Monday, August 10, 2015

Boggle our minds: Thoughts on the public’s education on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death

Guest Blogger

Benjamin Justice, Rutgers University
For the Symposium: Deconstructing Ferguson One Year Later

Of the many images that come to mind on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, the one I recall most clearly is his high school graduation portrait. The context was important. Just a year earlier a Florida jury had acquitted a white vigilante for the murder Trayvon Martin, and much of the public debate on Martin’s killing centered on the news media’s choices of images: a hooded menace or a sweet kid.

After his death on August 9, 2014, the quick media release of Michael Brown’s graduation photo offered a counter narrative to the racist media portrayal of him as a “monster.” Medial outlets obligingly introduced the image to the court of public opinion. Look, the photograph says to us: Brown was a team player, a citizen; he had plans for more education, too, at a local technical college. Graduating from high school credentialed him in the public debate on his right to fair treatment by the police.

I do not know how Michael Brown felt about this credential, although graduating from notorious Normandy High School (where half of students did not graduate) was no small feat, and relatives reported that he had dreams for his future. His expression in the photo is inscrutable. I read it as pride, just the whisper of a smile.

I do know what that graduation robe and diploma were supposed to mean. Since their inception in the early 19th century, public schools have been billed as sites of civic identity formation, where students are supposed to learn the habits of success in the workplace, the habits of good behavior in the community, the lore of common culture, and the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. The State of Missouri required that Michael Brown’s schools teach him American history, civics, geography, and economics in some form, since kindergarten. Among its many standards in history and civics, the state highlights key concepts in bold letters: limited government, democracy, laissez faire and majority rule (which is followed notably by the not bolded) minority rights.

We also know from research on school textbook content and classroom teaching that the education Michael Brown likely received in his thirteen years of public education in Missouri offered him a formal curriculum that emphasized the fairness and justice of American government and the pervasiveness of economic opportunity. His US history classes offered a narrative of continual progress, the glorious and inevitable settlement of the West, and the exceptionalism of America’s place in human history. Past race problems (Slavery, Jim Crow) appear episodically and achieve resolution, like weeds on a suburban lawn. Contemporary problems are small in the curriculum, if they exist at all. Students at Normandy High School, and thousands of dysfunctional, economically and racially segregated schools like them, are highly unlikely to encounter an education that helps them make sense of the world in which they learn and live. No wonder so few make it through.

For many white Americans, however, the story largely matches their family history and daily existence both in their very infrequent experiences with law enforcement and, more generally, with economic and social life. Even those increasing numbers of whites whose fortunes have not progressed in generations still tend to cling to exceptionalist narratives of American history.

For many people of color, including the people of Ferguson, the narrative you learn in school is false. The facts of its falsehood are plain and well established, whether one looks at exposure to violence, at family wealth, at education, at health, at employment, and particularly at experiences with the criminal justice system. The root and branch anti-democratic behavior the Ferguson police force was not exceptional in Saint Louis County; and many similar types of behavior may be seen across the country.

When Michael Brown appeared with his diploma and robes, he signaled mastery (or at the very least, survival) of a life-long exposure to a narrative of civic existence that bore very little resemblance to his life (or his death) but which resonates with a white majority that knows almost nothing of his experience.

Speaking of that experience, or at least from a similar perspective, is Clifton Kinnie, a black student activist in Ferguson featured recently at the 2015 Aspen Arts and Ideas Festival. When asked, “What can be done to build trust in your community?”  Kinnie chose to focus on the narrativity of civic life rather than any particular social policy. Facing his mostly white audience he said, “I want to boggle your minds a little bit.”

“Understand that America has always existed under some form of a racial caste system,” he said,

 …understand that you don’t know what we go through. No matter how many degrees that you have, no matter the PhDs, no matter what research you go through, understand that these young people have been on this front line and that they’ve actually experienced this state violence.

By extending the reach of his critique as high up the formal educational ladder as he can imagine, Kinnie leveled a devastating epistemological critique. In such circumstances, as Yale philosopher Jason Stanley observes, formal education must be understood as propaganda.  Being Black in school provides no immunity from this corrupted knowledge, either, Kinnie observed. “Growing up I was taught that Martin Luther King marched, they passed bills, and everything was okay. We elected president Obama and then everything was okay.”

Not until Michael Brown’s death and the events that followed did Kinnie receive a real education in what it means to be a citizen. His knowledge is experiential and embodied. He stops and points to his shoulder, where he still bears a scar from a cop’s rubber bullet. “If we really want to get real about doing something, we gotta get real with each other.” He said. “You understand what I’m saying? Honestly.”

There is very little of such honesty in contemporary school public school reform. It should come as no surprise that conservatives have no concern for such talk, and efforts to deregulate public education (and privatize it) will only make matters worse: white consumers will choose the history and civic education that makes them feel good and reinforces their privilege. Liberals who call for improving public education, on the other hand, focus on more of the same: more and longer school days, better teacher training, free pre-k and more widely accessible colleges. The Obama administration’s obsession with test scores and charter schools has left little room for (and spilled little ink in defense of) a racially honest public education.

Indeed, in the year since Michael Brown’s death—a macabre, unending reel of Black Americans of all ages being killed during the most routine moments of their lives; a year that has polarized major metropolitan areas across the country and led to a national dialogue on race relations and policing—the educational establishment has retrenched. Just this week the College Board caved to political pressure from conservatives to revise its 2014 US History standards that had been ten years in the making. The new 2015 standards take a more conciliatory tone on America’s racial history, downplaying white privilege, racial caste, and the role of government in protecting minority rights from majority rule.

When we see photographs of young men and women in graduation robes, we as a society should be confident that they have learned something real about race in America. Graduation should not be capitulation. A diploma should not be a white flag. Only then can we be also be confident that all people, high school graduates or not, white or not, wealthy or not, will be regarded with the same dignity and respect by agents of the state including, but not limited to, the police. In order to achieve justice, in order for black lives to matter, we cannot stop at piecemeal reforms in individual municipalities, or in particular areas of social policy, such as policing. A just society depends fundamentally on a shared sense of reality. We need to shut down the racist doublespeak of American civic life that lends legitimacy to injustice and strangles our shared civic dialogue. To do so, we must boggle our minds.

Benjamin Justice is Associate Professor of Education at Rutgers University. You can reach him by e-mail at bjust at

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