Monthly Archives: July 2015

Remaining Human: Learning to See the White Racial Frame

“Every single day folks are dying. Not being able to take another breath. We are in a state of emergency. If you don’t feel that emergency, you are not human.” Patriss Cullors

We have a problem.

People of color are being murdered by police,  put in jail, and kicked out of schools, all at rates that are disproportionate to whites.

And we can no longer view this from what Joe Feagin calls “the white racial frame.” Because this view is the problem.

Before I go into what the white frame is, I want to very clear about what it is not.

It is not limited to the personal. The white frame does not depend only on individual racial prejudice for its existence. It is not limited to your or my personal beliefs, or biases, or stereotypes. When we talk about the white frame, we’re not talking only about any single personal point of view. We’re not only talking about prejudiced people.

So there is no need to get defensive. It’s not about you.

In American Racism in the “White Frame,” Feagin says,

“To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. (Emphasis added)

Yes, personal prejudice matters. But the white frame, and thus the root issues, remain  much bigger than prejudiced individuals.

Feagin continues, saying the “…white frame is made up of two key types of subframes: The most-noted and most-researched are those negatively targeting people of color. In addition, the most central subframe, often the hardest to ‘see,’ especially by whites, is that reinforcing the idea of white virtuousness in myriad ways, including superior white values and institutions, the white work ethic, and white intelligence. This white-virtue framing is so strong that it affects the thinking not only of whites, but also of many people of color here and overseas. Good examples are the dominant American culture’s standard of ‘female beauty,’ and the attempts of many people of color to look, speak, or act as ‘white’ as they can so as to do better in our white-dominated institutions.”

As a simplification, This “white racial frame” is a conglomeration of different “bits” of information that work together to influence a view of the world, and thus policy and institutions, that benefit one race at the expense of others.

This is crucially important to understand and to see, especially if you hope to remain human, as Cullors, a leading figure in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, alluded to in the quote above.

This white frame works in subtle ways, and depends on this subtlety for its existence. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says in Racism Without Racists?,

“In contrast to the Jim Crow era, where racial inequality was enforced through overt means (e.g., signs saying ‘No Niggers Welcomed Here’ or shotgun diplomacy at the voting booth), today racial practices operate in ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ fashion.” 

It’s hard to see, particularly for people privileged by their race- that is, white people- because this privilege offers the freedom from having to think about race. People of Color don’t have this freedom. They are confronted with the effects of their race daily. So seeing the white frame at work necessitates thinking deeply about how race functions, and this requires seeing from perspectives outside of the white frame.

To help make this concrete, let me explore an example from the #BlackLivesMatter protest at Netroots Nation gathering. As some background, Netroots holds an annual convention of progressive writers and thinkers. This year, both Mike O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were interrupted  by the #BlackLivesMatter activists during their presentations. The disruption itself offers a powerful example of activists resisting and refusing to allow their perspectives to be silenced by the white frame. As Cullors said in the protest, “It’s not like we like shutting sh*t down, but we have to. We are tired of being interrupted.” This protest itself was disruption of the white frame that allowed for other perspectives to be heard.

I found the O’Malley presentation to offer a particularly salient example of O’Malley understandably struggling with the white frame. When he realized this disruption was taking place, O’Malley generously shifted from the center of the stage to allow space for the activists.

When the activists allowed O’Malley’s presentation to continue, he responded in a way that shifted the frame right back to whiteness.

“Black lives matter…white lives matter…all lives matter.”


What’s wrong with this? Don’t all lives, in fact, matter?

Of course. But, in order to see the white frame, we need to learn the ways in which language functions- we need to see what language does. And what does the phrase “all lives matter” do? It shifts the focus away from, in this instance, black lives, and the particular way that black lives are situated in our society, to a frame that dilutes black lives in whiteness.  In When We Fully Claim Black Lives Matter, We Move Closer to All Lives Matter, john a. powell puts it this way:

“The universal aspiration is a society where all lives matter. But if we just proclaim that and stop there, we are ignoring the reality in America. All lives do not matter in America and some of this difference is how whites and blacks are differently situated not only in our geographic and psychic structures, but also in relationship to police and other institutions. Blacks lives have been constrained and cut short.

