Conservative Alliance Building and African American Support of Vouchers: The End of Brown's Promise or a New Beginning?

by Michael W. Apple & Thomas C. Pedroni - 2005

A new kind of conservatism has evolved and has taken center stage in many nations, one that is best seen as "conservative modernization." Although parts of these conservative positions may have originated within the New Right, they are now not limited to what has traditionally been called the Right. They have been taken up by a much larger segment of government and policy makers and have also even been appropriated by groups that one might least expect to do so, such as African American activists in cities like Milwaukee. In this article, we examine a growing phenomenon: the growth of seemingly conservative sentiments among some of the least powerful groups in this society. Perhaps the most significant organization to emerge has been the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). It has mobilized around voucher advocacy for urban working-class communities of color. BAEO has attracted significant attention not just for its iconoclastic alignment with conservative educational reform, but also for accepting funding from far-Right foundations. This article analyzes the complexity of the discursive and sociopolitical space that BAEO occupies. The organization's awareness of its critics, allies, and the limited range of educational options within which low-income African American families must act belies the notion, put forward by some, that BAEO is simply a front organization for the educational Right. Nevertheless, BAEO's importance to the larger rightist project in education cannot be overstated. At the core of our analysis is a concern about what is at stake for all of us if a rightist educational agenda succeeds in redefining what and whose knowledge is of most worth and what our social and educational policies are meant to do. Yet, no matter what one's position is on the wisdom of BAEO's strategic actions, this case provides a crucial example of the politics of how social movements and alliances are formed and reformed out of the material and ideological conditions of daily life. A critical but sympathetic understanding of groups such as BAEO may enable us to avoid the essentialism and reductionism that enters into critical sociological work on the nature of ongoing struggles over educational reform. It can provide a more nuanced sense of social actors and the possibilities and limits of strategic alliances in a time of major conflicts over educational reform during a period of conservative modernization.

This is both a good and bad time in the world of educational policy. On the one hand, there have been very few periods when education has taken such a central place in public debates about our present and future. On the other hand, an increasingly limited range of discursive resources dominates the ways in which this debate is carried out. Indeed, the ideological playing field is so uneven that what were formerly seen as rightist policies have now become “common sense” (Apple, 2000, 2001). Thus, conservative policies have a different kind of cachet today, seen as both efforts to protect a romantic past and as “radical” but necessary solutions to an educational system that is out of control and is no longer responsive to the needs of “the people.”

Hence, a new kind of conservatism has evolved and has taken center stage in many nations, one that is best seen as “conservative modernization” (Apple, 2001; Dale, 1989/1990). Although parts of these positions may have originated within the New Right, they are now not limited to what has traditionally been called the Right. They have been taken up by a much larger segment of government and policy makers and, as we will see in this article, they have even been appropriated by groups that one might least expect to do so, such as African American activists in cities like Milwaukee.


That we might be surprised by the forging of alliances between African American activists and educational actors and tendencies on the Right is a testament to the ways in which we have underestimated both the power of insurgent conservative educational discourses and the urgency of the ongoing educational and social emergency confronting urban working-class and poor families of color.

Any investigation of African American participation in conservative educational reform—such as the one that we undertake in this article—must radiate from an honest appraisal of the conditions, contemporary and historical, that have characterized African Americans' experiences of schooling in places like Milwaukee—one of the first places where an alliance between conservative market-oriented educational reformers and community leaders of the educationally dispossessed has been formed. The move toward support of vouchers among many African American families and community leaders in cities like Milwaukee has come only after a very long history of struggle for greater responsiveness from public school systems. In many ways, the emergence of considerable African American support for seemingly right-wing market-based educational reforms is itself a legacy of the failure of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to adequately animate the desegregationist policies that were carried out under its banner in places like Milwaukee.

Indeed, we know from research on desegregation that these plans—in Milwaukee and hundreds of other school districts—were often designed and carried out in a manner that systematically maintained White privilege under the banner of an “equity-minded” policy. Thus, Black schools were closed, the burden of busing was placed disproportionately on Black students, students were resegregated across classrooms within their “desegregated” schools with mostly White students in high-level classes, and White students were provided greater access to highly desirable and usually well-funded magnet schools (see Bell, 2004; Shujaa, 1996; Wells, Holme, Revilla, & Atanda, 2004).

This history of school desegregation in the United States is a tribute to the power of White privilege to reassert itself even into policies and programs that were supposedly designed to alter this privilege by helping African Americans gain access to better schools and educational opportunities. Our recognition of this history is not an indictment of the spirit of Brown; rather, it is a sober assessment of how difficult it is for educational policies to change a society so deeply rooted in racial inequality and segregation. The racial apartheid that envelopes U.S. public education renders efforts to desegregate it nearly futile; virtually all policies and programs designed to “equalize” opportunities are rooted in the advantages that Whites have and fight to maintain (see Wells, Holme, Atanda, & Revilla, 2005).

It is in this context that a vocal and energized group of African Americans in Milwaukee came to see vouchers and private school choice as the best option, given their frustration with a school desegregation plan that had for so long sent Black students across the city and across urban-suburban lines while many neighborhood schools in the Black community were either closed or converted into sought-after magnet schools that were nearly 50% White. While these African American voucher supporters do not speak for all African Americans in Milwaukee (e.g., thousands enrolled their children in magnet and suburban schools through the desegregation plan),i they do speak to the larger issue of Blacks' growing frustration with ongoing White resistance to developing comprehensive and equal school desegregation policies. They also speak to the ways in which that frustration manifests itself into seemingly odd political alliances with advocates on the political Right—those whose views many have seen as antithetical to an agenda of racial equality and social justice.


Beginning in the Civil Rights era, African Americans in Milwaukee participated in extensive direct and legal action in order to bring about the desegregation of their school district. Prior to a 1979 consent decree mandating desegregation, Milwaukee's history of segregation included a very elaborate and intentional system of unequal partitioning of resources, teachers, and students between predominantly White and predominantly Black schools in the urban core. The essential priority of this system was to maximize educational quality for students of European American descent (Carl, 1995; Dougherty, 2004; Fuller, 1985).

Predominantly Black schools, even in times of exceptional overcrowding, were called upon to take responsibility for new Black students, even when predominantly White schools in the area were noticeably undersubscribed. In the most extreme segregation-era cases, a system of “intact busing” was devised in which whole classrooms of Black students from overcrowded Black schools were transported by bus to undersubscribed “White” schools to use separate classroom space there. Until 1971, when the practice was discontinued, the students of “intact busing” would report in the morning to their “home” school, board the bus for the predominantly White school, and return to their “home” school for lunch (at least until 1964) and again at the end of the school day (Carl, 1995; Dougherty, 2004).

