23 Jul How Can We Win?
How can we win?
That is the question many Black people are asking themselves and others as the public questions the efficacy of rioting versus peaceful protest. In the wake of the shared outrage about George Floyd’s brutal murder by Minneapolis police and the stunningly new realization by many non-Blacks that systemic racial injustice is an insidious disease that permeates every aspect of American life – from our system of law and order to our system of education – the options for short-term tactics to deliver justice seem to be: protest, riot, loot, vote, or boycott.
Yet, in all the public discourse, one narrative keeps bubbling to the top. It’s an old one – a line of thinking that ultimately connects prosperity to justice. It calls upon Black people to participate in cooperative economics, to build their own communities, and to establish their own schools as a way to pursue liberation. The thought is that through a form of cooperative Black capitalism we can create our own communities and systems separate and apart from the oppressive ones in which we currently reside.
But, considering the net worth of white families is nearly ten times greater than Black families, how can Blacks catch up to their white counterparts? How can Blacks be poised to win?
It is not possible, says activist and author Kimberly Jones in a riveting video seen by thousands in which she underscores the purpose of protest, rioting, and looting while pointedly comparing the racial wealth gap to a game of Monopoly.
In her analogy, the racial wealth gap in America is akin to having Player A roll the dice 400 times, not allowing any Player B to have a turn. Then, after the 400 roles, Player B finally gets a chance to roll the dice for 50 times. When Player B accumulates some property or gains a slight advantage, Player A burns the game (like the devastation in Greenwood and Rosewood) – making the game forever inequitable, rendering a win by Player B virtually impossible.
According to her reasoning, it is perfectly logical to understand why thousands are protesting, rioting, and looting in cities across the U.S. and in other parts of the world. The riots that descend into looting, she surmises, are a not necessarily the ‘language of the unheard’ as Martin Luther King, Jr. said of riots, but looting is a show of desperation in which poor people see a riot as their only chance to gain access to the tools and resources they need to live. In her view, the riots are a direct result of poor Black people being forced to play a prosperity game with white people who’ve had a 400-year advantage. In this scenario, Blacks can never win.
Still, in all the social media noise about why we shouldn’t riot (or loot), we’ve somehow missed MLK’s wisdom about how to prevent them. In the social commentary about Ms. Jones’s remarks in the video, we’ve overlooked the reasons why she says people riot and loot in the first place. The solution is simple: JUSTICE – social, economic, and educational.
But, when school board members would rather shop online than engage with their constituents, when public officials fiercely defend known racists in spite of offending the majority of the population they serve, and when a superintendent search causes a newspaper publisher to assert he knows more about what the school system needs than the people who work within it, the question about winning in education becomes even more daunting – especially when the win is for Black children.
Even a cursory look at Baton Rouge public schools reveals a tangled mess of public school system in struggle. In the Capitol City, just 63 percent of Black eighth graders can perform on grade level in English while only 51 percent of Black eighth-graders can perform on grade level in math. In a district where approximately 61 percent of Black students earn a high school diploma within four years and in a state where roughly 53 percent of Black males complete high school in a four-year period, Black males are in a desperately vulnerable position in our schools just like in our streets.
It seems our public education system is a flawed tool that uplifts the few in a world wrought with injustice. And, just like Ms. Jones said in the video, we have long focused on the what instead of the why.
We’ve known for decades the academic achievement gap between Black and white students has long persisted. Yet, we’ve struggled to address the root causes of why this is happening. Black people have been in America since 1619, yet we were not allowed to attend school until 1864. Then, when we did attend school, we could only do so if there was no agricultural work to be done. Then, in the 1930s, when most Blacks were enrolled in public schools, they were inadequate. After Brown, when schools were forced to integrate, white students left public schools in droves. And today, the pandemic has ripped the band-aid off of decades-old wounds and exposed systemic inequalities that leave the poor and children of color without the resources and tools required for distance education. In this system, children in marginalized communities keep getting farther and farther behind.
It’s clear that our public schools are not working for everyone.
The education system – much like the economic and justice systems – were not designed to benefit Black bodies. We have moved from being forbidden to read to being forced to attend schools ill equipped to support our collective brilliance to being shuffled into schools where we weren’t welcome us to being trapped in under-resourced schools that are struggling to survive.
So, how can we win?
If we believe Ms. Jones, then the current game can never be won. But I am hopeful. We can become prosperous. Prosperity in education looks like a system in which all children have an equitable opportunity to thrive and where all of them do. The achievement gap is one battle of injustice we can win in the era of today.
