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Exploring the “Crisis” in Black Education from a Post-White Orientation*

December 14, 2016

Marcus Croom

 

Intended Audience: Middle School And/Or High School

Overview: Children are socialized into the thought and practice of race as common sense by the time they enter Kindergarten (Apfelbaum, Norton, & Sommers, 2012). By middle school and high school, children have had very sophisticated experiences with race, but typically have not been adequately supported as they navigate both normative human development and race production in their lives. This double task can be especially challenging for children raced as Black in American society and in American schooling (Murrell, 2009). Our aim is simply to begin, with middle and high school students and teachers, by defining what race is and then offering students and teachers an opportunity to (re)define themselves in light of their own better understanding of race. Teachers will prepare to facilitate this beginning by first engaging in this activity and assessing their own work.

National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) Standards:

Teachers are charged with providing opportunities that will:

History

  • enable learners to develop historical understanding through the avenues of social, political, economic, and cultural history and the history of science and technology.

Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

  • help learners analyze group and institutional influences on people, events, and elements of culture in both historical and contemporary settings;
  • assist learners in identifying and analyzing examples of tensions between expressions of individuality and efforts used to promote social conformity by groups and institutions;
  • enable learners to describe and examine belief systems basic to specific traditions and laws in contemporary and historical movements;
  • assist learners as they explain and apply ideas and modes of inquiry drawn from behavioral science and social theory in the examination of persistent social issues and problems.

Culture and Cultural Diversity

  • assist learners to apply an understanding of culture as an integrated whole that explains the functions and interactions of language, literature, the arts, traditions, beliefs and values, and behavior patterns;
  • have learners interpret patterns of behavior reflecting values and attitudes that contribute or pose obstacles to cross-cultural understanding.

Goals of Lesson Plan

Teachers and students will understand race as a consequential social practice, how it contrasts with a common sense understanding of race, and use dialogues and writing to (re)define themselves in light of a richer understanding of race.

Lesson Plan

Objectives

  1. Teachers and students will create a safe setting for demystifying race as a human cultural practice.
  2. Teachers and students will read and discuss the definition of race provided (Race is a consequential social practice).
  3. Teachers and students will read, discuss, and debate a point of view about an article.
  4. Students will free-write a shared or unshared Race Reflection.

Warm up (5-10 min)

Teacher will pose this question and discuss:

Who are your people and what makes each of you members of the same group?”

Although directed to the whole class, this question is really an individual query. The whole class is not assumed to be members of the same group. Individual students should have an opportunity to respond to and dialogue about the question. Teacher should engage in the discussion, revealing their own personal view, but silently note instances when students (or when teachers themselves) offer common sense notions of race to identify themselves or the group with which they identify.

Activity (Instruction Input) (25-30 min)

Teacher will post a T-chart to facilitate a whole class comparison of the common sense perspective of race and the consequentially social practice perspective of race. Define the “Race is Common Sense View” as the perspective wherein race is a human feature that is self-evident and identifiable. Define the “Race is Consequential Social Practice View” as the perspective wherein humans create and consume race for human ends. Students will provide examples of how race is commonly understood as “self-evident and identifiable” on the left side of the T-chart (e.g. skin, bone, blood, hair, name, language, culture, etc.). On the right side of the T-chart, students will provide examples of how humans “create and consume” race (labeling, ranking, storying, symbolizing, social-classing, boundary-making, etc.).

Teacher will launch instruction by saying (something like):

“Today, we are going to distinguish between two ways of understanding race. The first way is nothing new. In fact, we’ll call it the common sense view of race. The second way is one you’ll quickly catch on to. We do it all the time, but you probably haven’t thought about race this way; we’ll call the second way the social practice view of race.”

Applying the article below to instruction, the teacher will discuss and complete the T-chart as described above.

  • Once the T-chart is completed, the teacher will provide students with a copy of the article about Rachel Dolezal. Choose Option 1 or Option 2 to complete the reading of the article.

Option 1: Students will form groups of three or four and “jigsaw” read the entire article:

  • Each member will select a portion to read and report back to the entire group.

