“We have an achievement gap,” a Wake County, North Carolina School board member expounded during his Fall 2009 campaign. “One that is significant. 50% of our African American boys are dropping out. This drives up crime and societal costs. This is a skewed system that fails to adjust for the needs of children of poverty and in doing so we fail to challenge our most gifted or raise our most vulnerable. Too many of our children are falling behind.”
The Wake County School Board, of which he became a part, decided soon thereafter that the solution lay in revoking Wake County’s long-standing desegregation and districting policies. Students were being bused too far, the Board’s majority said. All this movement of students was distracting, unfair, and unhelpful.
“If we had a school that was, like 80% high-poverty,” the board member went on to imagine late last year, “the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful. Right now, we have diluted the problem so we can ignore it…This is Raleigh in 2010, not Selma, Alabama in the 1960s – my life is integrated.”
But what, I wonder, does a single integrated life look like? How can an individual alone achieve integration? And if that were possible, what would that say about how we conceive of integration?
In her book Another Kind of Public Education (2009), sociologist Patricia Hill Collins observes that American public discourse increasingly seems to devalue anything that is public. Privatization then emerges as the seeming antidote to the problems of public institutions (2009: 22) – and this antidote allows individuals to claim to understand themselves without seeking to understand the social contexts that have shaped them. Race and social experiences of race are woven in to these contexts.
Refusal to acknowledge social experiences of race constitutes a significant aspect of what Collins and others call “color blind racism” – or, rhetoric and practices that, as Angela Davis writes, “ostracize” race from social and political discourse, making the racialized character of social relationships increasingly difficult to identify. Erasing consideration of race and of inequities related to race then becomes a way of ignoring injustice – and of justifying its continued reproduction.
Privatization then appears as a strategy for discussing justice without attending to on-going injustice: if “my” life is integrated, then justice is already achieved. If existing power relationships are discussed only in terms of individual achievement, work ethic, “making good decisions,” and so on, then those with power can ignore and deny the advantages from which they have benefited. If public discourse is reduced to individuals without consideration of social contexts, then dialogue is jeopardized, because as Henry Giroux writes, “there is no language for translating private concerns into public issues” (2010: 87).
I remember having a similar conversation with the very first undergraduate group that I taught. We had read Collins’ book and were using what she calls a “domains of power framework” to discuss recent media discourses – particularly the state of Virginia’s April 2010 declaration of an annual Confederate History Month.
In Collins’ framework, four interrelated areas of social interaction – structural, disciplinary, cultural, and interpersonal—become starting points for inquiry about power, domination, injustice, and resistance. As an elected official, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell—who created and declared the month-long Confederate memorial at first without mention of the Confederacy or the Civil War’s relationships to slavery—holds power through what Collins calls the structural domain, or the domain of institutions, of organizations, of states, laws, and other enduring structures. As elected representatives, Wake County school board members have power through this domain, too. The students and I considered this. We considered, too, comments in the vein of those made by Virginia state Attorney General Ken Cuchinelli – also empowered through the structural domain –who has stated that Virginia has “outgrown” institutionalized injustices related to race.
What happens, I ask the students, when we talk about injustice as something that is over, as something that is not a problem anymore? What happens when we talk about justice and democracy as things that we have already achieved? What happens to Patricia Hill Collins’ idea of democracy as a process—as a dialogue that cannot be mastered by individuals alone but rather that we as a public have to continue to work at?
One student – a returned missionary, an avowed conservative with a kind face and a halo of blond hair; a student always ready to read and to listen and to rethink ideas and questions– sat quiet, his upturned palms held in front of him. He touched them together like the outline of an open book. And then he closed it.