Cassandra in Little Rock
“Liberals fail to understand that the nature of power is such that the power potential of the Union as a whole will suffer if the regional foundations on which this power rests are undermined.”
– Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”
In a January 2015 Nation article entitled “Black Lives Matter — at School, Too,” George Joseph explains how education reformers have been able to disempower urban black communities. Students in these communities take standardized tests and get low scores. Politicians use these results to justify transferring power from elected school boards to for-profit charter school chains such as KIPP that transform schools into “totalizing carceral environments.” Children who do well in such environments are prepared for low-wage jobs in manufacturing and retail, but charters are quick to expel disobedient children, thus contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Unfortunately, parents and community members cannot protest these policies because charters are privately run and thus unresponsive to democratic school boards.
The Obama administration has contributed to this situation. According to its 2010 blueprint for reauthorizing the Early and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the U.S. Department of Education awards “school turnaround grants” to states that make plans for so-called failing schools. One of these plans, the restart model, requires states to “close and reopen the school under the management of an effective charter operator.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that the President supports “the expansion of competition from high-performing charter schools with traditional public schools.” As the Nation article details, however, charter schools have dimmed the educational prospects for many black students in cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Education activists looking for theoretical resources may turn to Hannah Arendt’s 1959 essay, “Reflections on Little Rock.” Here, Arendt identifies political and pedagogical reasons why states and localities, rather than the federal government, ought to decide education policy.
First, a democratic society should address its problems in a democratic manner. Arendt begins her essay by warning of the danger of liberal clichés, including the notion that the federal government is enlightened and the states are bastions of ignorance and racism. This cliché blinds liberals to the fact that sometimes federal policy is good and sometimes it is bad, but in either case, if the states are too weak, then there will be no check on bad federal policy.
“States’ rights in this country,” Arendt explains, “are among the most authentic sources of power, not only for the promotion of regional interests and diversity, but for the Republic as a whole.” If 50 states and thousands of local educational authorities determine education policy, then there are many sites where political actors can decide together how to educate children. But if major educational decisions are made in Washington, D.C., then the civic agency of the rest of the country withers. A heavy-handed federal government will render people unfit to deliberate about matters of shared concern, such as the schools.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that federal policies will make schools better — and, in fact, there is some likelihood that removed bureaucrats will make worse decisions than those citizens who are directly affected by education policies. Arendt maintains that parents have a right to determine how their children are educated and that groups of people have the right to decide together how to run the schools. In the Nation article cited above, a Baltimore student named Jamal Jones explains, “It is such a mind-boggling idea for black people to control their own resources. When we…say we want to control our schools, they don’t even know what that means.” Arendt, I believe, would appreciate what Jones is saying and support urban black communities contesting federal policies that promote privately run charter schools.
Fair and Unfair Criticisms
Arendt’s Little Rock essay has been embroiled in controversy since its publication. Here, I wish to address two critiques made by Kathryn T. Gines in her recent book, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question.
Gines states, fairly, that Arendt fails to situate her analysis within “the historical realities of slavery, race, racism, and the political consequences of these realities in the U.S. context.” This may explain why Arendt misidentifies people in the famous photographs from Little Rock, misrepresents the strategies and intentions of the civil rights groups that pushed for federal intervention to desegregate the schools, misjudges the character of the black parents who asked their children to fight their battles, and fails to see how politics affects the communities that supposedly exercise social freedom to run the schools.
Unfairly, Gines insinuates that Arendt bases her opposition to federal policy on racism. In her Little Rock essay, Gines says, “we see Arendt advocate for white rights…while simultaneously ignoring Black rights.”
At the beginning of her article, Arendt says, “I should like to make it clear that as a Jew I take my sympathy for the cause of the Negroes as for all oppressed or underprivileged peoples for granted and should appreciate it if the reader did likewise.” One of the great themes of Arendt’s political theory is that concentrated power threatens political life. She foresaw that a strong federal education policy would disempower communities and eventually lead to worse schools (on the current fate of the Little Rock school district, see here).
The Obama administration claims that it advances the civil rights legacy even when it advocates policies, such as school turnaround grants, that unravel the fabric of African-American communities. If charters are privately run, and black children are more likely than white children to attend charters, then a pro-charter federal education policy, in effect, disenfranchises many black people from running their own schools.
In The Human Condition, Arendt famously enjoins us to think what we are doing. For several decades, liberals have believed that the federal government is the friend of the civil rights movement. But there is no intrinsic connection between local control and racism or between federal power and racial egalitarianism. Today, urban black communities are awakening to the realization that while charter schools may help some children, they can also weaken communities and harm many children. To empower black communities, liberals need to consider that the federal government has toppled the Constitutional framework that diffuses democratic energies throughout the Republic. In other words, liberals should take to heart Arendt’s insight that the ‘color question’ “is soluble only within the political and historical framework of the Republic.”
Nicholas Tampio, for the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. Nicholas is Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University. He is the author of Kantian Courage (Fordham University Press, 2012) and is currently writing an article on democracy and education standards.
**(originally published on May 18, 2015)