Social Justice and Critical Pedagogy

Social Justice, Critical Pedagogy

The social fibers in our society seem to be unraveling and the ruling class is scrambling to keep it together, as they fight over how to handle gaping social conditions. Historically oppressed minorities and immigrant groups are reminded daily how little they are valued by this society. We are in the midst of a system of mass incarceration and a scourge of unaccountable police murder and brutality, viewed online like the public executions of the past; cities across the country are seeing rebellions and riots. Refugees flee their homelands to come to America, the very place responsible for the policies that forced them to leave in the first place are rejected and sent back callously. If not, they are forced to eek out an existence in the shadows of society as family bonds are fractured and relatives are deported. The numbers of homeless are swelling as tent cities of mentally ill, drug addicted and struggling people, dot the urban landscape.  This is the richest, most powerful country in the world with a wealth gap that is beginning to mirror that of the underdeveloped world.

As a society, we have no answers to these problems. As educators, with access to the future of this nation, what has been our response? Since we as, teachers are generally regarded as ideological custodians of the system, largely, it has been as tools in the reproduction of the status quo that got us to this point. In recent decades, we have seen an attempt to separate from that tradition with Social Justice education. Social justice education is a means to encourage students to analyze the world and see their place in it as an agent of change for a more just world. What does a social justice framework mean?

Cal State Channel Islands school of Education website says,“According to Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a leading scholar in education, a social justice framework is one that “actively address[es] the dynamics of oppression, privilege, and isms, [and recognizes] that society is the product of historically rooted, institutionally sanctioned stratification along socially constructed group lines that include race, class, gender, secual orientation, and ability [among others].  Working for social justice in education means guiding students [and often being guided by students] in critical self-reflection of their socialization into this matrix of unequal relationships and its implications, analysis of the mechanisms of oppression, and the ability to challenge these hierarchies.”

Social justice education in my understanding, borrows primarily from Paolo Freire’s “conscientizacao” or raising of consciousness, central to critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is defined by Wikipedia as, “a teaching approach inspired by Marxist critical theory and other radical philosophies, which attempts to help students question and challenge posited “domination,” and to undermine the beliefs and practices that are alleged to dominate”.

The point is to join students in recognizing and acting to change material social conditions facing the oppressed. The consciousness being promoted by Freire is in part, class consciousness. This is what is missing from most of the social justice inheritors of Freire’s legacy, a thorough analysis of capitalism and its role in promoting the inequality that we encourage students to challenge.

Social justice education should not simply be bourgeois, liberal identity politics. As a social studies teacher, it is important to view history and society from the vantage points of historically disadvantaged groups like women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people etc. This is why the movement for ethnic studies is positive. However, in all the talk about safe spaces and micro-agressions that seem to be popular today, we may be missing the macro-agression of class oppression. We forget that the gripes associates with all these oppressed groups stems from a capitalist superstructure.

The Need for Class Consciousness

With all of our great intentions we run the risk of giving our youth a fractured view of the world and the workings of class oppression. Aside from teaching the youth to view the world from their own social station as minorities, women or LGBTQ, etc. we should also draw lessons from what these groups have in common as “oppressed people” and about class struggle.

I work in the most depressed neighborhood of our local community and all my students think they are middle class. Of course most are not. The more astute of my students recognize that racial and gender discrimination exist. They do not recognize how this is linked to capitalism or their role at the bottom of it. There cannot be a real grassroots movement to empower the poor among the youth if they all think they are middle class. This society teaches them that poverty stems from character flaws instead of the nature of the system. As a result, they do not want to identify with being poor. They do not wish to carry the flag or the social burden of being lower class.

As educators, we should not want our students to analyze the symptoms of the capitalism as separate and unrelated, oppression of blacks over here, women over here, etc. They must be encouraged to question the legitimacy of the entire system, not just the way it affects particular groups. We are afraid to deal with the topic of class struggle unless we’re referring to the a struggle for poor folks to get into the middle class. Never is it analyzed as a social dynamic, complete with power relations and consequences that affect their lives. They have been taught in school that this system works like a referee, fair and consistent, rewarding those who work hard, not as a tool of the ruling class to protect their interests.

