Recently, Nick Hanauer wrote an article for the Atlantic titled Better Schools Won’t Fix America, where his main argument was that education is not the answer to economic inequality. The article took over my timeline. When I saw that it was going to be the article of the day, I made space in my calendar to read it. I sat in my office, carved out 20 minutes in my calendar, and was prepared to be enlightened.
Instead, I got an article from a billionaire telling me something that anyone that grew up poor in this country already knew. However, I am grateful to Mr. Hanauer for his insight because it helped me better understand the way many of our allies think. So let’s dive into his arguments and start a conversation. Below, I have taken excerpts from the article and offered commentary. Afterward, I will try to do something that many of these articles constantly fail to do, and that is to actually provide some type of actionable solution.
Here are three glaring issues that I saw with the article:
Mr. Hanauer avoids discussing race like it’s the plague.
The article reeks of what I like to call ‘radical binacity’.
The article offers no real solution.
In his article, Mr. Hanauer went to great lengths to avoid engaging race in the conversation. By not mentioning race, he centralizes the problem as being purely economic which accomplishes two things. First, it reinforces the argument that our moral failure as a country regarding racial issues are not the motivating force between much of our country’s economic and educational woes and secondly, it again situates the collective solution of poor peoples’ problems squarely in the hands of the elite rather than building a complex solution for a complex problem that recognizes the roles multiple players need to execute. This leads to a larger issue I often see that needed its own term, radical binacity.
We have graduated from “soft-bigotry” to something even more sinister in this country. It is what Dr. King was referring to in the Letter from the Birmingham Jail in his expressing his frustration with the white moderate. I read this article and tons of others like it, like a bird call to “well-meaning, wealthy, white allies”.
Radical binacity is the gradual yet constant creation of false binaries as a tool that helps one escape culpability as a benefactor of white supremacy. It is the demagogy-riddled process that often ignores racism as a root issue to a problem while positioning whiteness as salvation.
It is the constant creation of false binaries that subconsciously leaves the poor and minoritized nihilistically viewing a system that many no longer have the strength to push back on without reprieve. Some of these false binaries include:
It’s either fix education OR fix economic inequality
Crack addiction is vilified while opioid addiction requires care and sincerity
Selling weed breeds Black crime lords vs. white innovation in the marijuana space
School choice is Trumpian evil vs. “she bribed the colleges for a better life for her daughter”
All of these scenarios are connected in that they accomplish 3 things:
- They center whiteness as a faux solution
- They take agency away from the minoritized or the poor
- They build their wealth to the dismay, horror, and disproportionate consequences of the minoritized while the holders of whiteness and wealth get to be progressive, passionate, and good. So much so, that they never have to solve the problem they stood on the soapbox to declare they would fix
In the case of Mr. Hanauer’s article, he checks all the boxes of radical binacity with his moment of clarity that economic inequality is really, really bad and as a result, we got it wrong by trying to improve education. Real families living in poverty understand that there is an economic inequality issue in this country. They understand that there are many problems in this country. However, for millions of families, academic attainment is their beacon of hope. For many, having access to college changes the trajectories of generations. Just spend time with those that are really struggling and worried about educating their kids.
Only someone that is so far detached from actual poverty and families could assume anything other than there is a huge economic inequality issue. If Mr. Hanauer now feels that the issue of the day is economic inequality, he can actually do something about it. He could find some families in the throes of poverty, give them financial literacy, share his trade secrets, and conduct a longitudinal study to test his theory out.
The Bottom Line
Listen, we want and need to be in partnership to alleviate the system of inequity that plagues millions of Americans daily. However, if you are claiming to be an “ally”, then be a good ally. It is completely fine to spend your money however you want but be honest. If you no longer want to help fund this struggle then say that, but to say that you have just now discovered economic inequality is intellectually and morally dishonest.
For many, education reform is something they can opt-in and opt-out of. As things get rough, they can simply shift gears and do something else and never look back. However, there are many in this game that can never opt-out. The plight of those stricken by a cocktail of poverty, poor education, and racism are not able to simply opt-out because things are uncomfortable. They already know that education is jacked up, they know economic inequality is real. The first step to being a good ally is to not insult the intelligence of those most impacted by our continued failures.
Finally, the biggest issue I had with the article was not actually with Nick. It was with the high levels of support I saw on my timeline for Hanauer’s article. It was almost seen as if the article was their way out too. Listen, in this war to educate Black and Brown kids, are you in or are you out? If you feel like our system is still failing Black and Brown kids, then hopping off the boat should not be the first option in your thought process.