Nothing warms our nerdy professorial hearts like seeing people buy books, and we understand the need for knowledge to attack entrenched social problems (please keep borrowing, exchanging and buying books, everyone). And we are deeply committed to popular anti-racist education. We hope anti-racist education can play a part in eradicating myths about causes and consequences of racial inequality. And black women theorists of abolition have unquestionably contributed to the current global mass movements calling for defunding the police.
But as educators, we also are aware of the limits of the education-as-cure-for-racism trope when it is uncoupled from commitments to redistribute resources. Education detached from concrete, measurable changes, such as protesters’ calls for defunding the police departments, is the “thoughts and prayers” of anti-racism. It allows people to feel like something is being done without committing to actual changes that might upset broader patterns of privilege. Prescribing education as the cure for racism often confuses individual bigotry with a system of domination. As a system of domination, racism can be manipulated, because it is bigger than any individual. Highly educated people, who sometimes know better, contribute to systems of racial harm on a regular basis.
The architecture of American racism is not an unfortunate accident: It was created intentionally to acquire and keep power. The highly educated designed America’s system of segregation and America’s prison system. Highly educated lawyers devise arguments to protect police who kill black and brown folks, highly educated prosecutors decline to bring charges, and highly educated judges assign light sentences. There is no good evidence that educating police about implicit bias works to lessen harm. And whites with high cognitive ability are no more likely to support practical policies that lessen racial inequality. But their education does allow them to offer more sophisticated justifications for privilege.
The trope of education-as-cure also presumes a kind of unwarranted racial innocence, assuming if the poor souls just knew better, they would not call the cops on a birdwatcher, defend segregated schools or shoot a black jogger. For example, white women who call the police on black and brown people for barbecuing, selling bottled water, or simply existing show a keen awareness of racism’s operating system. When Amy Cooper called the police in retaliation for being asked to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park, she was not showing an irrational fear of black men. Calling 911 was a calculated manipulation of a system that has historically harmed black men. Using knowledge of a system to your advantage is not ignorance, it is the act of someone educated in the nuances of institutionalized racism.
For some, the caricature of an uneducated backwoods racist may be comforting. This caricature safely places the taint of racism on a different group and immunizes the middle-class from accusations of bias. By placing the problem of racism on the poorly educated, it allows those who are aware or racial inequality to feel like they have done nothing wrong and can therefore safely continue to do nothing.
Most students are taught about the Jim Crow-era efforts to keep schools separate and unequal, but fewer probably know contemporary education shows levels of segregation not seen since before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision. For example, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found that black children are five times as likely as white children to attend racially and ethnically segregated schools and twice as likely to attend “high-poverty” schools.
Furthermore, continued use of admissions screens for elite public high schools yield racially exclusive results, as do supposedly desegregated schools that employ racialized tracking. As sociologists Amanda Lewis and John Diamond show, even “best case scenario” integrated schools in highly educated, liberal enclaves maintain segregation in nominally integrated buildings. All these processes happen in the United States’ most educated and often most liberal cities, where those who know about the causes of racial inequality lack the political will to intervene.
Or imagine a highly educated, anti-racist teacher working in a segregated school who has a personal commitment to equal education. As many teachers from underfunded predominantly nonwhite schools will readily admit, no amount of personal heroism can overcome the racially segregated educational system America seems to accept. These individual commitments to anti-racism, while meaningful and commendable, do little to change the system that disproportionately condemns nonwhite students to schools with poor resources in the first place.
The problem of racial inequality is not just a lack of knowledge; it is the lack of a willingness among many white people to commit to an equitable distribution of resources.
What movements like those currently in the streets recognize is that systemic problems are not solved by education in the absence of collective action. Solutions to racial inequality require a reorganization of what creates inequality in the first place: unequal access to social and material resources. Seeing education as a necessary but insufficient condition for challenging racial inequality is not pessimistic. It recognizes that knowledge used to confront, rather than accommodate or legitimate authority, can lead to a more equitable distribution of power.