‘Letting Die’

“Upon the subject of education…I can only say that I view it as the most important subject, which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone… For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present…”

– Abraham Lincoln March 9, 1832 (Lincoln, 1953: 8)

The United States maintains an image of global prowess built on a foundation of democratic principles and notions of liberty. While the word “democracy” denotes an element of ambiguity, it is consistently used by the United States in what has become a rhetoric of superiority over less “democratic” or even “backwards” nations. Despite building itself on a vocabulary of equality, opportunity, and mobility, the country “by the people, for the people” finds itself socially, economically, and politically stratified and polarized. The United States education system is just one of several institutions struggling to address inequalities and injustices. Among these is the problematic nature of education disparities that fall along racial lines. While many minority groups in the United States suffer in comparison to their white majority counterparts, this paper will focus on marginalized black youth in the classroom whose narratives are informed by a legacy of slavery and a history of disadvantage. Through a Foucaultian philosophical framework and American anthropologist Paul Rabinow’s notions of “making live” and “letting die,” this essay offers an alternate way of understanding the empirical data that demonstrates the robustness of the black-white test gap.


As a researcher, I am an African American woman who has worked with at-risk minority black and Latino youth in the Oakland, California school system where only 8.1% of the student body is white, 69.2% of those enrolled in school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 27.8% of children are considered to be in poverty (Snyder and Dillow, 2012: 149) (Snyder and Dillow, 2012: 160). My background involves a practical approach to understanding systems of disadvantage and inequity. I understand the Oakland community is an especially minority-heavy and economically struggling population and that my work in that community affects my understandings of disadvantage in the American education system. However, it is my hope that through this paper I can offer a philosophical framework through which to understand the inequalities that affect minority youth, and especially black children, in the classroom. The framework I present is not the only one, but it is applicable and through it I have tried to address the racial disparities in the American classroom in a holistic manner.


A Climate of In-opportunity

Education is often presented as the key to social mobility or economic success, in essence, to the American dream. Unfortunately, this elusive concept of success remains a dream for many. In an increasingly modernized and globalized world, a quality education means a better chance at employment and at life. Although the American education system does not actively deny anyone the right to education, it passively allows injustices to continue. First, however, it is helpful to establish a temperature for the current education environment in the United States and to offer the data that supports what may initially seem to be overly generalized claims.


Think-tank organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The Education Trust have generated reports over the years using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated project that is run by the National Center for Education Statistics within the US Department of Education. The NAEP, as it is more commonly known, annually issues “The Nation’s Report Card,” which offers data on student achievement in various subjects for different demographic groups including, but not limited to, race and socioeconomic status. The Education Trust’s June 2014 report, “The State of Education for African American Students” cites the National Center for Education Statistics data. The report acknowledges certain improvements in the academic achievement of black students; “between 2003 and 2013, scale scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rose faster for African American students than for white students in both fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math,” however, these gains are narrowly focused by being limited to specific grades and subjects (The Education Trust, 2014: 4). Overall, The Education Trust highlights the underperformance of black children in the classroom in comparison to whites. For example, even though the same report mentions progress for African American students in fourth-grade reading and eight-grade math, “in both fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math, African American students are about two and a half times as likely as white students to lack basic skills and only about one-third as likely to be proficient or advanced” (The Education Trust, 2014: 6). Furthermore, “Only 35 percent of African American students who had high math performance in fifth grade were enrolled in at least Algebra I in eighth grade, compared with more than 60 percent of white fifth-graders with high math performance” (The Education Trust, 2014: 9). It is clear, and will become clearer, that the obstacles facing countless minority children are tremendous and that their academic achievement on average lags behind those of whites.


Moreover, in March 2014, the Annie E. Casey Foundation created a “Race for Results” index using 12 “indicators” which include children ages 3-5 enrolled in an educational program, fourth graders who scored at or above proficient in reading and math, children who live in low-poverty areas (defines as poverty <20%), and high school students graduating on time. The index showed that while no single racial group has all children meeting the necessary education milestones, African Americans hold the lowest index score of 345 out of a possible 1,000 in comparison to the 704 given to whites and the 776 to Asian and Pacific Islanders (Annie E., 2014: 9).


