James Baldwin (1979): “you can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood”

Every time I make the case that in order to offer every child the very highest quality education all children deserve, we must address the socioeconomic inequity of homes and communities as well as the schools that serve them, I am chastised by some that teachers and schools cannot control any of those out-of-school conditions.

Yet there remains a historical and current fact that social inequity is almost always reflected in educational inequity; schools, then, mostly perpetuate inequity, but they almost never fulfill their promise as the great equalizer.

In California recently, we see this in action: California students sued because they were such poor readers. They just won $53 million to help them.

Students and teachers have won a lawsuit that exposes political negligence, a failure to fully fund the most burdened schools serving students most burdened by inequity, as Kohli and Lee report:

A Los Angeles Times analysis of the 75 lowest-performing schools on the state’s English language arts test, based on California’s Common Core standards, illustrates the depth of the reading problem. Seven out of 10 third-graders in these schools did not meet the standards, according to state data from 2018 and 2019. The schools have about double the English learners of other elementary schools, and more than 90% of students at those schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — a poverty indicator.

While this is now, we must not ignore that social and educational inequity is a historical reality of the U.S.

James Baldwin, speaking in 1979, argued: “the billion-dollar industry [education] is more important than the life of the child,” and “you can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood.”

It is here, “changing the neighborhood,” that the U.S. as a political body balks. We will label and attempt to change children; we will constantly reform our standards, our tests, and our schools; but we dare not “build a new social order.”

Baldwin criticizes a public school system that cheats Black students, calling for Black people to take their children out, to keep their children off the busses. Baldwin notes that any people (white people) who cannot educate their own cannot educate “other people’s children.”

On today’s date, February 21, Nina Simone was born, and Malcolm X was assassinated. Voices and lives such as Simone and Malcolm X as well as Baldwin, I imagine, are mostly ignored in classrooms across the U.S.—even during Black History Month.

Why? As Baldwin recognized, Black people, especially well educated and literate Black people “are a threat to the machinery.” Baldwin noted about himself: “I’m a disturber of the peace,” a label perfect for Simone and Malcolm X as well.

It takes very little imagination to understand why the U.S. has always cheated and continues to cheat some students, those students already being cheated in their lives by class inequity, racism, xenophobia, and other inequities.

Education and especially literacy can foster power; therefore, equitable access to education and literacy is equitable access to power.

The law suit in California is about equity and access; it is about power.

In a country based on value, we put out money where it matters most. Underfunded and under-resourced schools point at damning finger at what, as Baldwin recognized, the U.S. continues to disregard.