Two Bad Options Justify Neither: MLK 2015

Whether on the day of his birth (January 15) or the national holiday date, taking special time to recall and honor Martin Luther King Jr. remains vital in the U.S. since we continue to be trapped in the swamp of racial inequity as well as the fog of denying racism.

However, along with remembering and praising, we must also protect against continuing to reduce King to the stereotype of the passive radical, a characterization that serves the ineffective status quo of the politics of privilege in this so-called land of the free and home of the brave.

“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out,” King notes in Where Do We Go From Here?, “there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States,” continuing:

Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike….

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

In 2015, we are likely served well to be guided by the radical King who rejected the status quo, particularly the status quo of reform (poverty, education, etc.) bound to dualistic thinking and indirect approaches.

This is profoundly important in the context of how we are perversely dedicated to accountability-based education reform that is heralded as the primary mechanism for eradicating poverty—despite both accountability and education’s ability to erase poverty being demonstrably false promises.

For example, let’s consider the charter school formula:

Since public school X is failing to address the needs of high-poverty and minority students, we must embrace charter school Y.

Step one, which I suggest we rarely do, is to examine the initial premise: Is public school X failing to serve those students or is public school X unable to achieve utopian goals in overwhelming circumstances that are not being addressed?

Step two, if we determine that initial premise is true, is then to examine the validity of the effectiveness of charter school Y.

Since a great deal of the charter school movement is both targeting high-poverty/minority students and embracing “no excuses” ideologies and practices for those students, this second step must include considerations of not only credible claims of “serving better” but also at what costs to the dignity and humanity of the students.

Complicating this process is that high-poverty/minority parents often appear to choose charter schools over their apparently failing assigned public schools.

As I have examined before, here is what I believe we should confront when facing the fabricated choice between a failing public school and a “no excuses” charter schools:

[Michelle] Alexander [in The New Jim Crow] explains about the effectiveness of the war on drugs: “Conservatives could point to black support for highly punitive approaches to dealing with the problems of the urban poor as ‘proof’ that race had nothing to do with their ‘law and order’ agenda” (p. 42).

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, [Sarah] Carr [in Hope Against Hope] reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

The radical King who rejected the status quo of racism as well as the status quo of political thought and practice, I believe, would also reject the false duality of “segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and ‘no excuses’ charters,” would reject the hollow claim that continuing to dig the same school accountability hole is the best way to eradicate poverty.

Two bad options justify neither.

The U.S. has a moral obligation to do public education right—for the good of all—and to end poverty and racism, as King demanded, directly.

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