Accumulation by Dispossession

Kirsten L. Buras has written a scathing indictment of the neoliberal reform agenda in Race, Charter Schools, and Conscious Capitalism: On Spatial Politics of Whiteness as Property (and the Unconscionable Assault on Black New Orleans).. Though it was written 2 years ago (2011), and though it focuses on New Orleans in its Post Katrina reform, this paper outlines what is now going on across the country. It’s an important contribution to naming and recognizing a pattern constituted of pieces that, when considered separately, are seemingly harmless pieces of policy. However, when considered as a whole, as Buras does so well, it becomes clear that these policies work towards the deconstruction of the ‘common’ in public education and replace it with a privatized conception of the market that benefits the elite. Buras’s paper is also important in that in excavates the importance of race in the creation of policy, and the ways in which race is used to leverage policy in favor of the privileged in spite of the language the privileged generate.

Buras argues that, regardless of the stated intent of restructuring education for the benefit of the underprivileged through the establishment of charter schools that ostensibly shake up the ‘status quo,’ “New Orleans charter schools are less about responding to the needs of racially oppressed communities and more about the Reconstruction of a newly governed South- one in which white entrepreneurs (and black allies) capitalize on black schools and neighborhoods by obtaining public monies to build and manage charter schools.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer news. The same intention, and virtually identical polices supporting it, is spreading around the country. Since this article was written, as two quick examples, Chicago has closed 28 schools and Michigan has started its Educational Achievement Authority- a state-wide school district designed to take over Michigan’s lowest 5% performing schools, (and oddly supplemented with $60 million in private funding). There are many more virtually identical examples of the neoliberal pattern from New York to Wisconsin.

What do these situations have in common? They all take place in areas of high poverty and large minority populations, areas ripe with so-called ‘failing’ schools located in clearly stressed communities. And the educational crisis in these demographic areas always translates into a profit making opportunity, what Buras calls, ‘white accumulation.’

This graph (click on image to enlarge) visually makes this point very clear:

The Color of School Closings

(For a clearer look at the graph with more information, go here.)

Buras asks, “…in what ways does whiteness function as a form of property, endowing its possessors with the rights to use, appropriate, and benefit from the city’s assets while dispossessing or excluding communities of color from the same entitlement?”

Buras goes on to outline the key characteristics of the reform that leads to dispossession, the privatization of what has traditionally been held in common:

1. The argument that a market driven, competitive model of education works best. Note what Henry Giroux calls ‘market fundamentalism.’

2. The assertion that doing away with local politics and bureaucracy (with denigrating references to the ‘obstacle’ of unions) will lead to fresh and innovative practices. Essentially, this demonizes democratic practices as being obstacles to efficiency. Also, it is not coincidental, for instance, that Michigan’s EAA is a state-wide district. It thus has no accountability to a local community.

3. Knowledgeable consumers will equitably navigate the new systems based on access to data. Note the shift from citizenship to ‘consumers.’ This also assumes that such consumers have time and energy within the stress of high poverty, to access data. And also note the assumption that this data is accurate and meaningful.

Again, the value of Buras’s article is that it reveals the framework that is being, and has been, used across the country as a means of privatizing the public for the benefit of the privileged at the expense of the poor and much less powerful. Buras puts it this way:

“Educational reforms in New Orleans are not designed to respond to oppressed communities or to enhance public school performance, even if they ar often couched in such language. Rather, this is a feeding frenzy, a revivified Reconstruction-era blueprint for how to capitalize on public education and line the pockets of entrepreneurs (and their black allies) who care less about working-class schoolchildren and their grandmothers and much more about obtaining public and private monies and an array of lucrative contracts...These reforms are a form of accumulation by dispossession, which David Harvey defines as process in which assets previously belonging to one group are put in circulation as capital for another group. In New Orleans, this has included the appropriation and commodification of black children, black schools and black communities for white exploitation and profit.”

And, as I have said, this is no longer only about New Orleans. Nor, as I have argued elsewhere , will this agenda continue to focus only on areas of high poverty/high minority concentrations. More policies that increase ‘rigor,’ increase high stakes testing and ‘raise standards’ will create more ‘failing schools,’ thus making more communities ripe for privatization. (A logical outcome of the Common Core by the way.) This is merely a symptom of market fundamentalism and the neoliberal project of leveraging the commons for profit. Ultimately this agenda is about dispossessing all of us of what is held in common so that the privileged can benefit from its privatization.

And, regardless of your race or level of income, it’s coming to a school near you.

3 responses to “Accumulation by Dispossession

  1. Emery Petchauer

    Great article. I used it in my policy class for sure.

  2. Pingback: The Racist Narrative of ‘Failing Schools’ -

  3. Pingback: The Shock Doctrine- Alive and Well in Michigan | EduBloggers

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