The Collapse of Urban Public Schooling

The Collapse of Urban Public Schooling


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



To refer to black Americans as “educationally handicapped” when there

has been an historic and systematic conspiracy to deny them quality

education is comparable to breaking a person’s leg and then criticizing

that person when she or he limps!  This is a strategy for keeping

the oppressed in a condition of oppression.



The Collapse of Urban Public Schooling

By Floyd W. Hayes, III


In April 1983, more than a decade ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education of the U. S. Department of Education issued a report that state unambiguously that “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

The report, entitled A Nation at Risk, likened the devastation of public education to “an act of war.”  “We have in effect,” the report warned, “been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”  Many Americans seemed shocked for a time by the report’s findings.  They, however, were not a new discovery.

The source of the present collapse of urban public education can be traced back to the late 1950s and 1960s, following the U. S. Supreme Court’s momentous, but flawed, Brown school desegregation ruling.  Terminating state-sanctioned racial apartheid in America’s public schools was correct; reasoning that all black schools were inherently inferior was incorrect.  In a deliberate attempt to distort and evade the Court’s decision, many urban school systems outside of the South installed the pupil assignment policy of tracking that effectively re-segregated many schools by channeling the majority of black students into the lowest track early in their educational careers.

Interpreting the Brown ruling as an opportunity to improve their children’s education, black residents in many big cities across America fought urban public school regimes’ tracking policy.  For example, community activists in Washington, D. D., labeled the policy “programmed retardation,” declaring that tracking was more harmful than the conservative practice of racist segregation in the Old South.

Reasoning that poor education ultimately would hurt black and white working class children in the Nation’s capitol, community leaders called for neither racial integration nor segregation; rather, they demanded quality education.  Washington, D. C. community activists defined this educational goal unambiguously: (1) the distribution and mastery of the fundamental tools of learning: reading, writing, computational skills, and thinking; (2) academic motivation; and (3) positive character-development.  Each of these elements was supposed to advance as students matriculated from elementary through high school.

Like residents of so many other urban areas, Washington, D. C.’s black community lost the political struggle for quality education.  In 1967, the celebrated Hobson v. Hansen case terminated the school system’s tracking policy, but the court claimed that racial integration automatically improved the educational performance of black students.  Liberal civil rights leaders and educational managerial elites won the day and began to implement various racial integration policies—racial-balance using, magnet school programs, and other education experiments.  Because integration is not an end in itself but only a means to achieve an end, the contradictions and dilemmas quickly became apparent.

Thus, educational managers and civil rights elites put forward racial integration as the singular goal of education and imposed it on public schools at all costs.  They overlooked the issue of quality education.  As a result, good classroom teaching declined, the fundamental tools of knowledge were abandoned, and positive character building was perverted.

Moreover, as white and later middle-class black flight from cities to suburbs accelerated in the late 1960s and 1970s, America allowed its urban areas and their schools to decay and deteriorate.  In the process, school regimes bused African American and Latino children to an expanding system of largely white and affluent suburban schools in order to achieve “racial balance.”  This tactic helped to destroy the sense of community in urban areas, as remaining inner-city life became increasingly characterized by economic impoverishment, political disenfranchisement, and cultural despair.

The consequences of this course of events are now evident with the collapse of public education in urban areas across this nation.  Ironically, school budgets have continued to rise along with a growing ossification and inefficiency of urban school bureaucracies.

Adding insult to injury, liberal members of the educational managerial elite have rationalized the denial of quality education to black students by applying various theories of cultural deprivation.  Categorizing African-descended Americans as “culturally deprived” or “culturally disadvantaged” merely compounds and continues, into the contemporary era, the legacy of cultural domination and the denial of black human dignity originally articulated by whites during the Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in colonial America.

To refer to black Americans as “educationally handicapped” when there has been an historic and systematic conspiracy to deny them quality education is comparable to breaking a person’s leg and then criticizing that person when she or he limps!  This is a strategy for keeping the oppressed in a condition of oppression.

These unfortunate educational trends and developments characterized urban and less affluent public school systems in the 1960s and 1970s.  Since then, many suburban and more affluent public school systems also have been experiencing an educational crisis.  They confront a growing rate of complex problems: functional illiteracy, violence, drop/push outs, discipline, drug use, teenage pregnancy, gang activity, and teacher burn out.

What is to be expected of youngsters from any racial, ethnic, or class background who never were taught to read effectively, who never developed the responsibility of carrying out an assignment, who never learned to follow directions, who never acquired respect for knowledge or its purveyors, and who never became masters of their own souls with self-discipline?  Under these circumstances, generations of young people are being educationally sabotaged in many public schools across America.

In the current stage of American postindustrial-managerial development, the collapse of public schooling is frightening.  In the emerging society, knowledge and the management of people are supplanting money and manufacturing as the only sources of politico-economic power.  Resisting the professional-managerial class’s cultural domination and intellectual imperialism requires that the people themselves come to view knowledge and its utilization as sources of power.

