Black Leadership, Power and Privilege—
Where we are and where we must go
By: Itoro Udofia
The source of my commitment to struggling for a just world lies in the belief that the emancipation of all human beings from all forms of exploitation is on the horizon. Another reservoir of energy comes from my belief that the majority of Black peoples in the world will see true liberation from our harsh material conditions and lead a self-determinate future. In this way, I keep a hopeful heart. We have a brilliant tradition of organizing and resistance, over 500 years old, to give us some examples for the way forward. The best and most ordinary of us have risen out of this legacy to break chains, raise consciousness and do pivotal work.
The place where I have chosen to wage this struggle has largely been done through education. To sort out the contradictions present in this work, I often re-visit particular analyses that contain great relevance when speaking to the present state of Black people and the U.S. educational system. In doing so, I have come across great thinkers and activists who inform my theory and practice. One social activist and feminist that represents an expression of theory meeting practice is Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs’ article, “Education the Great Obsession,” first published in September 1970, will serve as a guide in framing the discussion in regards to the present struggles within the educational movement, while shedding light on possible ways to move forward.
Boggs names education as a key site of possibility within the Black community, where it can serve as the training ground for consciousness raising and political organizing.
The themes she presents, education for liberation, self-determination and struggle, may resonate differently in its form when looking at our educational system today. Yet, the essence of her words remains vital to our recent struggles for autonomy. Education is one of the most contested sites of struggle, as most stakeholders involved understand that it is rife with either the possibility for true liberation, or the securing of subordination for lucrative profit maximization. With recent activities such as the banning of the only ethnic studies program to exist in k-12 education, it appears that the scale has been tipping in the latter direction. Voices in opposition to these dangerous trends cleverly name these exploitative practices, the education industrial complex. Indeed, we are living in a time that calls for a mass movement, armed with the historical awareness and discernment to sift through the highly organized confusion and cunning of the ruling classes.
Dominant discourse on education is often not described within the context of poverty, white supremacy and imperialism. Rather it is seen within an a- historical vacuum and viewed as a neutral entity that will magically perform the feat of solving our problems. Boggs speaks of how many people, including Black folks, have fallen prey to this ideology that a good education ensures economic fulfillment. As a result, this thinking has led the dominant analysis to often call for reformist policies taking on a dangerously neo-liberal agenda, foregoing a complete restructuring and re-visioning of education.
Boggs elaborates on the false consciousness present within prevailing educational ideology, when analyzing the material reality of most young black people in this country. She states: “But the more black kids finished high school the more they discovered that extended education was not the magic key to upward mobility and higher earnings that it had been played up to be. On the job market they soon discovered that the same piece of paper that qualified white high-school graduates for white-collar jobs only qualified blacks to be tested (and found wanting) for these same jobs” (Boggs, “Education the Great Obsession”). Currently, the wealth gap within the United States shows this cruel contradiction. According to the Pew Research Center, “the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households” (Pew Research Center). As the “post-recession” deepens, many of us look for work with credentials and degrees in hand only to be turned away. Although Boggs’ speaks to an educational context, we can extend this to an imperial context as well when considering white patriarchal capitalist hegemony’s predominance in shaping our knowledge, ideas and actions on a global scale and the continued exploitation of peoples in the Global South. The majority of us Black and Brown folks are the ruling classes chosen losers and targets.
Boggs’ lays out the relations of how the majority of Black and Brown folks in this nation and our world are treated. She states: “those closest to the Founding Fathers in background and culture rule over those who have the furthest to go in achieving this ultimate goal and who meanwhile need to be inculcated with a Founding-Father complex” (Boggs). Here, the internal contradiction of white supremacy is exposed as we find ourselves deemed the “furthest from the founding fathers.” Despite all the efforts and struggles waged in black communities for equity, within such racialized capitalism, our pauperization and degradation is needed for the benefits of a largely white ruling class. Boggs finally asserts that this is a severe problem. She states: “the black community is now unalterably convinced that white control of black schools is destroying black children and can no longer be tolerated” (Boggs).
To clarify my use of Whiteness and white supremacy, I am defining it as operating within a political-economic system that reproduces ideology and reinforces specific practices that carry white skin advantage. Within these constructed social relations present in the United States white supremacy is, “a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and nonwhite subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings” (Ansley, 592).
When speaking of a white supremacist ideology that we have been taught to espouse as the order of the day, I am also speaking to all of us in our external and internal efforts to abolish this particular social relation needed to continue the exploitation many poor folks (often dark skinned folks) are facing in the world. In one way or another we have subscribed to this ideology, as we continue to subscribe to false assumptions about the automatic “upgrading quality” of educational achievement in the face of our worsening material conditions.
Who’s Doing the Teaching?