Furthermore, the American government itself has recently acknowledged the struggle for equality in a 2014 Department of Education Civil Rights’ office report, which showed “racial minorities are more likely than white students…to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience” and that “in high school…. while more than 70 percent of white students attend schools that offer a full range of math and science courses — including algebra, biology, calculus, chemistry, geometry and physics — just over half of all black students have access to those courses” (Rich, 2014). In short, the black-white test gap, which in many ways is also a minority-majority education gap, is “a robust empirical regularity” informed by inequitable access to quality schooling (Fryer and Levitt, 2002: 1). An examination of this trend through the National Bureau of Economic Research followed over 20,000 children entering kindergarten in 1998 and concluded that “a simple comparison of mean test scores typically finds Black students scoring roughly one standard deviation below White students on standardized tests” (Fryer and Levitt, 2002: 1). Most interesting, however, is the study’s ability to more or less eliminate the Black-White test score gap in math and reading for children entering kindergarten after “controlling for a small number of other observable characteristics (children’s age, child’s birth weight, a socio-economic status measure, WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] participation, mother’s age at first birth, and number of children’s books in the home. Controlling for a much larger set of characteristics yields the same conclusion” (Fryer and Levitt, 2002: 2). This suggests that although there are substantial racial differences in test scores when looking at the raw data, these differences are not the product of any inherent genetic differences. Instead, the black and white test score gap, which is actually fairly insignificant at the beginning of schooling, widens once children enter the American education system (Fryer and Levitt, 2002: 12)[1]. In essence, when measures of socio-economic disadvantage are controlled for, the black-white gap essentially falls to zero. Therefore, much of the explanation for the black-white gap can be attributed to the highly disadvantaged economic circumstances black youth find themselves in. It should be recognized that a purely racial divide is not the only inequality affecting differences in academic performance, in fact, the racial divide is inextricably linked to the socio-economic divide and cannot be considered separately since much of the black-white gap is socio-economically driven; this will be addressed later in this paper.


The reality of the situation is a terrifying one. It speaks to the failure of a system, an institution, and more broadly, of a society. The Department of Education’s report comes in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” and the Obama administration’s implementation of “Race to the Top,” a multi-billion dollar program introduced in 2009 with the aim of offering competitive grants to incentivize and reward States that make progressive reform in four core education reform areas: “adopting of rigorous standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace; recruiting, developing, retaining, and rewarding of effective teachers and principals; the building of data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and the turning around of the lowest-performing”[2] (The White House, 2014).


Clearly the disparities are not lost on the American government or the public as reform of US education policy has been ongoing, most notably starting with Lyndon B. Johnson and the “War on Poverty.” In May 2014, US Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan publicly discussed the Department of Education’s Civil Rights office’s findings and the need to address them: “school re-segregation, expanding recent laws regulating equal opportunity, the elevated importance of education and opportunity gaps, and the continued persistence of discrimination all combined to make closing opportunity gaps an absolute, educational, economic and moral imperative” (McCoy, 2014). The issue with programs like “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top,” however, is what seems to be the reinforcement, across political lines, of education as an undertaking that drives market productivity and ensures economic wellbeing. While the 2001 adoption of No Child Left Behind,[3] as an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has been criticized for its focus on test scores through a standards-based education reform, the very premise of Race to the Top is also rooted in capitalist and free market principles. President Obama, in his “Race to the Top” challenge to the US States upheld this with the statement that, “your state can win a Race to the Top grant that will…help students outcompete workers around the world…” (The White House, 2009). President Obama’s focus on education’s relevance to market competition in a global context speaks to the portrayal of education as a capitalist venture and as such does not secure a better education environment allowing students to fulfill their potential; instead children are commodified as contributors to the market economy.


Unfortunately, despite acknowledgement by politicians and policy makers that the US education system needs reform, very little effective and long-term progress has been made in addressing socio-economic and racial disparities as data illustrates. It cannot be denied that blacks underperform in the classroom; nevertheless, debate arises in relation to why these differences occur along racial lines and whether race is in fact the cause of these disadvantages. The next section will explore common explanations for these inequalities.



