JULY 6, 2018
It is estimated that between 5 and 8 percent of children and teens are addicted to this form of entertainment. In recent days, the World Health Organization (WHO) has categorized video game addiction as a mental health disorder, an opinion that is not shared by all experts on these games.
One of the conditions that make their use attractive for children is that they can be practiced with very few elements, unlike more traditional games. At the same time, they allow children to have an escape from the difficulties and demands of the real world.
In a world where Donald Trump’s presidential nomination speech has been endorsed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan—yet Black Lives Matter activists are accused of reverse racism for asking to not be murdered by police—what constitutes hate speech has become increasingly convoluted. In the aftermath of police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, gunmen Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were immediately linked by media outlets to black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam (NOI), New Black Panther Party, Black Riders Liberation Party, and Washitaw Nation, despite their professions to have been acting alone. Not only did these depictions draw misleading lines to organizations that do not prescribe such acts of violence, they also overshadowed both mens’ backgrounds in cultures of military violence (Johnson joined the Army Reserves immediately after high school and Long was a former Marine sergeant).
In a desperate attempt to drive home a link to black nationalism and direct attention away from these other troubling vectors, some news outlets began referring to Johnson as “Micah X” (NOI members use “X” to replace their “slave names”). In fact his middle name was simply Xavier. Even progressive groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, play a legitimating role by identifying black nationalist groups as “black separatist hate groups,” leaving little room for meaningful distinctions between white supremacy and black nationalism. While groups such as the Nation of Islam have historically advocated for the separation of black communities, to assert that this position is simply the obverse of white supremacy—that is, black supremacy—overlooks the nuance of black nationalism. More importantly, it fails to account for the dramatically different relationships to power that black nationalist and white supremacist groups possess. White nationalism reinscribes and exalts the privileges of whiteness. Black nationalists council separation as an anti-racist practice and a method of empowerment in the absence of alternative avenues of power. To many black nationalists, this is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.
The conflation of black and white nationalism is not new. In 1963 the New York Herald Tribune satirized what it perceived as the ironic similarities between white supremacists and black nationalists in a story entitled “Integrated Segregation.” Things “seem a trifle confused on the racial front these days. The segregationists are getting integrated and the integrationists are getting segregated,” the Tribune remarked. The article imagined a scene in which staunch segregationist George Wallace was explaining why racial segregation benefitted black Americans when “a Black Muslim popped up from behind, tapped him on the back and agreed with him.” Soon, the article predicted, the Congress for Racial Equality would “start picketing the N.A.A.C.P., while the Black Muslims set up an all-Negro chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.”
To many black nationalists, separation from whites is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.
Understanding black nationalism as simply the mirror image of white supremacy, rather than an anti-racist practice, has deep roots in American political discourse. And in our current moment of colorblind “post-racialism,” when race-specific remedies such as affirmative action or reparations are derided as reverse racism—and even modest demands from Black Lives Matter for criminal justice reform are decried as anti-white—black nationalism has been once again mischaracterized using a host of long-stale tropes. We would be better served, not by simply dismissing black nationalism as the underbelly of white supremacy, but by understanding it as a tradition that is both liberative and anti-racist; one that does not mirror white supremacy, but repudiates it.
W. D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam, arrived in Detroit in 1930 and told black Detroiters that they “were not Americans but Asiatics.” This was part of a holistic alternative creation story that rejected the racist underpinnings of white American nationalism. Many of Fard’s followers were former followers of Marcus Garvey, left without an organization after the decline of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the late 1920s due to financial mismanagement and government infiltration. Garvey and the UNIA epitomized the goals of black nationalism, launching the most ambitious and successful Pan-Africanist vision in history. At its height, the UNIA had over 700 branches in 38 states, and its newspaper, Negro World, circulated throughout the African diaspora. Millions of black people were moved by Garvey’s message of racial pride embodied through the UNIA motto “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” The NOI borrowed many of its black nationalist tenets from the UNIA, combining them with religious symbols, practices, and theologies drawn from the plethora of new northern, black, urban religious and racial-pride movements spawned by the Great Migration. This blending spoke to the diverse backgrounds of many early NOI members: in 1951 nineteen out of twenty-eight Muslims interviewed reported having previously been members in other movements such as black Masonry, the Israelite Movement, God’s Government on the Earth (dedicated to Liberian emigration), the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, Repatriation Movement to Liberia, and the Black Jews.
As historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes, many of these movements were influenced by a Black Zionist tradition that drew upon the narrative of the book of Exodus to imagine liberation and deliverance for black people around the world. These freedom dreams not only provided what he calls a “narrative of slavery, emancipation, and renewal,” but also a “language to critique America’s racist state since the biblical Israel represented a new beginning.” Beyond providing a framework for denouncing American racism, black nationalists addressed the racist power structures that governed their communities by creating jobs, businesses, schools, and places of worship. Racial separation was not simply about black communities’ physical relationship to white people; it was about changing the structures of power that governed those relationships through self-determination, community control, and new relationships to self and one another.
By 1959 the Nation of Islam was a burgeoning movement well known within urban black communities in the North but still largely unknown to white America. That summer, as Malcolm X traveled to Africa as a guest of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mike Wallace (later of 60 Minutes fame) and black journalist Louis Lomax presented the NOI to white audiences for the first time. In their sensationalist documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, NOI was compared to the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. Members of the Nation were referred to as “black racists” and “black supremacists.” Its cautionary message to a largely white audience was that white racism would inevitably produce its black variant. As Malcolm X later recalled in his Autobiography, the show was meant to shock viewers, like when “Orson Welles frightened America with a radio program describing . . . an invasion by ‘men from Mars.’”
The Hate That Hate Produced was critical in launching the Nation of Islam into the public eye. But it also offered white viewers a language for understanding black nationalism that both intensified and allayed their fears. While racism was a plague that undermined American democracy, it was not a distinctly white characteristic. As Charlie Keil, a young white civil rights organizer at Yale during the early 1960s explained to me recently: “The Hate that Hate Produced allowed [whites] to sort of categorize the Muslims—the Nation of Islam—and treat them a certain way. . . . [It was] some way of saying that this was not an autonomous self-starting movement, but a reaction, an overreaction to a history of oppression.”
Throughout the 1960s black nationalists were castigated as “supremacists” who promoted the very racism and racial segregation that liberals were fighting against. This was stoked by white nationalists who saw calls for black racial separation as consistent with their belief in the benefits of racial segregation. As George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, told Alex Haley in a 1966 interview: “Malcolm X said the same thing I’m saying.”
Rockwell was not the only one confused about the difference between racial segregationand racial separation. In a highly-publicized Los Angeles trial in 1962 after police killed an unarmed member of the Los Angeles NOI mosque, the Los Angeles Times reported the “unusual problem in seating of spectators . . . when women members of the sect refused to accept seats alongside white persons.” The court eventually overturned this seating arrangement, and the press described this as “desegregation.” Los Angeles NAACP president Christopher Taylor joined the chorus of the aggrieved by arguing that he would be against any type of segregation, regardless of who initiated it. This decontextualized, colorblind insistence that any race demanding separation was calling for racial segregation was central to mischaracterizations of black nationalism during this period.
Malcolm X set about clarifying the Nation of Islam’s advocacy for racial separatism through dozens of debates with prominent civil rights figures on college campuses across the country in the early 1960s. He debated James Farmer at Cornell, Bayard Rustin at Howard, Louis Lomax at Yale, and the NAACP’s Walter Carrington at Harvard. Almost every debate was themed around the question: “Integration or Separation?” As Malcolm explained at Wesleyan University: “We are just as much against segregation as the most staunch integrationist.” But he added that black people did not “want to be free any more; they want integration. . . . They have confused their method with their objective.” In other words, black nationalists were not opposed to racial integration as an outcome of freedom struggles, or even as an organizing strategy, but they saw it as deeply flawed as the movement’s principal objective. More importantly, they pointed out the racist presumption of integration, which took for granted that white society and its values were more desirable. As Malcolm once sardonically asked, Who is the white man to be equal to?
