The Solution of Education as Respectability Politics
This past Saturday evening, I had the incredibly humbling honor of being present as a panelist during the second evening performance of Antigone in Ferguson, an adaptation of the classic Greek play staged as a reading at the Center for Social Empowerment at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri. The production by a Brooklyn-based director was intended to create echoes and allusions to the Ferguson uprising in 2014 and the death of Michael Brown.
After the performance, a few community members were asked to speak directly to the play and offer reflections on how it resonated with our personal experiences. As questions came from the audience following our reflections, an older gentleman offered to the audience that education was the key, that solving our educational inequities was the center of how we can begin to improve our deeply entrenched systemic racism. This struck me, in the moment, as too simplistic in its scope, and I said so. I've had a couple of days to think this through even further, and I offer these thoughts here.
First, we must offer solutions that are multifaceted and multilayered in their approach. For example, even within our approach to education, we must diversify. Older, traditionally wealthy and white institutions must become more inclusive racially and socioeconomically, providing opportunity to a deeper array of social strata. Think of this as a top-down-bottom-up approach. Additionally, our poor students of color must be given more choices than what they are currently given without catering to our golden idols of "school choice" enshrined in the national GOP platform, which is slowly hollowing out our public schools in the urban core.
Second, education cannot stand alone as the magic wand we wave over racial inequity in our region and expect everything to improve, even given plenty of time. Mike Brown was on his way to college. He had graduated high school. He had defied the odds set out for him by a white supremacist society. And yet, he was still treated as subhuman. My professors of color at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri go home a different route at night than they do arriving during the day. Professors with PhD's. With publications, books, honorary chair titles to their names. They fear violence at the hands of law enforcement even in the community in which they educate the citizenry, from their fellow civil servants. Education has not saved them from the need to protect themselves from harm.
We must combine our efforts in education with efforts in housing, criminal justice, mass incarceration, voting rights, and more. These are systemic issues, and education does not encompass the whole of the problem, nor does it encompass therefore the whole of the solution.
Original photo by Pixabay user jarmoluk. Used under Creative Commons license.