We need to teach us, again

Black people will never be free without a substantial focus on rebuilding the educational capital that was lost during desegregation.

On today’s #FreedomFriday show Sharif El-Mekki and I discussed this new piece from Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert Putnam that makes interesting and bold claims about racial progress in the U.S.

In a break from the conventional stories we tell ourselves, the authors claim Blacks were making gains at a faster pace before the apex of the Civil Rights movement than afterward.

They say: “In terms of material well-being, Black Americans were moving toward parity with white Americans well before the victories of the civil rights era. What’s more, after the passage of civil rights legislation, those trends toward racial parity slowed, stopped, and even reversed.

Examples of the “positive change” Blacks made included narrowing the black/white life expectancy gap between 1905 and 1947, the high school completion gap between the 1940s and the 1970s, improving racial integration in K-12 education prior to Brown v. Board, converging income by race between 1940 and 1970, narrowing gaps in homeownership between 1900 and 1970, and the dramatic increase in voter registration for Blacks between 1952 and 1964.

All of these forward marching data begin to “flatline” in 1970 according to Romney and Putnam.

They blame two phenomena.

First, the white backlash that historically has followed spurts of Black progress throughout history.

Second, the replacement of a “we” generation where collectivist activities bound people together, with an “I” generation that unleashed a nation of narcissistic soloists who only join identity-bound “we” groups too tribal to work for the public good.

On the latter, the loss of the focus on “we,” there is a conundrum for Blacks.

Segregation united us through social barriers and kept us clear on our collective goal (to overcome racial caste). It’s easier to be together when you’re mandated by law to do so, and fighting collectively toward the common goal of racial uplift is more urgent when the barriers are absolute and clear. Segregation was clear in ways that today’s advanced injustices are not.

Conversely, segregation was ironically a basis of Black social, economic, and educational power expressed in the form of Black social groups, entrepreneurship, and schools.

The authors link to Stanford’s economic historian Gavin Wright who discusses three “downsides” to the “civil rights revolution” in his book “Sharing The Prize.”

“No revolution succeeds without costs and reactions,” he says at the beginning of Chapter 7. While the Civil Rights movement obviously delivered societal benefits for all Americans, its negative impact included: (1) the dismantling of Black business districts, (2) the persistence of poverty in the Black south, and (3) the “possibility that the political and ideological legacy of the Civil Right era” has impeded further progress. While these downsides can’t overshadow the achievements of the Civil Rights era, they aren’t nothing either.

Not surprisingly, my lesson to draw from Romney, Putnam, and Wright is an educational one. As Sharif and I discussed on this morning’s show, Booker T. Washington's focus on Black schooling was key. His focus on building educational capital where Blacks owned the means of knowledge production is in my mind the most powerful asset we ever lost. While W.E.B. DuBois focused on civil rights for the educated few who would use their education and political power to lead the Black masses out of the darkness of ignorance, Washington focused on raising the Black masses to the level of shareholders in Black-owned schools and businesses. Washington saw the reality, capital speaks with a resolute voice in a capitalist nation. Civil Rights built without capital is like a MasterCard with a low credit limit.

Which is why we’ve got it all wrong today. If Black progress is the goal then our leaders need to take more than a surface interest in Black-owned schooling. It’s unacceptable that many of them have tabs open on criminal justice, jobs, housing, health care, voting rights, and other political standard fares, without a primary focus on operating and defending schools tailored to raising Black students to their full potential. That the fog integrationism and unfounded universality of public education have impaired their judgment tells of their miseducation. It also makes our need to get back to “we” even more pronounced.

There isn’t an issue facing Black people today that doesn’t find its origins in K-12 education. Without our own collective governance of our children’s intellectual development, how can we win? Without Black self-determination in who teaches them, what they learn, where they learn, and how lessons are taught to them, what is the future of our freedom?

We have one goal: educational capital. Plain and simple.