Option 2: Teacher will select an excerpt from the article, student groups will read excerpt, and discuss excerpt (e.g., From: “Rachel and her college friends describe Belhaven as predominantly white.” To: “Finally, she says, she could live an authentic life.”).

  • Student groups will prepare to orally argue whether the “Common Sense View” or the “Consequential Social Practice View” of race best explains the racial identity of Rachel Dolezal.
  • Students will respond to the following: “Does Rachel Dolezal have racial identity? If so, which one(s) and why (i.e. according to “Common Sense” or “Consequential Social Practice”)? If not, why not (i.e. according to “Common Sense” or “Consequential Social Practice”)?”
  • Teacher will engage with the arguments offered by each group without suggesting which argument is “right or wrong.” The point is for the teacher to invite a well-reasoned oral argument from all groups (teachers may provide and model a common oral argument structure to support the development of a well-reasoned oral argument; this kind of model may also be provided and modeled in the following written assessment).

Assessment (15-20 min)

Students will free write a Race Reflection using the following prompt:

“Do you have racial identity? If so, who are your racial people and what makes each of you members of the same group? If not, why not?”

  • Teachers may invite a few willing students to share their Racial Reflection with the whole class, if teachers feel comfortable with managing, with credibility and sensitivity, the possibility of unexpected or unpopular viewpoints.
  • Teachers will collect and review each Race Reflection to determine if the student has a well-reasoned reflection. Race Reflections that derogate self or others should be appropriately discussed with the individual student. Because this is a free write, teachers will not assess student writing for use of conventions.
  • Beyond sound reasoning, teachers are looking for evidence that students understand the difference between the “Common Sense View” and the “Consequential Social Practice View” of race. Students are not required to adopt one view of race or the other; they may be inconclusive. Again, this entire lesson is only a beginning effort to develop a richer understanding of race as a human cultural practice.

This writing assignment can be extended by providing a model publishable text, offering opportunities for student-lead research, and offering teacher-lead writing support to students (across multiple drafts) that results in a publishable text, including appropriate use of conventions.

Background Information

Reading “The Crisis in Black Education” from a Post-White Orientation

As a literacy scholar, I have spent a great deal of time theorizing race in pursuit of practical ends–advancing the literacy practices of Black children in U.S. schools. This themed volume focused on the “Crisis in Black Education” caused me to reflect on this question: What makes “Black Education,” Black? Black as a category of race needs to be explained rather than assumed. In this essay, I will argue that race can be theorized either as common sense or as consequential social practice. I will also offer contrasting views of what “crisis” may mean according to each theory. I conclude by suggesting that this moment of “crisis” is thrusting upon us an opportunity to read the word and the world from a post-White orientation. By post-White orientation, I mean a racial understanding and practice characterized by a) unequivocal regard for “non-White” humanity, especially “Black” humanity; b) demotion of “White” standing (i.e., position, status); c) rejection of post-racial notions; d) non-hierarchical racialization; and e) anticipation of a post-White sociopolitical norm. Figure 1 is an illustration depicting post-White orientation as it differs from White superordinate racialization on one hand and postracialism on the other.

Figure 1

figure-1-croom

Racing on a Different Track

According to O’Connor, Lewis, and Mueller (2007), race is “undertheorized in research on the educational experiences and outcomes of Blacks” (p. 541). They find that race has been understood through two dominant perspectives: race as variable and race as culture. These understandings of race ignore or minimize heterogeneity, intersectionality, and the institutional production of race and racial discrimination where Black persons are concerned. Alternatively, O’Connor et al. (2007) argue that race is produced as a social category and urge that future research take an orientation of race aligned with the following:

(a) theoretical attention to how race-related resources shape educational outcomes, (b) attention to the way race is a product of educational settings as much as it is something that students bring with them, (c) a focus on how everyday interactions and practices in schools affect educational outcomes, and (d) examination of how students make sense of their racialized social locations in light of their schooling experiences. (p. 546)

Such studies will continue to uncover how schools produce race as a social category. Research focused on race production, then, will have implications for talking and writing about race and how race impacts views on education. The following framework conceptualizes race as common sense and race as consequential social practice[1].