The extended struggle for desegregation sought to end practices such as intact busing and bring about a redistribution of educational resources that would guarantee access to quality education for all students regardless of race. The final Milwaukee desegregation plan included both an intracity plan of student reassignments and magnet schools of choice and an uncommon urban-suburban student transfer program, known as Chapter 220, which allowed Black students from the city to choose to transfer to predominantly White suburban schools.ii (The state pays for Black students' transportation to their suburban schools so that they are not dependent on a parent to get them to and from a suburban school every day.) In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the critics of desegregation were most vocal, nearly 6,000 African American students were attending predominantly White suburban schools through this program (Schmidt, 1993).

Yet the legacy of desegregation in Milwaukee is a highly tainted one (e.g., Carl, 1996; Dougherty, 2004; Fuller, 1985). In the hands of White politicians and school officials, the primary aim of Milwaukee's desegregation efforts eroded from guaranteeing educational opportunity to African American students into a superficial compliance with the desegregation decree, one that typically maximized the benefits of the desegregation system for White students.iii Funding formulas rewarded “White” schools both in the city and in the suburbs (through Chapter 220 programs) when they enrolled Black students, who typically took long bus rides to school only to be separated from many of the White students through tracking systems. At the same time, many of the public schools in historically Black inner-city neighborhoods were closed down in order to make way for specialty magnet schools (Metz, 2003), which were required by a court order to engage in admissions practices that made them disproportionately White (Dougherty, 2004). We should note that under the final settlement agreement in the 1980s, Milwaukee Public Schools also received extra funding targeted toward the remaining all-Black inner-city schools. This money was used to reduce large class sizes in the Black schools—as high as 35 students in elementary classes—and to implement all-day kindergarten programs (see Olson, 1990).

Still, as in most school districts forced by the courts to deal with racial segregation and inequality, desegregation in Milwaukee meant that much of the burden of busing was placed on the shoulders of African American students. Like many school desegregation programs, the Milwaukee plan began by closing several schools in the Black community and reopening those schools as magnet schools that would attract White and Black students alike. (Thus, it should be pointed out, “racial balance” was often achieved by decreasing the number of Black children attending their neighborhood schools.) A substantial number of Black children were reassigned to, or provided choices of, predominantly White schools in the city or the suburbs (Olson, 1990). The plan never involved the mandatory reassignment of White students into predominantly Black nonmagnet schools in the inner city (Carl, 1995; Dougherty, 2004; Fuller, 1985). As a result, when the voucher program began in 1990, Black students were bused twice as often as White children (Olson, 1990).

Not only did this student assignment policy place a far greater burden on Black students, but it also resulted in a tremendously costly and baroque transportation system. In perhaps the most extreme example, Black children from what was previously a single neighborhood school's catchment area attended 97 separate schools throughout the Milwaukee metro area (Carl, 1995; Fuller, 1985).

Not only has this program been criticized for its tremendous inefficiency in using educational resources for educational benefits, but it has also been decried by voucher supporters and others in the African American community for the enormously destructive effects they say it has had on Black students, their families, and their communities in general (Fuller, 1985). For instance, one of the most prominent critics of the Milwaukee desegregation program, Howard Fuller (1985), has documented how Black students participating in various mandatory and voluntary busing programs frequently endured long bus rides twice a day to and from their home neighborhoods, sometimes as long as an hour or more each way. As a result of these long bus rides, Fuller noted, Black students often arrived exhausted in the morning and lost significant time for homework in the afternoon.

For the same reasons, critics argued that school desegregation often made involvement in their children's schools an insurmountable challenge for many Black parents and families because visiting these schools required an often lengthy journey into an unfamiliar and unwelcoming neighborhood. This proved to be particularly difficult for African American families with no car and with adults who worked away from home (Dougherty, 2004; Fuller, 1985). Researchers studying a desegregation plan in St. Louis, Missouri, which was partly modeled after the Milwaukee program, found similar problems facing Black parents in the city who chose to enroll their children in predominantly suburban schools (see Wells & Crain, 1997).

Furthermore, in the case of Milwaukee, the critics of desegregation policies contend that the all-Black neighborhood schools during segregation, although underfunded, underresourced, and extremely overcrowded, had served as centers of the community. They wrote that the public schools that many African American students attended under desegregation often seemed alien and uninviting. Similarly, although we must not romanticize the conditions found in such segregated schools, the critics of desegregation in Milwaukee claim that these segregated “Black” schools usually featured a larger proportion of Black teachers and sometimes offered a curriculum more rooted in students' everyday lives. They noted that such community-based schools were largely replaced by nominally desegregated schools that offered curricula and teaching methods foreign to many Black students' experiences (Dougherty, 2004; Fuller, 1985).

It would be a mistake to overlook the actual but uneven gains of school desegregation in Milwaukee or to deny the experiences of thousands of Black students and parents who argue that the desegregation plan was a valuable, if far from perfect, policy (see Carr, 2004; Schmidt, 1993; Wells & Crain, 1997). Still, general failure of the plan to adequately and comprehensively address issues of educational quality for Black students, coupled with the closing of many predominantly African American neighborhood schools, resulted in the creation of a movement for schools controlled by Milwaukee's communities of color. The decade after the Civil Rights era saw the birth of a number of Black-controlled independent private schools (many of which still exist today as part of the voucher program) that have historically sought public funding (Carl, 1995; Dougherty, 2004). Beginning in the mid 1980s, a group of African American community leaders and representatives participated in a narrowly defeated effort to create a separate predominantly Black public school district out of 11 mostly Black public schools—9 elementary schools, 1 middle school, and North Division High School on Milwaukee's north side (Carl, 1995; Dougherty; Snider, 1987).

Coupled with the reality of a political climate of insurgent conservatism in Wisconsin, as well as a relative increase in Black political representation in Milwaukee, the continued frustration of communities of color with the public school system's intransigence paved the way for Milwaukee in the late 1980s to become, with the assistance of conservative grant makers such as the Bradley Foundation, the staging ground for the first publicly funded voucher experiment in a large urban area in the United States (Carl, 1995).

It is within this post-Brown context of persistent and grave educational inequality that the suturing of African American activists with elements of conservative modernization needs to be understood. The fact that the neo-liberal and neoconservative school choice agenda is often couched as a critique of school desegregation policy—albeit from a very different perspective—needs to be noted here as well. Yet if the formation of groups of African American voucher advocates is a response to the failure of the post-Brown era to sufficiently deliver upon Brown's promise of democratic educational access and control, the question still remains as to whether it is an effective response.


Answering the question of effectiveness depends both on what kind of conceptual and political apparatus is employed and the values applied to such concepts. In this section, we discuss the conceptual and political apparatus that helped to frame the Milwaukee voucher plan as a solution to the educational inequalities and injustices experienced on a daily basis in the African American community. By placing this story of many of Milwaukee's African American leaders and the voucher program they came to embrace in the larger context of an era of conservative modernization in education, we can see how vouchers began to symbolize the hope that Brown and the school desegregation policies it fostered did not deliver. We begin this journey by examining the language and subsequent power of the supporters of vouchers and many other recent educational reforms.