Boggs’ article highlights the many internal and external complexes we must sift through to reach a point where we can move to clear action. To deepen this conversation, I am not only talking about the complex of increased high stakes testing, school shut downs, standardized curriculums, or the criminalization and further mis-education of our Black and increasingly Brown youth. I am also speaking about the power and privilege often exercised from the well intentioned, so called radical educators.
Within education, Black consciousness is predominantly in the hands of white folks. The ideology often taught to the exploited is one that drenches us in the milk of a supremacist view. Ultimately, we internalize this hatred so deeply we begin to hate our own reflection. Many critical thinkers have said this in one way or another; therefore what I am saying here is nothing new. Yet, it is often sidestepped in conversations of education as a practice of freedom. Michelle Wallace’s Black Teachers on Teaching highlights this underlying dynamic at work amongst educators, specifically white educators who ultimately carry the destructive view that, “almost any white person could do a better job educating black children than black teachers” (Wallace, x). Unfortunately, this sentiment, as Wallace so astutely puts it has “often been repeated in one form or another” (ix). The proof can be seen in our almost all white teaching field, which is 90% white female, middle to upper class (National Collaborative on Diversity of the Teaching Force, 2004). During the recent interview featuring professor and historian Robin Kelley on on Your World News, he speaks of College Campuses as Academic Slave Plantations. Kelley’s experience and knowledge speaks to a dynamic we see far too often within the educational systems. Within such an anti-black environment “Black people are not seen as the purveyors of knowledge.”
This ideology is fed into the minds of our children, who are often without the adequate tools to analyze the particular power and economic dynamics they face inside and outside the classroom, leaving many of our young people damaged. Concurrently, these teachers who have been taught to remain willfully ignorant of their power, guilt, and privilege, also contribute to their internal damage. They miss the fact that their liberation is intimately tied to their student living in poverty. Rather, it is more comfortable to fall into an insidious savior-superior complex than do the labor of challenging oneself and working with others who reflect that challenge.
Although there are many teachers dedicated to working for social justice within this field, the issue of true autonomy and control is something that has not been interrogated fully, as we see that most schools, whether radical or conservative are largely administrated by whites. It is not only enough to teach liberation to underprivileged folks. As many radical educators have said, we must also find ways to practice liberation in our chosen economic and political activities.
This also requires us to re-envision our present leadership and its ruling ideology. The essence of the problem we are seeing, whether well or ill intentioned, is that the fundamental political and economic relations are not changing. To invoke Robin Kelley’s argument of the plantation dynamic, lets put this into plantation talk. Whether or not the slave master is kind to the slave should matter very little if the slave master is still tied to keeping the structure and power that comes with the plantation, and for those of us who find ourselves oft exploited, whether the slave master is kind should not lessen our political resistance. Nor make us more willing to concede for small gains on the slave master’s terms.
As an educator who has had firsthand experience in the field, I challenge our current hiring practices in terms of finding people of color to teach our students. Teachers of color have been systematically excluded from participating in the liberation of our children’s’ minds; which has been another way to institutionally alienate us from our children and their needs. Perhaps one of the most well hidden practices concerning the systematic exclusion of teachers of color teaching can be traced back to the passing of the Brown vs. Board of education legislation passed in 1954. The long history and tradition of Black teachers educating Black children under the Jim Crow system is not considered as relative to this struggle as much as it should be. The movement for integration was needed to ensure adequate resources for black children. However, the huge economic disparity that happened through the “mass closures of black schools and the mass layoffs of black teachers during the integration process” was a process not accounted for (Wallace, x). While black children were assimilating into largely white administered classrooms, black adults, were facing economic displacement in terms of their livelihoods from the resulting layoffs.
Not to say that hiring teachers of color will automatically solve the problem. Many of us carry reactionary ideas that often comply with maintaining the status quo. Rather, such a point highlights a historical condition where the school expected that black people were capable of learning, and these ideas were exemplified predominantly through black female teachers, who also had the radical idea that black people could lead. Presently, many young Black and Brown people walk through the school doors told the opposite.
This legacy continues, through school shut downs and hiring practices that continue to privilege white people from specific class and ideological backgrounds. Wallace speaks more in depth about similar hiring and recruiting practices in our recent past. She states: “…extensive efforts were made to bring into Baltimore schools white Peace Corps workers who were not trained as teachers,” at the expense of “African American candidates who had completed at least four years of teacher education at one of the locally historically black colleges or universities” (x). In this way, the logic of our system becomes clear. The displacement of the majority of people of color is needed to reinforce this specific class hierarchy, where we are tracked into lower paying jobs, often wage labor or prison work.
There is nothing inherently wrong with White teaching color and vice versa, as we must struggle to do this work together. Yet, within the United States, the likely scenario will be the former example. The specific history of how this has come to be the norm and why it is an accepted norm cannot be escaped.
