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Juvenile Justice & Children's Rights Section Website › Newsletters › Juvenile Justice & Children's Rights, June 2011 › The Destructiveness of Capitalism and Racism in Public Education

The Destructiveness of Capitalism and Racism in Public Education

Article Date: Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Written By: Jason Langberg

"It took well over a hundred years to create a public school system that, for all its flaws, provides a free education for all children as a legal right. It took campaigns against child labor, crusades for public taxation, struggles against fear and discrimination directed at immigrants, historic movements for civil rights against legally sanctioned separate and unequal schooling, movements for equal rights and educational access for women, and in more recent decades sustained drives for the rights of special education students, gay and lesbian students, bilingual students, and Native American students. These campaigns are all unfinished and the gains they've made are uneven and fragile. But they have made public schools one of the last places where an increasingly diverse and divided population still comes together for a common civic purpose. But the system's Achilles' heel continues to be acute racial and class inequality, which in fact is the Achilles' heel of the whole society." ~ Stan Karp

Education has been a dominant topic of conversation of late. In news outlets across the nation, issues such as segregation, zero tolerance, charter schools, vouchers, and teachers' unions appear daily in headlines. Budget battles, upcoming elections, legislation, and other major policy changes promise to preserve education's place in the spotlight and perpetuate heated debates. However, the mainstream education policy discussion has largely omitted what are perhaps the two greatest systemic influences on public school systems: capitalism and racism. The dominant discourse swings around and around the educational manifestations of capitalism and racism, yet seldom are the terms uttered, and even more rarely are they discussed. In most settings, even a passing reference to capitalism or racism in the midst of education policy discussions is met with awkward silence, distant stares, eye rolls, or comments about "staying on task." Consequently, more meaningful, large-scale education reform is stalled. The purpose of this article is to outline the impacts of capitalism and racism on public education and provide thoughts about the implications of their influences.

"Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform." ~ John Dewey

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities...It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education." ~ Justice Earl Warren

Public education has long had dual personalities. On one hand, it is central to freedom, the maintenance of a truly democratic society, and the well-being of individuals and communities. Hard working, dedicated, brilliant educators across the country are providing an excellent education for children. Every day, I marvel at the efforts and results of outstanding teachers like my wife and the teachers who care deeply for the youth with whom I work. Millions of young people graduate from public schools every year equipped with the knowledge and skills to thrive in adulthood. Therefore, public education must be protected at all costs.

On the other hand, public education has been a system of oppression for many children. When not completely excluding low-wealth communities and communities of color from a high-quality public education (e.g., laws prohibiting the education of slaves), the power structure has employed various tactics using education as a means of profit and social control. While the tactics have varied over time, the root causes of such systemic oppression - capitalism and racism - remained largely unchanged. The dual evils of capitalism and racism have become so deeply entrenched in public education that they either go unnoticed or accepted as immutable forces. Yet, increasingly they are destroying public education. Worse yet, the white supremacist, capitalist culture in schools is teaching and perpetuating the lie that there are objective standards of "normal," "civilized," and "good," which exacerbates the marginalization of those designated as "other" (e.g., people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, immigrants, English language learners).

"What's ultimately at stake is more basic. It's whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed-however imperfectly-by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?" ~ Stan Karp

 "The crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career." ~ Albert Einstein

Today, the building blocks of capitalism infect every aspect of the public school experience. Sorting and stratification present themselves in grading, tracking, testing, segregating, and labeling. Competition comes in the form of merit pay, class rankings, grade point averages, and "Race to the Top." Control manifests itself through school resource officers, metal detectors, drug testing, interrogations, searches, surveillance cameras, bells, rows, lines, suspensions, expulsions, and carefully limited curricula. Uniformity is achieved using scripted curricula and standardized testing. Privatization, greed, and concentrating wealth drive everything from the push for charter schools and vouchers, to budget cuts and resource starvation, to the proliferation of companies that profit from student consumption of testing, school photos, class rings, caps and gowns, vending machines, cafeteria food, textbooks, and technology. In short, children are being brainwashed in order to make them more easily controlled, manipulated, and profitable as workers and consumers. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, capitalism and its control over the economy and most politicians is the primary cause of over 500,000 North Carolina children living in poverty, which has an enormous negative impact on public education.

"Racism seeps into our system like poison, kills off pieces of ourselves as we build a tolerance for it." ~ Virginia Harris

Likewise, racism plagues public education. Students of color are forced to endure: persistent achievement gaps; disparities in the number of alternative learning program placements, suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests and court referrals; segregated school districts and schools within schools; racial profiling and low expectations; disproportionate tracking into special education, lower-level courses, and ineffective remedial programs; biased curricula and testing; and staff who lack high-quality cultural competency and anti-oppression training (or worse yet, staff who have only undergone racist and classist trainings, like the Ruby Payne framework). Compared to White students last school year, Black students in North Carolina public schools were, on average, 2.5 times more likely to fail one or more end-of-grade exams, 2.9 times more likely to fail one or more end-of-course exams, 1.5 times more likely to drop out, 1.6 times more likely to not graduate high school within four years after starting ninth grade, 3.9 times more likely to be short-term suspended, 4.1 times more likely to be long-term suspended, and 2.0 times more likely to be subject to a school-based delinquency complaint. Other students of color have also endured education genocide.
At least four significant implications stem from the notion that capitalism and racism lie at the root of education injustice. It is critical to: 1) speak out against capitalism and racism in public education; 2) expand meaningful collaboration among individuals and organizations fighting capitalism and racism; 3) develop a vision of public education outside limitations imposed by capitalism and racism; and 4) deploy all available tools and tactics to combat the influences of capitalism and racism in public education.