What we do not recognize is that inequality is in the fundamental nature of this system. We treat inequality as if it were some type of mistake. The official view of history posits that overall, the system works, but there are some kinks in it. America is trying to live up to their claims of equality in the declaration of independence, but there is just some historical baggage there and the people just need to participate more to help America get over the historical humps of white supremacy, class oppression and sexism. On the contrary, such inequality and oppression comes from conscious policy in the interests of the ruling class, not bad laws or voter apathy.

Ethnic Studies and Identity Politics

We are seeing a push for Ethnic Studies in high school curriculum. This is a positive development, but what must be addressed is the tendency for such courses to fragment history and view it from a single perspective which can encourage isolated identity politics instead of solidarity. Of course there is value in analyzing history from a particular ethnic standpoint, but within an overall critical, historical analysis that transcends any particular historical narrative.

What is important in history, be it ethnic studies or not, is a historic, systemic analysis of governing institutions and class dynamics. This can highlight how the system actually perpetuates inequality and needs it to survive. The system itself is the problem, it needs dismantling, not fixing. It is built on inequality. Critical pedagogy recognizes the dialectical relationship between the subjective and the objective. We need to see how the system operates wholly, along with the perspective of any particular group.

At best identity politics and similar manifestations mitigate the effects of this system on one’s own people. The legitimacy of the system itself must be challenged outright. It is too big and complex to challenge from such a narrow perspective. My position is not that ethnic studies and identity politics are harmful or unnecessary. My point is that we need more. We need these perspectives to supplement a well rounded analysis of the system towards the people in general. Any understanding of the workings of a complex system needs to be understood from the outside in, not the inside out. One cannot understand the body by looking only at the liver and its relationship to the rest of the body; one has to study the workings of the body as a whole and then focus on a particular area.  


If critical pedagogy matters, it should be a radical thrust in education to foster solidarity, not just liberal identity politics, we have plenty of that. Freire’s work was part of a larger social movement to challenge the status quo, not just fit in it, or make it work better for us, or make its effects less severe on a particular group. Though not openly advocated, his philosophy has the potential to sow the seeds of rebellion. This is a line that we cannot be afraid of if we want to raise consciousness, if we want to change the world.

We cannot water it down. In my experience, it seems as though Social Justice education is an attempt to engage in critical pedagogy without the attachment to radical tradition. He writes about the relationship between the people and the operations of the system as being dialectical. We must see our society from the ground level as well as from a bird’s eye view and how the viewpoints are related.

Stand With Oaxaca Teacher’s Strike



Mexican teachers in the heavily indigenous states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacan bravely stood up in the face of government attempts to smash one of the last bastions of unionized workers in Mexico, education. The Oaxaca teacher’s strike is in response to the so-called educational reforms being pushed by the Enrique Pena Nieto government. These are not educational reforms at all but labor reforms. One of the more controversial elements of the reforms is that teachers’ jobs will depend on their performance on evaluations. The teacher training schools or normals are also being threatened, especially since the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal school.

The normals have been a pathway to employment for the impoverished as well as a source of political activity and community involvement in rural societies. In response, the teacher’s union, Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación went on strike in Oaxaca. The ensuing crackdown on the Oaxaca teacher’s strike and imprisonment of  (CNTE) leaders Aciel Sibaja, Ruben Nunez and Francisco Villalobos and brutal slaying of at least 4 demonstrators on June 19th illustrates the desperation of the Mexican government to contain and silence the teacher’s union.

American teachers should stand in solidarity with the CNTE and the Oaxaca teacher’s strike, as we are fighting the same set of neoliberal, corporate, interests in our educationional system here in America. Our government is an ally of Pena Nieto. They have stood by and supported him in the face of his government’s violence, repression and human rights violations. There has been relative silence about the latest atrocities because they support the same vision of education. If faced with the same political clarity and courage exhibited by the Mexican teachers, our ruling class may respond in kind with repression. American teacher’s unions should demand an end to aid to the Mexican government until the CNTE confirms that the repression has stopped. Our struggle is the same.

