Education in Black and White: Beware the Roadbuilders

Nettie sees the world in a stark black and white once she faces and confronts the missionary zeal being done to the people who are native to Africa. The letters exchanged between Nettie and Celie, which constitute The Color Purple, are literally the lived stories of oppression and the oppressed right there in black and white for readers:

The first thing I should tell you about is the road. The road finally reached the cassava fields about nine months ago and the Olinka, who love nothing better than a celebration, outdid themselves preparing a feast for the roadbuilders who talked and laughed and cut their eyes at the Olinka women the whole day. In the evening many were invited into the village itself and there was merrymaking far into the night. I think Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe and that everything that is done is done for them. The Olinka definitely hold this view. And so they naturally thought the road being built was for them [emphasis added]. And, in fact, the roadbuilders talked much of how quickly the Olinka will now be able to get to the coast. With a tarmac road it is only a three-day journey. By bicycle it will be even less. Of course no one in Olinka owns a bicycle, but one of the roadbuilders has one, and all the Olinka men covet it and talk of someday soon purchasing their own.

Well, the morning after the road was “finished” as far as the Olinka were concerned (after all, it had reached their village), what should we discover but that the roadbuilders were back at work. They have instructions to continue the road for another thirty miles! And to continue it on its present course right through the village of Olinka. By the time we were out of bed, the road was already being dug through Catherine’s newly planted yam field. Of course the Olinka were up in arms. But the roadbuilders were literally up in arms. They had guns, Celie, with orders to shoot!

It was pitiful, Celie. The people felt so betrayed! They stood by helplessly—they really don’t know how to fight, and rarely think of it since the old days of tribal wars—as their crops and then their very homes were destroyed. Yes. The roadbuilders didn’t deviate an inch from the plan the headman was following. Every hut that lay in the proposed roadpath was leveled. And, Celie, our church, our school, my hut, all went down in a matter of hours. Fortunately, we were able to save all of our things, but with a tarmac road running straight through the middle of it, the village itself seems gutted.

Immediately after understanding the roadbuilders’ intentions, the chief set off toward the coast, seeking explanations and reparations. Two weeks later he returned with even more disturbing news. The whole territory, including the Olinkas’ village, now belongs to a rubber manufacturer in England. As he neared the coast, he was stunned to see hundreds and hundreds of villagers much like the Olinka clearing the forests on each side of the road, and planting rubber trees. The ancient, giant mahogany trees, all the trees, the game, everything of the forest was being destroyed, and the land was forced to lie flat, he said, and bare as the palm of his hand.

And there is a scene in the problematic film Gandhi (itself both an unmasking of imperialism and the embodiment of paternalism and privilege) when Gandhi expresses his idealism about the potential for non-violent resistance to overcome oppression:

Brigadier: You don’t think we’re just going to walk out of India!

Gandhi: Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate.

As a work of art (The Color People) and a film recreation (and appropriation) of history (Gandhi), these scenes speak to the current state of education and education reform, especially as those contexts are being viewed through the lens of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board.

Unlike Gandhi, I am not optimistic that oppressive privilege will simply walk away. Like Nettie, I watch as the roadbuilders court the people they plan to bulldoze.

In New Orleans, the roadbuilders are charter school advocates and Teach For America are the missionaries filled with zeal.

And 60 years after Brown v. Board, New Orleans has replaced its public schools in the wake of firing all of the public school teachers with charter schools—a 21st century separate but equal, as Lyndsey Layton reports:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

Privilege remains white and inequity remains black.

I invite you, then, to read.

Andre Perry in The education-reform movement is too white to do any good:

But let’s also stipulate that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic. The great educator Benjamin E. Mays famously said, “I would rather go to hell by choice than to stumble into heaven.” Reform is being done to communities of color. That’s why saying you’re a black education reformer effectually elicits charges of “acting white” from black communities….

Diversity removes doubt of racial bias, explicit or implicit. So when black and brown people are largely absent from positions of power, the entire reform movement loses credibility and accrues suspicion. Black education reformers struggle to connect with the very communities we’re members of. The overarching sentiment among attendees at the aforementioned meeting was that black leadership is missing from education reform. Consequently, “reform” has become a dirty word in some communities….

We need less “reform” and more social justice.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (and Ta-Nehisi Coates) in No, college isn’t the answer. Reparations are:

For some, reparations to African Americans for enslavement and state-sanctioned apartheid (more benignly known as “Jim Crow”) is a shocking case to make. I am a sociologist whose training has been, in part, with economists like Sandy Darity at Duke University and Darrick Hamilton at The New School. For Darity, Hamilton, and many other serious scholars of race, history, and inequality, the matter of reparations is anything but novel or shocking. Neither is it hyperbolic. There are real programs, with feasibility studies and implementation suggestions, and they move far beyond Coates’ call for a spiritual reckoning of the body politic. If you have never heard of them, that is likely by design [emphasis added]. Few powerful persons or institutions have ever been willing to seriously put a reparations program before the American people.

But I wager that you have heard a lot about how education and opportunity can be, through hard work and moral fortitude, the path to greater equality for African Americans. In many ways, when the formerly enslaved asked first for a national program to redress the forced, free labor that made the United States the nation we know it to be, they were given schooling instead of redress; opportunity instead of compensation. It is an attitude that persists in our policy and our cultural lexicon. When the demand is for justice, we are most likely to respond with an appeal, instead, to fairness. And in no institution is that more clearly evident than education. There’s just one problem: It’s not good enough.

Mia McKenzie in The White Teachers I Wish I Never Had:

Black children need teachers who can reflect the history of our people to them in an honest and empowering way. They also need teachers who see them, who don’t think of them as deficient, as problems to solve, or as thugs-in-training, when they are really just children, innocent and eager and as capable of learning as anyone else. They need teachers who can love them. In a world that tells them they are less, having authority figures, from an early age, who believe in their humanity, in their goodness, in their extraordinariness, is everything.

Ms. Reisman was the first terrible white teacher I had, but after her there were others. Mr. Fleischman, my seventh-grade homeroom and math teacher, was one. He disliked me and he showed it. He punished me for things more popular kids got away with daily. He seemed to like only the Black kids who were hip and cool but not smart, and then only if they were also boys. My awkward girl presence bugged him, particularly because I wasn’t silent or invisible. I was still confident, in spite of not being cool, or a boy, and he seemed to loathe it, his misogynoir showing quite clearly. I battled him, too.

Margaret Kimberley in Police Target Black Children:

Americans should take a long look in the mirror before criticizing other nations for human rights abuses. The law enforcement system in the United States ranks among the worst in the world in the cruel treatment meted out to its citizens. Even children in this country are not safe if they are black and unlucky enough to interact with the police. Of all the various ethnic and national groups in the United States, only black people have to worry that their child may be pushed through a glass window by officers of the law.

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrated what black people have always known. Black children are dehumanized to such an extent that they aren’t perceived as children at all. They are assumed to be older, less innocent and inherently guilty of some wrong doing. Study co-author Matthew Jackson said, “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.” Two recent cases involving the New York City police department show the truth of these words and the perils black people face even in childhood.

Beware the roadbuilders. They are not here to serve you, they are on their way to bulldoze right over you.

See Also

Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

4 comments

  1. Pingback: Education in Black and White: Beware the Roadbuilders – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Pingback: Gates Moratorium Another Scam: Beware the Roadbuilders pt. 2 | America's Productions
  3. Pingback: Bankrupt Cultural Capital Claims: Beware the Roadbuilders, pt. 3 | the becoming radical

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