By: Andre Lopes Massa
Traditional historical narrative has purported for generations that education has been the key to American progress and that, more importantly, the American political system has corrected the disparities in education access and attainment between white and black individuals. While educational standards have improved since the industrial revolution, historical analysis shows that disparities existed when considered through an intersectional lens which the political progress of history has overlooked. This paper aims to use that historical analysis to show how those overlooked disparities have created different forms of educational inequality for black Americans today.
The linear narrative of progress in the context of educational reform suggests that the benefits of such progress have been spread evenly across intersectional lines by benevolent wielders of political and social power. First, we are taught that Republican Motherhood opened the door for more women to attain higher level of education, followed by the reforms of the Reconstruction era in the aftermath of the Civil War liberating Blacks to reap the same benefits of education, with the implementation of the Prussian system of public school liberating the poor from the structural oppression of access brought on by class lines. This linear recount of the temporality of educational liberation for the oppressed would cumulate supposedly with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown V Board of Ed (1952-1954), where the same benevolent wielders of political and social power that were revered throughout history saw fit to bring it upon themselves to reward blacks with what was seen as truly equal access to education, freeing them from the chains of the “separate but equal doctrine”. On the surface, this narrative largely seems to hold true. According to the U.S Census Bureau (2020), 88% of Blacks have a high school diploma, with 26% going on to achieving a bachelor’s degree, which is up from only 7% of Blacks having a high school diploma in 1940 (U.S Census Bureau 2020). Scratch beneath that, however, and you find a different picture.
According to UNCF (United Negro College Fund 2021), only 57 percent of Blacks have access to college level AP courses and programs in high school, compared with 81% for their Asian American peers and 71% for their White peers (UNCF 2021). Black children are more likely to be in schools with lower salaried and novice teachers, with non-black teachers more likely to have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers (UNCF 2021). Finally, Black students spend less time in classrooms due to disciplinary issues, with Black students 3.8 times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, making up 47% of all suspension handed out despite Black students making up only 19% of the school population (UNCF 2021). Add all of this up and you get a vastly different account of the results of educational progress than the linear account of temporality we are spoon-feed from our history textbooks. In 2015, 61% of all Black students from that year’s high school graduating class failed to meet the four ACT college readiness benchmarks, compared with 31% for the whole of that year’s graduating class (UNCF 2021).
Alternative readings from scholars of history and critical race theory can offer explanations for why these disparities ranging from the historical impact of sharecropping and its emphasis on Blacks as more desirable as physical laborers (Rury 2016) shaping a social dynamic based upon exclusion in the rural south in the 19th century.
Delving into the realm of intersectionality, the notion of “Republican Motherhood” elevated women to the realm of higher education through virtues of nurturing their sons to become better citizens, a fantasy consistent with classical liberalism (Nash 1997), at the expense of Black women (Rury 2016). These scholars and their analysis should provide the critical foundation gained through alternative readings of history to understand the current situation regarding educational inequity seen across racial divides.
Educational Exclusion in the Form of Sharecropping
Sharecropping is often seen as a legalized form of slavery designed to maintain the social hierarchy of the South in the aftermath of the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Sharecropping, as a system, was an agreement where a tenant would be permitted to use the land and equipment of their landlords and work the land in exchange for “sharing” a portion of their crops with the landlord during harvest season.
Racist ideology combined with white resentment resulted in minimal funding for Black education as Southern Whites were determined to preserve the old order of the South. With little to no resources, many Blacks were forced to turn to sharecropping for survival, maintaining slavery as the legalized, de-facto institution of the South. Narratives against Black schooling permeated Southern discourse, with Black schooling seen as a “waste of good field hands” and Blacks underserving of schooling compared to their “cultivated” White counterparts (Rury 2016). This created a dynamic between Southern Blacks and Whites premised on exclusion; Blacks were undeserving of any formal education and better utilized as field hands, forcing them into sharecropping that tied them to the land of their white landlords, excluding them from the benefits of higher education that was becoming prevalent in Southern cultural progression.
Despite the shackles of sharecropping, however, the late 1880’s and 1890’s did see an increase in the number of Black schools present in the South. With industrialization evolving at a rapid pace, the South turned to higher education to prepare a workforce to lead the South’s modernization into the industrial revolution while also preserving a distinct, Southern regional identity (Mohr 2009). While on the surface the increasing establishment of Black schools and educational institutions meant that they were sharing the benefits of industrialization, Mohr (2009) believes there may have been a more nefariously motive behind such progress, writing:
“In the deteriorating racial climate of the late nineteenth century this was no small thing. Southern white supporters of black education were typically conservative racial paternalists who subscribed to an ambiguous creed of noblesse oblige grounded in either religious or secular assumptions. During the 1880s northern missionary educators reached an uneasy accommodation with such people – southern whites who acknowledged either a Christian obligation to uplift their inferior black brethren through education or a practical need to help blacks advance as a race in ways that would strengthen the South without threatening white supremacy.” (Mohr 2009).
