Many colleagues, political pundits and administrators grapple with the issue of providing adequate education to this nation’s most vulnerable and underserved citizens: children of color. But while some of us desire to empower and liberate this demographic through education and prepare future generations of leaders and problem-solvers, others have a more nefarious agenda. This agenda disguises itself behind noble-sounding platitudes like “No Child Left Behind,” and “Closing the Achievement Gap.” Its proponents are conservative and liberal politicians, think tanks, business leaders, educational scholars, and school leaders.
Some have malicious intentions, and others have adopted policies without truly understanding the implications or negative intent.
While people of color and well-meaning liberal whites comprise much of this last group, some of them also enter the discussion with negative assumptions about Black and Brown students and the larger communities that nurture them. Indeed, some of you reading this have been seduced into supporting (or at least not opposing) this agenda. So forgive me for pulling the sheet off, bursting your bubble, raining on your parade or refusing to let you drink the Koolaid. For you see, much of the energy and resources behind educational reform in this country are aimed precisely at leaving our children behind and preparing them to be docile pawns in a game of corporate chess in which Black and Brown people are devalued, regimented, and kept in their place! Is this difficult for you to believe? All you need do is remember the original role carved out for us in this country, all the centuries we’ve fought against labor exploitation and social injustice, then remind yourself that we all now live in the era of the New Jim Crow as author Michelle Alexander calls it. Or, as Reverend Al Sharpton eloquently puts it, “Our parents fought against Jim Crow, and we fight against his son, James Crow esquire.”
The social control of Black people via education is not new. In fact we can trace its roots to the turn of the 20th Century, when America was on its way to becoming an industrial power, and Black people were only 4 decades removed from chattel slavery.
James Anderson in his book, The Education of Blacks in the South, chronicles how white liberal reformers, business people and white supremacists alike, participated in a great debate around the question of whether Blacks should receive education and what the scope and objectives of that education should be. These groups held a series of educational conferences to debate these matters. The Capon Springs Conference for Christian Education in the South, convened in 1898 in West Virginia and met two more times in 1899 and 1900. From these proceedings the Southern Education Board and General Education Board formed. Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller (who enthusiastically funded the eugenics movement and Hitler’s Nazi movement) founded the latter board which like its southern counterpart sought to advocate for public education with a special role for Black people. You will soon see that while some participants were more malicious than others, ALL of them viewed Blacks as inferior to some degree, and ALL of them saw education as a means to control Black labor and constrain Black political empowerment.
Southern white planters, who held rigidly racist assumptions of Black people, believed that Blacks shouldn’t receive any education. They rationalized that education wasn’t necessary for servants and field hands. Additionally they feared Blacks would demand higher wages, political power and generally better treatment if they acquired education. The northern philanthropist and liberal southern whites responded by arguing that education could be used as social conditioning. That is, the right education could result in a semi-skilled Black labor force that accepted its place on the bottom societal rung without protest. Carter G. Woodson alludes to this in his classic, Miseducation of the Negro:
When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.
During the 19th century Horace Mann, long considered the “Father of American public education” and a strong opponent of African enslavement, advocated a free public education for all citizens. He saw education as an egalitarian means of providing a common and unifying experience for all children. A solid public education would serve to empower and equip citizens regardless of race, religion or origin. However by the 20th century, corporate barons abandoned his noble vision, choosing instead to use education in hegemonic fashion to maintain and strengthen societal hierarchy.
From 1868-1915, the northern businessmen and southern liberal school reformers therefore became strong advocates of Samuel Armstrong’s Hampton University model of education for Black people. Armstrong believed Black people were morally corrupt, unfit for leadership or political power, and in need of “civilization.” His curriculum of education for Black people reflected these negative assumptions. Hampton emphasized rigorous instruction in social etiquette, hygiene, moral instruction, menial labor and a policy of being complacent and disinterested in political and social empowerment. Armstrong was Booker T. Washington’s mentor and Washington adopted his educational policies at Tuskegee Institute. Interestingly, Anderson reports that most graduates of these institutions acquired the equivalent of a 10th grade education and received little actual instruction in skills they could leverage into work.