An American Dilemma

“The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status. Therefore, as Negroes have struggled to be free, they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education….”

 – Martin Luther King, Jr. March 14, 1964 (King, 1964)

There is an array of literature on potential causes for education disparities in the United States. Although it is impossible to cover all possible explanations, this section will begin with an examination of historical causes and their impact on more contemporary economic explanations. It is because of the United States’ slave narrative, which fed economic markets, that historical explanations are provided and linked to current economic disparities.


The United States and its democratic system were in many ways, and ironically, built on oppression. The impact of this legacy remains today in innumerable aspects of the social, political, and economic spheres[4]. One possible explanation for the black-white test gap is the immense history of oppression and brutality faced by blacks in the early years of America and well past Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. Sociologist and New York University professor emerita Caroline Persell, in her 2005 contribution to The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities argued, “racial variations in educational achievement exist in countries with histories of racial domination or slavery and an enduring legacy of racial stratification” (Persell, 2005: 286)[5]. Social constructions like sharecropping and Jim Crow, or a series of state and local de jure racial segregation laws enacted after the Reconstruction period that continued formally until 1965, can certainly attest to this. In short, blacks have lived a history of marginalization and categorization, one that continues to be written today.


As such, the United States certainly fills the criteria laid out by Persell. Under slavery, blacks were not allowed to be educated out of fear that education and literacy would inspire rebellion and therefore pose a threat to white plantation owners’ economic interests. Following the American Civil War was the first time blacks were allowed to be educated, although theirs was one separate and subpar to that of white children. Pamela Walters of Indiana University in a 2001 extra issue of “Sociology of Education” outlines the history of black education in the United States, arguing that “early state educational policies were designed-either implicitly or explicitly-to create racial inequality in education,” and that contemporary public policy “has done just as much to maintain racial inequalities in schooling opportunities as to reduce them” (Walters, 2001: 38). In the beginning, “racial inequality in educational funding and other forms of educational opportunity were explicit policies of the state throughout the country” (Walters, 2001: 35). Now, education is viewed as a social good, one that should be given to every student; however, as Walters argues, “the more common pattern…is for some groups to have access to more or better educational opportunities- even in the public sector- than others” (Walters, 2001: 35). Hence, the ways in which these inequalities are maintained in contemporary American society are through access to quality schooling, an opportunity many blacks are not privy to because of the neighborhoods they tend to be “segregated” into. In this instance, “segregation” refers to the residential segregation that has occurred as a result of economic inequality and is critical when understanding difficulties in access to quality education. Although the United States, to an extent, has a compensating system of finance meant to address economic discrepancies, most funding to American schools is determined by local property taxes, which means that a poor area by definition has poorly funded schools; this will be referred to again in the next section.


Based on this historical narrative, it is critical to recognize that even though the oppressor-oppressed relationship between whites and blacks may have legally ended after the Emancipation Proclamation, cultural, social, and political power dynamics did not dissipate with it. There is a certain amount of debt that has been accrued by blacks because of the history they have been subjected to. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an American pedagogical theorist and teacher educator at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education and researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, discusses this debt and maintains its importance in understanding constructs like the black-white test gap. For Ladson-Billings, “this debt comprises historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral components” (Ladson-Billings, 2006: 3). The historical narrative of African Americans in the United States has been written such that they are now left with an overwhelming socio-cultural and economic debt; from this the “achievement gap” is born. The phrase “achievement gap,” from Ladson-Billings’ perspective is almost an overused and meaningless term, it is well understood on all sides of the political spectrum and yet is rarely addressed in a meaningful way. This terminology overuse alludes to the process of normalization and regularization that will be developed later in the theoretical chapter of this paper.


