I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011, when I went to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for an event put together by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. They have been running a series of discussions called “Talking About Race.” The twelfth – on educating black boys – seemed tangentially relevant to me, a person who blogs about education. I wrote up my notes here and promised to follow up with more from Ray Winbush.
I’ve kept my promise. A short thread from what was around a 6,000 word interview featured yesterday on the homepage of Baltimore Fishbowl.
What else happens when you get a white mom living in Hampden together with a black professor from Morgan State for a little interview on race, education, and the future of public schooling in Baltimore? This.
Your 140-character-or-less Twitter profile describes you as “a person attempting to replace white supremacy with justice.” What do you mean by that? And how does education fit into that personal mission?
I believe – and it’s not just me believing, it’s not a religion, but – there is a system of white supremacy. And what we want to do is just analyze people who are victims of that system. So it’s easier to say ‘there’s something wrong with black boys’ rather than look at the entire system of white supremacy.
I believe that the worst thing a person can experience on earth is injustice. What I try to do is bring out the issues of racism, of white supremacy, that are impacting the individual or the institution. And hopefully people will be motivated to do something about it.
I mean, Dr. King replaced white supremacy with justice. Rosa Parks did it. I’m putting more fancy words to it, but Malcolm X did that. So did John Brown. And I think wherever there’s racial injustice it should be replaced. That’s the one white people often find difficult to do and black people often times are reluctant to do.
Right. So, what do you think we can replace it with? What does that look like?
With justice. Justice means that everybody literally is treated fairly and equal. The European symbol of justice in this country at least – is a woman that is blind with a balance in her hand meaning that she doesn’t see who’s in front of her. She just weighs it the way the evidence is. I know it sounds simple but how it looks is that everyone is simply treated equally. Fairly. That no one is judged by his or her skin color. And that’s difficult to do. A tangible example is that the jury that is deliberating right now with Conrad Murray [pop star Michael Jackson’s doctor] consists of seven whites, four Hispanics, and one black person. The Constitution of the United States says that you should be judged by a jury of your peers. Clearly the Constitution didn’t take into consideration black people, but only in rare instances will you find a white male being judged in the reverse – like seven blacks – I can’t imagine a white male being in a jury that only has one white person on it.
There are imbalances in our society. Rosa Parks shouldn’t have had to have sat in the back of the bus. So she replaced white supremacy with justice.
So it can be just a moment.
It can be the moment, exactly. When Gandhi was thrown off the train in South Africa, simply because he was Indian and he was dark he was thrown off the train. In that moment Gandhi says, we’re not gonna do this anymore. So oftentimes, the movement to replace white supremacy with justice it comes in a moment. Or it can be planned. The ones that tend to be the most impactful are the ones that occur in a moment.
I had tweeted at you about segregation and the desegregation of schools…
I’m a psychologist by trade. One famous psychologist who I’m sure you’ve heard of, Alfred Adler, – he was the one who coined the term inferiority and superiority complex – He had another term that was just as intriguing as far as I’m concerned, and it was known as fictional finalism. And he says that human beings tend to put out lofty ideals in their personal lives and in their public lives, which sound so wonderful but in reality it’s impossible to achieve.
One could argue that even what I just said – replacing white supremacy with justice – is a fictional finalism. The idea that Adler has that we put these ideals up there and we strive for them even though we know it’s not gonna happen 100 percent.
So to desegregate Baltimore City Public Schools could be classified as a “fictional finalism.” It sounds good. It sounds wonderful. So did “to desegregate the public schools of the United States of America with all deliberate speed” in Brown v. Board. It happened and it didn’t happen.
Because as we know when Brown was issued in 1954 – and one of my colleagues at Harvard talks about this all the time – there were two seemingly unrelated events that occurred at the same time. Brown went down in 1954 and the building up of the interstate highways expanded under Eisenhower. So whites then had access to the suburbs, and that’s when you see suburbs growing. Towson in 1950 – it was like nothing. It was just nothing! White people fled the inner city because of desegregation and they fled even faster after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. And the interstate system facilitated that.
[The conversation turns to teaching teachers to educate African-American children.]
When I taught at Vanderbilt it was so common for me – Vanderbilt as you know is called like “the Harvard of the South” – you know, and I taught there for fourteen years. True story – one of the girls in my class told me I was the first black professor she’d had and it was her sophomore year. It is impossible for a black person or a Latino to grow up in America and go to their sophomore year of college go to a class and never ever have a white teacher. It’s impossible.
And if it does happen it’s so incredibly rare that it’s like a sighting of the abominable snowman.
The point is that whites who negotiate, who sincerely, sincerely – There’s a story in my book, I talk about a white teacher – this is a true story – it happened when I was teaching at Vanderbilt – she just simply could not teach black kids. She didn’t know how!
Johns Hopkins School of Education is not gonna teach you a damn thing – and I can be quoted on that – not a damn thing about really educating black inner city kids. It really isn’t.
Morgan will. And I’m not saying that as a biased participant. It’s just a fact that Morgan knows how to teach teachers to teach black students better than at Johns Hopkins or the University of Maryland or whatever.
So do you think Teach for America students should be getting their M.A.T.s at Morgan rather than at Johns Hopkins?
In my opinion, yes! You know, if, IF, they’re going to be teaching black, red, or brown children. You see, if they’re going to teach Hampden kids – and there’s nothing wrong with Hampden kids – they can keep it, you know, at Johns Hopkins.
You would be surprised by how many emails I get in a given month, about ten a month, from white kids and black kids who have been in the city schools and they said my entire education has been totally irrelevant, has been totally irrelevant. And Dr. Winbush I’ve read your book, tell me what to do. Ivory [Toldson] gets the same kind of emails. Most of us who write – it’s just the way it is. Schools of education – they don’t change easy.
Mortimer Adler – I did my doctorate at the University of Chicago and Mortimer Adler, who taught there for many, many years – said ‘Changing a university is like moving a graveyard.’ And I thought that simple sentence is so true. The oldest institutions in the western world are universities. Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, Harvard is one of the oldest institutions in this country, in fact. And universities outlast and outlive everything. But they’re very reluctant to change. Schools of Education are part of universities. And even though we see the browning of America, the blackening of America – we are still teaching stuff like this is “father knows best,” you know, 2.5 kids with a picket fence in the inner city. It doesn’t make any sense. But universities don’t change.
[Conversation veers in many directions. We talk about race blindness. Teaching kids about race. The intersections of race and class. I end with some word associations.]
(pause) Better than nothing.
(pause) Could be racist.
“The soft bigotry of low expectations.”
One of my favorite expressions.
You know that comes out of George W. Bush.
That’s the only thing I ever quote from him.
So John Legend, and a bunch of other people, mostly white guys, talk about education reform as “the civil rights issue of our time.”
Rhetoric. Of course it is, but it always has been a civil rights issue. It’s just that now because whites are seeing the increasing deterioration of the public school system and the economy is bad now we gotta say, we gotta make some money, we gotta get something outta this thing.
[Correction: I’d originally said Usher was among the celebrities who claimed education reform was the civil rights issue of our time. It was John Legend.]