Learning, therefore, needs to be increasingly understood as a life-long project and an indispensable investment for social development.  Educational credentials more and more will be the key to a person’s role in society.  However, more than more possession of certificates will be the requirement to practice one’s knowledge.  Knowledge-based performance and decision-making will be the necessary attributes of the educated person.  Survival, development, and even struggle will depend on knowledge-based action.

Indications are that educational professional-managerial elites have betrayed a generation or more of urban African American and Latino students, whose educational underdevelopment is undercutting their ability to survive and develop in a postindustrial-managerial society grown cynically indifferent to social suffering.  Faced with the possibility of an increasingly nihilistic future, America has two options: educational renewal or societal decadence.


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Privatizing Education: The Neoliberal Project

Black Education and Afro-Pessimism / The Collapse of Urban Public Schooling  / The Myth of Charter Schools

Hunger for a Black President  / Biko Speaks on Africans  /  Introduction I Write What I Like

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Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid

By  Frank B. Wilderson III

Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, presents a gripping account of his role in the downfall of South African apartheid as one of only two black Americans in the African National Congress (ANC). After marrying a South African law student, Wilderson reluctantly returns with her to South Africa in the early 1990s, where he teaches Johannesburg and Soweto students, and soon joins the military wing of the ANC. Wilderson’s stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who’ve accepted the reverential treatment usually accorded him. After the assassination of Mandela’s rival, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela’s regime deems Wilderson’s public questions a threat to national security; soon, having lost his stomach for the cause, he returns to America.

Wilderson has a distinct, powerful voice and a strong story that shuffles between the indignities of Johannesburg life and his early years in Minneapolis, the precocious child of academics who barely tolerate his emerging political consciousness. Wilderson’s observations about love within and across the color line and cultural divides are as provocative as his politics; despite some distracting digressions, this is a riveting memoir of apartheid’s last days.—Publishers Weekly

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Afro- Pessimism

By Frank B. Wilderson

“Afro-Pessimists are framed as such . . . because they theorize an antagonism, rather than a conflict—i.e., they perform a kind of ‘work of understanding’ rather than that of liberation, refusing to posit seemingly untenable solutions to the problems they raise.”

“[The Afro-Pessimists argue] that violence toward the black person happens gratuitously, hence without former transgression, and the even if the means of repression change (plantation was replaced by prison, etc.), that doesn’t change the structure of the repression itself. Finally (and this is important in terms of the self-definition of the white person), a lot of repression happens on the level of representation, which then infiltrates the unconscious of both the black and the white person . . . Since these structures are ontological, they cannot be resolved (there is no way of changing this unless the world as we know it comes an end. . . .); this is why the [Afro-Pessimist relational-schema] would be seen as the only true antagonism (while other repressive relations like class and gender would take place on the level of conflict—they can be resolved, hence they are not ontological).”

“[The Afro-Pessimists] work toward delineating a relation rather than focus on a cultural object.”

“Something that all the Afro-Pessimists seem to agree upon regarding social death are notions of kinship (or lack there of), the absence of time and space to describe blackness. . . . There is no grammar of suffering to describe their loss because the loss cannot be named.”

“[The Afro-Pessimists] theorize the workings of civil society as contiguous with slavery, and discuss the following as bearing witness to this contiguity: the inability of the slave (or the being-for-the-captor) to translate space into place and time into event; the fact that the slave remains subject to gratuitous violence (rather than violence contingent on transgression); the natal alienation and social death of the slave.”

“[T]he Afro-Pessimists all seek to . . . stage a metacritique of the current discourse identified as “critical theory” by excavating an antagonism that exceeds it; to recognize this antagonism forces a mode of death that expels subjecthood and forces objecthood [upon Blacks].”

“For Fanon, the solution to the black presence in the white world is not to retrieve and celebrate our African heritage, as was one of the goals of the Negritude project. For Fanon, a revolution that would destroy civil society, as we know it would be a more adequate response. I think the Afro-Pessimist such as Hartman, Spillers, and Marriott would argue there is no place for the black, only prosthetics, techniques which give the  illusion of a relationality in the world.”

Like the work of Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman, David Marriott, Hortense Spillers, Frantz Fanon, Lewis Gordon, Joy James, and others, Wilderson’s poetry, creative prose, scholarly work, and film production are predicated on the notion that slavery did not end in 1865; the United States simply made adjustments to the force of Black resistance without diminishing the centrality of Black captivity to the stability and coherence of civil society.—Incognegro

posted 11 March 2006

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#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson; Illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian. It is a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, as such, is quite formal not only in form but in language. There are 15 poems in the cycle, the last line of one being the first line of the next, and each of the first lines makes up the entirety of the 15th. This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events. The language is highly figurative in one sonnet, cruelly graphic in the next. The illustrations echo the representative nature of the poetry, using images from nature and taking advantage of the emotional quality of color. There is an introduction by the author, a page about Emmett Till, and literary and poetical footnotes to the sonnets. The artist also gives detailed reasoning behind his choices. This underpinning information makes this a full experience, eminently teachable from several aspects, including historical and literary—School Library Journal

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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 / update7 January 2012




Home Floyd W Hayes III Table

Related files: Hunger for a Black President  / Biko Speaks on Africans  /  Introduction I Write What I Like

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