It is somewhat commonplace to say that the concepts we use to try to understand, evaluate, and act on the world in which we live do not by themselves determine the answers that we may find. Answers are not determined by words, but by the power relations that impose their interpretations of these concepts. There are key words that continually surface in the current debates over education and that are caught up in crucial power relations. These key words have complicated histories, histories that are connected to the social movements out of which they arose and in which they are struggled over today. These words have their own histories, but they are increasingly interrelated. The concepts are simple to list: markets, standards, accountability, tradition, God, and a number of others. Behind each of these topics is an assemblage of other, broader concepts that have an emotional valence and that provide support for the ways in which differential power works in our daily lives. These include democracy, freedom, choice, morality, family, culture, and a number of other key concepts. And each of these, in turn, is intertextual, connected to an entire set of assumptions about “appropriate” institutions, values, social relationships, and policies.

Think of this web of words as something of a road map. Using one key word—for example, markets—sends you onto a highway that is going in one direction and that has exits in some places but not others. If you are on the highway labeled market, your general direction is toward a section of the country named the economy. You take the exit named individualism that leads you to another road called consumer choice. Exits with words such as unions, collective freedom, the common good, politics and similar destinations are to be avoided if they are on the map at all.

The popular “market” highway is a simple route with one goal: namely, deciding where one wants to go without a lot of time-wasting discussion and getting there by the fastest and cheapest method possible. There is a second route, however, labeled social democracy, and this one involves a good deal of collective deliberation about where we might want to go. It assumes that there may be some continuing deliberation about not only the goal, but also even the route itself. Its exits are the ones that were avoided on the first route.

There are powerful interests that have made the road map and the roads, limiting the options that policy makers, educators and families have in the field of education. Currently, the market road is one of the most popular, albeit for different reasons, for different groups of people who are the key architects of what we refer to as conservative modernization. Some want the road “market,” because this supposedly leads to the exit of individualism and consumer choice. Others will go down the market road, but only if the exits are those that have a long history of “real culture” and “real knowledge.” Still others will take the market road because for them, God has said that this is “His” road. And finally, another group will sign on to this market tour because they have skills in map making and in determining how far we are from our goal. There's some discussion and some compromise—and likely even some lingering tension—among these various groups about which exits they will ultimately stop at, but by and large, they all head off in that direction.

This exercise in storytelling maps on to reality in important ways because it describes the preferred pathways of these main ideological groups participating in and furthering what we call the project of conservative modernization. The first group is what is appropriately called neoliberals. They are deeply committed to markets and to freedom as “individual choice.” The second group, neoconservatives, has a vision of an Edenic past and wants a return to discipline and traditional knowledge. The third, one that is increasingly powerful in the United States and elsewhere is what one of us has called authoritarian populists—religious fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who want a return to (their) God in all our institutions (Apple, 2001; see also Hall, 1980). And finally, the map makers and experts on whether we got there are members of a particular fraction of the managerial and professional new middle class.iv

In analyzing this complex configuration of interests around conservative modernization, we need to act in a way similar to what Eric Hobsbawm (1994) described as the historian's and social critic's duty. For Hobsbawm, the task is to be the “professional remembrancers of what [our] fellow citizens wish to forget” (p. 3). That is, it requires us to detail the absent presences, the there that is not there, in most rightist policies in education. How does the language work to highlight certain things as “real” problems while marginalizing others? What are the effects of the policies that they have promoted? How do the seemingly contradictory policies that have emerged from the various fractions of the Right, aspects of which have now taken on a life of their own at times—such as the marketization of education through voucher plans, the pressure to “return” to the Western tradition and to a supposedly common culture, the commitment to get God back into the schools and classrooms of America, and the growth of national and state curricula and reductive national and state (and often high-stakes) testing—actually get put together in creative ways to push many of the aspects of these rightist agendas forward? In our discussion of these questions, we will focus most of our attention on the first two of these elements of the alliance: neoliberals and neoconservatives. In the process, we will make our mapping less taxanomic and more subtle.

In a number of recent books, one of us (Michael) has critically analyzed why and how the policies emerging from the politics of conservative modernization have been embraced by so many policy makers as the right way to reform education. The resulting range of proposals for educational “reform”—such as marketization via vouchers and private school management companies, national mandates for statewide curricula standards, and testing—has been critically examined (see, e.g., Apple, 2001; Apple et al., 2003; see also Gillborn & Youdell, 2000; Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998). This critical examination has demonstrated that, irrespective of the often good intentions of the proponents of many of these kinds of proposals, in the long run, they may actually exacerbate inequalities, especially around class and race. Furthermore, they may paradoxically cause us both to misrecognize what actually produces difficult

social and educational problems and to miss some important democratic alternatives that may offer more hope in the long run (see, e.g., Apple et al.; Apple, 2000; Apple, 2001; Apple & Beane, 1999).

How is it, then, that so many voters and policy makers have come to see these neoliberal views as common sense? It is helpful to think of this as having been accomplished through the use of a vast socio/pedagogic project, a project that has actively—and in large part successfully—sought to transform our very ideas about democracy. Within this neoliberal paradigm, democracy is no longer a political concept; rather, it is wholly an economic concept in which unattached individuals making supposed “rational” choices in an unfettered market will ultimately create a better society; they will lift the tide that is supposed to raise all boats.v Democracy in this instance is defined as the freedom to consume as one chooses, and the result of thousands of these individualized choices will, in theory, add up to be the greater good. As Foner (1998) reminded us, it has taken decades of creative ideological work to change our commonsense ideas about democracy into ideas of consumption. Not only does this change fly in the face of a very long tradition of collective understandings of democracy in the United States, but it has also led to the destruction of communities, jobs, health care, and so many other institutions not only in the United States, but also throughout the world (Greider, 1997; Katz, 2001). Hidden assumptions about class (that we are not a society that is deeply and increasingly divided by class and that marketizing logics do not consistently privilege those who already have economic and cultural capital) and a goodly portion of the politics of Whiteness (that there are not consistent structural benefits to being White in this society) may make it hard for us to face this honestly (see Fine, Weis, Powell, & Wong, 1997).

Given the subject of this article, however, we should have put two words in the last sentences of the preceding paragraph—us and we—in quotation marks. Who is the “we”? Does it include all those who have been hurt by that combination of neoliberal and neoconservative polices that now play such an important role in our discourse in education? If these policies have a disproportionate and negative effect on, say, working class people of color, as they seem to do (see Apple, 2001; Valenzuela, 2005)—should we assume that, for example, all persons of color will reject both the policies and their underlying ideologies? For the reasons we enumerated earlier, this is not necessarily the case, as the example of support for vouchers among a number of Black activists in Milwaukee demonstrates.