More than simply critiquing integration, the Nation of Islam emphasized the importance of community control, an idea that flourished in upcoming years with the emergence of the Black Power movement. As Malcolm explained: “segregation means to regulate or control. . . . A segregated community is that forced upon inferiors by superiors. A separate community is done voluntarily by two equals.” Recognizing the pervasiveness of racial segregation, nationalists sought control over the businesses, healthcare, education, housing, and policing in their communities. Indeed, the Kerner Commission’s grim 1968 assessment that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” was something understood within black communities for decades. Amidst this backdrop, nationalists called for greater autonomy. The distinction between segregation and separation was not a semantic pivot. It was a deeper analysis of power, and an assertion of self-determination.
Over sixty years since the Supreme Court struck down the constitutionality of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board, it would seem that calls for racial separatism are a relic of the past. But that might be too hopeful. A 2014 UCLA study revealed higher levels of school segregation in many regions than in 1968, the year the Supreme Court decreed a more proactive approach to desegregation. Schools with less than 1 percent white students are now being referred to as “apartheid schools.” And while the South is no longer governed by Jim Crow laws, cities outside the South such as Chicago and Baltimore continue to be described by demographers as “hypersegregated.”
The denial of race is a fixture of racism. Black nationalists have often exposed the “colorblind,” coded racism of liberals.
Black critiques of school integration during the 1950s and 1960s were often decried. In the words of scholar Andrew Delbanco, novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston “consigned herself to oblivion” when she responded to the Brown v. Board decision by saying that she could “see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school affair.” After James Meredith enrolled as the first black student in the University of Mississippi’s history, Malcolm X told a courtroom that anytime a man “needs [an] escort of 15,000 troops to go to a college where he will be among people whose viciousness toward him is so deadly that he needs the Army there to protect him . . . that Negro is foolish if he thinks that he is going to get an education.” Education, not integration, should be the goal, both Hurston and Malcolm agreed. As Malcolm explained, “token integration” was pointless as long as there were “a couple million Negroes in Mississippi who haven’t been allowed to go to the Kindergarten in a decent school.”
Meanwhile, integration today is often illustrated through the exceptional accomplishments of a handful of black elites, most notably President Barack Obama, rather than evidenced by a substantial redistribution of wealth or educational and housing opportunities. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor demonstrates, the role of “black faces in high places” is often to obscure the common conditions facing many African Americans. Instead, black elected officials serve as interlocutors speaking to—and on behalf of—black communities. Taylor writes poignantly of the 2015 Baltimore uprising after the death of Freddie Gray: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.” But this new period has unfortunately produced all-too-familiar outcomes for poor and working-class black people.
The long history of black nationalist leaders having official meetings with white supremacist leaders is another narrative often mobilized as proof of the essential symmetry of the two movements. In 1922 Marcus Garvey met with the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Edward Clarke, earning him swift denunciation by the NAACP. In 1961 Malcolm X and other NOI officials secretly met with the KKK in Atlanta to negotiate a non-aggression pact surrounding the NOI’s purchase of southern farmland. The following year American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell even appeared as an invited guest at the NOI’s Saviour’s Day convention in Chicago. When police in Monroe, Louisiana, illegally targeted and raided the city’s mosque with tear gas, rifles, and riot sticks, the Nation of Islam secured an interracial defense team: local black attorney James Sharpe, Jr., and Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan, James Venable. As Venable explained when taking the case, “I hate to say it but a colored man doesn’t have a chance in a courtroom in the South.”
The decision by black nationalists to meet or coordinate with white supremacists was often driven by a combination of pragmatism and a deep cynicism about the authenticity of liberals. In the case of the UNIA, Garvey negotiated an agreement with Clarke to sell stock in black businesses such as newspapers, factories, and his Black Star shipping line, which ambitiously hoped to link a global black economy in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas before failing due to poor business management. And although Malcolm X would later denounce the Nation of Islam’s détente with the Klan, the organization’s motivation for doing so was plainly and only to secure the right to farm in the South without danger of violent reprisal. And in the case against eight members of the NOI in Monroe, Venable successfully won an appeal for several of those convicted.
Black nationalists were also not uncritical of the white supremacists with whom they interacted, a fact often downplayed or forgotten. After his meeting with the Klan, Garvey told a crowd: “Mr. Clark [sic] did not tell me anything new; he told me what I discovered seven years ago. He told me the thing that caused me to have organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association four and a half years ago.” When Rockwell, wearing full Nazi regalia, donated twenty dollars to a collection plate at Saviour’s Day, there was a smattering of reluctant applause. Malcolm X belittled him by adding: “You got the biggest hand you ever got.” Equally, black nationalists used white supremacists to draw attention to the hypocrisy of liberals. Following his 1922 meeting, Garvey claimed that Klan members were “better friends to my race, for telling us who they are, and what they mean.” Malcolm used a similar device in his folk metaphor of the liberal “fox” and the conservative “wolf.” When comparing John F. Kennedy to George Wallace, Malcolm said: “Neither one loves you. The only difference is that the fox will eat you with a smile instead of a scowl.” He even penned a 1964 editorial entitled “Why I Am for Goldwater” in which he drew upon the same fox/wolf metaphor and cynically suggested that with Goldwater, “black people at least know what they are dealing with.”
Critics on the left who see these as misguided political strategies have marginalized black nationalists by painting them as racial conservatives, and thereby emptied black nationalists’ critiques of their incisiveness. For example, Paul Gilroy accuses Garvey of “black fascism” and C. L. R. James even compared him to Hitler. Others have taken Malcolm’s cynical support for Goldwater at face value, rather than understanding his rhetorical move to draw parallels between openly racist politicians and ostensibly liberal ones whose policies nonetheless gut the black community.
Black nationalist groups such as the UNIA and the NOI have rightly been critiqued for their deep patriarchy, homophobia, and tendency to reproduce the other trappings of empire. As historian Michelle Ann Stephens notes of Garvey, his “vision of the sovereign state figured in the black male sovereign; the desire for home at a more affective level figured in the woman of color.” Likewise, anti-Semitic comments by Nation of Islam leaders such as Louis Farrakhan have certainly buttressed comparisons between white and black nationalists. Most recently, Farrakhan stoked this fire by praising Donald Trump’s refusal to take money from Jewish donors.
But although charismatic leaders are often the voices we hear most prominently, for many rank-and-file members of the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist groups, the lived experience of racial pride, religious rebirth, and doing for oneself is a redemptive, affirming, and even lifesaving practice. Many members joined the NOI after feeling alienated in integrated, more middle-class organizations such as the NAACP. As Lindsey X told an interviewer, what the NAACP “wanted never seemed real to me. I think Negroes should create jobs for themselves rather than going begging for them.” Malcolm X’s autobiography is only the best-known narrative of religious and political redemption. In a long-running feature in the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, entitled “What Islam Has Done For Me,” members offered their conversion narratives and testified to the transformative practice of Islam. Robert 24X of Paterson, New Jersey, contributed: “I was a young drug addict who had spent too much time in the hells of Harlem’s East Side . . . [before] everything came into focus for me. . . . I stopped smoking, using profanity, and eating improper foods. And I’ve passed my biggest acid test—no more needles in the arm.”
Instead of positioning black nationalism as a reactionary, conservative ideology that simply apes the violence and hate of white supremacy, we might learn from its lessons today. If asked about the xenophobia and dangerous comments of conservative firebrand Donald Trump in our current election, Malcolm X might well have pivoted us back to Hillary Clinton’s questionable record on race, one which Black Lives Matter activists have pointed out includes racist dog whistles such as her comments about “super-predators” lacking empathy, her steadfast support for the devastating 1994 Crime Bill, and campaign money taken from private prison corporations. And beyond the hollow political discourse of election cycles, we must avoid the pitfalls of incessant claims of post-racialism that insist that to see race is to participate in racism. As we have witnessed with the familiar “All Lives Matter” rejoinder to “Black Lives Matter,” we are living in a time when people’s humanity is so denigrated that the mere valuation of life is taken by some whites to be a zero-sum game. The denial of race is a central fixture in the perpetuation of racism, and black nationalists have routinely called attention to the importance of racial pride while exposing the coded racism of liberals. Rather than draw facile lines between black nationalism and white supremacy, we are better served by understanding black nationalism as an anti-racist political tradition seeking to envision black American freedom and citizenship in a nation that has rarely devoted much effort toward either end.
by Lindsey E. Jones
Recent scholarship in the history of black women and the carceral state illustrates the extent to which systems of criminal justice and law enforcement have both historically failed to protect black female victims of domestic violence and criminalized black women who rise up in their own defense.