 "Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society commitment to public education as the center of a free society." ~ Mike Rose

First, the education policy dialogue must be expanded beyond important topics like funding, diversity, achievement gaps, and school discipline to include the biggest obstacles to reform: capitalism and racism. Both the symptoms and the disease must be exposed for all to hear. Discomfort, sensitivity, and taboo must be replaced by deep dialogue and courageous conversations. It is also important that capitalism and racism be discussed with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including allies, the power structure, and people who may be living with fear, ignorance, apathy, or misinformation. Lifting up and exposing the destructiveness of capitalism and racism in public education will not only help bring much needed attention to the issues, but will also help reverse the trend of blaming the victims-students, parents, and teachers-for the failings of political and economic systems.

 "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."
~ Sitting Bull

Meaningful collaboration among individuals and organizations fighting capitalism and racism is critical for three reasons. Collaboration must occur because the United States is in the midst of a civil war. "Moneyed elites" are charging into legislatures, courts, and school districts to, in the words of Jim Hightower, "establish themselves as a de facto plutocracy," and they have at their disposal most of the financial resources, mainstream media, and politicians. They use a divide-and-conquer approach and thrive off of disjointed movements that can be easily defeated and made to appear insignificant. Advocates operating with blinders in narrow silos hinder overall impact. In contrast, sharing wisdom, resources, information, access, and other assets leverages collective power.

Additionally, collaboration must occur because issues of concern for various anti-capitalism and anti-racism movements are increasingly overlapping. For example, in North Carolina over the past few months, issues involving workers' rights, immigrant rights, and juvenile and criminal justice have converged in the education justice arena. State legislators have proposed bills that: target the NC Association of Educators (NCAE) by eliminating payroll deductions for voluntary dues; force students to reveal their citizenship and immigration status to school officials upon enrollment; and require school districts to expel or provide alternative education to students who have been arrested two or more times or alleged to be delinquent or undisciplined two or more times. While the legislature's actions are despicable, they present an excellent opportunity (and necessity) for solidarity.
Finally, collaboration must occur because anti-capitalism and anti-racism individuals and organizations have a common interest: a well-educated citizenry equipped with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary to become leaders in the movement against capitalism and racism and for a more humane world.

 "In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. That means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms." ~ Ella Baker

The third implication arises from the notion that dreaming of a better way of schooling is difficult, given how deep and long-lasting the negative impacts of capitalism and racism are in public education. A grander, bolder vision of public education must be constructed outside of the confines of the status quo. Public education belongs to "we the people," and thus, the people have a right and an obligation to formulate a grand shared vision of true education justice. Students, parents, educators, and progressive advocates must harness the collective wisdom to develop a concrete, detailed vision of a more democratic, fair, humane, equitable public education system, irrespective of misinformation from the propaganda machinery, austerity, damaging strings attached to alluring private and federal funding, and hundreds of years of internalized norms that inhibit visioning. Public education is not meant merely to produce workers who are "competitive in a global economy" (as the business roundtable campaign has tricked so many into believing)-there must be a broader purpose for schooling. Self-determination and idealism must replace the false constraints created by corporations, the wealthy, politicians, and others reliant on and invested in the status quo. Progressive education reformers must shed the slave mentality, pinpoint the real current problems in education, and envision a better way, one free of the chains of capitalism and racism.

 "The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize." ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

What if, instead of tax breaks for millionaires, corporate tax loopholes, runaway military spending, subsidies to energy companies, and debilitating budget cuts…school systems had ample resources to: pay teachers fairly; hire full-time teacher assistants, guidance counselors, therapists, psychologists, social workers, and nurses; create and adequately fund highly-effective afterschool, summer, intervention, and alternative programs and services; reduce class and school sizes; serve healthy meals; provide universal pre-K; send students on field trips; and supply classrooms with abundant resources?

What if, instead of massive achievement gaps, funding disparities, and public education being designed to preserve the caste system of capitalism and vestiges of slavery…equity existed across all aspects of public school systems?

What if, instead of a "Billionaire Boys Club" (or "Mega-Buck Mafia" as they have also been called), with hidden, neoliberal agendas and no expertise, and the politicians they purchase, dictating market-based education policy…students, parents, educators, and progressive experts were the shapers and decision-makers in public education?

What if, instead of school systems being governed from the top down…schools systems were democratically controlled, with students, parents, and educators being empowered to take leadership roles in designing curriculum and instruction, establishing norms and policies, and administering discipline intended to teach and heal, creative special programming, and authentic accountability?

