Last month, the New Schools Venture Fund Summit in San Francisco—an invitation-only conference of education reformers—opened with words from a Black Lives Matter Teach For America executive, an advocate for undocumented young people, and a professor on social movements. Their opening plenary session reflected the growing commitment of many mainstream education reform organizations to explore how issues of race and identity impact education’s landscape.

But not everyone is happy about it.

Not too long after the conference, Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote a piece criticizing the “leftward lurch” of the education reform movement. He quoted several right-leaning education reformers who feel like conservative dissenting views are being ostracized by the “increasing dominance of social justice warriors.” Many of the unnamed sources, as well as Rick Hess of American Enterprise Institute, decried the increase of identity politics in education policy. Specifically, they seemed to have the biggest issues with Black Lives Matter (BLM) and its unapologetic rhetoric.

One cannot ignore structural racism, anti-blackness, and institutionalized violence in schools and call themselves an education reformer.

One cannot ignore structural racism, anti-blackness, and institutionalized violence in schools and call themselves an education reformer. To assert that the vast disparities in educational and social outcomes between minority children and their white counterparts are not rooted in past and present racially discriminatory policies and pervasive biases is to intentionally misdiagnose the problem. In fact, let’s take it a step further and ask: Should we be comfortable with people teaching and creating policy for black children if they are uncomfortable proclaiming that Black Lives Matter?

Sure—some of BLM’s principles are divisive. Black Lives Matter’s bold mode of advocacy makes demands rather than proposals, and identifies more challenges than victories. But we should remember that this nation was divided on issues of race and class long before BLM emerged as a social force. Moreover, neither the conservative ed-reformers that criticized BLM, nor the activists that spoke on its behalf at the summit mentioned specific policies that they’d like to disagree with or promote. Rather than engaging in a discussion on debateable policy platforms and interventions, conservative reformers like Jeanne Allen of CER are perturbed by social justice activists “beating [their] chests over race and income.” Division is not why we fear BLM; its far-reaching calls for change implicate long-standing institutions and individuals alike. Black Lives Matter is a “radical” concept for three major reasons.

Flipping the Script

First, it decentralizes white people from conversations about policies and institutions that were previously created for maintaining the power and privilege of whiteness. Our public school system began to take shape during a time when, in most Southern states, it was illegal to teach black slaves to read and write. As the system developed and expanded, schools were thought to be vehicles to civilize, Christianize, and control black and brown children so they would not contribute to social upheaval. In this process, Congress made it illegal to teach Native Americans in their native tongues, and stripped young native children from their homes to “kill the Indian to save the man.” And although African-American leaders pushed for public education in the South during Reconstruction, the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 jumpstarted generations of terror, legal segregation, sharecropping, and substandard educational opportunities. By 1932, a survey of 150 school districts showed the beginnings of racialized academic tracking, and by the time the Educational Testing Service is formed in 1948, the originator of the SAT, known eugenicist Carl Brigham had already performed research “proving” that immigrants and minorities were “feeble minded.”

Most current education reform circles—while often innovative in outlook—have systematically failed to contend for the ways in which racially discriminatory policy is baked into our system of public education

Most current education reform circles—while often innovative in outlook—have systematically failed to contend for the ways in which racially discriminatory policy is baked into our system of public education. While we have made progress, this disregard for black lives and black narratives limits the effectiveness of proposed reforms. How can one truly measure success through test scores without first deeply evaluating how those tests might contain racially biased measures? How can reformers push challenging curriculums but not first ask whether the books given to the children affirm or diminish their heritage? Do we trust charter schools to implement no-excuses disciplinary policies before wrestling with the historical tendency of public education to encourage white assimilation over black freedom?

In both blatant and subtle ways, our education, housing, criminal justice, and political systems center the needs, feelings, and experiences of white Americans. Racial segregation and marginalization are often foundational, and breaking that foundation necessarily causes fear, instability, and discomfort to those for whom it lifted up. Of course, white people—and particularly low-income white people—face real and legitimate problems and inequities in America as well. But unlike black and brown people, these challenges do not occur because they are white. Black Lives Matter doesn’t seek to remove cross-racial concerns from public policy discourse and creation, but to ensure that the concerns of African-Americans are consistently included in meaningful and effective ways.

