Acton Institute Powerblog

Florida’s New Jim Crow Education System

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Martin Luther King, Jr. has to be turning over in his grave. Just when you think America may be on the path to no longer judging people on the basis of skin color, we run into nonsense like the decision last fall by the Florida Department of Education, to institute race-based education standards. According to CBS News in Tampa, the Florida Department of Education,

passed a revised strategic plan that says that by 2018, it wants 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students to be reading at or above grade level. For math, the goals are 92 percent of Asian kids to be proficient, whites at 86 percent, Hispanics at 80 percent and blacks at 74 percent. It also measures by other groupings, such as poverty and disabilities.

This plan seems to be the exact opposite of what Dr. King died for back in 1968. What the plan clearly communicates is the soft bigotry of low expectations. In light of the logical backlash against the race-based proposal, there have been some attempts to defend the new Florida policy as something other than what it clearly is. For example, Alex Yahanda, senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily, attempted to spin the proposal this way:

The reform program does not comment negatively on individual students of any race, and only temporarily expects different performances from different ethnicities. Opponents of the program are taking the projected numbers to mean that different races are clearly being labeled as having different abilities. That is not entirely true. Individual students of different races may very well have the same abilities. What cannot be disputed, though, is that different ethnic groups are not performing at the same levels. Abilities aside, black and Hispanic student populations need to improve their reading and math skills. Only by clearly pointing out the differences across races can a concrete plan be formulated. What some people view as singling out and insulting races is in fact a necessary step towards improving the academic performance of all students.

What Yahanda fails to realize is that, to racialize education performance and then subsequently construct policy accordingly is, by definition, racist. Statistical categories are not actual people, and they tell us very little about why it is that particular individuals perform at certain levels while others do not. In fact, if we look closely at the definition of racism, then Yahanda’s defense should be that much more alarming.

Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” So Yahanda observes, “Abilities aside, black and Hispanic student populations need to improve their reading and math skills. Only by clearly pointing out the differences across races can a concrete plan be formulated.” Wait, only.

Why assume that race affects performance at all? Why not something else arbitrary like students performance based on the color of students’ backpacks? Do students with red backpacks perform differently than those with black or navy blue backpacks? The racist logic of the defense of the Florida plan runs as follows: students perform as individuals but will be assessed on the basis of race. If not this, what else is racism?

The Florida plan is simply immoral and an affront on human dignity. Employing Yahanda’s reasoning, to “temporarily” expect “different performances from different ethnicities”, is to inevitably introduce incentives for teachers and administrators to adjust the way children are taught in the classroom, so as to produce the state’s desired results. Teachers in diverse classrooms, then, will teach and help students according to state expectations and will not indiscriminately teach for excellence regardless of race.

Even more alarming for parents, is the knowledge that the Florida plan encourages teachers and administrators to view their children by racial traits first and foremost instead of seeing them as unique individual creatures with wonderful non-racial potentialities. Unfortunately, because of the financing of public education most parents of color in Florida have neither the political nor economic power to remove their children from a racialized system. They are trapped in a racist system.

Florida’s plan is a good example of the new Jim Crow of racialized expectations. It seems to me that educators need to be concerned with why it is that particular individuals performed, regardless of race and class, and seek to standardize and norm good performance without discriminating because children are not racial mascots, they are people.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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