Race as Common Sense: The Wrong Train

Sociologist Celine-Marie Pascale (2008) finds that race is widely understood as “common sense,” which she defines as “a saturation of cultural knowledge that we cannot fail to recognize and which, through its very obviousness, passes without notice” (p. 725). In other words, these are

assumptions that we make about life and the things we accept as natural. Common sense leads people to believe that we simply see what is there to be seen. For example, common sense leads us to believe that we simply ‘see’ different races. (p. 725)

She concluded that common sense knowledge of race was discussed in four ways: “as a matter of color, nationality, culture, or blood” (p. 726). What all of these ways have in common is that race is understood uncritically; that is, in a manner that does not question serious incoherencies and contradictions. A deeper, more important point about race as common sense is how it assumes White superiority (Mills, 1997; Puzzo, 1964). The racially White superordinate assumption included in common sense notions of race is morally bankrupt and indefensible.

Race as Consequential Social Practice: All Aboard!

Race as consequential social practice is defined as the individual, collective, institutional, or global production of race, through meaningful ways of being, languaging, and symbolizing, and the effects of such race production (big “D” Discourse and little “d” discourse; see Gee, 1990). I trace the beginning of this understanding of race to W. E. B. Du Bois’ book, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois’ “study of black identity marks a turning point away from biology and towards discursive interaction” (Wilson, 1999, p. 194). As such, Du Bois must be counted among foundational theorists when we historicize the understanding that race is a D/discursive, socially constructed, consequential human practice.

The antecedents/roots of defining race as consequential social practice can be found in the vindicationist tradition, a tradition coined by W.E.B. Du Bois according to anthropologist Kevin Michael Foster. Foster (1997) explains further,

According to Drake, vindicationism reflects the work of scholars to ‘set straight the oft-distorted record of the Black experience and to fill in the lacunae resulting from the conscious or unconscious omission of significant facts about Black people’ (Drake 1987, vol. 1: xviii). Today, even where vindicationism is not the explicit goal of Black scholars, the influence of this tradition is often apparent. Vindicationism may not be the defining characteristic for the work of African-descended scholars, but it is a recurrent feature (Baker 1994, Franklin 1989). (p. 2)

The vindicationist tradition advances and sustains us as persons raced as Black. As such, the vindicationist tradition and Du Bois’ work are critically important today as they were at their origins because “race emerged in language, and it survives in language” (Happe, 2013, p. 135). Further, race is also produced in ways that have grave consequences for human beings. For example, Happe (2013) uncovers that genes are made into artifacts of race and, in fact, do not corroborate race as the biological, common sense view of race alleges. Race, then, should be interrogated and denaturalized as a self-evident feature of the human body, even at the subcellular level, in contradiction to those who, whether unlettered or lettered, promote genes, skin, or other claims about the human body as corroboration of race as common sense (Herrnstein & Murray, 1996, p. 563). Again, race is consequential social practice. Whenever race occurs, it does not occur naturally; rather, race occurs because humans create and consume race for human ends. Each of these ways of understanding race–as common sense or as consequential social practice–may influence how race and “Black education” are viewed.

Race and “Black Education”

When we understand race as common sense, “Black education” may mean the realm of education that is a subset of, or is even apart from, “White education.” Said another way, “Black education” is education from Black people’s perspective, on Black people’s terms, and in Black people’s experience. From this orientation, “Black education” is a self-explanatory label that marks the largely homogenous “Black” experience of education in the U.S. according to those who are themselves actually “Black.”

The “crisis” in “Black education,” when race is understood as common sense, is a crisis in at least two ways. First, Black education is assumed to be subordinate to White education. Second, Black education primarily or exclusively involves Black persons and places—Black persons and places assumed to be subordinate to White persons and places. Accordingly, the question becomes what can be done about those inferior “Black children” and their inferior “Black education”? To be clear, this is not my own view; rather I am articulating the common sense view of race where education and crisis are concerned. As such, within the “Black” boundary there is catastrophe, and beyond the “Black” boundary, all is well or is at least better.