We educators, here in the US are facing the same agenda, top down reforms in which our voices have not been included, increased, arbitrary accountability and job insecurity to fit a business model of education. The CNTE should inspire us all to stand up. We do not honor their example and their struggle by simply well wishing and liking facebook statuses. We should support them by supporting ourselves, standing up to the corporate education agenda here at home. Unions should demand our government end the political and financial support of the Pena Nieto government.

The reforms being pushed on us are similar to the ones faced in Mexico. Teacher evaluations are highly subjective and of course we are never asked for our input on how they are carried out. This is thinly veiled coercion to “play ball” with administration. Different conditions in our communities are not taken into account. The teachers in poor, indigenous Mexican communities have an effect on those students and they have struggles that cannot be captured in a test. This is similar to us that work in poor communities with high levels of poverty, non native English speakers and other issues that are not universally present especially in middle class communities. The purpose of increased tests and accountability is not simply to hold teachers accountable but to take power from the union.

Mexican educators have a long history of progressive and even radical subversion within a larger context of subservience to institutions of power. The ideological constructs that bolster ruling class ideas has shown signs of decay. They are being threatened by the normal school system in which educators often become advocates for justice instead of custodians for the system in the communities they serve. In response, the Mexican government will allow anyone with a degree to teach, allowing them to bypass the normals. This is bigger than an educational issue. The Oaxaca teacher’s strike represents an issue of legitimacy and ideological control for the Mexican ruling class. There is a lot at stake if the power structure loses ideological control of the educational system.

A class system is only as democratic as it can afford to be in order for the bourgeoisie to maintain power. It is the job of the critical educator to subvert the ideological monopoly of the ruling class. This is the tradition of the normal schools. The threat of the schools playing a positive role in people’s movements in poor communities is a daunting one for the ruling class. The possibility exists that educators can take up the cause of the oppressed, just as the Latin American clergy did in the movements of the 70’s and 80’s. With that possibility and actual movement towards it comes the inevitable repression. The state resorts to violence when they cannot use other means to coerce.

The brutality being exhibited by the Mexican government is a sign that there is a bubbling social movement from below in which the CNTE is involved. The repression of the Oaxaca teacher’s strike is meant to serve as a deterrent to more activism. We hope the repression will embolden instead of suppress the movement. We in the states should support them as they are fighting an onslaught against teacher’s unions by the business class just as we are. We owe it to them who face guns and risk their lives over the fate of their schools, their profession and their future to struggle in solidarity with them. What excuse do we have, not even facing a modicum of the repression faced by teachers in Mexico, not to take up the same fight? This may be a harbinger of things to come if we do not act.


The Struggle to Remember Ali



The recent passing of Muhammad Ali got me to thinking about how the legacy of highly politicized figures are co-opted by dominant institutions. America has a tendency to co-opt what they cannot defeat. Once a person’s image is co-opted, it is sanitized and watered down for public consumption. If they cannot, outright choose our leaders, then they take control of their image, sand down the rough edges and give us back some ‘Santa Claused’ version of our heroes.   Often times, their more radical or particularly troublesome politics are buried and the image becomes alienated from their own ideas. This usually happens after the person’s death, sometimes before.

In the brief aftermath of Muhammad Ali’s death, we see the dominant institutions, the same ones that despised him for his activism and his voice during his prime singing his praises. In his later years, after his health began to deteriorate and his voice silenced, he became a darling of mainstream America, a frail grandfatherly figure. The conflict in Vietnam has become universally unpopular over the years, even among the ruling class, and thus, ok to criticize. However, the Ali that refused to support the war must be compartmentalized because his analysis of the war and why he refused to participate, extends to war in general and is just as applicable today. He was not just against the war in Vietnam; Ali was an anti- imperialist. However the co-opting of his image requires that, that Ali remain separate from ‘grandpa’.

