The Fundamental Disposability of Black and Brown Bodies and Education Reform

The education debate has a race problem. I don’t simply mean that most prominent leaders on the left, center, and right are white (though that is certainly a problem). What I mean is that the entire education reform debate has erased the impact of race on racialization on communities of color.  At best race is treated as a secondary factor that is trumped by issues of social class. At worse race is treated as something that has no place in “color-blind” education debates.

This month alone there is plenty of evidence to illustrate the fact that this is an insufficient theorization of race and racialization. Below I offer just three exhibits that illustrate the ways that race and racialization are integral to the experiences of communities of color as well as the ways that their experiences are interpreted by mainstream white society.

Our first exhibit contains disturbing images of refugee children risking their lives to cross the border to escape violence that has at least partially been caused by the United States. Though many people have responded with compassion, many others screamed for their immediate deportation for fear that they will somehow contaminate American society.

Our second exhibit contains the disturbing images of the people of Gaza as they face an unrelenting attack by the Israeli government. Again, while there has certainly been public outcry, it is still a mainstream argument in the United States to argue that nobody in Gaza (including children) deserves our grief because they are all potential terrorists.

And our third exhibit contains the disturbing images from Ferguson, Missouri which has literally been transformed into a police state after a police officer shot an unarmed African American teenager. Many have expressed outrage both at the senseless death of yet another African American at the hands of police and the militarized response of the local police. However, many others have blamed the protestors for allegedly resorting to violence.

All three of these exhibits illustrate the fundamental disposability of black and brown bodies (a term I take from Jonathan Rosa during a panel discussion on Melissa Harris-Perry last weekend). In a nutshell, these are just three examples of the ways that are society has an open debate about the value of black and brown bodies and whether they pose a threat to mainstream white communities. Just imagine if Canada experienced a crisis and we experienced an influx of white children as refugees into the United States. Or white children were being bombed and killed by Israeli bombs. Or if a white child was killed by the police and to add insult to injury the police began an assault on a white community in mourning about this tragic loss. Would we really be having a debate or would these children’s humanity be acknowledge simply because of their whiteness?

I have been somewhat baffled by the ways that education activists have for the most part ignored these issues over the last month preferring to stick to discussions of mainstream education topics such as Common Core State Standards and charter schools. I am baffled because it is not possible to understand the roots causes of problems in public education without understanding the fundamental disposability of black and brown bodies.

It is the fundamental disposability of black and brown bodies that has led to the disinvestment in communities of color and the public schools that serve them. It is the fundamental disposability of black and brown bodies that has allowed for children of color to become commodities that can increase the profit margins of corporations. It is the fundamental disposability of black and brown bodies that has allowed for the criminalization of youth of color and the creation of the school-to-prison pipeline. And it is the fundamental disposability that has allowed for the implementation of a testing regime that delegitimizes the knowledge of communities of color.

Any education activist that seeks to work in solidarity with communities of color must offer an explicit critique of the fundamental disposability of black and brown bodies that permeates US society. It is not enough to argue for equal funding for schools and small class-sizes without also working to undo the generations of neglect of these communities and the generations of privilege of mainstream white communities. It does little to offer a critique of high-stakes testing if that critique refuses to acknowledge the fact that communities of color have been oppressed by white supremacist schooling throughout U.S. history. And it is insufficient to advocate for “safe schools” without an understanding of the ways that “safety” has been used to justify the deportation, criminalization, and murder of youth of color.

It is about time that we make the fundamental disposability of black and brown bodies central to the education debate. This is not a secondary issue that should only be discussed after the “real” education issues have been discussed. This is the issue that needs to be addressed for true social transformation to occur.

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