Given the history of their struggles both for redistribution and recognition, it would be very difficult to integrate historically disenfranchised social groups, especially people of color, under the ideological umbrella of conservative modernization (Apple, 2000; Fraser, 1997). However, this does not make it impossible. One of the ways in which hegemonic alliances are built is through a process in which dominant groups—in this case, the conservative alliance—creatively but partially appropriate the elements of “good sense” that disenfranchised groups possess into their neoliberal and neoconservative agendas (Apple, 2001). Unfortunately, the partial success of such a strategy on the part of the conservative alliance among those groups who are often counted as “despised others” (Fraser) in our societies is a subject that some progressives would like to forget. Yet, well beyond both Milwaukee and the field of education, there is increasing evidence of growing numbers of racial/ethnic “minority” group members, women, and gays and lesbians who are activists in neoliberal and neoconservative movements, and to a lesser extent in authoritarian populist religious movements. Let us place these points in their larger context within Milwaukee.

The 1990 Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), at the time of its inception, represented one of the most important interventions by elements of conservative modernization in their larger drive to destabilize public schooling “as we know it” as a key element of the (relatively anemic) American welfare state (Apple, 2001). Through a complex amalgamation of forces and actors, Milwaukee became a center stage on which larger ideological battles over the character, form, and funding of education in the United States and elsewhere were to be fought.

In his own historical analysis of Milwaukee's choice plan, Carl (1995, 1996) pointed to complexities that seem to fit less comfortably within the initial theorization of the key ideological tendencies within conservative modernization that we have delineated.

As we did, Carl began his analysis of factors leading to the rise of the “parental choice” debate in Milwaukee by describing the emergence nationally of the hegemonic alliance within conservative modernization in the early 1980s. Within this alliance, Carl depicted the tensely intersecting agendas of two dominant groups—neoliberals and neoconservatives—in relation to the Milwaukee voucher program. According to Carl, local neoliberal education reformers, on the one hand, believed that the extension of private markets into the state's education systems would bring improvement in educational attainment and profitability. On the other hand, local neoconservative educational reformers privileged private schools for their supposed traditional academic curriculum, religious training, and strict discipline (Carl, 1996).

However, Carl (1996) also acknowledged that “not all proponents of vouchers in Milwaukee can be described as agents of the conservative restoration” (p. 268). Rather, Carl outlined a “conditional alliance” between state-level neoliberal reformers and Milwaukee-based supporters of a handful of independent community schools:

Five factors generated this conditional alliance: dissatisfaction among many black Milwaukeeans with a school system that failed to deliver acceptable educational outcomes for disproportionately high numbers of black students; the existence of community schools whose multicultural supporters had sought public funding for two decades; the growth of black political representation in Milwaukee during an era when government policies tilted rightward, as personified by state representative Polly Williams; the efforts of Governor Tommy Thompson's administration to craft neoliberal and neoconservative social policy; and the rise of Milwaukee's Bradley Foundation as the nation's premier conservative grantmaker. (p. 268)

Carl is correct about these factors. But even if they exist, it takes hard work to put them all together and to engage in the creative process of disarticulation and rearticulation so that key groups, especially members of dispossessed groups, support policies that come from ideological positions for which they have historically not had a strong affinity. How are we to understand both how this went on and the complex nexus of power relations on all sides that connected African American activists and neoliberal and neoconservative policies? There has been a relative lack of writing and theorizing about articulations among conservatives and the dispossessed.

Recently, however, there have been exceptions to this relative neglect. In a recent book, Dillard (2001), for example, critically examined a number of the key actors within conservative circles who themselves are members of historically oppressed groups, but who, for a variety of personal and political reasons, give vocal support to neoliberal and neoconservative causes. Aggressively “free” market policies, such as a rejection of affirmative action and the use of race or gender as a category in public decisions; public funding for religiously based schooling; welfare “reform”; and a host of similar issues provide the centers of gravity for these individuals. Many of the figures on which Dillard focused are familiar names: Dinesh D'Sousa, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, Linda Chavez, Glenn Loury, Richard Rodriguez, and similar national spokespersons of conservative causes. Each of these figures is a person of color, and they include academics, journalists, government officials, and a justice of the Supreme Court. Other figures may be familiar only to those readers who have closely followed the cultural and political debates on the Right in the United States over such things as educational policy, sexuality, affirmative action, and welfare reform, but they have played important roles as well: Star Parker, George Schuyler, Andrew Sullivan, Elizabeth Wright, Bruce Bawer, and Susan Au Allen, among

There is, of course, a history of dominant groups using, or at least giving visibility to, “minority” voices to “say the unsayable” in the United States and elsewhere (Lewis, 1993, 2000). Thus, for example, Ward Connerly, a prominent conservative African American businessman and a vocal member of the board of regents of the University of California, has taken a very visible stand against affirmative action. In his view, government involvement in helping Blacks gain access to higher education and jobs is actually harmful to Black Americans. According to Connerly, “While others are assimilating, blacks are getting further and further away from one nation indivisible” (Dillard, 2001, p. 50). His insistence that “individual merit” as opposed to state intervention is the means of greater equality has clearly been employed by the larger, and mostly White, conservative movement to legitimate its own policies. As a prominent conservative spokeswoman put it, “You can't have white guys saying you don't need affirmative action” (p. 15).

Hence, powerful neoliberal and neoconservative movements both inside and outside government circles can steadily expand the realm of what is in fact sayable by prefacing what would otherwise be seen as consistently racist positions with a quote from a well-known Black spokesperson. Dillard (2001), one of the most articulate critics of such moves, stated that this enables dominant economic, cultural, and racial groups “to cannibalize the moral authority of minority voices by skirting responsibility” (p. 20).

Because of this very history of dominant groups employing the selective voice of “the other” to legitimize their actions, there has been a concomitant history of regarding those members of minority communities who openly affiliate with conservative movements as “pariahs.” They have been dismissed as either traitors or sellouts, and have even been seen as “self-loathing reactionaries who are little more than dupes of powerful white . . . conservatives” (Dillard, 2001, p. 4). Although these labels are powerful indeed, many conservative persons of color see themselves very differently. In their self-perception, they are “crusading rebels” against a state and a liberal elite within the ranks of their own communities; their self-understanding of “helping the people” challenges policies that, in their eyes, work to destroy the very moral and social foundations of their communities. Here they can also turn to a rich history of nationalist, self-help, and conservative moral principles within these communities as a source of “authenticity” and legitimacy (Dillard, 2001, p. 13).

Of course, there are internally developed conservative traditions within, say, communities of color, many of which have made lasting contributions to the very existence and continuity of the cultures within these communities (see, e.g., Lewis, 1993, 2000). However, that so much of the conservative tradition in the United States was explicitly shaped by racist and racializing discourses and practices,vii and by a strongly anti-immigrant heritage as well, and given that many of the current neoliberal and neoconservative attacks on the public sphere have had disproportionately negative effects on the gains of poor communities and on communities of color (Katz, 2001), the current existence and growth of such movement among dispossessed groups is more than a little striking.viii This makes their current iterations all the more interesting.ix As we will see, neoliberal and neoconservative economic, political, and cultural movements and some of the African American groups that have been connected to them are both seeking to redefine the relations of power in particular social fields, with education being a prime site where these relations of power are being worked through (Bourdieu, 1984).

