Last week, the popular Facebook page Humans of New York featured a photograph of a white teacher in Harlem, the largely African-American neighborhood in Manhattan. In the caption below the photo, the fourth grade teacher explained that his greatest struggle is managing the amount of time he worries about his students.
"Not all the kids. Just the ones that aren’t on the ‘college track.’ Many of them just don’t have a culture of expectation at home, and it’s hard work to lift yourself out of an underprivileged situation. I actually just finished going to a trombone recital for a former student of mine. I used to coach him in hockey on weekends. He’d practice with me from 4 AM to 6 AM. Then he’d go practice trombone from 8 to 10. He did all this just so he could get into a good high school. That’s what it takes, really. Hard to do without a culture of expectation."
I have nothing but immense respect for educators, especially those who go above and beyond for their students like this man. Although his comments seem well-intentioned, I'm here to say that this white savior complex and bootstraps narrative of personal responsibility needs to STOP.
Students of color don't "fail" because there is a lack of a "culture of expectation at home." They aren't set up to fail by their families or communities. They are set up to fail by a system that has failed them. Not by accident, but by design, with devastating budget cuts, mass school closures, out of control standardized testing, and an apartheid public education system which siphons millions of dollars from already impoverished neighborhood schools and gives it to wealthy private developers for charter-school expansion.
These tactics are absolutely deliberate. For decades, neoliberal elites in both the Republican and Democratic parties have worked tirelessly to acquire a slice of the $600+ billion per year public education pie. They figured out the most effective way to do that with an austerity-driven and market-based agenda. Their bipartisan policies aim to privatize our public education system and dismantle some of the largest and strongest teachers unions in the country.
Their strategy is simple: starve the most vulnerable schools of resources, replace targeted curriculum with ineffective standardized testing, evaluate teacher performance based on increasingly low student test scores, and then use those scores to justify school closures in order to effortlessly push through the expansion of charter schools. Kenneth J. Saltman, professor of education at DePaul University in Chicago, asserts that there's a two-tier education system that's being created in which schools on the bottom tier will be privately managed.
Wealthy individuals and venture philanthropists like Bill Gates have since realized that there is a fortune to be made from privatizing public education because there are far more poor students than there are rich. And with a little help from their elected friends in municipal offices they have begun to turn our public education system into a profit-generating scheme for the private sector.
So no, it's not a "culture of expectation" that's lacking in students' homes, but a neoliberal assault on public education which has robbed students and schools of resources and real opportunities. Nor is it an issue of personal responsibility. It's centuries of institutional racism and systemic poverty that needs to be undone. Until we realize this and stop blaming students, parents, and teachers for the failings of a system which produces and necessitates inequality and collectively challenge that system, we will not see educational justice in this country or beyond.
Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based activist, writer, and journalist. She is currently a contributing writer for Socialist Worker Newspaper, Harold Washington College's The Herald, and Red Wedge Magazine where she was also a former editor. She is an undergrad philosophy student at Harold Washington College where her focus is on socialist/Marxist theory and intersectional feminism. Her written work focuses on covering political events and providing context and analysis, developing sociological and materialist perspectives on pop culture, and chronicling her experiences as a Xicana feminist.
Image via Humans of New York.