His current image has effectively been separated from his anti-imperialist politics of the late 60’s. How would Ali be depicted if he maintained his vocal anti-war stance throughout his life through every ensuing American aggression? He’d likely be a pariah or faded into oblivion like John Carlos, who, during the same era raised his fist at the ‘68 Olympics in Mexico City. Muhammad Ali’s silence is what made him a figure that mainstream America could get behind.

The process of depoliticizing him is well underway. Just look at who spoke at his funeral, Bill Clinton, Billy Cristal, Bryant Gumbel. His image is being thoroughly brought into the fold of non-threatening American hero. What did these folks think of his public stance against war when he took it? Probably not supportive. Why not have Kareem Abdul Jabar, Louis Farrakhan, or anyone else closer to his experience speak. The interfaith funeral is an attempt to separate him from the teachings of the Nation of Islam. There may be a time when we do not even remember the Muhammad Ali the draft resister and anti-war proponent who put his livelihood and freedom on the line in the interests of freedom and justice. We may just think of a nice old man with Parkinson’s who was once a great boxer.

Who remembers Nelson Mandela, revolutionary founder of the armed wing of the African National Congress? Who remembers Helen Keller, radical Socialist and labor activist? The radical elements of their history and character have been systematically removed in order to make them more palatable to the system and given back to us. They will go down in history without all their complexities, but as carefully crafted images.

Perhaps the best example of this is Dr. Martin Luther King, who’s radical dimensions have been tailored for public consumption. We do not know the King who criticized racism, militarism and individualism as inextricably linked, who questioned America’s brand of capitalism. His life, speeches and writing after 1965 have all but disappeared. School children generally do not read King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967, but they know “I Have a Dream”. This is not an accident. Some heroes like Ali and King are so huge, they cannot be put back in the bottle so their images must be co-opted because the personal example of principled people so loved and admired is dangerous in and of itself.

Sometimes the most subversive thing we can do is to simply remember, remember what we are encouraged to forget, remember that the institutions that shower platitudes on radicals when they die are the same ones that marginalized and tried to kill their image, if not their physical person when they were alive. Let us never forget that young, dashing, charming, man who called Ervin Terrell and Uncle Tom for referring to him as Cassius Clay, who told a room full of white college students, “If I want to die, I’ll die fighting you, you my opposer when I want freedom”. It is no mystery why the image of a prominent black athlete standing up and willing to put his fortune, image, championship on the line on principle is threatening. The youth need his example today more than ever. In these times, young folks don’t even understand the rationale for such a stance, being bombarded with materialism and nonsense all day, every day. Let us be subversive in our classrooms and not only remember, but teach our students to do the same. Ali Bomaye!

Teaching as a Politcal Act

I do not care for this post-modern, reductionist attack on objectivity that is quite fashionable these days. It is my view that teachers should value objectivity. This is the only way to understand the world as it is. Part of the problem is that objectivity has been mistaken for neutrality, or non-controversy. In the interest of this false concept of objectivity, we often water down our content to avoid controversy or stirring emotions. It’s history, if people aren’t rubbed the wrong way from time to time, ‘you ain’t doing it right’. We should want our students at times to feel confused, emotional, angry, curious, helpless at the state of the world because there are lessons waiting at the other end, when they come to terms with those feelings. Above all, we want to inspire and empower them to change the conditions and challenge the oppressive legacy that history has left them. . If we want to change our current society we must realize the historically oppressive roles played by every American institution (economic, education, health care, social service, housing etc.) and view them today as a culmination of that history, not something separate from the history that produced them. We cannot teach them that our institutions are neutral when they are apart of a legacy of race and class oppression.

Once students gain an objective analysis of history, they can then find their subjective place in challenging it. We must do away with teaching history as some feel good, slow and constant struggle for progress, culminating into this great, equal, pluralistic democracy, one big happy family with all our problems left ‘back in the old days’. We must help them to draw a line between oppressor and oppressed and know where they stand, then and now. It is harmful to teach about the ‘founding fathers’ as collective heroes of the nation, this is a falsification of history and psychologically damaging to youth of African, Indigenous and even European backgrounds.