A complex process of discursive and positional disarticulation and rearticulation is going on here as dominant groups attempt to pull dispossessed collectivities under their own leadership and dispossessed groups themselves attempt to employ the social, economic, and cultural capital usually possessed by dominant groups to gain collective power for themselves. As we will demonstrate through our analysis of interviews with African American parents using vouchers in Milwaukee, in the debates over vouchers in the United States, the label conservative cannot be employed easily in understanding the actions and characterizing the identifications of all the dispossessed groups that ally themselves with conservative causes without, at the same time, reducing the complexity of the particular social fields of power on which they operate.

The story of the Milwaukee alliance between African Americans and conservative reformers is a powerful illustration of this point. This is so because one of the most interesting examples of the processes of discursive and social disarticulation and rearticulation today is the growing African American support for neoliberal policies, especially voucher plans (see, for e.g., Moe, 2001). The most influential symbol of this support is the increasingly powerful Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a group of African American parents and activists that is chaired by Howard Fuller, the vocal critic of the Milwaukee school desegregation plan that we cited above. Fuller, the former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, is one of the most vocal supporters of the Milwaukee voucher plan and one of the most vocal critics of Milwaukee Public Schools.

BAEO provides vocal support for voucher plans, school “choice” (a sliding signifier whose meaning has increasingly become fixed around issues of vouchers in the United States when it is used in political discourse), and similar conservative proposals. BAEO has generated considerable support within Black communities throughout the nation, particularly in poor inner-city areas, and has an identifiable presence in at least 27 cities within the United States.x That the Supreme Court of Wisconsin has ruled that the Milwaukee voucher plan is constitutional and the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that the Cleveland voucher plan is also constitutional gives more legal and political legitimacy to BAEO's efforts because both plans were officially aimed at providing the “right to exit” for inner-city and largely “minority” residents. BAEO's language and mission are clear: “The Black Alliance for Educational Options is a national nonpartisan member organization whose mission is to actively support parental choice to empower families and increase educational options for Black children” (BAEO, 2005). Its position is even clearer in its Manifesto:


Current systems of K-12 education work well for many of America's children. But, for far too many children, the current systems do not work well at all. A high percentage of these children are poor children of color living in urban areas. For these children, the old educational strategies and institutional arrangements are not preparing them to be productive and socially responsible citizens. This requires that we dramatically change our teaching and learning strategies and create new governance and financial structures.

BAEO believes we must develop new systems of learning opportunities to complement and expand existing systems. We need systems that truly empower parents, that allow dollars to follow students, that hold adults as well as students accountable for academic achievement, and that alter the power arrangements that are the foundation for existing systems.

BAEO understands that there are no “silver bullets” or “magic wands” which will instantly make things better for our children. BAEO is also not anti-public school. However, we do believe that parent choice must be the centerpiece of strategies and tactics aimed at improving education for our children. We must empower parents, particularly low-income parents, to make the best choices for their children's education.

Consider the potential impact of this power in the hands of families who previously have had little or no control over the flow and distribution of the money that drives the policies and procedures of the educational systems of this country. Consider how the absence of this power means that their children will remain trapped in schools that more affluent parents, some of whom oppose parental choice, would never tolerate for their own children. Consider how this power shift may change the shape of the future for their children.

BAEO will bring together the ideas, aspirations, energies, and experiences of all generations in this struggle.

The use of language here is striking. The language of neoliberalism (choice, parental empowerment, accountability, individual freedom) is re-appropriated and sutured together with ideas of collective Black freedom and a deep concern for African American children. This creates something of a hybrid discourse that blends meanings from multiple political sources and agendas.xi For instance, amid the Manifesto's market language of allowing “dollars to follow students,” we also discern the language of redistribution (Fraser, 1997): “Consider the potential impact of this power in the hands of families who previously have had little or no control over the flow and distribution of the money that drives the policies.”

This language of redistribution both resonates with and goes beyond the language of “Black Freedom,” further complexifying this discursive hybridity with social democratic undertones. After all, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, however flawed, does put material and symbolic resources into the hands of a small number of the people who we feel should have more of these things.

Meanwhile, it is essential to recognize something that makes the creative bricolage in which BAEO is engaged somewhat more problematic: A very large portion of the group's funding comes directly from conservative sources such as the Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Foundation, a well-known sponsor of conservative causes, has not only been in the forefront of providing support for vouchers and privatization initiatives, but it is also one of the groups that provided significant support for Herrnstein and Murray's book, The Bell Curve (1994), which argued that African Americans were, on average, genetically less intelligent than Whites. Thus, it would be important to ask about the nature and effects of the connections being made between rightist ideological and financial sources and BAEO itself. It is not inconsequential that neoliberal and neoconservative foundations provide not only funding, but also media visibility for “minority” groups that support, even critically, their agendas.

Many of the strongest proponents of vouchers and similar plans may claim that their positions are based on a belief in the efficiency of markets, on the fear of a secularization of the sacred, or on the dangers of losing the values and beliefs that give meaning to their lives. However, historically, neither the economic nor the moral elements of this provoucher argument can be totally set apart from their partial genesis in the struggles over racial segregation and busing to achieve integration and in the loss of a federal tax exemption by conservative, and usually White-only, religious academies. In short, the fear of the “racial other” has played a significant role in this discursive construction of the “problem of the public school” and in the political backlash against many of the public policies of the Civil Rights era, including school desegregation (Apple, 2001; see also Edsall & Edsall, 1991). Does this mean that groups such as BAEO are simply being manipulated by neoliberal and neoconservative foundations and movements? An answer to this question is not easy, but even with our cautions stated above it is certainly not a simple yes.


It is important not to engage in reductive analyses here—analyses that, for example, assume that simply because a group's funding comes from a specific source, all its own agendas will be fundamentally determined by where it gets its money. This is certainly not always the case. Indeed, in public forums and in discussions that we have had with some of the leaders of BAEO, they have argued that they will use any funding sources available so that they can follow their own specific program of action. They would accept money from more liberal sources, but Bradley and other conservative foundations have come forward much more readily.xii In the minds of the leaders of BAEO, the African American activists are in control, not the conservative foundations. Thus, although the BAEO leaders admit that they are strategically positioning themselves (by publicly supporting vouchers, for instance) to get funding from conservative sources, once they get the funding, it is up to them. According to these BAEO leaders, the space provided by educational markets can be reoccupied for Black cultural or nationalist politics and can be employed to stop what they consider to be the strikingly ineffective, and even damaging, education of Black children.xiii

However, although we respect many BAEO leaders, it is important to remember that they are not the only ones strategically organizing on this social field of power. Like BAEO, other groups affiliated with, say, the Bradley Foundation also know exactly what they are doing and know very well how to employ the agendas of BAEO for their own purposes—purposes that in the long term often may run directly counter to the interests of the majority of those with less power at both national and regional levels.xiv Is it really in the long-term interests of people of color to be affiliated with the same groups who provided funding and support for books such as The Bell Curve? We think not, although once again, we need to recognize the complexities involved here.

