A friend recently texted me with the following inquiry. Her public school district was conducting “yet another workshop to teach us to get in touch with our racist selves.” She then texted something else that caught my attention: “They r too afraid to talk about the socio-economic issues so they tell us if we talk about race and how it impacts behavior, then we are racist. Thoughts?”
Thoughts? Yes. First, I should say unequivocally that I agree with Cornel West. Race Matters. Second, since the formation of the Communist Party in the late 19th century and both the perceived as well as the actual threat communism posed to business interests in the U.S. and abroad, it has been taken as a given that discussions of class are well neigh treasonous, but at the very least are ideological and therefore should be excluded from all official, public discourse. This helps to explain the largely sanitized, completely innocuous version of “social stratification” dished out to nearly all public high school students and even most college students who dare venture into the dangerous field of Sociology, God forbid. But, third, this also helps to explain why such great weight has been placed upon race in the U.S., which has always been compelled to bear the burden not only of minor genetic differentiation and the social and economic distinctions that social actors invariably attach to this differentiation, but the burden as well of those social and economic distinctions themselves, as though race were itself the cause of these differentiations and not instead the reverse.
Imagine, for a moment, if public school teachers and parents of students in public schools were instead called aside for a special workshop to discuss social and economic differences and the social scientifically indisputable negative consequences these differences have on learning outcomes. Children of families that survive without a living wage display much poorer learning outcomes no matter how well or poorly teachers teach or administrators administer. (Actually that’s not entirely true. Some communities choose to distribute their resources to make sure that children from families that do not enjoy a living wage nevertheless are supported by a network of educated adult role models and tutors, enjoy easy access to free health care, are cared for by loving adults in neighborhoods that are free from violence, and are encouraged to play, learn, and grow in ways and in environments most conducive to the most desirable learning outcomes. But, more on that in a moment.) Although such workshops are virtually unimaginable, we can guess what might happen. On the one hand, they might prove terribly disempowering not only because teachers and administrators might learn that learning outcomes appear to be subject to forces completely beyond their control; but also because parents who do not earn a living wage (or who did not benefit from a college education or from college-educated parents who earned a living wage) might come to feel that the learning outcomes of their children appear to be dependent on social and economic forces completely beyond their control. This disempowerment, in turn, might then be taken as a license to do nothing.
But, such a workshop might also prove specially empowering since it would help parents, teachers and administrators to clearly identify the kinds of practical steps they have to take together in order to improve learning outcomes. In other words, rather than continuously kicking the can down the road — parents blaming teachers and teachers’ unions, teachers and teachers’ unions blaming administrators, administrators blaming poor funding and therefore bad politicians, bad politicians blaming a bad business environment or bad teachers, and so on — we might instead be able to identify the bucket of goods that actually contribute to positive learning outcomes: good health and healthcare, a network of educated, successful, caring adults intimately involved in a student’s day-to-day life, safe homes and safe neighborhoods, as well as books, pencils, computers, paper, and highly-trained, well compensated teachers who teach in classrooms with a low student to teacher ratio.
All of these goods are known to dramatically improve learning outcomes. To be sure, they have also become deeply and perhaps incurably ideological. Insofar as “productivity” and “efficiency” have become the mantras of elected officials and school administrators, the last thing they want to hear is that if we want better learning outcomes for all students, it will take more than firing a handful of pro-union teachers and depriving the rest of adequate health care and benefits. Students experience poor learning outcomes because of bad teachers. Get rid of the bad teachers and learning outcomes will rise. Never mind that were this the science with which we had sought to send men to the moon, we would never have built even a launch pad, much less a rocket.
Back to our fictional workshop. So parents, teachers, and administrators now know what it takes. They have the buckets and they know the goods that they need to put in those buckets. Let the Chamber of Commerce wail. Let the Republican Party cry foul. But, then, let the teachers, students, administrators, and parents get to work filling the buckets . . . together, as a community, for the good of students.
What will they do? They will organize together. Politically? Yes. Socially? Yes. Economically? Yes. And they will discover that they have the battle of their lives on their hands.
So, the question might be: why didn’t the workshop about race generate such commotion and turmoil? Why didn’t the Chamber of Commerce pull all stops? Why didn’t the Republican Party cry foul?
Two reasons come to mind. First, the Chamber of Commerce knows that so long as the discussion is limited to race, their constituency, business is completely absolved of any complicity in poor learning outcomes or responsibility for good learning outcomes. It’s about race, not about class. Second, the Republican Party knows full well that a discussion of race doesn’t even begin to touch the surface. It’s completely innocuous. A discussion of race places blame and responsibility right where they believe it belongs, on teachers and parents, not on administrators, legislators, and private business.
Of course, there is a coda to this little imaginative exercise. A discussion limited to race, it so happens, also doesn’t get at race. This is because race is implicated and imbricated in all of the other issues touched upon in our imaginary workshop: class, social location, economic benefits, wages, health care, community formation, and so on. That is to say, the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party know that if we limit our discussion to race, we won’t even talk about race.
Let’s have another, completely different kind of workshop. What do you say?