The apparent contradiction between a democratic society that promises equality and its blatant disregard for certain human life can be perplexing. Swedish Nobel laureate economist, sociologist, and politician Gunnar Myrdal who published in 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Democracy calls this situation, as the title suggests, an “American Dilemma.” Colin Leach of the University of Connecticut psychology department, in his analysis of Myrdal’s work, which received criticism for its apparent lack of faith in American society, extends this contradiction to a more general dilemma of democracy. For Leach, An American Dilemma and many more recent historical analyses show clearly that democratic egalitarianism has never guaranteed opposition to racial inequality. From the earliest stages of the state, democratic egalitarianism has had a complicated relationship to racial inequality… egalitarianism did not necessarily oppose inequality and racism. Indeed… egalitarianism could itself require racism as an explanation of its shortcomings” (Leach 2002: 693). Leach, in his examination of Myrdal, suggests that An American Dilemma offers an analysis useful for predicting the “increasing demand for racism in the wake of de jure attempts to eliminate racial inequality” (Leach, 2002: 681). Myrdal’s work remains salient, and his belief that “the American nation will not have peace with its conscience until inequality is stamped out, and the principle of public education is realized universally” can still be seen in today’s debate about the effectiveness of the current public education system in providing equal opportunity to every child (Myrdal, 1944: 907).


Economic Bill(s) of Rights

The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough.  But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action.  We are a better country than this.”

–President Barrack Obama (Obama, 2013)

 Gunnar Myrdal would arguably be disappointed but unsurprised by the current climate in the United States, one where “community-level patterns of racial inequality give rise to the social isolation and ecological concentration of the truly disadvantaged, which in turn leads to structural barriers and cultural adaptations that undermine social organization…” (Sampson and Bean, 2006: 1). As the United States increasingly takes a “post-racial” view of itself, attempts at desegregation or racial equality are seen as unnecessary or even harmful to a society that apparently has moved beyond the history it was built on[6].


The unfortunate reality however, is that blacks are more likely than whites to be economically disadvantaged and find themselves in unsafe neighborhoods. This extends into the classroom as blacks and other minorities typically find themselves in poorer quality schools than many of their white counterparts: “at present, the concentration of African Americans in central cities, with their high rates of poverty and difficulty finding adequate funds for public schools, is the main mechanism by which racial inequality in educational resources is produced. It is primarily because African Americans are disproportionately poor and disproportionately live in tax-poor districts that they are disadvantaged in terms of the resources available at the schools they attend” (Walters, 2001: 45). Another study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked predominantly at Texas public schools and came to “the central finding that school quality plays an important role in the determination of achievement and racial achievement differences” (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2006: 29). School quality was determined by “identifiable school factors – the rate of student turnover, the proportion of teachers with little or no experience, and student racial composition,” all of which, “explain much of the growth in the achievement gap between grades 3 and 8 in Texas schools” (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2006: 4). Furthermore, “Black students are 4-5 percent more likely to have a new teacher and also attend schools with a 4-5 percent higher rate of student turnover (percent new to the school each year)” (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2006: 4). Additionally, a 2012 report issued by the Center for American Progress titled “Unequal Education, Federal Loophole Allows Lowering Spending on Students of Color” used data from the US Department of Education’s expenditure data and found that “schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students” (Spatig-Amerikaner, 2012: 3)[7]. Furthermore, the $733 more per student figure spent on children in mostly white schools is “18 percent of the median per-pupil spending nationwide” (Spatig-Amerikaner, 2012: 7). Overall, across the country, schools spent $334 more on every white student than on every nonwhite student (Spatig-Amerikaner, 2012: 7)


The geographic segregation that feeds into inequitable funding highlights the fact that it is not just the economic disparities lived by racial minorities themselves, but also how the economic health of an area attracts quality teachers and community investment in everything from how schools are run to how the very buildings are maintained. Building Education Success Together, or BEST, is an initiative led by the 21st Century School Fund, an institution that strives to engage local and national platforms. In 2006 BEST issued a report titled “Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction,” which outlined how school construction and maintenance affects the quality of education students receive:


“Ten years ago, the GAO [General Accounting Office] study found that one-third of the nation’s school buildings was in a serious state of disrepair. What was disturbing then was the great disparity in who attended the country’s most dilapidated school buildings. What is disturbing now is …there is no sign that the disparity documented by the GAO in 1995 has been alleviated. What was true in 1995 is still true today: a school with large minority enrollment, in a district with a high percentage of students from low-income families, is still most likely to be in the worst physical condition” (Filardo et al, 2006: 17)[8].