Black Girls, Domestic Violence, and the Limits of Self-Defense
by Lindsey E. Jones
This article previously appeared in the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.
“Legal systems in this country explicitly and implicitly render black women defenseless against intra- and interracial violence.”
The case of Bresha Meadows, an African American teenage girl in Ohio, is a sad commentary on the failure of the state to protect victims of domestic violence. After a lifetime of watching him physically and psychologically abuse her mother—and of being subjected to threats and verbal abuse, along with her siblings—Bresha allegedly shot her father to death while he slept on July 28, 2016. While her mother’s family and her attorney consider her actions to have been in self-defense, the county prosecutor has charged Bresha with aggravated murder. It remains to be seen whether she will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult. At stake is the possibility that Bresha, who marked her fifteenth birthday in juvenile hall just weeks after her arrest, could spend the rest of her life in prison if convicted as an adult.
While the case is making its way through the courts and the families of Brandi Meadows (Bresha’s mother) and Jonathan Meadows (Bresha’s deceased father) share conflicting stories with news media about the latter’s personality and propensity toward violence, as well as their conflicting opinions about premeditation versus self-defense, it is important to note that this case is neither isolated nor entirely new. Recent scholarship in the history of black women and the carceral state illustrates the extent to which systems of criminal justice and law enforcement have both historically failed to protect black female victims of domestic violence and criminalized black women who rise up in their own defense.
“Survivors of intimate partner violence dramatically overrepresented among incarcerated black women.”
Historian Kali Gross, in providing historical context to the case of Marissa Alexander, argues that the state’s willingness to condemn this woman for defending herself against an abusive husband points back through centuries of American history to “the legacies of an exclusionary politics of protection whereby black women were not entitled to the law’s protection, though they could not escape its punishment.” Gross traces the ways in which “racialized, gendered notions of protection” have, from the seventeenth century on, shaped legal systems in this country that explicitly and implicitly render black women defenseless against intra- and interracial violence. She argues that this exclusionary politics of protection fuels the current mass incarceration crisis, with survivors of intimate partner violence dramatically overrepresented among incarcerated black women.1
Bresha Meadows’s case exemplifies Gross’s concept of the exclusionary politics of protection. This past May, Bresha ran away from home to the home of an aunt, Martina Latessa. Latessa, a police officer working in a domestic violence unit in Cleveland, was forced to return Bresha to her father, who had reported the girl as having been kidnapped by her aunt. Latessa reported her brother-in-law to Family Services, which resulted in an agent interviewing Brandi Meadows about the allegations of abuse—as Jonathan Meadows sat beside her. Neither law enforcement nor the state bureaucracy could protect Brandi Meadows and her children from this abuse, which she and her family assert intensified after this incident. As a result of the state’s failure to end the cycle of trauma in her family, Bresha Meadows took matters into her own hands—and was charged with aggravated murder, for which she could potentially spend the rest of her life in prison.
Gross’s essay compellingly reveals the intersections of race, gender, and class in black women’s hyper-vulnerability to domestic violence; state failure to prevent or put a stop to said violence; and the too-common outcome of black women being incarcerated for offenses resulting from attempting to defend themselves against domestic violence. However, as the case of Bresha Meadows illustrates, there is another vector of identity that often doesn’t appear in our historical analyses of black females and the carceral state: that is, age.2
“For black women in the Jim Crow South—as in antebellum times—domestic violence was constitutive of domestic labor.”
Where race, gender, and class have worked together to create the conditions discussed above, the erasure of age difference has historically created disadvantages for black girl victims of domestic violence. One prominent example recently provided by historian LaShawn Harris is that of Virginia Christian. Often referred to as the first woman to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Christian was in reality a seventeen-year-old girl when she was killed by electric chair in 1912—a fact that her advocates hoped would persuade the state to show her mercy.3
Virginia Christian belonged to a working-class black family in Hampton, Virginia, and needed to work in order to contribute to her household, including her disabled mother. From the age of thirteen, she served as a laundress for a middle-class white family named Belote in Hampton. During a dispute about missing jewelry that turned physical, Virginia killed the matriarch of the family—a crime she confessed to committing in self-defense. Harris argues that “Christian’s act of self-defense delineated working-class African American women’s impetuous ways of protecting their bodies and their often last attempts to seek and secure long-awaited personal justice—especially when legal protection seemed beyond their reach.” While there is no archival evidence that Ida Belote had laid hands upon Virginia Christian prior to this altercation, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that for black women in the Jim Crow South—as in antebellum times—domestic violence was constitutive of domestic labor, the racially prescribed set of occupations for black women and girls.4
Christian’s response was most immediately triggered by Belote’s accusations of theft and subsequent physical assault on March 18, 1912, but it is conceivable that she was also responding to other physical and psychological traumas accumulated over three years of working in the Belote household.
The analogy from Virginia Christian in 1912 to Bresha Meadows in 2016 is imperfect, but these cases both illustrate the extent to which the state has failed to consider age in evaluating black girls’ actions in self-defense from domestic violence. Sadly, over a century later, Bresha’s advocates find themselves making very similar demands of a system that hasn’t changed enough since Virginia’s trial, and employing very similar tactics in their pursuit of mercy for this abused adolescent girl.
“In the minds of whites, the accused, regardless of her age, was a deviant and vulgar black murderess that had to be punished for her crime.”
In the case of Virginia Christian, the Commonwealth of Virginia ignored evidence that Christian committed the crime at sixteen years of age in order to prevent her minority status from impeding its plan to execute her. Harris argues that, “in the minds of whites, the accused, regardless of her age, was a deviant and vulgar black murderess that had to be punished for her crime; essentially, Christians’ race trumped her gender and age. By denying Christian of her adolescent status, the State of Virginia sought to punish her to the full extent of the law.”5
Black and white Americans wrote letters and circulated petitions pleading with the Commonwealth to consider Christian’s youth as a factor in her crime and her punishment and to commute her sentence from execution to life in prison. In the end, neither Christian’s appeal to self-defense, nor her advocates’ appeal to adolescence, could spare her from the lethal retribution of the state.
In a throwback to the campaign to spare Virginia Christian’s life in 1912, advocates of Bresha Meadows are writing letters and circulating petitions in the hope that local prosecutors take into account her age and her status as a survivor of domestic violence as they proceed with charges against her. Because of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons that it is unconstitutional to execute a person for a crime committed under eighteen years of age, the death penalty is not on the table for Bresha. However, because prosecutors could decide to try her in adult court, it is a real possibility that she could be sentenced to life in prison.
A century after Virginia Christian’s advocates passionately and strategically petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia for life imprisonment, Bresha’s advocates argue that no adolescent should spend life in prison—especially not a girl pushed toward drastic action by a lifetime of trauma and abuse. There is thankfully still time for the prosecutors of Trumbull County to give real weight to Bresha Meadows’ traumatic life history, and to the fact that it spans fifteen short years, as they decide what action to pursue.
Lindsey E. Jones is a PhD Candidate in History of Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and a 2016-2018 Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation project, “‘Not a Place of Punishment’: the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, 1915-1940,” historicizes the education and incarceration of black girls by examining Virginia’s only reformatory for delinquent African American girls. Follow her on Twitter @noumenal_woman.
1. Kali N. Gross, “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection,” Journal of American History 102, no.1 (2015), 25–33.
2. For a contemporary examination of black girls, interpersonal violence, and the carceral state, see Jody Miller, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality, and Gendered Violence (New York: NYU Press, 2008).
3. Lashawn Harris, “The ‘Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Virginia Christian’: Southern Black Women, Crime & Punishment in Progressive Era Virginia,” Journal of Social History 47, no.4 (2014), 922–42.
4. See, for instance: Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Sarah Haley, “‘Like I Was a Man’: Chain Gangs, Gender, and the Domestic Carceral Sphere in Jim Crow Georgia,” Signs 39 (Autumn 2013).
5. Harris cites “a 1910 Virginia statue prohibiting death to ‘any child under seventeen years of age who is charged with any felony, and never having been heretofore convicted in any court of a misdemeanor’” (931).