Wanting It Now

Unfortunately, and in contrast to much political rhetoric, we have never been a “We’re all in this together” nation. We were for forced busing before we were against it: white families remained quietly satisfied with the practice as long as it was used to maintain segregated schools rather than as a tool for integration. Majority-minority schools are much more likely to be overwhelmingly low-income, lack qualified or experienced teachers, have an insufficient number of therapists or counselors on staff, and fail to offer higher level or advanced placement coursework. The landscape of black economic deprivation and isolation is also bleak: people of color are more likely to experience discriminatory housing policies, live near environmental hazards like coal-fired power plants and landfills, and suffer from unsafe and contaminated living spaces than are low-income whites. And the low rate of intergenerational social and economic mobility in the black community means that even if a black family climbs into the middle class, there is no guarantee that their children will remain there.

Table 1. Percentage of Population Living in High-Poverty Neighborhoods Nationwide
0-5 6-11 12-17 Adults  All Ages
Total Poor 16.5 15.6 14.7 13.8 14.4
Nonpoor 2.7 2.4 2.5 2.8 2.7
White  Poor 6.2 5.2 4.6 8.2  7.5
 Nonpoor  0.9  0.7  0.7  1.2  1.2
Black  Poor 28.0 26.6 25.2 24.2 25.2
Nonpoor 7.9 7.6 8.0 9.3 9.0
Hispanic Poor 18.1 17.9 17.6 16.9 17.4
Nonpoor 5.3 5.0 5.0 5.9 5.7
Source: “The Architecture of Segregation”, 2009-2013 ACS.

This is old news. Research now confirms what minorities have long known to be true through their own lived experiences. Tired of waiting, Black Lives Matter demands sweeping and immediate change. If BLM activists seem perpetually dissatisfied, it’s because they are. And they should be. The issues facing black Americans are urgent, and small advancements, while good, are woefully insufficient. Moreover, marginal, slow improvements are too often used as excuses to cancel or postpone structural change. Many education reformers, resigned to passive incrementalism, are too quick to celebrate minor changes when vast racial and socioeconomic gaps persist when it comes to student achievement and opportunities.

Pushing Back to Push Forward

Finally, this push for immediate change necessitates more confrontational, more visible tactics. It’s worth remembering the marginalization that frequently accompanies minority voices. From delays in civil rights legislation, to the voter ID laws currently springing up in many states, the concerns and opinions of brown and black people have been drowned out by powerful leaders who do not look like them unless and until they raise their voices or disrupt the status quo. A significant catalyst for reform during the height of the Civil Rights Movement was the media imagery of black people facing violence in the forms of angry mobs, police dogs, and fire hoses head on, defying local laws and regulations that restricted their ability to protest and assemble. Black Lives Matter is in many ways a movement of black bodies in defiance.

Source: Jamelle Bouie, Flickr.
Source: Jamelle Bouie, Flickr.

It makes sense that this challenges us—particularly as people invested in education. Part of the purpose of school is to mold not just smart, but well-adjusted and civic minded kids, and at first glance, Black Lives Matter activists appear unconcerned with civility. But in many ways, BLM uplifts a vision of blackness that educators should want for their students: powerful, confident, inquisitive, social-justice minded, determined, and ultimately, heard. In an environment where black boys are three times more likely than white boys—and black girls are six times more likely than white girls—to be suspended or expelled from school, and where the vast majority of those punishments are delved out for “defiance” or other subjective, non-violent behaviors, it’s time to seriously reflect on the ways that society might conflate bad behavior and black expression. Educators, regardless of ideology, should advocate for spaces in which all student voices will be empowered, and should be particularly conscious of how black voices might need to be a little louder than the rest to be equally regarded.

The Conservative Voice: Pushout or Walkout?

The conservative voice in education reform remains important, and has contributed to challenging the status quo in several important ways. But Black Lives Matter is simply the notion that the humanity of black people deserves to be respected and regarded with the same vigor and consistency as that of white people in all policy and processes. It’s curious, then, that some conservatives have identified this basic notion—the still unfulfilled promise of “all men are created equal”—as a force that alienates them from the education reform conversation.

It’s fully possible to be conservative and advocate for say, market-based reforms, while acknowledging structural racism and disparity and desiring to do something about it. In his essay on conservative pushout in the education reform movement, Pondiscio writes that “conservative theories of action are based on strong evidence of two claims: that markets have taken more people out of poverty than any force and history, and that full membership in civil society gives individuals and their groups power, builds social capital, and enables communities to thrive and express themselves fully.” He is correct that these ideas merit a full hearing. But they are not incompatible with equity-minded social movements—so long as conservatives are willing to acknowledge the ways in which minorities have struggled to gain access to both the marketplace and civil society. Anti-racism need not be connected to a particular partisan ideology, but for whatever reasons, some conservatives still seem to shy away from the concept.


Cover Photo: “End Police Brutality” Jamelle Bouie, Flickr.