The struggle between the social forces of oppressor and oppressed is not about stale events in history that happened a long time ago, and must not be taught as such. It has to be framed as an ongoing, protracted, struggle, a struggle that we are all either engaged in on some level, or tacitly supporting the status quo. School culture, with its police, administration, teachers, objectively represent the status quo. As an institution of the ruling class, a central purpose of the educational system is to promote and protect their interests and perspective. The inclusion of oppressed peoples in that institution does not change this central point; it only gives it nuance

Our students are behind enemy lines and so are we if we engage in true education for liberation. The goal of succeeding in those institutions without any critical analysis places one on the side of this historically oppressive establishment. The students themselves and their oppressed communities are a legacy of the historically oppressive nature of American capitalism. The goal of the school system is in part for the children to accept as normal the ideology and program of a system predicated on their marginalization. This is the gap that has to be bridged, so of course students of oppressed nationalities often do not perform well, many recognize a schism between their communities and the school system (and justice system, which are currently merging) but cannot articulate it. We must help them find their voice that this system is constantly trying to bury that finds expression in “misbehavior”.

School and instruction are not neutral. Teaching social studies is a political act. The instructor can perpetuate the status quo, thus supporting the continued oppression of students or actively engage students in challenging what they have been taught by modeling through questioning and dialogue the fundamental paradigms and assumptions undergirding American society, culture, economy. We do not want to promote the swallowing whole of a basically colonial style education.

A History class should encourage students to view their world in a historical context, instead of viewing the present as separate and divorced from the past that produces it. The student of oppressed nationality should be equipped to view their relationship with present day institutions such as the criminal justice system, school system, economic systems, etc. in the context of a history of oppression that has ebbed and flowed over hundreds of years to culminate into the present conditions. After sitting in a history class and being taught the brutal history that produced them, they still often identify with the same oppressive institutions. This is a cruel miracle of the educational system to be able to teach history and still alienate students from their own history and simultaneously bind them to the same historical institutions that have so damaged them.

Black and Brown students often refer to ruling class, White America’s exploits in the past as what “we” did. “Our country expanded westward” or “We conquered Mexico” , “Our Constitution…” etc. represents a psychological disconnect from history and identification with one’s oppressors, a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts. History, if taught critically places the oppressed in opposition to the traditions and exploits of the oppressing culture. They should be challenged recognize their place in history and be able to say, “No, the imperialist, white supremacist, America conquered westward. This is not my legacy. My legacy is in opposition to racism and imperialism and this relationship remains so today”. The schools have created and maintained an unhealthy psychological identification, among oppressed students, with their own oppression. There must be a separation from the actions of the dominant culture by the oppressed, the latter, who were actually victimized by these phenomena. The effect of not doing so, teaches the oppressed to view history and themselves through the eyes of their oppressors, which teaches them to view themselves as deficient.

Critical pedagogy should also place White students on a historical trajectory as well. This psychological separation from history allows White students to separate themselves from history and not see themselves and their privileges as part of a historical process, thus encouraging a disengagement from the world today and their responsibility in either dismantling or maintaining this position. They should be challenged to either continue and support the traditions of white supremacy, reaction and oppression or join in another tradition of freedom fighting and standing with the oppressed; they can be aligned with the traditions of John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison and others. White people are probably more alienated from their own history than those who have been oppressed by it. They take no responsibility because “I wasn’t there”. White students, in order to combat their relative alienation from people of color should be encouraged to see history through the eyes of the oppressed as well as oppressor. It is imperative that they be put in a position to “choose sides”. It is important for all students but perhaps even more important for white students. Their lack of identification with their history is also a psychological sickness perpetrated by school system.