When one replaces ‘Black Lives Matter’ with ‘All Lives Matter,’ one may be slipping into a false assumption that we are all similarly situated. We are not.”

I don’t use this example to beat up on O’Malley. I certainly don’t think this is evidence that O’Malley is a racist. Again, the white frame is not about any single individual. His fellow Democrat candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have also struggled with this same phrase as they stumbled into this unfamiliar territory. And all three candidates have since showed signs of change as they learn and grow. I hope the same for the rest of us. White people, myself included, are bound to make mistakes and embarrass ourselves as we struggle with seeing the white frame. It’s when we stop struggling with it that we should be worried.

To help see this white frame a little more clearly at work in this example, let me quote Eclectablog’s Chris Savage. He was present at the protest, and bravely shares how he came to see what happened from a perspective outside of the white frame.

“I, like many of the others there, was initially irritated by the protestors. I was there to hear the candidates and was frustrated that they weren’t being heard. Even a bit angry, in fact. ‘These are your allies,’ I thought. ‘Why on earth are you attacking them? Why are you disrupting an event where the people there are sympathetic to your cause?’

Frustration. Anger. Being silenced.




Talked over.


Every single one of these emotions that ran through my white privileged brain in the first few moments of the protest until I was slapped across the face with what I was being forced to confront. Every single one of these emotions are felt acutely and painfully every single day by racial minority groups in our country. But, instead of being inconvenienced by not being able to hear a politician speak, they face them in the context of being slaughtered in the streets by the police officers who are tasked to protect them, incarcerated in astonishingly disparate numbers, and blamed for not being able to escape from the prison of poverty that holds far too many of them in bondage.” (Emphasis added)

Here you can see Savage’s perspective shifting from his experience as a white man, his white frame, to the perspective of others. He moves from being selfishly annoyed, to being empathetic to the experience of others in a way that he wasn’t as the protest began. This is the move that makes the white frame visible.

And once you begin to see the white frame, you see it working everywhere.

With this in mind, if we look at education, all you have to do is find any situation where there is comparison or competition, and then look at who benefits from this comparison/competition, and who loses. This is where Feagin’s “white virtues framing” is the clearest.

It is at work:

* Whenever there is talk of the “achievement gap” rather than the equity gap.

* Whenever you hear the language of “failing schools” rather than underserved communities.

* Whenever students are viewed in terms of their deficits rather than their abilities.

* Whenever ranking systems of any kind are used- who ends up on top? Those who are leveraged with social capital. And on the bottom. The others.

* In the biased tests used to sort students and schools.

* Whenever an emergency manager is imposed over a democratically elected school board.

* When “the problem” with school is viewed as a “teacher problem,” thus erasing the conditions and context that students exist within.

* Whenever you see a “turnaround” district established, such as Michigan’s EAA.

And on and on…

We need to learn to see empathically from other perspectives in order to allow for the contrast that makes the white frame visible.

Because the first step to making change is seeing accurately the depth of change that needs to be made.

What It Is That We’re Up Against: Market Speak

Again, and always, its important that our language as educators accurately reflect our purpose, and that we think deeply and clearly about what our purpose is. Into the void of our lack of awareness and intention, the market will creep. All of education is in the process of being reduced to economic ends, and we see the damage of this all around us.

Why get a college degree?  “I want a good job.”

Market speak.

Why reduce teacher pensions? “Efficiency.” (This word, by the way, represents an abstract fill in the blank answer for virtually anything. What it means in practice, no one really knows.)

Market speak.

Why teach to standards? “College readiness.” And why be ready for college? “To get a good job.”

Market speak.

What does our president have to say? “America’s prosperity has always rested on how well we educate our children – but never more so than today. This is true for our workers, when a college graduate earns over 60 percent more in a lifetime than a high school graduate.  This is true for our businesses, when according to one study; six in ten say they simply can’t find qualified people to fill open positions.”

The purpose of education reduced to American Prosperity.

Market speak.

So when you hear the language of business creep across its borders into the context of education, which was formerly treated as a common good and therefore public, know that the market is reducing you and the students you work with to capital with a price on it. And, because it limits our humanity to its market value, know that it is dehumanizing. So either directly address it, or run like hell.