We are certain that this kind of question is constantly raised about the conservative stances taken by the people of color who have made alliances with, say, neoliberals and neoconservatives, and by the activists within BAEO itself. When members of groups who are consistently “othered” in this society strategically take on identities that support dominant groups, such questioning is natural and, we believe, essential. However, it is also crucial to remember that members of historically oppressed and marginalized groups have always had to act on a terrain that is not of their choosing and have always had to act strategically and creatively to gain some measure of support from dominant groups to advance their causes (Lewis, 1993, 2000; Omi & Winant, 1994).

It is also the case that more recently, national and local leaders of the Democratic party in the United States have too often assumed that Black support is simply there, that it doesn't need to be worked for. Because of this, we may see the further development of “unusual alliances” over specific issues such as educational policies. When this is coupled with the tacit or overt support within some communities of color not only for voucher plans but also for antigay, antiabortion, pro-school prayer, and similar initiatives, the suturing together of some Black groups with larger conservative movements on particular issues is not totally surprising (see Dillard, 2001).

The growing popularity of movements such as BAEO, though, does point out that we need to be careful about stereotyping groups that publicly support neoliberal and neoconservative policies. Their perspectives need to be examined carefully and taken seriously; they cannot simply be dismissed as totally misguided people who have been duped into unthinking acceptance of a harmful set of ideologies. There are complicated strategic moves being made on an equally complex social field of power. We may (and do) strongly disagree with a number of the positions that groups such as BAEO take. However, to assume that they are simply puppets of conservative forces is not only to be dismissive of their own attempts at social maneuvering, but we believe that it may also be tacitly racist as well.


To avoid such dangers, it will be useful to turn our attention now to the process of what some have called “identity formation” that occurs as various factions of the conservative alliance, African American educational activists, and low-income parents in Milwaukee suture their interests together within tensely maintained and constructed alliances. In so doing, we will have to make some crucial points about issues of “subaltern agency,” or agency that is exercised by the marginalized on a discursive and structural terrain that they did not choose (see the work of Apple & Buras, in press; De Certeau, 1984; Pedroni, 2004; Spivak, 1988).

In the earlier years of the MPCP, discourses circulating through the Milwaukee Public School system and through the voucher alliance positioned Black parents and students and offered identities in particular ways. Primary among the “subject positions” (roles, voices, and choices) in circulation among many teachers, administrators, and other professionals in the Milwaukee Public Schools were those predicated on culturally based, racially based, or biologically based deficit models. African American parents fleeing public schools and embracing the proposed voucher system frequently cited instances in which public school educators or officials would blame the supposedly culturally rooted unruly behavior of students of color for the high failure rates in their schools. Similarly, parents complained about the regularity with which their children were pathologized and abandoned to special education programs after being marked with disability labels (Corporation for Educational Radio and Television, 1993).

In contrast with this, school marketization efforts in Milwaukee seemed to offer much more dignified subject positions to disenfranchised parents, perhaps most significantly that of “rational consumer.” Rather than pathologizing “Black” cultural forms through racist social scientific normative discourses, neoliberal voucher advocates first and foremost positioned parents as ideal consumers whose sole constraint consisted of artificially limited, market-defined choice.

An analysis predicated on questions of identify formation is crucial here. It allows for the possibility of a microlevel examination of the tactical choices that parents make in negotiating their sets of perceived educational options. Rather than focusing only on the structural dynamics around educational marketization, which will likely further marginalize low-income urban communities of color, we wish to take seriously the everyday dilemmas, consciousness, and agency of parents as they attempt to negotiate educational structures that have not necessarily been designed with their best interests in mind. Thus, although we are deeply concerned about the likely outcomes of market-oriented educational forms, we also want to take utterly seriously how conservative educational mobilizations succeed by seeming to speak to marginalized people's very real fears and desires. It is only through understanding this articulation as a matter of subject formation that the process of conservative formation will perhaps most effectively be interrupted and supplanted with a more socially democratic (and ultimately more effective) educational vision.

Thus, seen from “below” (from the vantage point of certain low-income parents of color), free-market educational discourses seem to open interesting and contradictory spaces. Although positioning low-income parents of color as rational educational consumers empowered to make the best choices for their children dehistoricizes their agency by largely failing to see it as emerging within unequal material and discursive relations of power, neoliberal discourse allows parents to be seen, heard, and understood—and perhaps most important, to act in ways that are often simply not possible within the pathologizing frames that often dominate the reality of urban public schools.

To approach this question of how offered subject positions are tactically “taken up” by and “inhabited” by parents, we are aided by critical cultural theorists such as Michel de Certeau (1984), who argued that “users” such as the parents in question are never passive or without agency within this process of subject formation. They, to use one of his phrases, “make do” within the very limited identity options that are made available to them, turning these options, as much as they are able, to purposes that they feel will best serve their perceived educational and social needs (Apple, 1996; De Certeau, 1984). According to research on African Americans' often difficult choices to participate in voluntary school desegregation plans (particularly those that take them from urban to suburban schools far from home) and in other school choice programs, “making do” is part of a longer historical struggle for social justice (see Carr, 2004; Cooper, 2001; Wells & Crain, 1997).

We believe that such a focus on identity formation allows us to discern that the articulations and alliances formed around vouchers in Milwaukee are much more transient, ephemeral, opportunistic, and unstable than current literature implies (see also Cooper, 2001). Nevertheless, despite the often transient nature of such alliances, crucial and lasting gains are in fact won by educational conservatives as a result of the reforms that fleeting alliances are able to engender. The effect of voucher mobilizations on legislation and on the global currency of private vouchers is not nearly as ephemeral as the alliances that undergird and enable their initial success.

A more nuanced theorization of groups such as the grassroots followers of BAEO—which cannot be adequately posited either as dominant elements within a hegemonic alliance or as relatively ideologically unformed and “ordinary” individuals articulated into the Right as a result of the state's intransigence—is crucial to a fuller understanding of the Right's continued success in dismantling key vestiges of the American welfare state. In fact, a retheorization of the subaltern agency constituted in such tactical alliances will also underscore the importance of “strange bedfellows” in other successful rightist projects. Even a cursory consideration of other parallel debates within and around the preservation or dismantling of key elements of the social democratic accord in the United States seems to indicate the pivotal importance of such ephemeral and tactical alliances in hegemonic successes, and therefore warrants further study and conceptualization. For example, we should ask ourselves how much the call for Black male redemption and responsibility by Minister Louis Farrakhan in the mid-1990s discursively supported the cause of conservative welfare reform. This normative recasting of Black masculinity by Farrakhan may have been a key element in significant Black acquiescence to such reforms, which have consequently had a disproportionate and considerable impact on African American families (Brown, 2003).

The current underemphasis on the importance of subaltern agency in hegemonic successes might result from our inclination to theorize powerful elements within conservative modernization as “groups” unproblematically embodying “ideal types” rather than as “discursive tendencies.” While some individuals and organizations can be more or less correctly categorized into one of the four elements of conservative modernization that we described earlier, there are also almost always contradictory tendencies within these groups and individuals. That these tendencies are not embodied as ideal types, but rather are mediated in contradictory ways, actually expands conceptually the spaces for progressive rearticulation within the formation of these subjectivities.