The propagation of the idea of America as this meritocracy, or land of opportunity can be potentially crushing to youth of oppressed nationalities, particularly African Americans. It perpetuates the idea of black inferiority, as if it is deficiencies in their own devastated communities that made them poor and lacking, when it is the working of American capitalism that has caused such deprivation. Whatever dysfunction that exists among the oppressed flows from their oppression which shapes their experience, culture and values. The assumption that “everyone can make it in America” grows from the experience of middle class, Euro Americans and is thus the default point of view in America, and by extension, the educational system. It takes a level of critical struggle to deconstruct this myth, to actually look at the operations of this system and its effects on poor and oppressed people. To repeat this line and encourage students to blindly accept it is to promote a sort of psychological warfare, where some people view success as separation of oneself from their community, from their roots, instead of standing with them in opposition to oppression. This cannot be done if they don’t know they are oppressed.

We teach and learn America’s economic history, and history in general as divorced from the realities of today. Students should be able to link “deindustrialization” to decrepit conditions in inner cities. Students should learn about how drugs come into their communities, or the effects of job discrimination up to the present day. These things are directly tied up with their everyday realities. American oppression is not something that used to exist and it should not be taught that way. This is done to maintain an asymmetrical balance of power and ruling class domination.

Historical traditions and ideologies have present day manifestations. Somehow, the way history has been taught has separated the present from the past giving students the impression that everything wrong with the world “back then” has been all fixed somehow. We have not equipped them to recognize how the problems of society did not go away, but have simply morphed with the times. They are not unrecognizable to the student who has been taught critically. Today’s students have to recognize that institutions and practices can be traced back to earlier times. They are not new.

Check Out “Busted Pencils” Latest Episode Featuring Chicago Teacher Monique Redeaux and Rebel Teacher

Police and Probation Officers in School

  One afternoon, working at a high school, I opened my classroom door at lunch to get some air. Near my classroom, there was a line of disgruntled students standing outside of the on campus probation office, checking in with the probation officer, a mandatory chore that must be done before students can take their lunch break. Dozens of students walk in and out of this room every day. I do not know how long public schools have been equipped with their own probation officer, but I thought it was a strange sight. After some investigation, I learned that even some middle schools in this area now have them as well.

This little experience began to open my eyes to how much the educational system and correctional system are beginning to merge. I saw the huge black gate that surrounds the school before, but now see it in a different context. There is an armed sheriff that stands in the middle of the lunch quad everyday; I hardly noticed him before. There was one at my high school 19 years ago, so I always thought it was normal to be policed at school. Now he seems so menacing and intimidating. Why do we need a guy walking around with a weapon in plain view, if not for intimidation? Is this the way we want to coerce our students into behaving?

The oppressive containment policies used to criminalize youth on the street are being extended onto the school campus with all the accompanying dehumanization, racial profiling and even physical violence and threats of violence. The presence of cops and probation officers changes the character of school culture as it pertains to student disciplinary policy into one of containment and control. Students are naturally seen as potential criminals in such an environment, especially minorities, and African Americans in particular. The historical view of African Americans in particular as dangerous and unruly plays a part in this phenomenon as well. They are viewed as less innocent, less capable and treated that way as well. They are punished more severely than white youth for the same infractions, suspended and expelled at higher rates, starting in pre-school.

This not to deny the real threat of student violence and poor behavior threatening the learning experience of other students. The problem is that just like in the larger society, our social problems are dealt with punitively instead of proactively and the traditionally marginalized students, poor, African American, Latino and Native Americans get it the worst.  Many of our students come into school with issues that the school system is not equipped to deal with. Using cops, threats of probation and criminal records to contain our students is easier than actually dealing with the problems our students bring into the classroom.

Perhaps more staff trained in mental health and behavioral dysfunction, such as counselors and psychologists would be more helpful to the students than law enforcement. Conflict resolution skills and mediation implemented widely starting at a young age are better tools to ensure appropriate behavior than busting them for fighting or truancy in secondary school and placing them on probation. Why should school misbehavior set students up with a record setting them on the road to juvenile detention or jail before they are old enough to know what’s coming down on them?