Is education to be “run like a business”? Nope. Should any head of any so-called educational institution be given the title of a CEO? Not. Should any of our superintendents be trained by a foundation that has as its tag line, “Entrepreneurship for the public good…” Hell no.

This creep of the market into everything, called neoliberalism, is reshaping all before our very eyes- our institutions, our language, our way of relating to each other, and it is crucial to understand the ways, mostly difficult to detect, that it functions.

Importantly, this reduction of all to the market, this neoliberalism, makes the mistake of confusing economic health with democratic health. It makes the mistake of confusing the market, (that is, profit) with the political (that is, a commonly determined purpose). It makes the mistake of making democracy disappear. Democracy has no market value. Or worse. Authentic democracy can be very bad for the market.

In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown explains this very well:

“More than merely saturating the meaning or content of democracy with market values, neoliberalism assaults the principles, practice, cultures, subjects, and institutions of democracy understood as rule by the people…

The claim that neoliberalism is profoundly destructive to the fiber and future of democracy in any form is premised on an understanding of neoliberalism as something other than  a set of economic policies, an ideology, or resetting of the relation between state and economy. Rather, as a normative order of reason developed over three decades into a widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality, neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. Far from Adam Smith’s creature propelled by the natural urge to ‘truck, barter, and exchange,’ today’s homo oeconomicus is an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its competitive position and with enhance its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all its endeavors and venues. These are also the mandates, and hence the orientations, contouring the projects of neoliberalized states, large corporations, small businesses, nonprofits, schools, consultancies, museums, countries, scholars, performers, public agencies, students, websites, athletes, sports teams, graduate programs, health providers, banks and global legal and financial institutions.” (Emphasis added)

Yes, it can be difficult to see, difficult to hear, but you will catch it in seemingly innocuous phrases, and sometimes you can catch it in your own thinking.

Why are evaluations now “competitive” with the erasure of tenure?

Market speak.

Why are inundated with “Value Added Measurements”?

Market speak.

Why do we need standards? (Again, see Obama quote above.)

Market speak.

This is what we’re up against.

(For an interview with Brown, see here.)

Accountability and the Erasure of Democracy

We hear a lot about the need for “accountability” in education, but I’m not sure anyone knows what this word means in practice, or what an authentic means of being accountable might look like.  If this word is going to be thrown around so much, then it’s time for those throwing it to think deeply about how it functions.

And in thinking deeply about the role of accountability in education, we need to recognize the increasing, and mostly unconscious creep of economic utilitarianism beyond the bounds of economics and into all aspects of life. Essentially, this spread is represented by the ideology of market fundamentalism, which says that all value is reduced to the single value of economics. That is, all is commodified, has a price, and can thus be measured in terms of its efficiency, which is translated into its ability to reduce costs, to add monetary value as the ultimate value that can then be measured as profit.  As an example of this, see this recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press, which fundamentally uses the ideology of the free market to ask the question, ““Is a College Degree a Lost Cause These Days?” Within the article as part of its set up, the author quotes President Obama, and develops from there.

“Even President Barack Obama has poked fun at the humanities, observing in a 2014 speech that ‘folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.’

Obama later insisted his ‘glib’ comment wasn’t meant to throw shade on liberal arts majors. But it reflected an emerging consensus that U.S. colleges and universities are failing to provide many students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-Century workplace.”

The underlying assumption of this thinking is that the purpose of a college degree is reduced to its value on the market, its ability to translate into a job for the holder of the degree, and its ability to propel the economy.  I don’t want to go too far into a richer vision of college of higher education here, other than to note the hidden assumptions of this kind of language. (And to be fair,thankfully the author of the article does go on to, at least,  gently critique these assumptions, first of all within the parameters of economic utilitarianism, and then by suggesting, almost as an afterthought, that education may have an impact on a democratic citizenry.)

The language of accountability is language which unconsciously and uncritically propels these assumptions. And because it does so in a way that is unconscious, it serves to continue to hide these assumptions.  It presents the world of economic utilitarianism as an unquestioned given.

And it is well past time to question.

conditionsecosystem for market fundamentalism

Thankfully, in Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability be Saved?, Gert Biesta has done a lot of this questioning and should be trusted as a guide. (See the link below to the full article.)