If we look at the academic achievement gap like the racial wealth gap, we might come away with tangible, actionable solutions. Investment in public education is almost always a part of the multi-system approach to address the wealth gap. Surely, addressing the challenges in education requires a multi-tiered, multi-system, trauma-informed approach.
If we believe education is a civil right, then we must also believe it takes enough time and investment away from online shopping sites to be effective. If we believe education is one pathway to prosperity and prosperity is one pathway to justice, then it makes perfect sense that the choices to advocate for our children’s liberation – protest, riot, loot, vote, boycott – are also on display, not just in opposition to rouge and racist police, but in our public education system, too.
While some people in Baton Rouge and elsewhere in the country are snubbing their noses at protestors, the truth is that we believe in voting, boycotting, protesting, rioting, and even looting – when it suits us.
We have been doing this in public education for years. But of course, we don’t call it that. The tactics aren’t illustrated by people burning down buildings or breaking windows or turning over police vehicles. Instead, they are shown in much more subtle ways:
- –We exercise our voting rights by affirming in the ballot box the school board members and/or mayors we believe will do what’s best for children.
- We protest by voicing our concerns to our children’s teachers or school administrators when things run afoul.
- We stage economic withdrawals, or boycotts, when we decide to buy a home in another county or parish in hopes of a ‘better school system,’ or when we enroll our children in magnet schools or public charter schools, or when we decide to opt out of the public system altogether, choosing a private school instead.
We riot and loot in education, too. This is brazenly obvious in my adoptive home of Louisiana – most especially in Baton Rouge.
- School Choice is one way we riot. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, charter schools became the method to re-open public schools as quickly as possible. Later, in 2008 and 2009, I watched and reported as the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to expand 2003’s Act 9 and 2005’s Act 35 so that it reached troubled school districts in Shreveport and Baton Rouge. Because school choice provides avenues for parents to opt into the schools they prefer, traditional public schools can be left behind often struggling with enrollment if they fail to compete. This dwindling enrollment often leads to school consolidation and school closure. In the view of some, charter schools destroy traditional public education. For some folks, that’s the point. Either way, the act of becoming so frustrated with institutions that you seek to destroy them is the essence of a riot.
- Investment in public charter schools are one way to loot the system. Because in Louisiana (and in most places), the monies allocated to schools are based on student enrollment. So, if a parent decides to enroll their kid in a public charter school instead of a traditional public school, the district must direct those local, state, and tax revenues to the autonomous public charter school. As long as some folks are attending schools operated by a traditional district and some are going to charters, the argument that charter schools are taking money away from the district will persist. Meanwhile, parents are seizing opportunity to do what they think is right for their children to live – isn’t that what Ms. Jones told us about in the video with respect to looting?
- Magnet School Programs present another opportunity to loot the traditional system. Magnet school programs were established in the South as a tool to desegregate one-race schools. Later, magnet school programs have been established as part of traditional public schools as a way to boost enrollment. But, oftentimes it leads to depriving students of peer learning opportunities when the ‘best’ students congregate in one place and all of the average and underperforming students congregate in another (not to mention that the desegregation efficacy of magnet schools is questionable at best). It’s like an inner-system brain drain that disproportionately affects poor and minority students.
- We also loot the system by supporting Education Savings programs. School voucher programs are another way we loot the system. By taking tax revenues that would normally benefit the traditional school system, we establish a program so that those parents in certain circumstances have an opportunity to receive a voucher to take that money to pay for private school tuition. While the jury is still out on whether students actually benefit, parents are taking the opportunity to do what they feel is necessary for their children.
Even with all of this protest, we only have islands of excellence and not a system that consistently delivers a high-quality education for everyone. The achievement gaps still persist, and we have not made enough strides – despite well intentions and best efforts – to really level the playing field for those students who live in marginalized communities.
If the call-to-action to remedy police brutality is a movement to ‘defund’ the police, effectively creating a new system of policing and significant reinvestment into community, then perhaps to call-to-action to remedy inadequate schooling is to ‘defund’ the public school system.
Defunding public schools is NOT to suggest the people who work within the system aren’t doing their level best to support kids (a great many people are), but it IS meant to suggest that our current system isn’t working for everyone. It’s well past time to support a bold and transformational movement that dramatically shifts the way in which we deliver public education.
And in this moment of racial reckoning, the time to act is NOW.
This post originally appeared in UrbanEd Baton Rouge.