We can see why W.E.B. DuBois mounted such fierce opposition to these agricultural and technical schools and their agenda of social control for Black people. In his classic book The Souls of Black Folk, Dubois asked, ” Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men?” DuBois argued that the mode of education championed by Armstrong and Washington led to three outcomes:
1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.
2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.
I suggest that the social control agenda of educational reformers exposed by DuBois and Woodson is still in effect today in the 21st century. Moreover, we might view today’s educational reformers as the ideological descendants of the 20th century businessmen and liberal (though still racist) whites. In fact, many of the charter school networks we see today were founded by white conservative millionaires. Samuel Walton, the founder of Walmart’s and Sam’s Club for example, created the Walton Family Foundation which infuses billions of dollars into school reform and public policy. But where does the center concentrate? In urban areas with majority Black and Brown people: Albany, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Harlem (NY), Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Newark (NJ), Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. Neither Sam nor his family have any background of sensitivity to people of color or poverty. Walmart’s itself is predatory, paying its workers significantly below national average, denying benefits, and maintaining a fiercely anti-union position.
Carl Icahn, who has made his living buying and selling companies for profit and displacing workers in the process, also has no background in eliminating poverty or creating social justice for people of color. Yet his philanthropy has led to 7 charter schools all located in poor neighborhoods in the Bronx with Black and Brown populations.
And let’s not forget the teacher-training organization, Teach For America (TFA), which I joined many years ago seeking to become a schoolteacher. This organization took advantage of the great need of school districts to have teachers in the classroom, high rates of retirement for teachers and principals, and chronically low-performing schools in urban areas. In the seventies we called this dynamic “poverty pimping.” So TFA exploits this by recruiting mostly young white college graduates, and putting them through a five-week crash course training program to be teachers. Anyone who has been through this system can tell you its overemphasis on overly punitive disciplinary measures and preparation for state tests. What many have not thought about is the white paternalism manifested by the subtle “let’s civilize the unruly savages” assumptions in such teacher programs. Many will not question why these programs target communities of color or how the vast majority of teacher recruits for students of color were not people of color, or people with even a basic understanding of and sensitivity to people of color.
Charter schools themselves form a pivotal part of this social conditioning process of people of color. Often created for monetary gain and political influence, many employ inhumane disciplinary practices, rob teachers of union backing and academic freedom, and provide career growth for whites who although (sometimes) well-meaning, have little to no educational experience, have racist assumptions about Black and Brown people, and almost no significant understanding of our people. In addition, they provide almost no services for children with special needs and tend to expel them or treat them like threatening inmates.
These schools receive tax payer’s dollars, in addition to private funding and little outside regulation. Because they receive public funding, they tend to drain funds that would normally go to traditional public schools, leading to mass public school closings all over the country. Their obsession with test scores and scripted teaching methods robs the joy of learning from our children, whose spirits are crushed as such schools place discipline and statistics over creating future leaders and problem-solvers.
The outcomes of such educational models will be exactly what 20th century school reformers wanted: Docile, semi-skilled laborers who stay in their place and remain disconnected from the indigenous communities that produced them. This is the hidden agenda of educating our children. It comes right from the minds and pocketbooks of people who look upon us as people in need of “civilization” and who want to produce effective workers for their corporations who will not stand up or speak out against the oppression and devaluation of their people.
What we need then, is a counter educational reform movement. One led by experienced educators, community activists and intellectuals that thinks highly of our students and truly wants to prepare them and their communities to be free-thinking, empowered and community-conscious leaders and problem solvers. You’ve been warned…
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Agyei is part of the Black Power Cypher, 5 Black Nationalist men across the country who are all educators and organizers. They host a live monthly internet show discussing issues of importance to Black people.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.