Poverty Alone Does Not Explain Flint and Detroit

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Politics at the national and local levels revealed difficult cultural truths this week. Ta-Nehisi Coates squinted at the presidential race, when he mulled over the sincerity and insight of Bernie Sanders. The self-declared socialist presidential candidate responded to a question about reparations for Black Americans, saying the idea was implausible. Coates famously advocated reparations in a 2014 Atlantic Monthly cover story, after the idea had been dormant for decades. He pegs Sanders as insincere about political feasibility:

For those of us interested in how the left prioritizes its various radicalisms, Sanders’ answer is illuminating. The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as “divisive” (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist. Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform.

The election of 2016, so far, has been an object lesson in how the American populace prioritizes and vocalizes its radicalisms, with Sanders on the socialist right side of the spectrum and Trump on the quasi-fascist right. Mainstream politics, however, seems much less comfortable grappling with the not-so-radical demands of the Black community. Here’s the New York Times editorial board this morning, discussing the systematic poisoning of the residents of Flint by its government:

[The emails of] Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan show a cynical and callous indifference to the plight of the mostly black, poverty-stricken residents of Flint, who have gone for more than a year with poisoned tap water that is unsafe to drink or bathe in. There is little doubt that an affluent, predominantly white community — say Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills — would never face such a public health catastrophe, and if it had, the state government would have rushed in to help.

Institutional racism is when a presidential candidate can advocate unprecedented, and wildly implausible, class-based wealth distribution as the solution to America’s woes, while dismissing race-based distribution as “divisive.” White supremacy is when white officials ridicule Flint’s black residents for expressing concerns about their tainted drinking water, while the state’s Republican governor ignores those concerns for a year.

There are obvious parallels with schools, which Rebecca Sibilia analyzed, drawing connections between the systemic failures in infrastructure that stretch from public works to public schools. I agree with her outrage, but I wish more education commentators would be direct about the racism that underpins these instances. Flint, and the state of Michigan, represent an example of how class and poverty alone cannot account for the kind of injustice experienced by Black communities nationally. As Louise Seamster and Jessica Wilburn point out, writing at The Root, more than half of all of Michigan’s Black citizens have lived under state-controlled emergency management in the last decade, whereas only two percent or white citizens have:

EFMs are supposed to take over cities based on a neutral evaluation of financial circumstances—but majority-white municipalities with similar money problems have not been taken over. Flint’s poisoning is one effect of the systematic stripping of black civil rights in Michigan.

While the state has relied on emergency management as a panacea in Black communities – including the embarrassingly mismanaged Detroit pubic schools – the state almost never strips White residents of their electoral sovereignty in the interest of civic improvement. As I said on the blog last year, talking about state control in reference to education reform:

somehow we have arrived at a point wherein placing value on student achievement results is mutually exclusive to respecting the voting rights of African-American communities. There is no education reform in a world where the values of voting rights and student achievement are in conflict, for it forces communities to balance their current sovereignty against their children’s future.

The next generation of school improvement – and community development – must treat local sovereignty, community self-determination, and measurable improvement as powerfully reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. The alternative is many more Flint water systems and Detroit public school systems.

This post originally appeared at justinccohen.com.

If people of color aren’t leading it, the ed reform ‘movement’ is a myth

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Our rhetorical touchstones say a lot about what we regard as important history. At my last job we joked that you could measure the intensity of an author’s commitment to education reform by how early in an article that person referenced A Nation at Risk. In fact, if you do a Google search for the phrase “years since a nation at risk,” almost all of the top hits use that exact phrase within the first paragraph. A Nation at Risk was birthed by the Reagan administration, although somewhat to the chagrin of Dutch himself, and was as much economic doctrine as education policy. Like Russia’s Sputnik gambit lit a fire under a generation’s worth of engineering programs, so did A Nation at Risk lean on measures of international competitiveness to spark urgency for America’s schools. If you want to pinpoint the origin story of contemporary education reform, the publication of A Nation at Risk is a safe choice.

It’s no surprise, then, that many of the centrist characteristics of reform orthodoxy – deregulation, competition, talent, accountability, etc. – can be found in that document (while it notably eschews some of Reagan’s harder right views, like prayer in school and vouchers). Centrist democrats, first in the Clinton administration and again under Obama, embraced many of the report’s core tenets while putting a leftward spin on some of the ideas, supplementing competition with additional funds and providing infrastructural supports to accompany market-based accountability, for example. Three decades later, the education reform coalition is made up of the technocratic reformers, mostly of the center-right and center-left, who worked in and out of government to right the wrongs outlined in A Nation at Risk.

That coalition of technocrats also happens to be overwhelmingly white, particularly at the leadership level.

I won’t be the first to say this, but I certainly don’t hear enough of this from my fellow white technocrats: there is no greater risk to the viability of reform than continuing to perpetuate this underrepresentation people of color in leadership. The risk is heightened further when folks start to identify as a “movement.”

Men and women of color led the civil rights movement and are leading the current movement for racial justice, which includes Black Lives Matter. Gay men and women led the fight for marriage equality. Women led the movement for women’s suffrage and equal rights, and women are still leading efforts for gender equality. When set in the context of these other movements, it seems crazy that a movement to improve the educational outcomes for children of color would be led by white technocrats, but that’s what education reform looks like right now.

Some reformers want to make this problem more complex than it needs to be, but there are some easy fixes.

First and foremost, have more people of color in leadership positions. I hear organizations gripe that it’s hard to find qualified leaders of color, but professional networks are self-reinforcing. In other words, your organization’s current whiteness is a liability to it becoming less white over time. If you have an open position and every person you interview for that position is white, you need to try harder and look elsewhere. This is true at every level, from corporate boards to entry-level jobs.

Second, if you are white and committed to improving life opportunities for children of color, we need your talent.

I hear white folks who get discouraged by talk of representation and diversity, and while I don’t agree with them, it’s often because they think diversification means there’s no role for them in reform. There is a role for white people in a movement with people of color in leadership, but the price of admission to that world is being an ally in a fight that is centered on the lives of children and communities of color. As white people, we cannot have this both ways. We either agree that this is a movement for the betterment of people of color and get behind their leadership, or we admit once and for all that we’re a technocratic interest group and drop the pretense of movement rhetoric, politics, and urgency.

If some white folks in the current iteration of education reform decide that being in a group of technocrats is more to their taste, more power to them. We need great technocrats, thinkers, wonks, and bureaucrats of all colors, genders, and backgrounds. It’s refreshing when someone says that they really don’t care that much about “the kids,” if that’s their truth. That said, when it comes to making high stakes decisions about the lives of children and communities of color, we need people of color not just “at the table,” but calling the shots. This idea is uncomfortable to some folks for a whole host of reasons, including the discomfort that comes from talking about leadership in such starkly racial terms. But we talk about children and their communities in explicit – and coded – racial language all the time.

Why beat around the bush when it comes to leadership and, perhaps more importantly, power?

Yes it’s been thirty years since A Nation at Risk, but it’s been sixty since Brown v. Board. Going back twice as far might mean going twice as deep. And that’s a good thing.