It should be noted that low socio-economic status adversely affects all children, regardless of skin color. These education disparities become racialized, however, when disproportionate numbers of African Americans and other minority groups find themselves living in disadvantaged or dangerous neighborhoods with limited access to quality and reliable resources, among them education, but also health care and community outreach. What develops is a residential segregation that is both economically and racially driven and which results in inequitable funding of schools[9]. Early economic and family disadvantage means children start school at a disadvantage. The schools themselves often have lower quality teachers, fewer educational and monetary resources, and failing infrastructure. While, “these inequalities in spending between suburbs and cities are not as dramatic as the direct racial inequalities in school spending that prevailed in the South in the early 20th century, they are still substantial, they are maintained by state policy, and they are a form of racial inequality in disguise” (Walters, 2001: 45). Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, corroborates this notion in his 2013 post on The Economic Policy Institute Blog with his discussion of economic and racial segregation and the impact this has on the quality of schooling black children receive. Most disturbing for Rothstein in light of this modern day system of segregation and the very stark socio-economic divide is the fact that “most Americans have forgotten that residential racial segregation, North and South, was created and perpetuated by, and continues to exist today, because of racially motivated and racially explicit federal, state and local banking regulation, mortgage guarantee, public housing, law enforcement, planning and zoning, highway and school construction, urban renewal and other policies that succeeded in their purpose of creating racially segregated metropolises. The racial segregation of major urban areas today offends the Constitution” (Rothstein, 2013). The passivity of the American public in tackling continuing education disparity and economic disadvantage is alarming. The next section offers a philosophical framework through which to better understand how this disparity is normalized and perpetuated.


“Letting Die”

“When culture is aligned with power…systems of meaning get rooted in habit” (Sturm, 2002: 24)


The passivity on the part of many Americans when coming to terms with racial inequalities in the education system and the gap between blacks and whites in the classroom can be understood through a Foucaultian framework of thought and the concept of biopower. Foucault raises discussion on understandings of power that can be applied to the dynamics underpinning the situation in the classroom for so many children. For Foucault, power is understood as continuous, penetrable, and observable. Inseparably linked to this power is the idea of political capital, which can best be understood through Foucault’s belief that “modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being into question” (Foucault, 1978: 143). The saturation of political capital speaks to its power, but more specifically to its ability to define and influence the value of biological life. Catherine Mills’s chapter titled “Biopolitical Life” in the 2013 larger work Foucault, Biopolitics, and Governmentality discusses how for Foucault, “the fundamental principle of Western politics changed from a sovereign power to a new regime of biopower, in which biological life itself became the object and target of political power” (Nilsson and Wallenstein, 2013: 85-86). As such, “biopower incorporates both disciplinary techniques geared toward mastering the forces of the individual body and a biopolitics centered around the regulation and management of the life of a new political subject: the population. This new regime of political power operates according to the maxim of “fostering life or disallowing it,” and signals for Foucault the threshold of our modernity[10]” (Nilsson and Wallenstein, 2013: 85-86). For Foucault, “disallowing life” would be considered a death-function, or a mechanism through which individual growth, development, identity, and liberty is denied. Most importantly, is the idea that this new system of power “entails new forms of government and social regulation, such that power no longer operates through a violence imposed upon subjects from above, but through a normalizing regulation that regularizes, administers and fosters the life of subjects… In this new regime of power, power incorporates itself into and takes hold of the body of the citizen through the “normalization of life processes” (Nilsson and Wallenstein, 2013: 85-86).


In the context of racial inequality in education, the Foucaultian argument that biopolitics and biopower serve “as an anatomic-politics of the human body” is powerful (Nilsson and Wallenstein, 2013: 11). Given the United States’ history of treating the black body as a vessel for market productivity rather than a valued biological life, it is clear how this subjectification has become normalized and regularized as argued by Mills. This normalization is then brought into education. Blacks, once denied education as a form of control, or sovereign power, on the part of whites, remain disadvantaged in the current context not only because of this legacy, but also because the current system of education is designed for the market[11]. The power that “incorporates itself into and takes hold of the body of the citizen through the “normalization of life processes” is a power that has made the black body an easily disempowered one and the white body one that sees this disempowerment as status quo  (Nilsson and Wallenstein, 2013: 85-86). Despite the developments in “modernity” since Foucault’s time, his definitions of “biopower” and “biopolitics” remain useful in formulating a critical analysis through which to understand the “American dilemma.”


