America Dishonors MLK By Refusing to Act on Call for Direct Action (pt. 2)

[NOTE: See part 1 HERE]

The USA is a country built on cultural mythology—rugged individualism, boot strapping, just to name a couple.

But the American Dream works both as a touch stone for Americans and a veneer covering over the realities that represent us as people and country.

In most ways, the American Dream is a lie in practice, but a beautiful idea that could be.

What better represents America is this from James Baldwin:

Included in that “rigid refusal to look at ourselves” is an insidious pattern of creating mythologies that conform to our foundational myths even when those manufactured myths prove to be distortions, or even lies.

That is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. who Americans begrudgingly allowed into the pantheon of Great Americans but only as a reductive caricature as a passive radical.

The Right and conservatives in the US have repeatedly shaped MLK into a soundbite endorsing color blindness, a false representation of MLK and the ideal in terms of how race should matter among humans.

MLK was clear that racism was the plague on the US, but he didn’t call for not seeing race; he urged humans to see race and not impose hatred and bigotry onto race, not allow privilege/oppression for some based on race.

But one of the single most important aspects of MLK’s ignored legacy is his call for direct action, which conservatives refuse to see and even cloak by stressing “passive” action (again, an important misrepresentation of “non-violent” since MLK himself stated he never urged people to be passive about anything).

Here is the King many in the US want to ignore: King’s 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

• lack of education restricting job opportunities;

• poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiatives;

• fragile relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measure were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

Wealth and Want

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else,” King noted, adding: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Not only did King call for a guaranteed income, he asserted the essential need to be direct:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Wealth and Want

It is here that I have grounded my work in education addressing education policy, practice, and reform.

The reason political leaders focus on education is that it is the perfect mechanism for keeping the public focused on indirect action.

The US is committed to capitalism, not democracy, and capitalism depends on poverty and therefore will never eradicate it.

To perpetually address the consequences of inequity projects the veneer of action without actually committing to action, direct action, that would eradicate what causes the harm to begin with.

The history of education reform in the US since the 1980s has been on in-school only reform. Many key reformers and often cited scholars (such as John Hattie) beat an incessant drum that there is nothing we can do about systemic inequity—poverty, racism, etc.—so we must target school reform and then over time that will somehow eradicate inequity.

There are numerous problems with this, including that it fits into our rugged individualism myth by claiming that we must “fix” students and “fix” teachers.

But the essential problem with indirect action is well dramatized in the parable of the river:

Many Americans and most education reformers have decided that addressing directly root causes is too hard, or impossible, a fatalistic view of the world that Paulo Freire cautions against: “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing.”

Targeted in-school reform only, addressing inequity indirectly—these approaches “reduce the human person to nothing.”

Education reform is constantly scrambling to pull babies form the river but will not dedicate any resources to stop those babies form being thrown in that river.

For two decades now, every time I call for addressing inequity directly, I am characterized as calling for doing nothing about the consequences; those who have embraced fatalism project that onto me and my work.

This is a false dichotomy.

The in-school only reformers have made their decision to focus only on indirect action.

I have argued and detailed carefully that we are morally obligated to do both: Reform social inequity and reform education by focusing on equity not accountability.

It is no accident that the students we pretend to be reforming education to serve are the vulnerable and marginalized children and teens who are the victims of the very inequity we refuse to address, and increasingly refuse to even acknowledge.

Black students, poor students, special needs students, and multi-language learners are all viewed through deficit lenses that emphasize all that they lack while arguing that students who excel are hard working, gifted, and bright.

Disadvantage and privilege are ignored, and again, increasingly discounted.

The rich and complex MLK, his commitment to eradicating inequity by direct action, is both the answer America needs and the solution America refuses to see.

Occasionally we are acknowledging that we have broken people in our society and our schools; yet, we continue to dishonor MLK by refusing to see what forces are breaking these people and children in the first place.


See Also