One spring morning this year, Darlene Lomax was driving to her father’s house in northwest Philadelphia. She took a right onto Germantown Avenue, one of the city’s oldest streets, and pulled up to Germantown High School, a stately brick-and-stone building. Empty whiskey bottles and candy cartons were piled around the benches in the school’s front yard. Posters of the mascot, a green and white bear, had browned and curled. In what was once the teachers’ parking lot, spindly weeds shot up through the concrete. Across the street, above the front door of the also-shuttered Robert Fulton Elementary School, a banner read, “Welcome, President Barack Obama, October 10, 2010.”
It had been almost three years since the Philadelphia school district closed Germantown High, and 35 years since Lomax was a student there. But the sight of the dead building, stretching over an entire city block, still pained her. She looked at her old classroom windows, tinted in greasy brown dust, and thought about Dr. Grabert, the philosophy teacher who pushed her to think critically and consider becoming the first in her family to go to college. She thought of Ms. Stoeckle, the English teacher, whose red-pen corrections and encouraging comments convinced her to enroll in a program for gifted students. Lomax remembers the predominantly black school—she had only one white and one Asian American classmate—as a rigorous place, with college preparatory honors courses and arts and sports programs. Ten years after taking Ms. Stoeckle’s class, Lomax had dropped by Germantown High to tell her that she was planning to become a teacher herself.
A historic Georgian Revival building, Germantown High opened its doors in 1915 as a vocational training ground for the industrial era, with the children of blue-collar European immigrants populating its classrooms. In the late 1950s, the district added a wing to provide capacity for the growing population of a rapidly integrating neighborhood.
By 1972, Lomax’s father, a factory worker, had saved up enough to move his family of eight from a two-bedroom apartment in one of the poorest parts of Philadelphia into a four-bedroom brick house in Germantown. Each month, Darlene and her younger sister would walk 15 blocks to the mortgage company’s gray stucco building, climb up to the second floor, and press a big envelope with money orders into the receptionist’s hand. The new house had a dining room and a living room, sparkling glass doorknobs, French doors that opened into a large sunroom, an herb garden, and a backyard with soft grass and big trees. Darlene and her father planted tomatoes and made salads with the sweet, juicy fruit every Friday, all summer long.
To the Lomax children, the fenceless backyard was ripe for exploration, and it funneled them right to the yards of their neighbors. One yard belonged to two sisters who worked as special-education teachers—the first black people Darlene had met who had college degrees. As Lomax got to know these sisters, she began to think that perhaps her philosophy teacher was right: She, too, could go to college and someday buy a house of her own with glass doorknobs and a garden. She graduated from Rosemont College in 1985, and after a stint as a social worker, she enrolled at Temple University and got her teaching credential.
On February 19, 2013, Lomax was in the weekly faculty leadership meeting at Fairhill Elementary, a 126-year-old school in a historic Puerto Rican neighborhood of Philadelphia where she served as principal. A counselor was giving his report, but Lomax couldn’t hear what he said. She just stared at her computer screen, frozen, as she read a letter from the school superintendent. She read it again and again to make sure she understood what it said.
Then, slowly, she turned to Robert Harris, Fairhill’s special-education teacher for 20 years, and his wife, the counselor and gym teacher. “They are closing our school,” she said quietly. They all broke down weeping. Then they walked to the front of the building in silence and unlocked the doors to open the school for the day.
Five miles away, as Germantown High School prepared for its 100th anniversary, its principal was digesting the same letter. In all, 24 Philadelphia schools would be closed that year. These days, when Lomax visits her father in the house with the glass doorknobs, she drives by four shuttered school buildings, each with a “Property Available for Sale” sign.
Back when Lomax was a student in Philadelphia in the 1970s, local, state, and federal governments poured extra resources into these racially isolated schools—grand, elegant buildings that might look like palaces or city halls—to compensate for a long history of segregation. And they invested in the staff inside those schools, pushing to expand the teaching workforce and bring in more black and Latino teachers with roots in the community. Teaching was an essential path into the middle class, especially for African American women; it was also a nexus of organizing. During the civil rights movement, black educators were leaders in fighting for increased opportunity, including more equitable school funding and a greater voice for communities in running schools and districts.
But today, as buildings like Germantown High stand shuttered, these changes are slowly being rolled back. In Philadelphia and across the country, scores of schools have been closed, radically restructured, or replaced by charter schools. And in the process, the face of the teaching workforce has changed. In one of the most far-reaching consequences of the past decade’s wave of education reform, the nation has lost tens of thousands of experienced black teachers and principals.
According to the Albert Shanker Institute, which is funded in part by the American Federation of Teachers, the number of black educators has declined sharply in some of the largest urban school districts in the nation. In Philadelphia, the number of black teachers declined by 18.5 percent between 2001 and 2012. In Chicago, the black teacher population dropped by nearly 40 percent. And in New Orleans, there was a 62 percent drop in the number of black teachers.
Percentage Change in Teacher Population by Race and Ethnicity, 2002-2012
Many of these departures came as part of mass layoffs and closings in schools with low test scores, a policy promoted with federal and state dollars since 2002. In Chicago, 49 out of about 500 schools were closed in 2013, and in Washington, DC, 38 out of 111 schools have been shuttered since 2008. And since 2002, 140 out of roughly 1,800 New York City schools have closed. In each of the nine cities the Albert Shanker Institute studied, a higher percentage of black teachers were laid off or quit than Latino or white educators. Nationwide, according to the federal Department of Education, African Americans made up 6.8 percent of the teaching workforce in the 2011-12 school year, down from 8.3 percent in 1990. (Nearly 83 percent of the teaching workforce in 2011 was white, down slightly from 1990.)
In all, that means 26,000 African American teachers have disappeared from the nation’s public schools—even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000. Countless black principals, coaches, cafeteria workers, nurses, and counselors have also been displaced—all in the name of raising achievement among black students. While white Americans are slowly waking up to the issue of police harassment and violence in black communities, many are unaware of the quiet but broad damage the loss of African American educators inflicts on the same communities.
“You have to expel him,” said the teacher who marched into Darlene Lomax’s office, a small, windowless room in the back of Fairhill Elementary, one morning in 2011. She set a red Swiss Army knife on the dark brown linoleum desk, next to the pictures of Lomax’s children. The teacher had taken the knife from a fifth grader who was showing it to a classmate. “I never want to see him in my class again,” the teacher, who is white, told Lomax.
Soon afterward, Lomax sat down with the 12-year-old. He told her that on his way to school, an older and more popular boy had shown him the knife and chosen him to carry it for a few days. Lomax had known the student, who was African American, for two years. She knew he struggled academically and socially, that he yearned for ways to raise his status among peers.
After talking to the parents, Lomax decided that the boy, who hadn’t had any previous discipline problems, wasn’t a threat. She suspended him and filed a report with the district. The teacher, as Lomax recalls it, argued that the district’s code of conduct required expulsion for any student who brought a weapon to school, but Lomax told her, “We have to judge each case on its merits. My judgment and common sense tells me these rules don’t apply in this case.” She added, “This child made a mistake, but he deserves a second chance.”
Within the next two years, the student turned out to be one of the higher-achieving kids in the school.
It’s well documented that black students are disciplined and punished in school at a disproportionate rate. In a 2015 study, Adam Wright, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara, identified a key factor in that disparity: White teachers are much more likely than black teachers to find behavior problems with black students. (This difference did not show up when teachers evaluated white or Latino students.) Wright estimated that if schools doubled the number of black teachers, the black-white suspension disparity would be cut in half.
Other research points in the same direction. A 2008 study by the London School of Economics found that white teachers graded black and Latino students more harshly for the same performance, accounting for as much as 22 percent of the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Earlier this year, Johns Hopkins researchers found that black teachers are much more likely than white teachers to think a black student will graduate from high school or get a college degree—especially if the kid is a black boy. A 2016 Vanderbilt study showed that black students are about half as likely as white students to be put on “gifted” tracks, even when they have comparable test scores—but the disparity was erased when black students were evaluated by black teachers.
Yet, though 16 percent of America’s students are black, only 7 percent of teachers are. And even at the schools where black and Latino students are concentrated—71 percent of these students attend high-poverty, mostly urban schools—only 15 percent of teachers are black and 16 percent are Latino.
