Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage

Social media and even mainstream media appear poised to leap on Secretary Arne Duncan with both feet due to his swipe at white suburban moms.

The nearly universal sweeping outrage—some with a level of glee that must not be ignored—calls for close consideration itself.

First, rejecting Duncan’s comments about white suburban moms and Common Core critics is completely valid. I join hands with the education community in rejecting Duncan’s claims, his discourse, and his efforts to discredit a significant, credible, and growing resistance to CC that should not be trivialized and marginalized as Duncan does.

However, I find the magnitude and swiftness of the responses to this “white suburban moms” incident disappointing in the larger context of Duncan’s entire tenure as Secretary of Education.

In the first moments of Obama’s administration, Duncan has personified and voiced an education agenda that disproportionately impacts black, brown, and poor children in powerfully negative ways. And the entire agenda has been consistently cloaked in discourse characterizing these policies as the Civil Rights issue of the day.

As well, Duncan has perpetuated and embraced “no excuses” narratives while directly and indirectly endorsing education reform and policies that target and mis-serve high-poverty students, African American and Latina/o students, and English Language learners—charter schools, Teach for America, accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing.

Public commentary that highlights that education reform under Obama and Duncan fails the pursuit of equity in the context of race and class in the U.S. tends to fall on deaf ears. The same urgency witnessed in the responses to Duncan’s “white suburban moms” contrasts significantly from the silence surrounding challenges to Duncan’s discourse and policies that are classist and racist, policy designed for “other people’s children.”

The problem is not that educators and scholars have failed to identify that education reform under Obama and Duncan have continued and increased federal and state education policy creating two inequitable education systems—one for the white and affluent, another for minorities and the impoverished—because these important messages have been raised.

The problem is that rejecting education reform discourse and policy based on race and class concerns doesn’t resonate in the U.S.

As I have asked numerous times, what would the political and public support for TFA be if the organization was providing recent college graduates with no degrees in education and only five weeks of training to teach Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes filled with affluent white students? (A similar question about KIPP raises the same issue.)

Indirectly, from the response to Duncan’s “white suburban moms” comments, now we know.

The measure of a people must not come from how we flinch when the privileged suffer; the measure of a people must come from how we tolerate (or ignore) the conditions that impact the impoverished and the powerless.

If white outrage is the only outrage that counts in the U.S., any victory won from that outrage is no victory at all.

For Further Reading

First They Came For Urban Black and Latino Moms (For Arne Duncan), Jose Vilson

“the archeology of white people”

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23 thoughts on “Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage

  1. Pingback: Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Your piece resonates strongly with me. Thank you for writing. I keep saying that CCSS is a tactic used by the ruling class to further disenfranchise people of color. We need to unite against the power elites, not be myopic and selfish, even racist.

  3. “I find the magnitude and swiftness of the responses to this “white suburban moms” incident disappointing in the larger context of Duncan’s entire tenure as Secretary of Education”

    I would agree with your characterization of the response as “disappointing” if it was as narrowly focused as you suggest. However, when I read comments about the incident, many of them point out the racism and classism not only of Arne’s comment but also about our educational system. We agree that many things in America only seem to matter when they happen to the privileged but this doesn’t seem to be one of those times. Arne’s insult was overtly insulting to “white suburban moms” but inferentially insulting to everybody else and much of the hoopla about the comment recognizes this.

    • Mathis (2012) on the CC:

      “As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.”

      http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb-options-2-commcore-final.pdf

      No matter what anyone says, CC is not a valid way to address equity; 30 years has disproven that standards/tests are equity mechanisms.

  4. Well, this white NJ suburban mom has had huge issues with the education policies of this administration, Arne Duncan in particular – having lived through his “reform” in Chicago many years ago, and with the education policies of the previous administration. Most of the time I’m the only person in the room who has any inking at all of what is going on in US public education. Most people look at me like I’m nuts. If Arne being stupid enough to pull a race and gender card as a way of discrediting criticism is what it takes to final wake “the mommies” (of any color) then I’m good with that (even if it is vexing they have ignored the issue until now). It shines a very bright light on the entire process. If the white suburban mommies didn’t understand it before, they will now. I can’t think of anyone who writes or speaks out against the reformy crap who hasn’t been deeply concerned with the particularly negative impact on all types of minority students…poor, Black, Hispanic, special ed, etc.

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