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What’s Race Got to Do With It?: How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality

reviewed by Ashley Woodson - January 12, 2016

coverTitle: What’s Race Got to Do With It?: How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality
Author(s): Bree Picower, Edwin Mayorga (Eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433128837, Pages: 208, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

In What’s Race Got to Do With It? How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality, editors Bree Picower and Edwin Mayorga have compiled substantive chapters that examine the devastating impact of “racialized neoliberal education reform” (p. 11) on communities of color, and longstanding and emerging strategies of resistance to these profound changes. The contributing authors to this volume draw on their expertise in left-leaning theories of race and economics, educational policy, and traditions of social justice activism to reveal the white supremacist impulse behind the privatization of education, the commodification of student outcomes, and corporate models of public schooling. Each chapter is a tightly framed case study that examines how racialized neoliberal education reform exacerbates the structural vulnerability of communities of color.

Picower and Mayorga facilitate a vocabulary that helps researchers, practitioners, and policymakers discuss racialized neoliberal education reform across different contexts. They open with a range of theoretical constructs, including Harris’s (1993) whiteness as property and Robinson’s (1983) racial capitalism. The editors also introduce a social justice metaphor derived through their experiences within the New York Collective of Radical Educators, likening social movements against racialized neoliberal education reform to the Greek demigod Hercules’s battle against the multi-headed hydra. David Stovall’s chapter, a critical race analysis of mayoral control in Chicago public schooling systems, is structured through this hydra metaphor, describing the body of the beast as neoliberal school reform, and mayoral control as one of its “dangerous appendages” (p. 46). Stovall’s comparative discussion of neoliberal housing policy and school reform demonstrates the power of this metaphor. Although few chapters advance the metaphor as directly as Stovall, many chapters powerfully interweave autoethnographic and case study vignettes revealing the human cost of racialized neoliberal education reform. Picower and Mayorga end the text with “Artifacts of Resistance,” a compelling appendix documenting some of the actors and outcomes of the movement against neoliberal education reform in New York.

One chapter of note is Wayne Au’s “High-Stakes Testing: A Tool for White Supremacy for Over 100 Years,” a historical account of the interconnection between high-stakes testing and white racial domination. Au details how assessments of questionable validity are used to label individual students, districts, and entire communities as incompetent, and how these descriptions are used to justify state and private intervention, surveillance, and control. Au’s explicit focus on the role of high-stakes testing in perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline is a useful contribution to educational policy discourse. Terrenda White’s “Charter Schools: Demystifying Whiteness in a Market of ‘No Excuses’ Corporate-Styled Charter Schools” is also required reading. Through a DuBoisian analysis, White illuminates how whiteness, abstract liberalism, and cultural racism shape the philosophies undergirding the expansion of the contemporary charter school movement. White demonstrates, both conceptually and through briefly presented findings from a qualitative research study, how the rhetoric of charter school choice and competition dispossesses as well as stigmatizes communities of color. White’s contribution represents the type of transdisciplinary analysis needed to move struggles against neoliberal education reform forward.

Despite useful historical reviews of the case study contexts in nearly every chapter—Brian Jones’s review of post-Civil Rights Movement attacks on teachers unions is of note in this regard—the volume focuses on the present. A cursory review places the mean date of citations in, or around, the early 2000s, a pattern that excludes foundational works in the rich tradition that originated concepts like racialized neoliberal education reform. Picower and Mayorga frame the volume as a possible bridge between the seemingly polarized race versus class debate in educational policy, but do not offer insight into the meanings, development, or tensions with Marxist and Black Marxist thought. The editors briefly note Cedric Robinson’s book (1983) Black Marxism in the introduction, but rely on secondary citations to operationalize Robinson’s racial capitalism. Further, they do not address critiques that Robinson was not a Marxist (Callinicos, 1993; McClendon, 2007). While common language for contemporary researchers, practitioners, and policymakers is essential, it should not come at the expense of discursive ties with historical leaders in the fight against neoliberalism and its antecedents.

What’s Race Got to Do With It is an insightful, praxis-oriented introductory volume that highlights the diversity of theoretical and methodological perspectives that can—and should—be used to advance resistance to neoliberal education reform. In addition to illuminating multiple points of departure for continued grassroots strategizing, the text advances a growing body of academic literature that grapples with the complexity of scholar activist identities and social justice oriented praxis. Works that deeply interrogate racialization, capitalism, dispossession, and neoliberalism do not often recommend possibilities for social action, but this text does so consistently and well. Scholars, practitioners, and activists seeking models for mobilizing theory in their work will value this text as a resource.



Callinicos, A. (1993). Race and class. London, UK: Bookmarks.


Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1707–1791.


McClendon III, J. H. (2007). Marxism in ebony contra black Marxism: Categorical implications. Proudflesh: New Afrikan Journal of Culture, Politics and Consciousness, 6. Retrieved from http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/proudflesh/article/view/162

Robinson, C. J. (1983). Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 12, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19305, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:12:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Ashley Woodson
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    ASHLEY N. WOODSON is an assistant professor of Social Studies Education in the Department of Instruction and Learning, and faculty fellow with the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include critical race theory, urban education, and expressions of sociopolitical consciousness in Black communities.
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