Like Darlene Lomax, Gloria Ladson-Billings grew up in Philadelphia. In the ’60s, she was a teacher there, and later a district coach working with new or struggling teachers. During that time, she remembers coming across many veteran educators who were successfully teaching kids of all backgrounds. By the early ’90s, Ladson-Billings had become an education researcher at Santa Clara University, at a time of growing concern in the field about how schools were failing children of color, especially African Americans. Ladson-Billings decided to document the teaching practices she’d seen—many of which were not in the standard education canon. She asked black parents in Philadelphia to identify teachers they considered most effective with their children and then spent two years observing those teachers in the classroom. She wrote about it in a book, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children.
Ladson-Billings noticed that instead of mentally sorting kids into “teachable” or “problem student” categories, as researchers have found many teachers do, these educators set a high bar for all students and then helped individual kids to meet it. And instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, they used different techniques with kids of varying skills and interests.
The successful teachers Ladson-Billings studied also created bonds that resemble family. That was what Lomax did when she first became an assistant principal: She invited parents, teachers, and students to come to school on a Friday evening with sleeping bags and blow-up mattresses. Teachers and parents set up a movie room in the library. Parents brought a potluck dinner, and kids, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and teachers chatted into the wee hours. Lomax’s mother and two daughters spent the night too. “People just got to know each other better, and the overall climate of the school changed,” Lomax recalls.
Researchers like Ladson-Billings argue that teachers are more effective when they get to know their students’ backgrounds, including cultural rules for engagement and different ways of expressing knowledge. For example, instead of pushing children to stop using African American vernacular, they might encourage students to translate their favorite hip-hop lyrics into formal English—treating them as bilingual rather than as poor speakers.
Another habit of successful teachers, Ladson-Billings observed, was giving students agency and authority. When Lomax became a principal, she created “administration jobs” for students: They worked as counselors, nurses, teaching assistants, and security guards, and they used credits they earned to bid on computers, bicycles, and skateboards that Lomax would purchase with her own funds and donations. Students worked alongside the staff and advised Lomax and her colleagues on how to improve everything from lunch hour to after-school activities. The program helped build better relationships between students and staff, and it even reduced suspensions.
A focus on inclusion must go beyond classroom changes, Ladson-Billings argues, to school staffing (so students don’t see a workforce where, for example, teachers and administrators are mostly white and custodians and cafeteria workers are mostly black) and student opportunities—so that advanced classrooms aren’t dominated by white and Asian American students while remedial classes are filled with black and Latino kids. Ultimately, researchers have found, for schools to raise achievement, they have to push back against damaging racial prejudices in every aspect of what they do. Personal humiliation and discrimination are daily realities for most black students, they point out, but teachers can counteract this with inclusion, knowledge, and skills that help kids persevere.
Many of the historically segregated schools that successfully educated black students long before the civil rights era were focused on countering racial stereotypes and instilling pride, according to Theresa Perry, a professor of Africana studies and education at Simmons College. This crucial function was rolled back during desegregation, Perry writes, when researchers estimate thatnearly 40,000 black teachers and principals (close to half the African American teaching force) lost their jobs. This happened even though they often had more credentials and teaching experience than white educators, according to new research from Jim Crow’s Pink Slip, a forthcoming book by Leslie Fenwick, dean emerita of Howard University’s School of Education. In the South, in particular, the consolidation of black and white schools typically meant that white school boards and superintendents had more control than black principals over individual schools’ staffing.
Lomax knows from experience how just one teacher can encourage a student to use her voice and overcome challenges. After Lomax graduated from Germantown High in 1981, she enrolled at Rosemont College, a small liberal-arts school outside Philadelphia. Of roughly 600 students, fewer than 10 were black. All the professors were white.
During her first week at Rosemont, Lomax recalls, she was standing in line in the cafeteria when she overheard a white girl say to her friend, “I didn’t know they allowed niggers in here.”
“Who are they talking about like that?” Lomax thought to herself as she looked around. “I never heard racial epithets living in Germantown, and it took me a minute to realize: They are talking about me.”
Weeks later, one of her English professors asked her, “Where did you learn to write so well?” The professor added that black students didn’t usually know how to write research papers.
The person who helped Lomax persevere was another English professor she turned to, crying, one day after an insulting comment in the classroom. “What would you like to see changed?” the teacher said. Lomax replied that she wanted to recruit more black students and professors, and perhaps launch a black student union. The teacher, who was white, helped Lomax write a proposal that Lomax delivered to the dean herself. The number of black students at Rosemont increased over time, and Lomax told me the experience left her committed to becoming a teacher and helping make schools more inclusive.
It was a little before 10 a.m. on November 17, 1967, when about 200 students walked out of Germantown High, wearing the school’s green and white colors along with gold Black Power buttons, and started marching down Germantown Avenue. A few miles up the street they met up with other marchers, and by noon the crowd had swelled to more than 3,500 students and teachers from a dozen high schools, all marching toward the Board of Education building.
By then, the student body of Germantown High—once home to mostly white immigrant students—had become more than two-thirds black. Migration from the South had increased Philadelphia’s black population from 5 percent in 1910 to 34 percent in 1970. Many black families, like Lomax’s, had moved to Germantown and neighboring Mount Airy, the city’s only two integrated neighborhoods. Yet most teachers at Germantown were white, as were all the district administrators, and dropout rates were three times higher for black students than for whites.
Schools like Germantown High, historian Matthew J. Countryman writes in his book on the civil rights struggle in Philadelphia, Up South, offered a unique space for organizing because they blurred the class lines in the black community. “Corner kids,” nerds, cheerleaders, civil rights advocates, and black teachers came together to push for political power and economic opportunity.
When the student protesters reached the towering art deco Board of Education building, Superintendent Mark Shedd—a strong advocate of integration who had enrolled his own white children in majority-black schools in Germantown—invited a delegation of them into a room overlooking the crowd below. They presented their demands: black-studies classes, more black teachers and principals, a bigger voice for black parents in school governance, recognition of black student unions, and no more police officers in schools. After hours of negotiations, a student opened the window to yell to the marchers that the district had agreed to 24 of their 25 demands.
Following the march, the number of black teachers in Philadelphia’s public schools slowly increased. Gloria Ladson-Billings came home to Philadelphia the next year, after the district sent a recruiter to her college in an effort to attract more black teachers with community roots. She was first placed in a predominantly white school where, she recalls, some white parents told the principal they would not tolerate black teachers for their kids. The principal refused to transfer the kids—taking a stand that, Ladson-Billings recalls, was still controversial at the time.
Shedd created the first black-studies department in the district, called for black-history classes in all high schools (an order that wasn’t implemented until 2005), and hired black district administrators. It was a heady time, Ladson-Billings recalls, when teachers were treated as intellectuals rather than testing proctors following a script. “That environment doesn’t exist anymore,” she reflected.
Like many black educators, Ladson-Billings viewed teaching as a way to help her community. But the profession also served as a critical avenue into the middle class. In the ’50s, about half of all college-educated African Americans went into teaching—one of the few fields open to black professionals, especially women. And through the second half of the 20th century, public-sector jobs in education, social work, transportation, and the Postal Service formed the backbone of the black middle class. As Mary Pattillo, a professor of African American studies at Northwestern University, explains, affirmative action was applied most vigorously in the public sector, and to this day public jobs remain the single most important source of employment for black workers. (Not coincidentally, black workers have the highest percentage of union membership of any group.) The public sector employs a higher proportion of black workers in higher-paying jobs. And when public-sector jobs are shifted to the private sector, they typically result in longer, irregular hours and more unstable pay, reducing the assets of the black community, Pattillo explained.
Access to these middle-class jobs has a big ripple effect in black communities, Pattillo documents in her book Black Picket Fences, because African American professionals are more likely than other groups to also support family members and friends in poverty. One study in the ’90s found that black middle-class women reported a greater sense of responsibility for people outside their nuclear families than white middle-class women did. Black middle-class families are much more likely than white families to live near poor black families, and they are often key to supporting community institutions. And, research shows, black teachers contribute to communities in myriad crucial but less visible ways—as role models of college-educated professionals, resources for parents on how to navigate the school system and demand improvements from local politicians, and mentors for neighborhood kids long after the school day ends.
As Ladson-Billings left Philadelphia once more to pursue her Ph.D. at Stanford University in the early 1980s, the political winds were changing. Ronald Reagan had been elected president, and one of his first education policy initiatives was to commission a report on K-12 schools. Titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” it documented a growing unease with public schools among the business community and blamed lagging student performance for America’s troubles in the global market. The report called for more data-driven teacher evaluations and an emphasis on standardized testing—postulating (though with scant evidence) that test scores in reading and math would predict workplace performance.