Biesta starts with a paragraph that shows that the current mode of accountability has reconfigured the relationship between the state and its citizens from a political relationship to an economic relationship, that is, “..state as provider and the taxpayer as consumer of public services.”

This seems subtle, but nonetheless, this shift is crucial to understand.  A political relationship is one where citizens work together in a mutual relationship. A consumer relationship, one determined by economics, is one in which a consumer is recipient of services, and therefore to be served in ways that are measurable so that consumer choices can be made clear.  It thus becomes necessary for the provider of those services (the state in the case of education) to quantify its services in order to provide information to the consumer so that proper choices can be made.  A political relationship, on the other hand, is one that suggests accountability and responsibility are mutual.  A teacher has accountability in this relationship to a context of mutual relationships- the students, the parents, the community and the ways that the community is served by the education of its members. In an economic relationship, the consumer is a passive recipient, and one imagined as outside of the bounds of community. The single consumer is to be served, and the values of this service are inherently economic values. That is, the consumer is a recipient of the state’s services, one with the need for “choice of” state services, and whose “vote” and democratic responsibility is reduced to his/her choices. The implication is that as a recipient of services, the consumer is not engaged as a member of the state, and determines the values of these services within the context of the value of how he/she will economically benefit from these services.  The connection between the consumer and the broader community is obscured, and the value of the education to the broader community is wiped clean. Along with this, because of the importance of the availability of consumer information in a market of choice, the value of an education must be quantifiable. As a result, the “accountability” of education to its consumers is reduced to the single, but easily measurable, dimension of test scores. Why do students want to “do well” in school? In order to receive the grades and test results to that will allow them into a “good” college so that they can earn a marketable degree.

Pure economics.

Pure individualism.

Biesta writes, “Crucially, the language used is an economic language that positions the government as provider and the citizen as consumer. Choice has become the key word in this discourse. Yet ‘choice’ is about the behavior of consumers in a market where their aim is to satisfy their needs; it should not be conflated with democracy which is about public deliberation and contestation regarding the common good.”

It is important to recognize that in this shift from citizen to consumer is the fact that the purpose of education is completely obscured and uncontested. There is little room, if any, for the conversation of outcome. Why should someone be educated? In ways does the broader context of relationships benefit, not just the relationship between consumer and the state, but the relationships of a community? These questions disappear because outcomes are assumed and the focus thus becomes on the process of acquiring these easily quantifiable outcomes of economic value.

Biesta again: “To put this point differently, according to the logic of the market, the relationship between the state and its citizens is no longer a substantial relationship but has turned into a strictly  formal relationship. This reconfiguration is closely connected to the rise of the culture of quality assurance, the corollary of accountability….Quality assurance is about efficiency and effectiveness of the process itself, not about what the process is supposed to bring about. In this light, it is easy to see why the …government’s constant emphasis on ‘raising standards’ is ultimately vacuous: it lacks proper (democratic) discussion regarding which standards or ‘outcomes’ are most desirable. The same problem underlies much of the research of the ‘school effectiveness and improvement industry.’ These studies mainly focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of processes, without addressing the far more difficult normative and political question regard what these process ought to bring about.” (Emphasis added)

So we have a situation where consumer “choice” is “driving the market” of education. At the same time, this current shift allows no place for the most important question of purpose. There is no discussion of what we hope to bring about with an education, and, because of the unquestioned assumptions and constraints driven by an “accountability” system which can only measure efficiency and limits the purpose of education to the attainment of test scores, we have created an education that has as its purpose the creation of consumers.

Is this what we want?

And just as importantly, is democracy being lost as a result?

Biesta suggests that democracy is being lost. (And the evidence of current zeitgeist would certainly do the same.)

“The role of parents and students in the ‘accountability loop’ is indirect: they can ultimately hold the government accountable for the ‘quality’ of the public services it delivers. But this relationship is itself apolitical in that it positions citizens as consumers who can ‘vote’ about the quality of the services delivered by the government but who do not have democratic say in the overall direction of content of what is being delivered (if delivery is an appropriate concept in the first place).” (Emphasis added)

So there is input through “choice’ that parents have in the processes of education, and the efficiency and quality of these processes. (However, I would go further in saying that the processes of education, that is the pedagogy, is also obscured when the information used to determine such choices is reduced to the dimension of easily quantifiable test scores.) Importantly, though, what is lost in the shift from citizen to consumers, is the choice of purpose, what is the direction we want to education to go? For what purpose do we want our children to be educated? This question is no longer available for contestation.

