Bradford: Have All Those ‘White Moderates’ Martin Luther King, Jr. Decried From Jail Become Today’s Anti-School Choice Progressives?
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
When you ignore the past you’re doomed to both repeat it and learn nothing from it. And in looking back at King’s famous letter from the Birmingham jail, the similarities between the era’s quest for black freedom and the current battle to improve education for black children rings similar. So it has to be asked: Have the white moderates he spoke of then turned into today’s white progressives who oppose change in education?
And if this is true, what motivates this opposition and how does our government interact with these progressives when making decisions about the future of black and brown children?
This devotion to “order” over “justice,” as King described it, is on display in both the anti-testing (opt-out) and anti-charter movements, which both trouble me deeply. On the one hand, they send a clear message to minority families about who has the power to make government responsive and who doesn’t. On the other, they work to shatter the pillars of equality and freedom that have long been in short supply in communities of color.
On testing, the need should be clear but the dissonance around it is profound. We test in this country because when we don’t our schools behave differently toward different groups of people. They set different levels of expectation for success. The bar gets lowered or raised. Without this objectivity and information, we have a world that’s inherently unfair and deeply unequal. This is why the U.S. Department of Education has within it an Office of Civil Rights.
Inside the opt-out movement is a desire that King fought against; one for a divided America. One America is white, wealthy, politically influential, and in residentially secluded schools. That America works to subjugate and subsume a critical framework of accountability for another America. One that is black, brown, and deeply desirous of making the country’s promise of upward mobility a reality. It’s also an America that decades’ worth of housing and schooling policy have consigned disproportionately to underperforming schools.
Opt-outers have a system they desire, much like some whites in the pre-civil rights era did. This system is exclusive because it’s built on housing markets that keep low-income people of color out and away. It’s largely segregated, convenient and safe. And it builds on a social framework where their children are perpetually advantaged by the professional and political relationships enjoyed by their parents.
Given these advantages, they’d rather have, as King put it, “the dam that blocks progress” because they like the view of the lake it forms. You could call this scenic, but you could never call it justice and you certainly could not call it fair.
Our politicians may not think it’s fair either but that has not stopped them from bowing to it. Look at the numbers: more than 400,000 students in New York City are in or queued for admittance to low-performing schools. They are overwhelmingly kids of color. Any change for them is too much, too soon, too divisive and too unfamiliar.
Conversely, 200,000 largely white parents in New York state decide they do not like testing, and suddenly testing is an issue of the highest order. It must be dealt with. Evaluations are put on hold, policy is changed, the president makes a statement. This is the worst vision of America and it’s the one King sought to change while he drew breath until he didn’t.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have come out against charter schools recently, a noticeable betrayal of a signature policy of the nation’s first black president. This is ironic because Former Secretary Clinton was, at one time, a strong supporter of charters and reform and Sen. Sanders’ native Brooklyn—where income inequality, his signature issue, is pervasive in large measure due to educational disparities—is home to a great number of charter schools, with many of them being among the nation’s highest-performing.
Clinton and Sanders echo the anxiety of white progressive views on education that see our system of residentially assigned, segregated, unequal schooling as sacrosanct. They view the idea of public education as a hardwired ritual that only works in one direction, is always familiar and stratifies the advantages of being well off and white. In decrying charters, white progressives support—and are forcing their candidates to support—a system that works if one of these four conditions is met: you’re lucky, you’re well off (or just better off), you’re connected, or you lie (about where you live).
Charters and choice are great and disruptive forces because we see families, for the first time, empowered to do two things King thought were crucial; set their own timetable in the pursuit of freedom, and actually pursue being free. I describe “the chartering power” as disruptive because freedom is disruptive. Freedom is messy. It is unexpected and unpredictable. And it’s also something you never truly are if you are not well educated.
Education is the only thing our children truly own and their best shield against the tumult of an ever-flattening world. The freedom unleashed by “the right to choose” is so transcendent there are those who wish to keep it close and who oppose many parents—black, brown or otherwise—having it at all.
Again, here we see King’s well-intentioned white moderates as today’s white progressives. And again, the forces of what King fought against are at work. The opposition to expanded choices for families of color in residential clusters where schools don’t work feels precisely like the denial of the kind of freedom white progressives have so much of they don’t even notice it. In a world where education means so much, it feels like, for these kids, they care about it very little.
Nothing is served by sending a child to a school that does not work, is the wrong fit, or that many white progressive parents would never choose. And no institution has a higher value than the soul of an individual child that is being wasted away by underperformance. King offered that “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” And that the “yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
When one looks at the waiting lists for schools that work—of all kinds—the similarity is so striking the only way to not see it is to ignore it. The “order” of pre-civil rights America was not more valuable than freedom, and the ability to pursue it, for black and brown people. We used to call opposing this notion racism. Today, do we call it “progressivism?” I hope not.
I have come to believe that the civil rights movement—a national policy change where the benefit was defined to the individual—was not about whether the government would make a water fountain for me where the water was as cold and crisp and clear as the one made for a white person next to me. It was about me being able to drink at that white person’s fountain without asking. Without shame or fear or worry. Without waiting. With no more reason than to quench my own thirst. And at a time of my own choosing including right now. Education should be the same but this seems lost on today’s white progressives—who should be allies in this change not opponents —and that is tragic for us all.
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