Our School System, Racial Justice and Neoliberalism

True racial justice and equality in our school system cannot be achieved under neoliberalism.

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Learning to be a better ally and friend every day. Writing to eliminate barriers that make politics inaccessible to the working class. Fan of slice-of-life and surrealist movies, garage rock and eating The Rich.

(Source: Mr Online)

What does it mean to achieve racial justice?

Despite repeated platitudes of solidarity, we are yet to see tangible systemic change because these statements, while well-intentioned, fail to illustrate what racial justice looks like. Workplaces and schools have taken it upon themselves to define racial justice and have sought new ways to demonstrate their commitment to anti-racism. While it’s great to see anti-racist rhetoric embraced, their attempts have been unsurprisingly subpar. Widely implemented equity training—in which employees are taught to recognize how their biases and privilege feed white supremacy—epitomizes their myopia. 

However, it’s not the premise of equity training that I disagree with but its framework. It treats racism as an aggregate of bad actors rather than a result of oppressive institutions. We must recognize that racism is not a matter of individual, but power—power that comes from capitalism and neoliberalism. Otherwise, we will only continue fruitless dialogues and ignore the true systemic roots of racism.

Let me break it down: neoliberalism is an economic system that pushes to privatize and deregulate all industries to resemble a free market. It claims that collective action threatens individual freedoms and should be discouraged. How does neoliberalism manifest itself in workplaces and schools?

1. The illusion of choice

At its core, neoliberalism faults individual actions for societal woes. We perpetuate this notion through programs like equity training that place the fate of racism in the hands of employees. (This also creates resentment, which people then exacerbate by inputting their implicit biases that equity training intends to reduce.) 

Additionally, this has led to the division of the education system: private and public. Theoretically, parents can choose what type of education they believe best suits their child. But, since private schools are costly, poorer families don’t actually have a choice. This class divide intensifies racial inequities, as students of color are more likely to attend high-poverty schools. This educational segregation undermines students’ academic performance. Furthermore, public schools, compared to private, tend to lack proper resources and disciplinary climates that equip their students for higher education and adult life.

2. Individualism over collectivism

The marketization of the education system means that instead of addressing the needs of students collectively, schools are incentivized to compete for funding. This creates the need for measurement. Public schools have become increasingly standardized—everyone has to learn the same material at the same time. Teachers do not have the flexibility to customize their curriculums according to their students’ needs. Their priority is to produce results (test scores through SATs and APs). If their students fail to perform, they can experience cuts to their salary, and the whole school can lose funding. The neoliberal focus on individualism claims that a school’s conditions are no excuse for poor performances because no matter their background, every student has the potential to be equally self-sufficient. However, when public schools were given autonomy and structure—the availability of resources no longer being conditional—students performed as well as their private school neighbors, proving that the quality of education is often a matter of money, not individual competency.

3. Rethinking neoliberalism for education justice

If neoliberalism produces such extensive consequences, how has it remained so covert? Well, although most of the world has adopted some degree of neoliberalism, it goes unacknowledged because to recognize its existence is to undermine it. So, the first step to dismantling neoliberalism would be to draw attention to it. However, I understand that this is difficult to do at large. As Assata Shakur said, "no one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them." As a student, I know any school cannot and will not go beyond superficial equity training or white-framed cultural studies, because the education system is integral to changing culture, and, therefore, is an institutional weapon of neoliberalism. 

If we trace back history, we find that with the origins of modern capitalism came racism. First, the white ruling class taught racist theories such as Social Darwinism that "scientifically proved" how Black people were sub-human in order to maintain slavery, and in turn, profit. In the 70s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher aggressively promoted neoliberalism by claiming that there simply was no alternative. They weaponized markets, media, and, most importantly, the education system. Since then, overtly racist legislation (Jim Crow, anti-Indigenous acts, immigration laws) may have slowly been overturned, but we still see the effects of racism, because these bourgeoisie roots have not been eradicated; they have been codified. We maintain dated institutions such as police, that originated from slavery, for "public safety." We watch our politicians espouse rugged individualism that ignores everyone's unique circumstances and birthrights. We use language like "better neighborhoods" that really mean white, gentrified neighborhoods that ignore the white history of sabotaging Black generational wealth. We assess the prowess of our students through exams like the SAT that were created to prove how non-white immigrants were intellectually inferior. We do all of this to maintain power structures that solely benefit elite capitalists.

While I can’t present any cure-all for racism, I know this: if neoliberalism requires individualism, we require collectivism. We are not competitors. We should not compete for stability, for employment, or for education. The only way to truly eliminate racism is to be without its master--capitalism. If any remnant of neoliberalism or capitalism exists, that means we are far from achieving racial justice.