Because we still want to foreground the ways in which these discourses construct and are constructed by real social actors, thus sidestepping the disposition of some poststructural theorists to see the world as made up only of competing discourses that somehow exist beyond history and human agency (Pedroni, 2005), we may want to refer to the four elements of conservative modernization as “embodied tendencies.” To not do so restricts our likelihood of apprehending the importance of subaltern groups in hegemonic successes because subaltern groups often act tactically. That is, their action is often not through the deployment of largely internally cohesive discourses that seek to (re)narrate a set of relationships between elements such as the state, the economy, individuals, and the social formation (De Certeau, 1984). The ability to materialize such elaborate and cohesive intellectual discursive production is more typically a privilege of the powerful, who, as de Certeau suggested, shape and control the terrain upon which ideological and material battles over such things as access to education are fought. Rather, subaltern yet politically savvy groups, such as the African American and Latino supporters of private school vouchers in Milwaukee, quite often operate in a tactical relationship to power, sensing the need to act within the spaces that the powerful provide. At times, they do this in ways that creatively turn the strategic deployments of the powerful back against the powerful, and other times in ways that are ultimately self-defeating for subaltern groups. This is a crucial point. Powerful groups often accomplish their objectives precisely because of tactical “poaching” by subaltern groups. This latter scenario, we would argue, is the far more likely long-term outcome of African American support of private school vouchers in Milwaukee.

In fact, a 2-year study that one of us (Tom) has conducted with parents and other African American voucher advocates in Milwaukee provides significant evidence that African American articulation to neoliberal interventions including voucher programs seems to be largely tactical and opportunistic, rather than strategic and ideologically disciplined (Pedroni, 2004). African American voucher advocates rarely offer “intact” neoliberal or neoconservative discourses as underpinning their investment in vouchers. Although their discourses include occasional neoliberal and neoconservative elements, they also contain other elements that run significantly counter to each of these discourses. Because of the tactical nature of their relationship to conservative alliances and because of their investment in other mobilizations that are clearly well outside the parameters of conservative modernization, most African American supporters of vouchers in Milwaukee do not “become Right” as far as identity formation is concerned, despite their tactical investment in neoconservative and neoliberal subject positions (Apple, 1996; Apple et al., 2003; Pedroni, 2004).xv We will further illustrate this point with a brief analysis of two interviews that a Bradley-supported conservative videographer based in Milwaukee conducted with two African American voucher activists.


Cherise Robinson and Laura Fordhamxvi are African American parents and guardians of children using vouchers provided through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to attend participating parochial and nonsectarian private schools. The interviews from which we draw this brief analysis were recorded in 1998 shortly before the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the MPCP, including the participation of religious private schools, thus lifting an Appeals Court injunction predicated on issues of separation of church and state. The two interviews, conducted by a Bradley Foundation-supported European American professional videographer closely affiliated with neoconservative Catholic educational organizations in Milwaukee, took place in Madison, Wisconsin, shortly after a well-publicized speak-out and rally among voucher proponents protesting the injunction (personal communication [phone interview] with videographer, November 22, 2000).

Cherise Robinson is the grandmother of a 5-year-old child who began the school year in a private nonsectarian school participating in the Milwaukee voucher program. Her granddaughter was soon relocated to a public daycare facility after the voucher school in which she was enrolled “had to close before the year was up.” Despite this disruption, Ms. Robinson is stridently positive about her granddaughter's advances in her initial months of private school attendance. “If you were to talk to her, you would think that she's about 7 or 8 years old. And judging from the other children that are in Milwaukee Public Schools, she's at a level now of at least a second- or third-grader. And I know that this is because of her beginnings.”

Ms. Robinson attributes this success to the existence of small class sizes and greater individual attention—something that she identifies as lacking in many of Milwaukee's urban public schools. “I think it's because of the individual attention that she's able to get in the private schools. And not so much individual, but not so many students. That the teacher has more time for her in whatever her little situation may be.”

Implicit in Ms. Robinson's assessment is a juxtaposition of the attentive private school teacher with the less attentive public school teacher. That which facilitates the better attention of the private school teacher, however, is that she has “not so many students.” She does not face the same overcrowded classroom conditions as her public school counterpart. This implicit characterization of the public school teacher beset by overcrowding contrasts markedly with the figure of the public teacher in the interviewer's own (in this instance, largely neoliberal) narrative in which public schools are seen as failing not because of overcrowded classrooms, but because of their monopolization by teachers' unions that protect unworthy teachers while sheltering grossly bloated and inefficient school bureaucracies from market discipline (Creative Media Services, 1998).

An indictment of overcrowded classrooms, rather than union monopolies and a lack of competitive educational markets, then, points to a diagnosis and prescription for public schools that can only sit awkwardly within the neoliberal frame of market efficiency/inefficiency. We can begin to imagine other less awkward articulations with Ms. Robinson's concerns.

But this is not the only juncture at which Ms. Robinson's frame exists in tense relationship with that of the interviewer and the various fragments of the neoliberal and neoconservative voucher alliance with which he is allied. Ms. Robinson describes her active defense of the voucher program as follows: “It seems as if there are some who say that certain children shouldn't have a certain type of education. And it seems to me that choice is saying every child should have the best education that they can get.”

Ms. Robinson understands choice as a mechanism that provides every child, regardless of socioeconomic or other circumstances, the ability to obtain high-quality education. This sense of choice as the ability of all families to choose a high-quality, adequately funded education is articulated with models of market-based consumer choice in which parents are limited to the best that they can afford, only as the result of considerable work.

Laura Fordham, the second parent interviewed by the videographer, has a daughter who attends a private nonsectarian elementary school. For Ms. Fordham, who also works as the school's admissions chairperson, the overriding factor in using a voucher to choose this particular school was its proximity to the family's home. In Milwaukee, this is not an inconsequential issue. With the advent of desegregation, many public neighborhood schools in the urban core were closed. This has presented significant difficulties related not just to the daily transportation of children; distance has also formed a significant obstacle to parental involvement in the public schools, particularly when many families do not own cars. This in turn has exacerbated the sense that public schools are frequently out of touch with the communities they serve. (Naturally, this issue also impacts families' relationships to various voucher school options, particularly when such schools are far from their homes and do not provide adequate transportation.)

As Ms. Fordham explains, “If she has to go back to the public schools, then she would be bused possibly across town. Well, I would not allow for her to be bused across town. First thing's, she's a chronic asthmatic kid. And for her to be bused, it would be impossible.” Ms. Fordham's decision to relocate her child to a neighborhood private school came only after considerable effort to make the public school option work. “I could not transport her to school back and forward every day. I did that for her first year . . . that was 17 and a half miles away. So when she become more chronically ill, and my husband becomes ill, she had to stop going to school there because I couldn't take her to school. Plus, we couldn't afford it.”

