Reclaiming a Race Radical Vision of Bilingual Education

This post is the first in a series of posts where I hope to develop a race radical vision of bilingual education. In this first post I provide some historical context for this vision of bilingual education. In future posts I hope to lay describe implications of this historical context in reconceptualizing dominant framings of bilingual education from everything ranging from program structures to language ideologies.

None of the current bilingual education programs that are currently available in the United States would have been possible without community struggles during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet debates surrounding bilingual education and other gains from the Civil Rights Movement were not monolithic. Instead, the Civil Rights Movement can be understood as existing on a racial continuum.

On the one end of this racial continuum was liberal multiculturalism. Proponents of this perspective focused on increasing racial tolerance and fighting for equal access to mainstream institutions. From this perspective the Civil Rights Movement was relatively successful since more people of color have more access to mainstream institutions than they did prior to the movement.

On the other end of the continuum was race radicalism. Proponents of this perspective positioned their Civil Rights activism within a much larger global struggle of people of color worldwide against white supremacy and imperialism.  From this perspective the Civil Rights Movement was relatively unsuccessful. The basic argument is that as gains made by the Civil Rights Movement were institutionalized they became disconnected from larger global struggles and began to reinforce the white supremacy and imperialism that these global struggles originally intended to overthrow. (For more information on race radicalism check out Jodi Melamed’s insightful book Represent and Destroy).

This race radical perspective can be used to provide an alternative analysis of the role of bilingual education during and after the Civil Rights Movement. Many activists on the race radical end of the continuum situated calls for bilingual education within a larger global struggle against white supremacy and the psychological imperialism that people of color experienced in schools. For these race radical activists, bilingual education was a means to a larger end of liberation and social transformation. Bilingual education was seen as integral to the creation of decolonized subjects who challenged white supremacy and imperialism and advocated for the complete overthrow of the current order of things and its replacement with a new, more racially just, social order.

As bilingual education  became institutionalized it lost touch with this race radical vision. It went from being a small part of a larger social transformation that challenged against white supremacy and imperialism to a remedial program for “Limited English Proficient” students from “cognitively and linguistically impoverished” homes who needed to improve their cognitive development through the development of a  “strong foundation” in their L1. Specifically, this institutionalized version of bilingual education argued that L1 instruction would support language minoritized students in developing “academic language” that would provide them access to the mainstream curriculum. From this perspective, bilingual education is not part of a larger political struggle against white supremacy and imperialism but is rather a tool for learning academic language.

While striving to provide equal access to academic language may sound innocent enough a closer look at the research raises concerns. This research has historically and continues to position language minoritized children as having access to “limited” academic language in their homes in comparison to the “advanced” academic language offered to children in White middle class households. With the growing popularity of two-way immersion programs the key question becomes: who is likely to benefit from this framing of bilingual education?

Advocates of this institutionalized version of bilingual education might argue that this misses, the point. They might argue that all students should have access to educational experiences that support their development of academic language. But this is a far cry from the race radical vision of bilingual education which sought to overthrow white supremacy and imperialism. Perhaps it behooves those of us interested in empowering language minoritized students to revisit this race radicalism to develop alternatives to the institutionalized version of bilingual education that inadvertently reproduces white supremacy both through the expectation that all people should master “academic language” and through the Otherizing of people who are unable to or unwilling to fit this ideal.

Though the race radicalism of the Civil Rights Movement may have been destroyed, elements of this race radical vision remain. Building on these elements can help to reconstruct a race radical vision of bilingual education. Developing this race radical vision of bilingual education entails engaging in community struggles that position language minoritized students as legitimate language users and connect struggles for bilingual education with other social movements that challenge white supremacy and imperialism. We can no longer uncritically accept the goal of bilingual education to be the molding of language minoritized children who come with “limited” academic language into the image of White children with “advanced” academic language. Instead, we must fight for spaces where these children can be heard on their own terms and not through a lens of white supremacy.

I hope to lay out what this might look like in future posts. Any ideas that others have are welcome.


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