Christopher Edley on structural racialism

At the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy yesterday we attended the Race and Policy Symposium put on by the Students of Color in Public Policy. It was a very interesting and well organized event with many good panelists, including our own Chin Martin and Hugh Vasquez, who spoke about education and labor, intersections of policy fields, and other matters. The panels were short and populated so conversations just scratched the surfaces of complex issues, and I’m sure the Goldman students will have a lot to talk about going forward.

The closing keynote was given by Christopher Edley, Dean of the UC Berkeley Boalt Law School, who is involved in many interesting education equity initiatives, including co-chair of the national Equity and Excellence Commission formed by the DOE. (The Commission will hold a Town Hall meeting in San Jose tonight, Thursday April 21, by the way.)

Edley is very smart and an entertaining speaker.  He shared some of his thinking on “structural racialism” – a term he prefers to “structural racism” because he wants to get away from the discriminatory intent that is implicit in the term “racism” (he also says he hates the word racialism but it’s the best he has for now) – and its effects in education.  He sketched out a few big issues that I found helpful:

  • States rights: the federal and state roles are recent in education and still small compared to the overwhelming power of local institutions (e.g., the 1,000 school districts in California). When you hear complaints about “unfunded mandates” in NCLB, for instance, he takes these as a species of states rights – “equal protection is an unfunded mandate, the term is code for local noncompliance with federal regulations.” All the local community control of education made sense in the 19th century, now it is wildly inefficient, expensive, and enables massive inequities, in his view.
  • Segregation: Schools are now more segregated than they were at the time of Brown vs. Board of Ed. The de facto practices have undermined the law. Law has eroded too, and not just recently with the Roberts court: in 1973 in San Antonio vs. Rodriguez, the court ruled that education is not a fundamental right and that property taxes that fund education unequally in different jurisdictions do not violate the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Separate and unequal education has remained reality mostly unabated since Brown.
  • “Bull Connor’s Dead” – He was the Birmingham commissioner who was a symbol of bigotry and white racist violence in the 50’s and 60’s.  In other words, overt racism is now taboo so there is a belief among the general public that racism is no longer a factor in racial disparities, despite copious evidence of systemic discriminatory practices in many sectors.
  • The secularization of civil rights: in the movement days, civil rights leaders tended to be spiritual leaders, pastors, etc.  Now civil rights is a technocratic endeavor of policy wonks arguing for funding mechanisms, jobs programs, etc. These are important, he says, but don’t inspire the public, which wants a values-based conversation (which the Tea Party, GOP, etc do well).

A central point to his strategy for dealing with the current state of structural racialism was thinking of ways to remove the need to prove discriminatory intent in enforcing practices that support racial equity. “It should be just like the Clean Air Act,” he said, which enables you to require a company to just “fix it” when they violate allowable pollution levels, without having to prove that the company intended to pollute, intended to cause harm to people living around the factory, etc.  Our question is: as a fundamentally human endeavor, is education amenable to a technical fix like installing chimney scrubbers?

The pollution example seems relatively simple – companies don’t want to reduce their profits by investing in broad social goods like clean air, so they have to be forced to do so.  But they know exactly what to do. In education, the accountability approach is already based in telling people to “fix it,” and that’s not working well because what needs to change includes an array of complex social, cultural, and affective factors that people do not typically or immediately know how to fix.  How does policy make room and provide resources for enabling people to figure out integrated solutions that encompass both the technical and social dimensions of the problem, solutions that, in our view, require people to deal with complicated issues of social and personal identity?

Edley was quite aware of this objection, it came up in the Q&A, and he returned to the secularization of the civil rights movement and talked about the need for a movement informed by values and something like spirituality. He said he is worried about the younger generation today, he said, because they are entrepreneurial and anti-movement, more interested in starting their own “boutique” programs to address racial disparities than join movements that could scale and sustain change.  When you hear scalability, you think of market solutions and the newer rising strands of education reform seem quite firmly in that mode, but they do not seem “movement” oriented. How do you infuse “scaling,” a technocratic concept, with movement building, a socio-cultural approach?

This entry was posted in achievement gap, Bias, Conferences & Events, education reform, Policy, racial equity, Structural Racism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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