The ideas set forth in “A Nation at Risk” would prove deeply influential, inspiring reform efforts all the way to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, and the Common Core guidelines now being rolled out. The policies influenced by the report—including mass layoffs in schools that fail to raise their scores fast enough—have had a disproportionate impact on large urban districts like Philadelphia where most black teachers work. These reforms also laid the groundwork for the explosion in charter schools, which have attracted a less diverse teaching corps in some large urban districts (though nationwide, charters employ more African American teachers than traditional schools).
And while this wave of reformers has emphasized reducing the “achievement gap” between white students and those of color, it did not push as hard for integration and equitable funding. As a result, urban school administrators found themselves increasingly chasing scarce state and federal dollars tied to standardized test scores. In 2014, the Center for American Progress found that students in urban elementary schools spent 75 percent more time on average taking district-mandated tests than their suburban counterparts did—in large part because the stakes for their schools were so high. Multiple-choice questions became a major part of the daily curriculum.
With public sentiment increasingly critical of schools and teachers, many states rolled back education funding. In 1992, Pennsylvania began to decrease its share of district funding in Philadelphia, ultimately prompting David Hornbeck, then the city’s superintendent of schools, to file a lawsuit arguing that the state had discriminated against students of color. The state’s Republican-controlled Legislature responded in 2001 by authorizing a state takeover of the Philadelphia schools and barring the city’s teachers from striking. Hornbeck resigned—because, he told NPR in 2013, lawmakers falsely assumed that the budget crisis was a result of waste and inefficiency, not chronic underfunding and segregation.
The state created a five-member School Reform Commission—three members were appointed by the governor and two by the mayor—to fix the schools. In 2010, Republican Tom Corbett became governor, bringing with him a political network full of private-sector reform advocates. He cut the state education budget by another $860 million, and the following year Philadelphia lost $105 million more in state funding, plus $200 million in federal dollars.
To solve the budget crisis, the School Reform Commission hired the Boston Consulting Group, a private consultancy that advised the district to close 64 schools, continue expanding charters, and gut the central office. The group’s $2.6 million consulting fee was paid with private donations, including more than half from charter and voucher advocates.
By the 2013-14 school year, the Philadelphia district had 3,885 fewer staffmembers—teachers, nurses, counselors, secretaries, and aides—than it had at the end of 2011, a decrease of 16 percent. About 1,486 of these departed employees were teachers, and close to a quarter of them were black. Germantown High and Fairhill had to cut art, music, and physical education classes, and full-time nurses. Fairhill lost a nurse who had worked in the community for 20 years. “She was so important to our middle school students, going through a lot of physical and emotional changes, or some dealing with sexual abuse or parents’ drug addiction, all kinds of pain,” Lomax told me. “And she was just extraordinary in knowing when to intervene beyond her job duty.”
A few months before Germantown High’s closure, two seniors decided to make a video documenting the reactions of students and staff. They pointed their camera at Ismael Jimenez, who taught black history and lived in Germantown with his wife and children. In middle school, Jimenez had briefly attended a mostly white school in the suburbs, but after several racially charged incidents his parents moved him back to Philadelphia schools. He’d become a teacher, he said, to help black kids feel more at home in school. Jimenez was in the process of buying a house in Germantown and told me he had hoped to teach and live in the neighborhood for the rest of his life.
“How do you feel about the closing of Germantown?” a student asked.
“I think the closing of Germantown is a reflection of the overall destruction of public education that is occurring all over our nation in almost every inner city—from Detroit to Atlanta to Chicago to New Orleans,” Jimenez said before pausing to hold back tears.
The students turned off the camera and then turned it on again.
“The closing will affect the feeling of the community with such a large, empty building in the middle of the neighborhood,” Jimenez continued. “Parents might send their child to a charter school that may not produce better results, but on image, it looks better. And the parent says, ‘It doesn’t matter that kids around my way don’t have a local public school to go to as long as my child is okay.’ That individualism is destroying this community—and all communities—that once was the very foundation of what we needed to get by.”
“There are so many layers to this pattern of destruction,” Robin Roberts, the parent of three children in Philadelphia’s public schools and a physical therapist for the district, told me. “Germantown is such a tight-knit, established community. There is old blood. Collected history. Gorgeous brownstones. And you rip that school out, leaving a huge open lot. No security. It’s dead energy, and it invites people and events that you have no control over. Property values of folks living there go down. When a community has a vibrant, living, interactive school, property values increase. Houses look better. All of these closures—it’s erasure of history of these established communities.”
For reform proponents like Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, restructuring was the only possible way to close a $304 million budget hole decades in the making. And he wasn’t alone: Superintendents across the country have faced similar budget holes, exacerbated by the recession of 2008 and 2009. Between 2010 and 2015, federal aid to high-poverty schools shrank by11 percent. And in 2014, 31 states were still giving out less education funding per student than they had the year before the recession.
The Philadelphia School District spends less per student—$12,570 in all—than most of its big-city peers in the country, including Detroit, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. And until this year, Pennsylvania was one of three states that didn’t have a “weighted” formula to send extra funding for students who live in poverty, struggle in school, or are learning English. Meanwhile, child poverty rates in Philadelphia are some of the highest in the nation.
Hite is part of a cadre of superintendents in large urban districts—including Antwan Wilson in Oakland, California, and former Los Angeles schools chief John Deasy—who have been trained in an academy financed by the philanthropist Eli Broad, whose foundation in 2009 issued a handbook on how to “rightsize” school districts. Like other Broad-trained superintendents, Hite has closed traditional schools and expanded charters. “We are making these changes because we believe they will result in a system that better serves all students, families and stakeholders,” Hite wrote in his email to Lomax and other principals announcing the school closures.
“Closing schools is always hard, but we are making those decisions because there are no children in those schools,” Hite told me. “You can’t operate buildings that are designed for students when there are no students there. Given our fiscal challenges, we had to do everything within our control to ensure that we were impacting classrooms the least. You can’t operate an infrastructure designed for 200,000 students when you only have 137,000 students.” (In Philadelphia, the number of kids in traditional schools has shrunk by 50,000 since 2003, while enrollment in charters has gone up by 40,000.)
A former teacher and principal, Hite, who is black, grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and went to a school much like Germantown High. Such schools did enough to prepare students to make a living back in the ’70s, when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, Hite told Philadelphia magazine earlier this year. “Reading, writing and arithmetic—you may not have needed more than that to sweep floors in a tobacco warehouse. And it would pay you $18 an hour…Now those jobs aren’t available.”
In Hite’s view, the new economy requires schools that are much more rigorous, but the government doesn’t want to fund them. The answer, he and other reformers have argued, is a “portfolio model”: a menu of publicly and privately run schools, including charters that can attract private funding and are unconstrained by district and teachers’ union rules.
This is not an uncommon view: Even [ OUR COMMON GROUND Voice] Derrick Bell, the legendary former NAACP lawyer who handled hundreds of desegregation cases in the ’60s, described charters as a promising alternative in his 2004 book, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. Bell came across many nominally integrated districts where black and Latino students attended the same schools as whites but were placed into separate and less challenging classes. He viewed charter schools as one remedy for that, in addition to a continued push for integration and more equitable funding. Many black educators such as Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, opened charter schools as a way to break free from the constraints of the traditional school system.
But the way this push played out in Philadelphia and many other large urban districts wasn’t quite as these advocates had envisioned. First, when the state of Pennsylvania took over Philadelphia’s schools in 2002, it embarked on what was then the nation’s biggest experiment in private management of public schools: It contracted out 46 schools with low test scores to seven private for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Four years later, when this venture had failed to produce better results, the state ended the experiment and doubled down on the expansion of charter schools instead. Last year, 35 percent of kids in the city went to charter schools.
The growth of charters, though, put even more stress on the strained district budget. In Philadelphia, 30 percent of all charter students now come from outside the district, and while per-student public money follows them, the city has extra costs (such as transportation) that aren’t offset. Meanwhile, costs in traditional schools—building expenses, salaries for teachers and principals—don’t go away when a student leaves for a charter school. In all, the Boston Consulting Group estimated that each new student in a charter school creates as much as $7,000 in additional costs for the district.
