Like any broader institution in the United States, American free-market capitalism must be contextualized within white supremacy. The United States’ economy was built on the exploitation of Black labor and Indigenous expulsion and genocide. And together, capitalism and white supremacy have permeated every aspect of American life.
Capitalism has told us that we are nothing more than what we can produce, we are nothing more than our labor. White supremacy has told us that some bodies are worth more than others. The American education system is rooted in both capitalism and white supremacy, and it too has failed us.
The purpose of schools has turned from helping individuals define their sense of identity through education, to creating un-thinking cogs in the capitalist machine. Students are defined by their labor, their productivity, their grades. Capitalism in schools is inherently racialized, as capitalism and white supremacy are inextricably linked. For example, the achievement gap between Black and white students is large, and is only exacerbated by implicit bias and structures of racism within schooling.
The purpose of schools has turned from helping individuals define their sense of identity through education, to creating un-thinking cogs in the capitalist machine.
This is only perpetuated by the existence of Scientific Management — centered around precision, measurable outputs, quantifiable tasks, and compliance — in schools. Schools have implemented standardized testing to achieve consistency and effectiveness but, as a result, learning, progress, and intelligence are measured by how well students do on these tests.
Reducing students to their test scores is inherently dehumanizing. Beyond that, standardized testing is full of implicit bias. The SAT was created by a noted eugenicist to prove white intellectual superiority. Oftentimes, low-income BIPOC don’t have access to standardized test preparatory programs, unlike their wealthier white peers. Standardized testing also creates unnecessary stress among students and isn’t a good measure of intelligence, furthering racial inequities in schools and racial achievement gaps.
Beyond standardized testing, implicit bias in schools has created massive inequities in achievement and educational outcomes. Low-income students, specifically within the BIPOC community, have low participation rates in AP and IB programs, which are programs specifically designed to increase student achievement and access to postsecondary academic institutions. Black and Latinx students are frequently denied access to these programs, which only perpetuates the racial academic achievement gap, as well as negative stereotypes around BIPOC intellect.
Academic leadership also creates unsafe environments for students of color, specifically Black students. White supremacy has perpetuated a narrative of criminality tied to Blackness, and this is seen in the clear racial gaps in school disciplinary practices. Black students make up 16% of the national student population, but account for 40% of school suspensions. Exclusionary disciplinary action, exacerbated by zero-tolerance policies and racist police and security in schools, only encourages the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of school and end up in the prison system, which in turn perpetuates racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
Exclusionary disciplinary action, exacerbated by zero-tolerance policies and racist police and security in schools, only encourages the school-to-prison pipeline.
Educational oppression and white supremacy is only furthered by the government that has an incentive to get involved in education and curriculum. This has been made clear by Donald Trump’s call for a “patriotic, pro-American” history curriculum. His statements against teaching critical race theory, which he claims cultivates an anti-America sentiment, shows how much the government wants to perpetuate the white supremacist roots of American education in order to maintain their role as the oppressor.
Dr. Bettina Love coined the term “spirit murdering” to speak about how structures of racism and white supremacy in American schools humiliate and destroy the souls and spirits of Black students, as their bodies are destroyed by police and racial violence. Implicit and explicit racism in schools teaches Black students to be ashamed and afraid of their bodies.
Pedagogy has become centered around what Paulo Freire calls “banking education” — students are empty vaults waiting to be filled with knowledge by the all-knowing teacher. Students are told to memorize and repeat, to listen without question. This teaches complacency. It teaches students that their status as the oppressed is unmoving, and that they can never move.
The purpose of schools should not be to create un-thinking cogs in the capitalist machine. The purpose of schools should not be to murder the souls of students of color. The purpose of schools should not be to force students into boxes, telling them their worth is based only on how well they do, or if their grades are high or not.
The purpose of schools should be to help students find themselves, to help them define their own identity, and help them figure out what they want to learn. To foster intrinsic motivation, happiness. To teach them to do more than survive, to teach them to thrive.
Paulo Freire suggests a transformation of pedagogy to liberate the oppressed, through the fostering of dialogue and problem-posing pedagogy. Only through dialogue can educators encourage the development of critical thinking and a critical consciousness. This “dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people,” he says in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Love and hope are the basis for liberation. Educators must find love and hope within themselves, while exploring their own identity and implicit biases, in order to effectively support students and help them thrive. Along with this, educators must consider students as individuals, rather than generalizing them with an essentialist view based on race or other identities.
Student voices must be heard and valued, and this can only happen through dialogue and understanding students as individuals. Only once this happens will we see a school system that is not failing us. Doing this will result in a reduction in exclusionary disciplinary action — disproportionately affecting BIPOC — and as a result, a reduction in the school-to-prison pipeline.
White supremacy is destroying our schools, and along with it, our youth. As a society, we must all explore the formation of our own identities and understand how our identities and lives may be rooted in it. By doing so, we will be able to intentionally shift away from white supremacy and live in a truly anti-racist society.
We must work together to identify the roots of white supremacy in academia, namely in our primary and secondary schools, and intentionally shift away from them. We must work together to give each and every student an opportunity to form their own identity, as a person and not a body to provide labor. We must help every student thrive, and not just survive.
Last updated 11/5/20
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