Here the dynamic of exclusion remains. While Blacks were able to progress beyond sharecropping and into the realm of education, most schools were those established by the paternalistic, White missionaries with a desire to maintain the current social order. Exclusion, therefore, opaquely shifts discourse that outwardly shows disdain for Black schooling and pushing them to sharecropping to discourse that views Blacks as a people in need of White, educated saviors to lift them from their barbaric state and march forward with good, Christian values, excluding them from the realm of liberal individualism in favor of supporting a parasitic relationship whereby Black schooling becomes a commodity to be consumed in support of White paternalism.
Exclusion in the Form of Republican Motherhood
While sharecropping is vital in shaping our understanding of historical educational inequality for Blacks based upon the theme of exclusion, it is necessary to delve into how the discourse of Republican Motherhood uniquely excluded Black women from the progress of education enjoyed by White Women.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, women were seen as being firmly consigned to the domestic sphere, with education largely a right reserved for the men who were destined to lead society. With victory in the war, however, leaders were desperate to preserve a republic in its infancy. The domestic sphere could no longer be seen as being on the peripheral of the public sphere and was now seen as being intertwined with the public sphere. Thus, Republican Motherhood was born “as a solution to the dilemma of the incompatibility of women’s revolutionary politicization with postrevolutionary theories relegating women to the home” (Nash 1997).
This solution brought about significant educational advancement for women through the belief that the best way for the American Republic to survive was for its sons to have strong, intellectual mothers to teach them from home so that they may grow into the leaders the Republic needed for the future. As a result, the educational sphere that was previously shut for women was suddenly thrust open led by a new wave of domesticated feminism. Suddenly, the visibility of women within the revolutionary sphere was heightened (Nash 1997) and women began to receive nearly the same education as their male counterparts, setting the foundation for future political struggles that would ultimate cumulate in achieving the right to vote for women.
The specter of exclusion, however, still loomed large even in the face of Republican Motherhood. While white women were able to receive a formal education, the institution of slavery relegated Black women as property outside the realm of the human and deemed them unworthy of such an education. While white women during the infancy of the American Republic leading up to the Civil War were in school, Black women were forced to work as servants and wet nurses, cementing their servile status and excluding them from Republican Motherhood (Rury 2016).
The social dynamic of educational exclusion between White and Black women born during the infancy of Republican Motherhood would spill into women’s suffrage movement of the late 18th century and early 19th century and become political exclusion. While Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton lead the struggle for the right to vote as women, they largely did so as the beneficiaries of a formal education made possible by Republican Motherhood. White women with a formal education had access to organizational and communication skills that their Black counterparts did not (Rury 2016), perverting the suffragette movement as a display of the power of White Republican Motherhood. Visual evidence of this can be seen in a 1913 suffragette march organized by Alice Paul where she forced Black women to march at the back of the line (Bernard 2013), a further representation of the servile status Black women had in relation to the political struggle of the suffragette movement.
The results of the suffragette movement confirm the thesis of educational exclusion transforming into political exclusion. While Anthony and Stanton died a decade before the passage of the 19th Amendment, their work did ultimately bear fruit for White women at least. While White Women were free to vote after the passage of the 19th Amendment, Black women, lacking the formal organizational skills of their white counterparts, still faced severe voting restrictions in Southern states that ultimately led them being barred from voting and thus excluded from the landmark achievements of women’s suffrage.
While an analysis of educational progress based upon the notion of exclusion largely disrupts the linear, temporal narrative of equal, educational progress, it would be remiss to simply leave it as a criticism without praxis. Exclusion in the form of sharecropping and White, Christian paternalism has lead disparities in social mobility between White and Blacks that, within a system where schools are funded through property taxes, creates the same disparities in funding and resource access seen during the sharecropping era of Reconstruction. Ironically, though the equalizing benefits of this system are often championed by its proponents, the disparities in the quality of schools that Black students endure compared to their White counterparts is a large driver of the disparities we see in college readiness and graduation rates between Blacks and Whites, leading more Blacks into lower income, physical oriented careers that reinforce the 19th century narrative of Blacks being best served in the fields.
It is through this understanding of history and the role of exclusion that we can become aware of the legacy of exclusion and how its remnants are still present today. This paper is not meant to solely criticize but to introduce hyper awareness into political discourse and decision making of why an understanding of history is necessary for the formulation of educational policy. It is through this awareness that policy makers will be better equipped to identify the last remnants of exclusion and move toward a system of education that, for the first time, will truly present opportunities for all.
Bernard, M. (2013, March 4). Despite Tremendous Risks African American Women Marched for Suffrage Too. Retrieved June 26, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2013/03/03/despite-the-tremendous-risk-african-american-women-marched-for-suffrage-too/
Bureau, U. C. (2020, August 18). Black High School Attainment Nearly on Par With National Average. Retrieved June 26, 2021, from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/06/black-high-school-attainment-nearly-on-par-with-national-average.html
K-12 Disparity Facts and Statistics. (2020, March 20). Retrieved June 26, 2021, from https://uncf.org/pages/k-12-disparity-facts-and-stats
Mohr, C. L. (2009). Minds of the New South: Higher Education in Black and White, 1880-1915. Southern Quarterly, 46(4), 8–34
Nash, M. (1997). Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia. Journal of the Early Republic, 17(2), 171-191
Rury, J. (2017). Education and Social Change. New York, NY. Taylor & Francis