When we understand race as consequential social practice, “Black education” may mean the social partitioning of access to some aspect(s) of accumulated human knowledge, according to the racial hierarchy of “White” over “Black.” In other words, education itself is not racialized unless persons socially produce education as such through, for example, talk, text, or some other practice. Importantly, I hasten to add, education can be racialized for both ethical and unethical reasons. I cannot overstress this point. A “crisis” in “Black education,” when race is understood as consequential social practice, is a crisis in terms of thought, practice, systems, and institutions, whether local or global. As such, the question becomes what patterns and barriers are hostile to the humanity of persons raced as “Black”? I believe that this question begins to approach the essence of the vindicationist tradition (Drake, 1987) that Carter G. Woodson (1933) lived, worked, and struggled according to, along with many others like Du Bois. From the consequential social practice understanding of race, we who are raced as “Black” are always already fully human, and thus legitimate inheritors of all accumulated human knowledge, but our legitimacy as inheritors of all human knowledge and our intersectional, heterogeneous humanity are not always adequately honored and regarded. Such dishonor and disregard toward our human inheritance and plentitude is evidenced by historic and current thought and practice, including the processes of education (whether in school or out-of-school).

With this second perspective of “Black Education crisis” in mind, it becomes obvious why, yet again, we are faced with the need to exclaim, “Black lives matter.” It should comes as no surprise that the organization of schools and classrooms, the instructional practices therein, and the resources and materials apportioned to places raced as “Black” would produce pipelines to prison and poverty (Ladson-Billings, 2006). Given the innumerable artifacts, institutions, and ideologies derived from Western Europeans’ invention of race, we who are raced as “Black” fully expect to fight philosophically, epistemologically, theologically, theoretically, hermeneutically, linguistically, and with our own colored, clenched hands to protect our humanity, the humanity of our children, our loved ones, and our communities. For many persons raced as “Black” in the U.S., this is the American way.

Our present times have shown us again that we have a choice to make: will we choose to orient ourselves to race as common sense, reading the word and the world only according to Western European design? Or, will we choose the post-White orientation, wherein we are critically aware of the consequential social practice that metaphorically, and quite literally, writes the codes of the racialized matrix in which we live?

I have not argued that there is no such thing as race or racism. Neither have I argued that people who are raced as Black, should not call themselves “Black.” Further, I reject post-racialism in all its forms. I have argued that race and racism are produced by human thought and practice for human ends. Most of these human ends for race production are patently White superordinate (obviously including racism), but thankfully some human ends for race production are post-White oriented and human nurturing for persons categorized as “Black” (i.e., vindicationist). The issue is not the label “Black” per se, the issue is whether one is “Black” on racially subordinate terms or on human-peer terms (Woodson, 1933, pp. 199-202). As this suggests, post-racialism fails to hit the point. The point is race production and whether the race production in question is ethical or unethical. Rather than post-racialism, we should pursue the development of racial literacies–the acquired, critical, cultural toolkit that supports human well-being amid the social thought and practice of race (http://racialliteracies.org).

Whatever the current raced as Black education crisis may be, we should face it on human terms, rather than on normatively White superordinate terms. Perhaps the “Crisis in Black Education” is the recurring, practical repercussions of not yet realizing, together, what it means for persons, raced as Black, to be human (Wynter, 2006).

Teacher Resources

  1. The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson (1933); especially chapter four “Education Under Outside Control.”
  2. Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School edited by Mica Pollock (2008); especially section A “Race Categories: We Are All the Same, But Our Lives Are Different” and section B “How Opportunities Are Provided and Denied Inside Schools.”
  3. In Rachel Dolezal’s Skin” by Mitchell Sunderland (2015).
  4. Tips for Facilitating Classroom Discussions on Sensitive Topics. by Alicia Moore, Ph.D., and Molly Deshaies.
  5. Developing a Positive White Identity by Racial Equity Tools.
  6. The Crisis in Black Education” Executive Summary. Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Notes

[1] In previous work, instead of “social practice” I used the big “D” and little “d” distinction offered by Gee (1990) to refer to “Discourses” as meaningful ways of being in the world and “discourses” as meaningful ways of using language or symbols in the world. For example, talk or texts are “discourses” employed in the “Discourses” of race, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, etc. Both “D/discourse” and “social practice” are intended to convey the same meaning within the practice of race theory (PRT).

*This lesson plan was originally published in the Association for the Study of African American Life & History’s Black History Bulletin, v79, (2) and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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