy!

  4. Apropos unions, we had a provincial teachers’ union leader here in British Columbia, Canada, around 2005 compare herself to Rosa Parks. You know, because she was opposing things like “data gathering for civil rights purposes, interventions in sputtering schools, and new school options poor families. The result of their agenda is poor black families ghettoized into schools everyone else runs from, and the placid promise that one day things will work.” (groups other than black in Canada – indeed, often white, but I’ll take the quote). Oh, and the union had taken the teachers out on an illegal strike so I guess she was feeling persecuted. It worked for her; she went on to be elected to Canada’s national parliament.
    Dr. King may well have supported unions, but that was before public sector unionism and in particular teacher unionism, which are nothing more and nothing less than organizations that profit from student failure, teacher failure and teacher stress, and above all, conflict and polarization. Wellington and Winter’s 1969-71 articles gave a prescient account of public sector collective bargaining effects. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1961/ and http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1963/. Or their book, Unions and the Cities.

  5. I doubt Dr King would support schools for the “strivers” leaving the rest to eat cake.

    • All schools have strivers. I doubt Dr. King would demean the worth of children in traditional public schools by insinuating that kids who stay in their neighborhood schools aren’t as motivated as others.

      • No, he wouldn’t. Unfortunately, we get that from charters and their supporters.

  6. The thing that i admire most about charter schools is the way they are willing to suspend students. Here in New York City, charter schools have over twice the suspensions you find in public schools. I am sick of the politically correct, let’s meet the child’s needs crap you see in public schools. If a kindergarten kid acts up in a charter school, they suspend him. If charter schools continue their expansion, we should have suspension rates more than double. That’s what this country needs.

    • Charter schools are popular with parents.


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