But the challenges are more than financial. A growing number of educators argue that charters can’t replace what traditional schools provided, including a teaching corps with the experience and community connections to help students from every background. For one thing, charters tend to attract the students most equipped to succeed: One study found that students with severe needs—those who have been in foster care or involved with the juvenile justice system, or whose families are on welfare—are concentrated in traditional public schools in Philadelphia. Traditional schools also educate 10 percent more students living in poverty, 4 percent more English learners, and 2 percent more students with special needs. Some charter schools have even been found to practice “skimming”—illegally screening out potentially challenging students, including those with special needs, according to a 2013 Reuters investigation.
Hite argues that the concentration of students with special needs and those living in deep poverty requires schools to reorient what they do, adding that the savings from closing buildings helps the district do that. “Next year, for the first time all of our schools will have at least one counselor, no matter the size,” he told me. “They will have a school nurse. And we will be making a $440 million investment into neighborhood community schools with an attempt to address [poverty] factors.”
But many black parents and teachers in Philadelphia and elsewhere remain concerned that these changes don’t reverse the broader trend of underfunding at a time of growing need. And the increasing role of state government, and of the companies and foundations that have promoted private management and charter schools, represents to them an erosion of the civil rights movement’s gains in political power for black communities.
“The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial ‘achievement gaps’ and ‘underperforming schools’ but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened,” author Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker when the historic Jamaica High School in Queens, where he had been a student, was closed in 2014. Looking back at an era when busing students across neighborhood boundaries was the primary tool for integration, he noted, “Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates. But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure. In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward. It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective. It’s the schools.”
Or, as Ladson-Billings writes in her book about successful teachers, “The way a problem is defined frames the universe of possible public actions.” When the problem of racial disparities in education is defined primarily in quantitative data like test scores, other factors—cultural pride, confidence, the presence of intellectual authority figures like teachers and principals in the community, the ecosystem of economically integrated neighborhoods, and access to political power—are often overlooked.
“Church used to be the center of the black community,” Roberts, the physical therapist in Philadelphia, told me, “but now as less people go to churches, school is the only remaining hub where the people in poor communities self-organize.
“We don’t want a Walmart to be the only place where we can come together. We want a public space that is run by the community.”
In May 2015, nearly 800 students, parents, and teachers came to a reunion in front of the shuttered Fairhill school building. Lomax was there—by then she had a job as a principal in another Philadelphia school, which had no administrators except for her and a secretary, and no full-time counselors or nurses or art, music, or physical education programs. Lomax spent an hour each morning filling in as a nurse, dispensing medications to dozens of students. She also doubled as a counselor and took care of administrative tasks that had been handled by assistant principals in her previous jobs. Meanwhile, more of her students were living in deep poverty. And even though she often worked late into the night, Lomax felt increasingly hopeless about her chances of succeeding in the new school.
During her 25 years in the district, Lomax felt that she’d earned the trust of her colleagues and developed relationships to get things done. But in recent years it had felt to her as if, even as her experience and skill grew, her power to control what happened in her work diminished. If test scores didn’t go up fast enough, her school closed or she was transferred to another one. After Fairhill, Lomax said, she was placed in a different school each year, with fewer and fewer resources to do the job. Eventually, she decided to leave—seven years before her official retirement date, even though that meant that her income and pension were cut by more than 50 percent. At 53, Lomax is now living off her savings and not certain if she will ever return to teaching.
“When I read that letter about Fairhill closing, I felt like someone shot me,” Lomax told me. “It’s very hard to explain just how much emotional energy it takes to improve a school. After six years of hard work together, I really felt like we were finally on the cusp of something great: Students were engaged, parents were volunteering more, teachers’ hearts were into it, and then it was shut down. I never want to go through something like this again.”
After Germantown High closed, Ismael Jimenez was unemployed for three months and then took a job in a local Afrocentric charter school. “The curriculum was very scripted, and I had to be more of a disciplinarian,” Jimenez told me. “I like to structure my classrooms around a dialogue.” The pay was lower and the hours were longer. He quit after six weeks, when he got an offer from another school.
Jimenez now drives across town to predominantly Latino Kensington High, a commute that leads him past shuttered Germantown High. Student projects and posters from the old school cover the walls in his new classroom. At Kensington, many more students live in deep poverty and have special needs, he told me. When the kids with the strongest financial or family resources leave for private or charter schools, he said, it becomes harder to teach.
Between 2001 and 2012, the share of black teachers in the district steadily declined—from 34 percent to 26 percent—and fewer new black teachers were hired, according to the Shanker Institute report. The institute also found that teachers who left the district were more senior than those who stayed. And while experience doesn’t guarantee success, research indicates that veteran teachers are more effective than rookies and key for coaching the next generation of educators.
Superintendent Hite told me his office has been focused on recruiting teachers of color since his arrival in 2012. Last year, 25 percent of teachers in Philadelphia public schools were black—well above the national average, Hite points out.
Data compiled by Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that across the country, the turnover rate for white teachers has been relatively stable at 15 percent since the 2008-09 academic year. But the departure rate for black teachers has been increasing, from 19 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in 2013—a higher turnover rate than in any other demographic.
The biggest factors teachers of color cite for leaving, Ingersoll says, are micromanagement and lack of autonomy in the classroom. Policymakers often emphasize recruitment as a way to solve teacher shortages, he told me, but retention is a much bigger issue. From 1987 to 2011, the share of teachers of color grew from 12 percent nationwide to 17 percent (though the share of black teachers has decreased in recent years). But during the same period, turnover increased among all teachers of color. This revolving door makes it hard for students to form bonds, and for administrators to solve teacher shortages. At the beginning of the 2003-04 school year, about 47,600 educators of color entered teaching; the following year, 20 percent more—about 56,000—had left teaching. “We are pouring water into a bucket with holes in the bottom,” Ingersoll says.
“There is this myth out there that black teachers leave because of our kids,” Peggy Savage, an award-winning science and math teacher with 35 years of experience in Philadelphia schools, told me. “No, it’s the adults and the lack of voice and respect that push black teachers out. Before the School Reform Commission took over, I remember having conversations with our superintendent. We felt heard. Now, all we do is testify, but no one listens.”
José Luis Vilson is a veteran math teacher in New York and the author of a book about his experience called This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. “I would venture to say that the stereotype of the ‘failing’ teacher often conjures up black teachers who stick by the union rules,” Vilson says. “Whenever reformers go into communities of color, they often seek images of failure, and if a black teacher has been in this underserved ‘failing’ school for a few decades, they are viewed as a part of the problem.”
Chris Emdin, [ OUR COMMON GROUND Voice] an associate professor of education at Columbia University and the author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, told me that many black educators leave because they are forced to become the kind of teachers they resented when they went to urban schools. “They want to teach in urban spaces because they want to undo that damage that they’ve experienced,” Emdin, a former teacher, told me. “They say, ‘I hated school. I want to teach math, English, science in an engaging way.’ And the minute you try to be more creative, the principal says, ‘Nope. You gotta do more test prep. You gotta follow the curriculum.’ At every turn they are being told that they can’t do what they know in their spirit and heart and soul is the right thing to do. It’s causing teachers to leave, students to fail, and it’s making these schools factories of dysfunction.”
After leaving the school system, Lomax had to give up her apartment, about 30 miles from her father’s house, with its own glass doorknobs and small garden, and move into a cheaper place in New Jersey. Her daughter had to switch from a state university to a community college because Lomax could no longer afford to pay her tuition. “Our savings and assets are dwindling,” she told me earlier this year. “It will seriously impact our opportunities to provide for the next generation.”
Her daughter, she said, had been interested in becoming a special-education teacher. “She is a natural,” Lomax said. “But she won’t do it anymore after she saw what happened to me. She works at a nursing home now.”
For Colored Girls Like Korryn Gaines And The Black Men Who Hate Us
What is it to be a black woman in America. For the burden of both racism and misogyny to lay at our feet.
Korryn Gaines was no fool. In her short 23 years she was all too familiar with the carnage of black bodies. This familiarity with state sanctioned executions empowered her to raise unafraid black children. With her thick Baltimore accent she instructed her five-year-old son to record the Baltimore County police who’d pulled her over for not having registered tags on her car. That day, she was ready to die. Her life was spared, but she wouldn’t be so fortunate again.