From Foucault stems the work of Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose in their 2006 piece “Biopower Today” which can be applied to the “American dilemma” raised by Myrdal. Rabinow and Rose define and examine the role biopower plays in contemporary society. Drawing on philosophical thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Antonio Negri, Rabinow and Rose argue that biopower in current society “entails a relation between ‘letting die’ and ‘making live,’ or “strategies for the governing of life” (Rabinow and Rose, 2006: 195). While Rabinow and Rose further discuses biopower in terms of three fundamental themes: race, population and reproduction, and genomic medicine, this paper will pay particular attention to the theme of race.


In defining biopower, Rabinow and Rose outline meanings of sovereign power and sovereignty. Sovereign power, or “the right to decide life and death,” is a way to “generate, incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it” (Rabinow and Rose, 2006: 196). However, as Foucault argues, sovereign power, in today’s world, is only one part of a larger working mechanism to control and monitor (the larger mechanism being biopolitics). In this way, biopolitics entails a greater passivity with regard to Foucaultian death-functions:  “the right to decide life and death” is instead replaced with “making live” and “letting die.” This passivity is rooted in the pervasive nature of biopolitics and the strength it gains in becoming a part of the human subconscious. Rabinow and Rose say the pervasiveness of biopolitics and biopower is such that it is “expressed as a control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousness and bodies of the population” (Rabinow and Rose, 2006: 198). More concisely, Rabinow and Rose define ‘biopolitics’ “to embrace all the specific strategies and contestations over problematizations of collective human vitality, morbidity and mortality; over the forms of knowledge, regimes of authority and practices of intervention that are desirable, legitimate and efficacious” (Rabinow and Rose, 2006: 197).


Using these definitions and expanding upon Rabinow and Rose’s discussions of “letting die” and “making live” it is logical to argue that racial inequalities in access to quality schooling are a form of “letting die,” that is, a modern-day Foucaultian “death-function.” Rabinow and Rose argue, “racism justifies the death-functions in the economy of biopower[12]” (Rabinow and Rose, 2006: 206).


Race and the racism developed from it, is understood by David Gillborn, a professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham, as “a multifaceted, deeply embedded, and often taken-for-granted aspect of power relations,” an idea that supports Mills’ discussion of normalization and Rabinow’s thoughts on the subconscious pervasiveness of biopower (Gillborn, 2007: 485). In Gillborn’s 2007 article “Education policy as an act of white supremacy: whiteness, critical race theory and education reform[13],” the “taken-for-granted routine privileging of white interests that goes unremarked in the political mainstream is the most dangerous” (Gillborn, 2007: 485). Likewise, the patterning of racial advantage and the inequity that have become structured parts of this domination is maintained in a tacit intentionality that continues today. This “white supremacy,” in the current environment, is one rooted in a historical legacy and although “race inequity may not be a planned and deliberate goal of education policy, neither is it accidental” (Gillborn, 2007: 485). Rather, it is a simple maintenance of a cultural and social power relationship that did not die when the legal domination of whites over blacks did. Gillborn stresses, therefore, the need “to view education policy through a lens that recognizes the very real struggles and conflicts that lie at the heart of the processes through which policy and practice are shaped” (Gillborn, 2007: 486-487). Whiteness, as a socially constructed and consistently validated power of white identifications and interests, for Gillborn, is defined by an unwillingness to “name the contours of racism,” the “avoidance of identifying with a racial experience or group” and the “minimization of racist legacy” all of which feed into the Foucaultian “death-function” taken by Rabinow to mean a passive “letting die” (Gillborn, 2007: 488).

