Racism, Public Schooling, and the Entrenchment of White Supremacy: A Critical Race Ethnography
reviewed by Thandeka K. Chapman - September 15, 2011
Title: Racism, Public Schooling, and the Entrenchment of White Supremacy: A Critical Race Ethnography
Author(s): Sabina E. Vaught
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438434685, Pages: 240, Year: 2011
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Sabina Vaught compiles a comprehensive picture of the institutional and social power dynamics that contribute to the maintenance of white privilege in a district she entitles Jericho. She clearly states that the focus of her book is the exploration of how the racialized achievement gap is produced and reproduced in JPS [Jericho Public Schools] (p. 2). Her multi-site ethnography interrogates several specific policies and how policies are manipulated to support stock stories of intellectual and cultural deficits among people of color and in black and brown communities.
One strength of Vaughts ethnography is the fact that these specific policies -- choice, deferential student funding, and decentralization -- are common reform efforts across the country. While these policies, in theory, have been hailed as promoting equity and equality, Vaught quickly separates the theoretical position from its practical implementation. Thus, she demonstrates what Derrick Bell (1995b) calls racial realism by highlighting the ways in which issues of race and racism are so deeply embedded in systems and processes as to contaminate the policies aimed at equity. Vaughts nuanced assessment of school practices and decision-making in a racially mixed district can be applied to most districts struggling to provide quality learning for students from racially and socio-economically diverse backgrounds.
The body of the work
Vaught begins with a wide structural lens to explain how the overarching district policy of differential student funding affects each of the high schools in the study. In the next chapter, she focuses on individual schools and how the leadership at these schools struggles with decentralization and school choice. In her last chapter before the conclusion, Vaught explores the insidious nature of hate speech as a lever to sanction white privilege and the under-education of black and brown students. Each chapter draws the lens closer to the actual principals and teachers as the primary actors in the re-appropriation of white supremacy and institutional racism.
Throughout the text, Vaught provides extensive definitions of terminology such as white privilege, whiteness as property, colorblindness, and hate speech. She allots a significant amount of the first chapter to sharing how these terms are understood through the framework of critical race theory (CRT). For those readers who are well versed in CRT, this may seem a bit cumbersome to wade through before hearing the data. However, few enough well-versed scholars exist in the field of CRT, such that the need for Vaught to be both instructive and informative is understood.
Vaught begins the book by unmasking the flaws in Jerichos deferential student funding policy. The district allocates different amounts of monies to students based on race, socio-economic status, special needs, and other socially constructed categories as a means to provide specific groups of students and programs with more money to secure extra resources. Whereas the public believes this is an altruistic endeavor on the part of district leadership, Vaught tracks much of the differential payments to Title I and other federal funds that are supposed to follow students. When the funding reaches the schools, it is compiled into one lump sum and fairly disseminated throughout the school. In this case, it means that students with the least needs in the district, white students, are dependent upon students of color to supplement their financial basis. Vaught traces the practice of using students of color to supplement the financial needs of white students to Brown v. Board desegregation policies that bused black students to white schools to prevent the closure of white schools when white flight occurred in the district. Her ability to map the legacy of black and brown student disenfranchisement to other historical moments that have defined the trajectory of black and brown education is a component of CRT and a compelling aspect of the book.
In Chapter Three, Vaught examines the district policy of deregulation and decentralization at the individual school level. This chapter is the strongest of the three body chapters because it includes a good balance of the educators voices and examples of events and practices with material document data. Vaught debunks the illusions of deregulation and decentralization by documenting how the central office independently hands down decisions and resources to different schools in the district. She enlightens readers about purposeful misunderstandings - stereotypes, false frames of reference, and racist views - that obfuscate the actual decision-making processes in the district.
Where is the agency?
Vaughts book is an intense interrogation of district level school practices that serve to maintain the achievement gap by consistently pandering to the needs of white affluent parents, creating structural barriers for principals, and maintaining an understanding of white supremacy and black racial and cultural deficit. However, Vaughts focus on barriers leaves little room for highlighting the agency on the part of black administrators. Her empathetic depiction of the principals challenges is not balanced by evidence showing these highly intelligent individuals making a way out of no way to help students of color.
Voices of students and parents?
Additionally, it is difficult to fully view the district without the voices of students and parents. Vaught explains that these voices were withdrawn so that the focus on systemic practices would not be blurred by individual distinctions. However, the voices of students and parents negotiating these same systems are another counter-story that should have been included. Instead of exploring how parents and students understanding of choice and equity greatly impact the system, in ways that work for and against them, Vaught chooses to leave these issues unresolved.
Furthermore, Vaughts attempt to provide a call for action using interest-convergence is problematic. Derrick Bell states that interest-convergence has worked against the interests of people of color by re-aligning their interests to those of the dominant white majority (1995a). Suggesting that parents of color create a coalition with privileged white groups by threatening to use their differential student funds as leverage is a facile solution to a complex problem. Ending the book with the voices of parents and students would have been a better decision.
The racially ambiguous researcher
Lastly, Vaught explains that she uses her own racial ambiguity to gain information from different groups of people. She is able to pass for white and a person of color to allow different participants to feel a level of comfort with her. CRT promotes the use of the theory for people of color to explore the experiences and perceptions of people of color. Critical race theorists acknowledge the researcher as the primary research tool, and assert that the researcher of color is able to utilize his or her epistemological background to make choices concerning the research project. There is debate in the field of education research concerning what types of CRT projects white scholars should undertake. Regardless of ones race, to remain racially ambiguous in the CRT text is unacceptable. That being said, the book has many strengths and is a powerful ethnography about race and racism in schools.
Bell, D. A. (1995a). Brown v. Board of Education and the interest convergence dilemma. In K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller & K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical race theory: The key writings that formed a movement (pp. 5-19). New York: The New Press.
Bell, D. A. (1995b). Racial realism. In K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller & K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical race theory: The key writings that formed a movement (pp. 302-314). New York: The New Press.