The deeper problem also lies with our Black and Brown children being molded in the image of a white supremacist culture and serving its ultimate needs for permanent second-class status. Within the social justice circles of those working for a more egalitarian world, this need for control and leadership is a messy contradiction often rife with feelings of guilt, “good intentions,” and a genuine longing to rid ourselves from such human relations. Still, it does not excuse the false actions that arise from controlling the movement’s most potentially radical parts, inhibiting full change and ultimately securing supremacist control. Of course, there are some of us Black folk who have also given in to false action and as a result allow ourselves to be fooled or tokenized.
These are the skins we will have to shed to effectively challenge these power dynamics. The fundamental challenge of Whiteness constantly being at the helm of leadership is called into question, exposing this as an act of white supremacy and possible co-optation of true solidarity in itself.
A Time to Break the Silence
Throughout history we have seen that White supremacy, does not only need a pale face to espouse its ideologies, Walter Rodney quoted this phenomena from his Black brothers as, “black skin, white heart” or “white hearted black men” (Rodney, 33). Through the insidious workings of neoliberal policies many of us within the black community have aligned ourselves with an ideology, which strengthens a nation that furthers its war on the poor and people of color. Robin Kelley’s article, “Neoliberalism’s Challenge,” written as a response to Michael C. Dawson’s book on the recent shift in Black political discourses, highlights this prevailing ideology amongst a more dominant strain occurring in Black America, specifically when speaking of the Black left. Such an alliance has produced an overwhelming refusal to openly challenge dominant black leadership and align with black folks who do not share our class interests, never mind care for the full emancipation of most blacks from such conditions. Perhaps, it is easier to “continue white America’s mistakes,” and fall into victim blaming, culture of poverty thinking and false pretenses of having “moved on” past the reality of history.
Within dominant black political discourse, there has been a shift in taking more conservative positions on key political issues and professing allegiance with the black one percent for a sense of “unity,” rather than dealing with a more nuanced class struggle that would force us to strengthen our analysis and radically tell the truth.
An analysis of class struggle must also be applied to the educational system, and we cannot be fooled by neo-liberal policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top Programs. Furthermore, we must further break the silence around the educational system and how it is an apparatus to silence the majority of us into a life of constant domination, rather than be content with a few of us climbing up the capitalist ladder only to be further alienated from the exploitation of the black and brown masses.
The labor of struggling to liberate supremacy from itself is a deep-rooted issue we must all contend with. In our collective psyche, we can easily recall many experiences and movements where we have had to swallow the truth of this fact when our differences became the point of departure. These differences are inextricably rooted to the web of knowledge we have gained battling a world where the most basic necessities are not guaranteed to many of us. And unfortunately, we are still seeing how liberal discourse has yet to go far enough to include the darkest of the dark and the poorest of the poor in its vision of equality.
With such gross material realities and conditions becoming ever present in the black community, a consciousness within darker souls has to grapple with who is at the helm of leadership and if we are allowing ourselves to be misled. We have seen our movements largely co-opted and led by those who are not of our communities, and often cannot fathom themselves working beside us as equals. Although this is not an easy statement to make, the truth of our present power relationships and its manifestation in determining Black folks economic and political options must be had. The struggle for our communities, a movement that is led by our vision, where people can be humble enough to work beside us and do the internal work necessary to improve their tactics must be acted upon now. Everybody knows that education is of the utmost importance; this is why our greatest enemies seek it as a commodity and are rigorously campaigning to standardize the curriculum and deaden the possibility of fundamentally changing the current political-economic state of relations. The question of our Black children being taught in a way where they are at the helm of their learning and see themselves as co-creators is also a necessity to this movement. Much has been done to destroy this as a prospect. Yet, there is still enough room to dream and Boggs call this type of education an “education of governance.”
It is up to us to fight for our spaces and humanity, as well as find alternate places where we can teach our children and pool our resources together. Our communities have much work to do in our process of decolonization and emancipation. As many of us find ourselves unemployed or underemployed, the question of our own autonomy and right to a self-determinate future is also at the center of this movement.
We know that building collectives is also vital, as the wealth gap widens and we find many more of our families and friends suffering in our neighborhoods and in the Global South. Building solidarity with other communities who also battle this harsh terrain could strengthen our core so long as we are willing to struggle. So, as a way to come together and re-imagine human relationships outside the chains of our current political-economic relations, addressing the movement’s internal contradictions is an attempt to further break the silence and to dream.
With this in mind, I must emphasize that despite the odds stacked against us, this is a critical time where we have much opportunity to turn the tide.
Itoro Udofia is an educational activist and contributing columnist for Your World News. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org