“The core problem is that while many would want the culture of accountability to emphasize accountability to the public, it actually creates a system focused on accountability to the regulators and the like, thereby removing the real stakeholders from the accountability loop.’ In this respect, the current technical-managerial approach to accountability actually produces economic relationships between people and makes democratic relationships difficult if not impossible to establish.”

What does this look like? What’s the end game of the language of accountability? It creates a system that conflates economics and democracy, and, in doing so, privileges economics at the expense of democracy. It allows democracy to be sacrificed to the god of “economic efficiency” with the allowance of little to no contestation of such shifts. It allows, for instance, the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education to be completely marginalized and replaced by an Emergency Manager. In a very real way, the voice of the people is eliminated and replaced with the voice of consumers and profiteers who are alienated from the context of political community.

According to an analysis featured by Diane Ravitch, this is ultimately what this shift to accountability looks like in Detroit:

“While falling enrollment is often cited as a reason for “right-sizing” the district, the loss of students is the inevitable outcome of starving the schools of funding and relentless attacks on teachers’ jobs and conditions by the Democratic-run city. In the past three years alone, the district cut over a half billion dollars in operating costs, including increasing health care premiums, cutting per-student funding, freezing pay steps for teachers and closing schools. This is not enough, however, and Snyder and his Democratic Party accomplices aim to fully convert the new district into a system of charter schools, which remain outside of public oversight and are a lucrative source of income for politically connected business hucksters.”

Unless we all quickly take responsibility for democratic spaces that are disappearing under the illusion of accountability, this will also be what your local school district looks like.

Please take the time to read all of Biesta’s piece here:

Click to access Biesta_-_Accountability.pdf

For a richer alternative view of the purpose of higher education, see William Dereshiewicz’s Excellent Sheep.

Photo from here

Investment Opportunities for Ed Reform “Experts”

Search no further than this article, “Ed Reform Experts Descend on Detroit,” to find the root issue with the so-called “ed reform” movement.

Who are these so-called educational “experts” pointed to in the headline? (And why do business leaders get the title of “expert,” while actual educational scholars are marginalized?) Upon just a little bit of research, it turns out their background is not in education, it is, surprise, in business.

Michael Petrelli is the CEO of The Fordham Institute, a right-wing, pro-charter think tank.  His background is business, not education.

Eric Chan is, as he describes himself in the article, “an investor.” He runs charter investment growth fund and has an MBA from Harvard. No educational background other than seeing education as a means of making money.

Why are these business leaders called educational “experts” in one of Michigan’s most prominent newspapers?

Actual educational expert and scholar Paul Thomas explains it this way:  “…politicians with little or no educational expertise or experience control education policy and journalists with little or no educational expertise or experience report on both the claims made by those politicians and the education reports coming from think tanks and advocacy groups posing as scholars.”

So why are Petrelli and Chan described as experts? Because they say so. And their think tanks and  businesses say so. And, rather than critiquing or researching or questioning, the Detroit News accepts, prints and publicizes. There is no mention of the ideology of the institutions Petrelli and Chan represent. There is no mention of their backgrounds, or their own ideology.  They are just accepted as “experts.”

What does this look  like in print?

“Both experts say that Detroit has done well opening the door to charter growth, but not on pairing that growth with excellence.”

So the assumption is that opening the door to charter growth is unequivocally a good thing.

Enter Chan.

“Chan’s non-profit group funds the top charter management organizations in the country, and he’d like to get involved in Detroit.”

Now, why does Chan so much want to get involved in Detroit? It seems, in spite of the status of his institution as a non-profit, he is actually an investor running an “growth fund” that looks for opportunity to create profit.  (See this, for instance, on the Rocketship Management company Chan’s fund supports.)

As he says, “As an investor, I’m optimistic…I sense you’re heading in the right direction.”

Can’t our media do better than this?