There have been times in the past few years that these matters have been discussed in the classroom It is obvious that this punitive school culture goes beyond the cops and influences other security staff as well. I have heard stories from students about being berated by administrators and threatened to be sent to the sheriff for not stopping to pledge allegiance to the flag during morning announcements in the front office. Students are searched without consent. A youth was reprimanded for an altercation with another student on the third day of school, the first thing he was asked is if he were a ‘blood’. This same student reported being forced by security to stand still or he will be slammed. One white student reported how he wanders the campus during class time with out a pass carefree and notices how African American students are harassed and made to dig their passes out of their pockets.

Students of all ethnic groups and backgrounds agree that students are racially profiled and some students are treated with more regard than others. There were also comments made like, “I’m an athlete so I ain’t gotta worry about all that”. Apparently all students are not subject to the same rules and regulations, some are more prone to be reprimanded in a harsh manner.

I’ve known students that don’t know how to fit into the box they are expected to for some reason or another. Some have real problems at home and act out. Very little is done to address the root problems of the students besides piecemeal step programs meant to be more of a paper trail than an actual intervention.

They are simply penalized for their failure to conform until they are expelled or end up in court. This is the school to prison pipeline in action. I have had numerous students doing relatively well, showing up regularly or semi regularly, trying to keep in line with the dictates of their probation and getting violations and sent to court and sentenced for smoking cigarettes in the bathroom or defending themselves. One can even get busted for carrying a lighter on probation as a minor.

The general criminalization of oppressed youth in society has parallels in the educational system. Police patrol the schools with the same biases that they carry in the streets, leading to a massive school to prison pipeline. The most vulnerable of our young men and women are being caught in a system that leads from the classroom to juvenile detention. Minor infractions that would once land a student in the principals’ office such as fighting, truancy or minor vandalism can now land students on probation, in juvenile hall and with criminal records.

They end up with a record for misbehavior at school. The school to prison pipeline is part of the system of mass incarceration. Youth are already being accustomed to being treated like criminals before they are adults. Presumably, most adults in the penal system spent time in juvenile institutions as adolescents, there is no mystery as to where this pipeline will lead for many of the students that get in trouble in school.

This has to be viewed in the context of the history of injustice in the education system, unfair police targeting and social oppression of minorities in America. It is a continuation of an old policy in a new form, not some new thing that just popped up because of student misbehavior. Students must be able to connect these realities to the history of this country and oppose it the same way they did other forms of oppression in the past, as an injustice and part of a system that is as hostile to them as it ever was.

academic underachievement of oppressed nationalities


Academic underachievement among historically oppressed people in America is not just an academic matter, the problem does not stem from lack of adequate instructional techniques or vocabulary strategies. It is rooted in the very dna of the American social order. It grows naturally, it is a seed that was planted and the roots of injustice nurtured it throughout American history. This is but one symptom of the general oppressive conditions that people have been forced to live in. The historically oppressed sectors of the population will make up the bulk of the bottom end of most social indices from services provided from American institutions (education, health care, law enforcement, etc.), rates of disease, infant mortality, homicides, prison statistics, wealth and income an of course academic performance, in category after category, African American as well as Native and some Latin American groups are disproportionately represented at the bottom.

To view the same minority groups at the bottom of educational achievement statistics as simply an educational issue in the glaring presence of a similar trend that spans every measure of living standards is willful ignorance. The intelligent question to ask is, “Is there a pattern of systemic oppression undergirding all these issues- particularly among African and Native Americans- that could explain this trend?” The dominant narrative would have us believe that the very ethnic groups that were terrorized, traumatized and psychologically attacked for generations by this American ‘democracy’ are at fault for their failure to collectively succeed under that same system.

There is supposedly no connection between the centuries of violence, exploitation and imposed ignorance heaped upon the African and indigenous people on the one hand and their underachievement in the very society that committed the crimes against them on the other. If we are educators, we should encourage our students to ponder on these connections and question the prevailing ideas that help to oppress them and question the legitimacy of such a system that promotes them.