What is happening in the United States education system is a form of passive racism, passive because inequalities and disadvantages have come to be seen as an inherent part. True, the high school dropout rate between whites and blacks has consistently narrowed since the late 1990s, with blacks at 7.3% and whites at 5.0% (Snyder and Dillow, 2012: 195). However, keeping blacks in school longer does not mean the quality of education is higher, nor does it link to increased performance in the classroom or productivity in the labor market. In 1998 17% of black 12th graders set to graduate from high school were considered at or above proficient in NAEP reading achievement levels versus 47% of whites. In 2009 the data is alarmingly similar, again only 17% of blacks were labeled at or above proficient versus 46% of whites (Snyder and Dillow, 2012: 213). Interestingly, this data set had black 12th graders scoring lower than any other racial group consistently from 1998 to 2009. The data suggests that despite improvements in graduation rates, blacks are leaving with lower levels of skill upon graduation than whites; this points to the problematic nature of school quality.


It is evident that a low-income family environment adversely affects academic achievement, and it is important to understand that inequalities should also be understood in the wider context of the capitalist system. However, even whites eligible for reduced price lunch programs seem to be performing better in the classroom than blacks eligible for reduced lunch. In 2011 76% of white 12th grade students eligible for free or reduced priced lunch attained NAEP writing achievement levels in comparison to 54% of blacks grouped in the same economic range (Snyder and Dillow: 2012: 221). This data supports the argument that generational economic disadvantage created from the American slave narrative maintains education disparities. Whites had an earlier entrance into the system of education, an advantage then passed down through generations, creating a positive cycle whereby better educated parents produce better academically achieving children. Most black families, on the other hand, came late to this positive cycle by virtue of their position on the plantation and then under Jim Crow. What has resulted is a skills gap. It is legitimate to ask if the quality of education provision is enough to come back from such a scale of disadvantage, or whether other action to address economic inequalities is needed. Nevertheless, the data raises questions about whether quality of provision is even happening. In the fall of 1998 the mean reading scale score for white kindergarteners was 37 versus 32 for blacks (on a scale of 209), a difference gap that is not particularly stark (Snyder and Dillow: 2012: 208). However, in 2007 when this same group of children entered eighth grade, whites scored 179 in comparison to the 149 held by blacks. In fact, although blacks were given the lowest mean reading scale score of all ethnic groups listed in 1998 (white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and other), the gap between black achievement and that of other minority groups also widened; Hispanics scored only one point higher in 1998 but 11 higher in 2007 (Snyder and Dillow: 2012: 208). The intergenerational transmission of skill for blacks in the context of the United States is one that has been shaped by the chains of slavery and which seems to be maintained if not worsened once black children enter the classroom. As such, inequitable access to quality schooling and the tendency for this disadvantage to especially affect black children is a death-function used to “make live” the white majority; for blacks it is a form of “letting die.”


Life Function

This essay has sought to examine the ways in which racial disparities in the United States education system are alive and well through a passive maintenance. Truthfully, one cannot easily delineate race, social class, and labor market separation from understanding systems of disadvantage. Socioeconomic status in particular plays a significant role in student performance regardless of race and ethnicity. However, a history of slavery and marginalization has disproportionately placed blacks in economically challenging situations. Furthermore, poor blacks are still likely to underperform in comparison to white children from the same financial background. As such, the current situation for many black youth extends beyond current systems of economic segregation and inequitable access to quality schooling and is rooted in power dynamics whose influences are still felt today.


Foucaultian notions of biopower which carries with it ideas of “making live” and “letting die” can be applied to understanding the racial disparities in access to quality schooling. Blacks have historically been defined in opposition to whites; this othering process is grounded in concepts of what anthropologist Mary Douglas has defined as “purity” and “danger.” In the slave setting, an education for blacks was prohibited and seen as a “danger” to white “purity,” or privilege. Indeed, this “purity” was defined in opposition to the “danger” of blacks, especially educated ones. Despite the formal termination of slavery, social and cultural power dynamics, and the market-based power relations associated with them, have been normalized, regularized, and thus maintained. This maintenance is not an active form of racism, but its passivity informs the idea of “letting die.” By its very nature, the current racial disparities in the United States education system and in particular in access to quality schooling not only feed into the construct of “letting die,” but are, in fact, what Foucault would call a “death-function.” The United States, the self-proclaimed hub of democracy and equality, will need to look critically at how it approaches a system of education driven by the market in order to address the lack of opportunity and quality presented to black and other minority youth; inequalities constructed and upheld by a high degree of generational economic rigidity that makes mobilization difficult.

























