A Brick In The Path (Promised Lands Are Never Promises Kept)

Jose VilsonEducation, Featured, Jose, Race

“Originally a biblical reference to the land of Canaan promised to the descendants of Jacob, The Promised Land represented a new physical space where the old social order would be dissolved and from which opportunity would spring. The Promised Land was geographic, political, and simultaneously corporeal and non-corporeal.”

From the beginning of the book Inequality In The Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, Professor R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy (Dumi Lewis, if you must) asks the reader to turn on their critical lenses and pick apart their assumptions about equity, specifically about the redeeming qualities of social class as a lever for anti-racism. He also asks us to suspend belief in a specific type of schooling and focus on the relationships between students and the various actors (and policies) that interact with the students. He asks us to use this suburban district case study as a model for any district where they ostensibly “have it figured out” but still show the same markers of inequity we see in more visible (i.e. urban) spaces.

He forgot to tell us to keep our feelings separate from the text. This book angered me, and I wish he told me sooner.

The book takes us through the inner workings of a district he dubs Rolling Acres Public Schools (RAPS), a suburban mixed-class school district where the population is mostly black and white racially. (NB: When I asked him which school district he was talking about, he said he hadn’t even told his wife. So, there’s that.) From the outset, he lays out the current research on school districts like these and disavows them at once. For example, he suggests that previous studies that just focus on social class ignores how people of similar social classes have different experiences on race. Throughout the book, he makes a strong case for focusing on how everyone interacts with each other through a research lens, picking apart even the more ordinary events from his visit to RAPS and hooking them into his larger narrative on school inequity.

But that didn’t initially anger me. What hit me hardest in this book was the way that everyone was complicit in preserving inequity, even the most vulnerable actors.

Akin to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists, Lewis-McCoy allows the interviewees breadth to talk at will, allowing their subconscious to come to the fore. We read of two black parents from different classes each expressing their frustrations with their schools. In the case of the rich black parent, she had the tools to make her presence felt in parent activities, but was still castigated for doing things differently from what the white parents had asked. In the case of the working-class black parent, she didn’t have the tools, so her efforts to get involved with her daughter’s schooling were thwarted by multiple adults, including her child’s teacher.

We read of a black teacher in her first year at an elementary school who, by rumor and innuendo, had a petition drawn against her by a loud contingency of the parent-teacher association, even as the charges were unsubstantiated. We read of white parents who, in their own words, did their best to appear non-racist yet acknowledges that they had friends who said racist things.

We read of black and white children who speak with post-racial statements until they’re gently probed. Then the thin veil falls and they too speak to race acutely, if not unconsciously.

What’s most acute about this read is the complicated ways that every actor preserves the inequity. Lewis-McCoy tells us from the outset that this is supposed to be a successful district by measures that made this NYC teacher blush. But I’m reminded of Imani Perry and her stance on privilege:

I do this exercise with students where, when they want to talk about racial inequality/injustice and racism, I ask them not to use the terms “privilege” and “cultural appropriation.” It forces them to talk about capital, resources, inequality that results from “preferences” and a host of other accumulations and disaccumulations along the lines of race, with MUCH greater precision and depth.

Not ironically, Lewis-McCoy is on the thread where she spoke of this. Indeed, too much of the language around social justice has lost meaning. Words like “respectability politics,” “privilege,” and even “social justice” have made studies of inequality almost untenable because they’ve almost become predicated on preservation of inequity and not rehumanization and conditions for survival. Lewis-McCoy understands this in a way that W.E.B. DuBois did, laying waste to the current education debate on public, private, charter, etc. and focusing instead on how white supremacy allows for the hoarding of resources in our schools.

In a note inscribed in the book, he wrote to me that perhaps this book would serve as a “brick in the path” to justice. We have a mutual understanding that those who came before us in this space don’t do this work as a standalone, but as a wedge to allow scholars like him to continue to critically examine this conglomerate we call America. Unlike some of the books I’ve read on education in the last decade, this book allows Lewis-McCoy to position himself amongst the plethora of scholars who came before, fortifying his own shoulders while standing on a plethora of others. Yes, that’s a great thing.

This book angered me in the best ways possible. Get it. Because Rolling Acres isn’t that far away. If you think you live there, you’re probably right.

photo c/o