Her Instagram shows a warrior woman who believed in her right to legally bear arms. She was uninterested in cow-towing to the very system that kills even its most “perfect” victims. Instead of “hands up, don’t shoot!” shethought “#StopKillingUs is some begging ass shit” was more appropriate. Baby girl had no desire to be pleasant or respectable.
So when Baltimore County police showed up to her apartment to serve a warrant for her arrest over misdemeanor traffic violation charges, she knew it could very well be the day she took her last breath. In her last moments she took to Instagram to record her cute, chubby cheeked five-year-old son, her asking the questions, him predicting the outcome.
“What are they trying to do?”
“They trying to kill us.”
What happened next doesn’t matter much because the result is the same. It’s always the same. Korryn is dead. The police will lie. The media will corroborate the police’s lies. The public will blame her for her death. There will be no justice. Officials will call for peace. Family members are left to raise her children. And shortly we will have all moved on to grieve the next victim of police violence. The narrative is so familiar it shows up in our dreams. The tears feel the same as the ones we wiped the last time we mourned a black person who we did not know. Only this time those tears will only be cried by black women. All black lives are not mourned equally.
Because Korryn dared to be a vocal black woman — one who may or may not have been legally armed — there is no outcry for her except from other black women. There will be no outraged celebrities. Protesters won’t flood the streets in cities across the nation. Public officials will not demand accountability for the officers who killed her. Presidential candidates will not condemn the police department for their failure to de-escalate considering a child was present. President Obama will not tell the nation Korryn could’ve been his daughter. News and cable networks won’t profit off her death by hosting Town Hall meetings. Black men will not grieve her as they have the long list of black men killed similarly. In fact, black men will adopt the language of our oppressors to blame her for her own murder.
Black men couldn’t wait to vocalize their hatred for black women. “It’s looking mighty justifiable right now” and “Korryn Gaines deserved to die” and “Basically asked for it” and “She decided to be reckless with her son and her own life” and “Korryn Gaines was an ignorant, loud mouth little girl.” Those are just a few. Tucking in their hatred is hard to do, even when two black children are left without a mother.
These are the same black men who automatically don’t trust police accounts in killings where the victim is a black man, but are quick to believe Korryn was pointing a gun at the police when they entered her home. Despite her documented recordings of run-ins with the Baltimore County police, black men aren’t thinking maybe this woman was targeted. Black men are not playing detective to figure out the truth in this strange story the police tell of using the landlord’s key to enter her home. Black men are not rallying for an end to a system that sends a SWAT team to someone’s home over non-violent traffic violations. Black men are not calling foul, because even if she was armed, white suspects with guns are apprehended alive all the time. Black men are not questioning how she could hold her phone to record, hold her son and allegedly hold a shotgun in her hand all at the same time. Black men aren’t sympathetic to her developmental disability due to lead poisoning, which could’ve affected her reasoning the day she was murdered. Nope. Black men are saying she deserved to die because she was a crazy fool and a shitty mother for daring to be free.
Ain’t that peculiar?
Black men must remove the word revolutionary from their vocabulary. One minute it’s “fuck the police” and the next it’s Korryn was reckless. Black men love the iconic photo of their hero Malcolm X looking out the window of his home, shotgun in hand to protect his family, but Korryn possibly having a gun means she deserved death. They cheer on Nat Turner but who does Korryn think she is to protect her family. Black men either don’t know what revolutionary really means or think the word is reserved for them solely.
Remove it from your tongues.
It’s not just about Korryn. It’s about black womenfolk being de mules of the worldat the hands of black men. Folks called Sandra Bland sassy. Said had she not talked back she would’ve lived. No one showed up for the Rekia Boyd rally in NYC. When we talk to black men about the dangers of street harassment we are met with death and rape threats. Statistics show violence against black women is mostly at the hands of black men, but we’re shouted over for bringing that up. Then when we tell black men that we, too, are killed by police, we are told now is not the time to be divisive. You will get to us after we take care of our “kings.”
But you see, that doesn’t work for me. My liberation is not going to come after. I’m not suffering through black men’s harmful misogynoir while black women’s freedom becomes a ‘maybe we’ll get to it in the next lifetime’ non-priority. I’m not adding a “not all black men” caveat to my truths in order to coddle hurt feelings. My life is literally on the line. And my freedom can’t wait.
Either cis black men are going to center black women so we can all get free together, or my freedom fighting will be reserved for black women and black queer folks. Do what you want with that. But my freedom can’t wait. I won’t wait for you to see my humanity while I fight for yours.
While you’re denying our humanity, remember this: Putting off black women’s liberation for tomorrow is a dangerous game. Because ain’t a single liberation movement survived without us.
To Korryn and Sandra and all the black women who refuse to bow, refuse to shutup, we got you. Rest easy knowing black women said your name and refused to let them forget.
A gorilla attacks a black boy. An alligator attacks a white one. Who’s investigated?
On May 28th, a 3-year-old told his mother he was going to crawl into the gorilla exhibit at the CInncinnati Zoo. She was “momentarily distracted by other children,” claimed a witness, according to CNN, and her son did just that.
He exploited a weakness in the enclosure’s fencing and crawled inside. Then the nightmare began.
For 10 whole minutes, the boy was dragged and pummeled by endangered gorilla, Harambe. Finally, zoo officials made the difficult decision to kill the animal because tranquilizer darts would have taken too long to take effect, and they feared for the boy’s life.
Their quick action saved his life.
The boy’s mother was investigated for, presumably, child endangerment. However, local prosecutor Joseph Deters said that, “By all accounts, this mother did not act in any way where she presented this child to some harm … She had three other kids with her and turned her back … And if anyone doesn’t believe a 3-year-old can scamper off very quickly, they’ve never had kids.”
These remarks are in response to a public that has called for her arrest, questioned herparenting skills, decried the number of children she had with her (four), and mostly screamed about the death of an endangered gorilla. The mother is black.
On Tuesday night, 2-year old Lane Graves was wading in less than a foot of water at Disney’s Seven Seas Lagoon, with “No Swimming” signs prominently posted. The parents were not in the water with the child when he was snatched by a 4- to 7-foot alligator.
His father, Matt, suffered minor scrapes as he tried to pry the animal’s mouth open; his mother also tried to save the boy, who was dragged off. His body was found Wednesday 10 to 15 yards from where he was taken, in six feet of murky water.
The public has not called for the parents’ arrest. While some have decried their parenting, the hysteria heaped upon the black mother hasn’t burdened them. Most people have called for prayers. This despite the “No Swimming” signs, the perfect storm for an alligator attack (a dark night in May or June in shallow water).
They argue the parents had no way of knowing about the alligators (Disney, unlike some other resorts, did not have signs posted) and that their parenting wasn’t lacking or neglectful.
“Accidents happen,” says a popular status going around Facebook.
Matt and Melissa Graves are white people from Elkton, Nebraska. The public reaction to these animal attacks again show the racial fissures in American society.
The black mother, who watched a gorilla pummel her child for 10 full minutes, actually had her parenting investigated by the Hamilton County prosecutors.
There has been no talk of charging the white parents, who were watching a movie at the time and keeping their daughter in a playpen 20 yards from the shore.
Why do we question the black mother’s parenting? Her momentary glance away must be justified over and over. Why do we cry for the white parents? Most people gloss over Graves allowing their toddler to wade in a “No Swimming” area while they stood outside the water, at an unspecified distance.
This shows, in stark detail, the way America views black and white parenting. Black mothers have too many children; they’re seen by the bulk of society as neglectful and incompetent. A child is attacked by an animal; we castigate the black mother for her neglect and we mourn for the heroic white parents.
The black mother has suffered a savaging on the internet and television.
If people remember that the black boy lived, it’s only because the gorilla didn’t: an endangered gorilla people have said was worth more than the life of a black child. Society wants to carpet-bomb the Florida alligators for hurting a white boy.
The Graves family should thank God they had the privilege to be born white. Through no virtue of their own, they’ll be spared the investigations and castigations suffered by their black counterpart. They won’t suffer as much in the court of public opinion; the bulk of the public is mourning Lane, not blaming them for his death.
As it should be: Lane’s death, like the unspecified boy’s injury, was a tragic accident no one saw coming. And as it should be for the black mother, who’s now cleared of all unspecified charges.
I’ll say it, because few others have: Bless her and her baby.
Hopefully he’s free from lasting damage.
A white mother can break injunctions and still get sympathy. God forbid a black mother turn her back.