Many educators are unaware how much historical baggage African American youth carry into the classroom. The social studies curriculum does not help, but exacerbates the problem by mystifying the connection between the relative wealth of white people and the poverty stricken condition of African people in America and throughout the world. These two scenarios are projected as totally unrelated. The condition of Africans in the world is treated as just something that happened. Somehow Africans are at the bottom of society in America and the world and in need of perpetual help while the legacies of white supremacy, slavery, capitalism and imperialism, which created such stark inequality are glossed over as something that happened in the past and has no bearing on the world today. There is a clear connection to anyone who bothers to investigate.

What conclusion are students supposed to come to in regards to their intellectual capacity, when they are bombarded with images, even in school, that flaunt their perceived social, economic and educational inferiority, completely divorced from the conditions that created it?  No explanation is given as to why oppressed students live in substandard condition compared to folks in wealthier white communities. It is treated as if present conditions are not linked to any historical process. ‘It just is the way it is, because some people are industrious, thrifty and hard working’, the eye level analysis is, if one lives in a poor community they must be just the opposite, lazy, content and shiftless.  In order to be like the folks who live well, one simply has to take on the proper characteristics and attitude.

That’s the line; there is no attempt to connect the historical theft of resources, exploitation, racist policies, de-industrialization, and a bunch of other things to current present day conditions. The youth are usually left with the most obvious, eye level conclusion, that something must be wrong with them, especially if  they are told that they live in a democracy, and  we can all be whatever we want if we try hard enough, without any historical analysis to explain the unequal conditions. They aren’t going to spontaneously  provide a historical, class and racial analysis, they just look around and judge the world based on what they see.

The intellectual inferiority of non-Whites has been a hallmark in the belief system of America since its inception. It is a myth that has been institutionalized and propagated by every American institution. It is an idea that has shaped American culture and history. The culture thar black and indigenous people, have been socialized in has systematically taught them to believe this myth, and creates an inferiority complex in relation to whites, especially in the classroom. This has been a cancer passed down generation to generation.

For those psychologically traumatized by America, it is necessary for their collective mental health and self-image to be able to learn the causes of their current condition and not be left to ponder on their inferiority. This is where teaching becomes political. It is our job as educators to bring these youth to health by encouraging them to realize, the conditions among the oppressed are not due to their cultural dysfunction, but to an oppressive system that has victimized them for centuries. We do this not because we simply want to build up oppressed youth and make them feel good at the expense of the dominant system, but because it is true that the so-called shortcomings of oppressed populations in America are largely a legacy of institutionalized racism, oppression and the mechanisms of modern capitalism.

The schism between oppressed students and the educational system was fabricated by the educational system itself. African American students are more likely to be suspended by a large margin as early as pre-school. Study after study confirms that teachers prefer white students to non-Whites. Black youth are also viewed as being older, thus more threatening and less innocent and thus receive harsher consequences for similar behavior as White students. Teachers, according to studies begin to feel threatened by black students as early as the 4th grade. This creates an adversarial relationship between the school system and the student. The student may not even be able to articulate the problem, but may be more likely to act up in class. It is strange how this information is not considered in inquiries into the underperformance of students from oppressed backgrounds.

The problem of educational discrepancies among the oppressed is not an educational problem it is a deeper societal problem linked to all the other discrepancies. The general view in society of black youth as potentially threatening, less intelligent and unrepentant is also prevalent in schools. The same oppressive forces acting on black youth and other oppressed nationalities in other spheres of life are in motion in the educational system. They are criminalized and punished disproportionately just as in general American society. They are assumed culturally deficient and in need of civilization. The educational system is one arm of oppression in a matrix of an entire system based on class and race oppression. So, we cannot simply fix the educational system without changing everything else, it is attached to an entire system of capitalism, racism and imperialism which reproduces inequality. If we want a different outcome, we need a different system. We need a revolution.