What if, instead of school systems marginalizing and alienating low-wealth communities and communities of color…schools were the centers of communities, tackling poverty head-on, and offering evening, weekend, and summer activities and programs, such as healthy meals, health services, GED and ESL classes, job training, parenting classes, and day care? I am not talking about a zone here and a community school there-I am talking about every school in every district.

"[E]ducation of the child shall be directed to: (a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential; (b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations; (c) The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own; (d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin; (e) The development of respect for the natural environment." ~ United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Part I, Article 29(1)

What if, instead of high-stakes testing, drill-and-kill teaching to the test, scripted curricula, and factory-style education, all of which produce lobotomized intellectual zombies to become workers and consumers…we had: school districts where critical pedagogy was standard practice; schools that cultivate the natural curiosity and brilliance of young people; curricula rich in (the people's) history, civics, culture, arts, and service-learning; schools that produce "solutionaries" - students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences to solve the world's most pressing social problems; schools that value individuality and different cultural backgrounds and learning styles; and all students graduating equipped with the critical thinking skills necessary for participation in a self-governing democracy?

What if, instead of high-poverty, racially isolated schools and classrooms that perpetuate a culture of white supremacy…schools and classrooms were fully integrated and led by staff who value diversity and undergo anti-oppression and cultural competency training?

"The culture of punishment that now permeates American schools not only derails the project of critical education and democracy in a number of ways, but it also makes poor white and minority youth disposable. This is a culture that favors rage, anger and vengeance over compassion, dialogue and social investments...As the culture of fear, crime and repression embraces public schools, the culture of schooling takes on the obscene and violent contours one associates with the 'all [too] familiar procedures of efficient prison management,' including unannounced locker searches, armed police patrolling the corridors, mandatory drug testing and the ever present body of lockdown security devices such as metal detectors, X-ray machines, surveillance cameras and other technologies of fear and control...Unfortunately, policies and practices designed to foster exclusion and mete out shame and humiliation make it easier for young people to look upon their society and their futures with suspicion and despair, rather than anticipation and hope…We need to get security forces out of schools, reduce spending for prisons and wars and hire more teachers, support staff and community people in order to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline." ~ Pedro Nogeura

What if, instead of law enforcement officers, TASERs and pepper spray, metal detectors, surveillance cameras, drug-sniffing dogs, and locker searches that undermine educators and criminalize educational environments, create a culture of fear and violence, and feed the prison industrial complex…schools were loving, nurturing places with positive behavior interventions and supports and the highly-effective counselors, psychologists, therapists, nurses, social workers, and mentors needed to address the underlying causes of misbehavior and actually keep schools safe?

What if, instead of pushing disproportionate numbers of students of color and low-wealth students into terrible alternative learning programs, out onto the streets through suspension and expulsion, and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems through school-based arrests and complaints…school districts actually committed to leaving no child behind by: addressing underlying causes of misbehavior; having restorative justice (e.g., mediation, peace circles, community service), mental health, and drug treatment programs; keeping students in real brick-and-mortar schools; and treating all students with dignity and respect?

These dreams are possible. Public education does not have to forever be a system that serves some children while oppressing others. In fact, schools across the country and all over the world are demonstrating that such visions can be achieved without economic collapse, rampant school violence, or any other doomsday scenarios proffered by the power structure as excuses.

 "I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights." ~ Desmond Tutu

The fourth and final implication of the idea that capitalism and racism lie at the root of education injustice is that advocates must use every available tool and tactic to fight relentlessly until our vision becomes reality. All strategies should be deployed, including legal advocacy, organizing, lobbying, voting, media outreach, and direct action, because the power structure is certainly using all available approaches in its war chest, and unearthing the deeply rooted entanglement of capitalism, racism, and public education will require all available tools. Education justice movements across the nation are cropping up, building momentum, and achieving successes, as students, parents, teachers, administrators, and others who believe in the power of public education become increasingly sick and tired of being attacked. Those that have been most successful have used a wide variety of strategies to target the two most important things to those set on dismantling public education: money and power.

There has perhaps never been a more exciting time to be an advocate for the quality of public education. The current heated debate over education, while at times maddening or sickening, and the rapid changes in policy, provide an all too rare window of opportunity to build alliances, breathe life into idealism, make our voices heard, and act boldly. The time to minimize the influence of capitalism and racism in public education is NOW. Capitalism and racism cannot continue to destroy public education, and thus our future. If we are to have a true revolution in this country, it must begin with a different type of schooling and with the hearts, minds, and spirits of our children.

"Forcing a change in education policy and in our flawed but indispensable public schools, the only institutions that serve all children regardless of background, will be difficult and complicated - but it can be done." ~ Pedro Noguera

"We deal here with the right of all of our children, whatever their [class] or race, to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. Those children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them that right in the future." ~ Thurgood Marshall (adapted)

Jason Langberg is an education justice activist in North Carolina. He can be contacted at This article is dedicated to his mentor, friend, and comrade, Lewis Pitts, who has devoted nearly forty years to fighting for civil and human rights and a better world.
Views and opinions expressed in articles published herein are the authors' only and are not to be attributed to this newsletter, the section, or the NCBA unless expressly stated. Authors are responsible for the accuracy of all citations and quotations.