From the Nov.-Dec. 2010 issue of News & Letters:
by John Alan
Editor’s note: To highlight what is missing from current debates on education reform, we reprint John Alan’s column from the June 1993 N&L.
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This June  the New Jersey Educational Commissioner, Mary Fitzgerald, will take control of the Malcolm X Shabazz High School and the rest of the Newark, N.J., school system. Last spring the Oakland, Cal., School Board consented to the Latino community’s demand that the curriculum of two middle schools be focused on Latino culture and history. Several years ago, African-American parents compelled Detroit’s Board of Education to open three experimental African-centered schools.
What connects these three school districts is the general knowledge that public school systems of the inner cities are failing to educate Black and Latino students. The New Jersey officials have chosen to see this as a management problem, while Black and Latino parents see it as a cultural identity problem. Implicitly, what African Americans and Latinos are saying is that the crisis in their children’s education is related to their own alienated condition as non-whites in U.S. society.
LEVELS OF THE PROBLEM
Mary G. Bennett, the principal of the Malcolm X Shabazz High School, caught the relationship between society and the crisis in Black education when she told The New York Times (May 5, 1993): “We’re talking levels of a problem. One level is at school. The other level is community and society.”
Ms. Bennett speaks from experience: she knows that it’s very difficult to get Black students in an inner city slum school to take seriously science and math, or any other subject, when they bring into the classroom a myriad of raw realities created by poverty and racism.
The very existence of de facto segregated schools in inner city slums is in itself the consequence of the prevalence of Black poverty and the hostile nature of racial divisions in this country. The Urban League predicted in its annual report on The State of Black America 1992 that between 1994 and 1995 the majority of African-American children will attend schools that are predominantly minority. In Illinois, 82.2% of Black students go to de facto segregated schools.
We know that these segregated schools are poor schools; less money is spent on students per capita. For example, in California, where the state is bound by both its constitution and law to provide equity in spending per pupil, regardless of the race or the wealth of a community, in Baldwin Park, a Black community near Los Angeles, $595 is spent per pupil, while Beverly Hills spends $1,244 per pupil. Jonathan Kozol called this a system of “Savage Inequality.” Black Americans are getting an “education” which opens up no vision in the human spirit or an objective pathway out of poverty.
The question is: Can Afrocentric schools, with their emphasis on cultural identity as the motivation to encourage Black youth to concentrate on mathematics and science, offer a valid alternative to the crisis in Black education? Put another way, can these schools, as many claim, provide the pathway out of poverty and economically regenerate the decaying inner cities by turning a new generation of Black youth on to mathematics and science?
First of all, the advocates of Afrocentric education fail to catch the central contradiction in their concept of Black public education, when the object of Afrocentrism becomes science. In their concept “science,” and not the subjectivity of African “cultural identity,” becomes the force of transformation.
There is nothing wrong in encouraging Black youth to study math and science, but to project it as the magic language that will open new economic doors for African Americans in a capitalist high-tech society creates an illusion. It fails to understand that the growth of technology in the production of commodities reduces the amount of human labor power needed and, at the same time, the rate of capital accumulation. This creates permanent unemployment and a constant hunger for capital. Marx called this the general law of capitalist accumulation.
The general law of capitalist accumulation is the true source of African-American poverty and inner city social dislocation, which is a permanent reality of life for many Black youth. The Los Angeles revolt last year had its deepest origins in that reality. It was a revolt against that reality. Every Black mass revolt contains within it an element of the “absolute,” i.e., it wants an absolute change in class and race relationships in this country, including education. At this moment, we have arrived at a new crossroads in the meaning of Black education. It is no longer an issue of integration, which didn’t happen, or even curriculum. The question is: How is education to be fundamentally related to Black freedom?