Reference Tables

Figure 1 (Fryer and Levitt, 2002: 38)



























Figure 2 (Spatig-Amerikaner, 2012: 4)




Figure 3 (Filardo et al, 2006: 19)

Figure 4 (Filardo et al, 2006: 21)






















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[1] Refer to figure 1 at the end of this paper for further reference to the evolution of test score gaps by race as children age. The table shows that especially in the area of math, black children’s test scores further separate from those of white children after school entry.

[2] It should be noted achievement of reform is self-reported by States who undergo a series of comprehensive phases, each of which will see a certain amount of funding given to the State based on progress.

[3] “The No Child Left Behind Act includes language requiring states to “ensure that poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers. But this mandate has never been consistently enforced” (Resmovits, 2014).

[4] In fact, Francis Scott Key, lyricist of the US national anthem and well-known supporter of slavery, included in the Star Spangled Banner: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” (Key, 1999). These lines have been kept intact and symbolize the extent to which the remnants of slavery permeate society.

[5] “After emancipation we saw the development of freedmen’s schools whose purpose was the maintenance of a servant class. During the long period of legal apartheid, African Americans attended schools where they received cast-off textbooks and materials from White schools. In the South, the need for farm labor meant that the typical school year for rural Black students was about 4 months long. Indeed, Black students in the South did not experience universal secondary schooling until 1968” (Anderson, 2002). “Why, then, would we not expect there to be an achievement gap?” (Ladson-Billings, 2006: 5).

[6]    To briefly understand what is meant by a “post-racial” view let us look at Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s 2003 work “Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America” which argues that even though race is a socially constructed category, this construction has created racialized social structures that reinforce White privilege and are maintained and reproduced by it. Bonilla-Silva likewise discusses color-blind racism, or the notion that race no longer matters in the United States, especially after the civil rights movement and with the election of a biracial president. Instead of attributing current disparities to a history of enslavement, Bonilla-Silva argues that many White Americans view market dynamics, organically occurring social phenomena, and a cultural deficiency on the part of minority groups (Bonilla-Silva, 2003: 8-11). In this way, racial minorities are made responsible for the inequalities facing them and at times accused of “playing the race card” (Bonilla-Silva, 2003: 1).


[7] Refer to figure 2 at the end of this paper.

[8] Refer to figures 3 and 4 at the end of this paper for more information on how low socio-economic areas inform school quality, both school maintenance and expenditure per pupil.

[9] “Children in families with low incomes are less likely to enter school well-prepared for success because of limited access to high quality child care, early education, and health care; greater demands on parental attention; and more stressful family and neighborhood circumstances. Because African American and Hispanic families have disproportionately lower incomes – which is itself a consequence of embedded racial inequities — children of color are at a greater risk than their White counterparts of entering school without sufficient readiness for success.” (Annie E., 2006)


[10] Although Foucault’s discussions of modernity and the power structures associated with it changed throughout his life, his later works, and especially his 1978 publication of The History of Sexuality gave rise to a system of control known as “biopower.” For Foucault,  “A society’s ‘threshold of modernity’ has been reached, when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies.” (Foucault 1978: 143).

[11] Refer back to the discussion on No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as deeply embedded in capitalist ideology.

[12] Again notice the use of “economy” which reinforces the idea of the extensive influence of capitalist market principles on life.

[13] Gillborn defines “white supremacy” as the kind that is normalized and taken for granted and often ensures the erasure of blacks or other minority groups as active and irresistible forces for change. Gillborn uses the Marxist analysis of “whiteness as one more strategy for securing to some an advantage in a competitive society” (Gillborn, 2007: 488). It should be noted Gillborn is used here in a context specific environment- his argument may not be not as salient in other settings where, for example, the slavery narrative is not as strong.

Published by historicallyburdenedconcepts

Bi-racial butterfly interested in bioethics, sociogenomics, impacts on understandings of inequities

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