I entered the classroom as a high school English teacher in Upstate South Carolina in the fall of 1984, coinciding with the start of the high-stakes accountability movement in my home state as well as across the U.S.
Many people identify the Nation at Risk report under Ronald Reagan as ground zero for the accountability movement that entrenched patterns of school reform lasting until today—ever-changing standards, ever-changing high-stakes tests, and a never-ending refrain that schools are failing.
George W. Bush brought state-level education reform/accountability to the federal level with the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind, and then Barack Obama doubled down on the same basic concepts and approaches despite decades of accountability measures not working.
As a result, when I entered the world of blogging and public commentary during Obama’s administration, I found two enduring and powerful metaphors for the essential flaws of the accountability/education reform movement.
One is from Oscar Wilde: “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”
And the other is inspired by a scene from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, detailed in a letter from Nettie to Celie:
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.The Color Purple
From this, I drew a conclusion that has served as a guiding metaphor for my criticism of the education reform movement and the title of one of my books, Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance (Garn Press): “Beware the roadbuilders. They are not here to serve you, they are on their way to bulldoze right over you.”
One element of the tension between the accountability/education reform movement and those of us committed to education and social reform grounded in equity (and not accountability) is the shared acknowledgement that universal public education has a long history of failing marginalized and oppressed populations of students, reflecting the larger failures of communities, states, and the broader U.S. to serve marginalized and oppressed people.
It is 2021, and in my home state of SC, the metaphor I have depended on is being vividly and callously brought to reality:
The dismantling of Black communities for state and federal highways is not just a thing of the past. It’s happening now a few miles north of Charleston with the proposed West I-526 Lowcountry Corridor, at a time when President Biden and his transportation secretary have vowed to stop it.
South Carolina is proposing to sweep aside dozens of homes, and potentially hundreds of people, to widen a freeway interchange choked with traffic in this booming coastal region. The $3 billion project is expected to begin about two years after the plan becomes final. …
Under the state’s preferred proposal for the interchange upgrade, 94 percent of people and structures that would be displaced live in environmental justice communities mostly composed of Black and Brown residents.Black people are about to be swept aside for a South Carolina freeway — again
It is 2021, and I must reach the same conclusion I drew in 2014: Beware the roadbuilders. They are not here to serve you, they are on their way to bulldoze right over you.
Racial and economic segregation in urban communities is often understood as a natural consequence of poor choices by individuals. In reality, racially and economically segregated cities are the result of many factors, including the nation’s interstate highway system. In states around the country, highway construction displaced Black households and cut the heart and soul out of thriving Black communities as homes, churches, schools, and businesses were destroyed. In other communities, the highway system was a tool of a segregationist agenda, erecting a wall that separated White and Black communities and protected White people from Black migration. In these ways, construction of the interstate highway system contributed to the residential concentration of race and poverty, and created physical, economic, and psychological barriers that persist.Archer, Deborah N., ‘White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes’: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction (February 18, 2020). 73 Vanderbilt Law Review 1259 (2020), NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-49, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3539889
Today, the interstate highway system is on the verge of transformational change as aging highways around the country are crumbling or insufficient to meet growing demand and must be rebuilt or replaced. The possibility of significant infrastructure development offers an opportunity to redress some of the harm caused by the interstate highway system, to strengthen impacted communities, and to advance racial equity. Still, there is a risk that federal, state, and local highway builders will repeat the sins of the past at the expense of communities of color whose homes, businesses, and community institutions again stand in the path of the bulldozers. Moreover, there is reason to believe that traditional civil rights laws, standing alone, are insufficient to redress the structural and institutional racism that shaped the interstate highway system and continues to threaten communities of color as the highways are rebuilt.
This Article is the first in the legal literature to explore in depth the racial equity concerns and opportunities raised by modern highway redevelopment. It also builds upon the work of legal scholars who advocate for addressing systemic racial inequality by requiring that policymakers conduct a thorough and comprehensive analysis of how a proposed action, policy, or practice will affect racial and ethnic groups. The Article concludes by proposing a way forward for highway redevelopment projects: requiring jurisdictions to complete comprehensive racial equity impact studies prior to any construction. Racial equity impact studies have been used or proposed in various contexts to reform racialized institutions and structures. This Article argues that highway redevelopment projects should join this growing list.