Ms. Fordham is nostalgic for a time “when the schools were so much better than they are now, the public schools at least. . . . You could go to school down the street and meet your neighbors.” That is, public schools were also important centers of life within the community. “Now, the way the [public] schools are going, they tell you where your kid can go. Where with the Choice program, you're able to put your kid . . . where you want them to go. . . . And you're able to afford it.”

Today in Milwaukee, private voucher-accepting schools are typically located in low-income neighborhoods and are legally restricted from engaging in selective admissions practices. (Still, we know from much research on deregulated school choice policies that “choice schools” can shape who attends them via selective recruitment strategies and the expulsion of students who pose behavioral problems among other strategies; see Lopez, Wells, & Holme, 2002.) Nevertheless, these schools, according to many in the Black community, often fulfill the community role that the neighborhood public schools once played. According to Ms. Fordham, “that's important, because we find that for our private schools are closer around in the circle than public schools are.”

Beyond the absence of public schools within some Milwaukee urban neighborhoods, Ms. Fordham also characterizes the experiences of some public school children in the following way: “They are in the classroom, and they're crowded. And if a kid is a little slower learning he [doesn't] have the time to take . . . so after a while he'll just stop going to school, or he'll miss school because he didn't know his lesson, or he had nobody to pay attention to him.”

Ms. Fordham's description of public school classrooms as overcrowded and underresourced resonates with earlier criticisms by Ms. Robinson. Like Ms. Robinson, Ms. Fordham's assumptions concerning the troubles of some urban public schools differ sharply from those of the interviewer and the neoliberal and neoconservative constituencies he represents.

This divergence of assumptions between Ms. Fordham and the interviewer is further evident as they negotiate the content of the interview. For example, in relation to the issue of consumer choice within educational markets, he asks, “Why should that be your choice? As a parent, or as a grandparent, or as a family member, why should you have the right to [choose] that?” While the interviewer positions Ms. Fordham as a consumer within an educational marketplace, she answers from a very different subject position—that of a member within a community and society: “One of the things I feel is going to improve our society is if we can educate our kids better.” Again, Ms. Fordham's “parent as community member” sits awkwardly with the interviewer's own “parent as consumer.”

These brief excerpts represent, at the microlevel, an important instantiation of the tense, contradictory, and often successful process of articulation and alliance building within the movement for vouchers. While the tensions and contradictions in such articulations are clearly evidenced in the differing purposes, resources, and identities that the interviewer and the two interview participants bring to the interviews, clearly they also share a limited common purpose that allows them to stand together “in the same room,” however awkwardly and momentarily. Both the interviewer (as a neoliberal and neoconservative advocate of educational marketization and Catholic schools) and the interview subjects (as parents and guardians concerned about their children's education) are interested in furthering at least a specific, limited version of “parental choice” in Milwaukee. One can imagine that these parents and guardians, in contrast to the interviewer, are unlikely to favor “choice” beyond the low-income parameters within which it was initially established.

In significant ways, then, the subaltern and tactical agency that Ms. Robinson, Ms. Fordham, and other African American parents and guardians have demonstrated within the contested terrain over vouchers is a testament to the strength of their potential political agency, rather than, as is sometimes suggested, an indication of naıve submission to hegemonic conservative educational and economic discourses. This remains true even if these parents ultimately are proved wrong, as we believe they will be, in their assertions that their actions will be of maximum benefit in the long run not just for their children, but also for other children left behind in newly market-disciplined urban public schools. And we believe that this tactical agency will in all likelihood be further instantiated in future mobilizations, quite possibly around other traditionally conservative themes. Many of these themes have long been issues of concern for large numbers of African American parents, including support for school prayer and “religious freedom,” as well as antipathy toward abortion and the interests of sexual minorities. African Americans and other subaltern groups are not essential Democrats, although in recent history, many have tactically aligned themselves with this party.

We feel that this last point bears repeating. Critical theorists and others on the educational left should recognize that African American articulation to the Democratic party and other powerful and sometimes liberal, progressive, and centrist groups has almost always been based on the carefully debated strategic value of such alliances. When social movements rooted in broader African American struggles for racial uplift encounter the limitations that previously articulated alliances now present, political alignments are potentially subject to considerable flux. To theorize African Americans as “intelligent” when they show unquestioning loyalty to the Democratic party and other liberal causes (even when the Democratic party takes their support for granted as it drifts to the Right on significant socioeconomic issues) and “foolish” when they tactically participate in other, sometimes more conservative, alliances grossly misrepresents African American agency and betrays what we feel is a racist essentialization of Black intelligence. Subaltern, relatively powerless groups have always needed to tactically associate in seemingly contradictory ways with powerful groups and individuals, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the Democratic Leadership Council, in order to seek to protect their interests.

Reflecting on the pivotal role played by subaltern groups, we want to suggest that the conservative hegemonic alliance in the late 1980s recognized that it almost wielded the power to get vouchers through. Although by itself the hegemonic alliance was not able (yet) to successfully realize its marketization agenda concerning education and vouchers, the Right could stretch its power by bringing parts of a traditional liberal constituency—a portion of African American parents—on board. Articulating the privatization agenda in education to these parents' “good sense” and perceived interests would enable the Right to tip the scales of educational power away from an alliance of liberal groups—including unions, civil liberties organizations, antiracist groups, and feminist and environmental organizations—and toward the amalgamation of groups pursuing conservative modernization in education. Given the Wisconsin political climate of the late 1980s—in which progressives wielded very little power—coupled with a long and historic movement among African American parents in Milwaukee for community-controlled schools that would protect their children from the sometimes reprehensible racial practices of Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee presented itself as an ideal battleground upon which the conservative alliance might win crucial ideological battles over the character, form, and funding of education in the United States (Carl, 1996). Such a victory would also have promising implications for further-reaching conservative goals involving the broad privatization of the public sphere and the “deresponsibilization” of the state (Leys, 2002).

In the process, the immediate and long-term conservative agendas around privatization in education and elsewhere would not be the only part of the hegemonic project that would be served. It will be useful here to reinvoke the conceptualization that one of us has proposed of the conservative hegemonic alliance as constituted through a series of tensely negotiated and maintained compromises among disparate but overlapping discursive tendencies (Apple, 1996, 2000, 2001). With regard to the contestation of such a tense alliance, critical theorists in education and elsewhere have correctly argued that one strategy to forward the agenda of a radically democratic social and educational project might be to carefully discern these fault lines within the hegemonic alliance so that potential differences among the different positions might be exacerbated, thereby pushing the project of conservative modernization in the direction of crisis. Just as the American Left hopes to strategically promote its interests through capitalizing on these points of suture on the Right, so too does the Right have an interest in continuing to capitalize on, and subvert tensions among, real and potential progressive allies.

One of the fault lines that the Right seems to have successfully discerned and targeted is the articulation within what we might call the traditional progressive alliance between African American groups and teachers' unions such as the NEA and the AFT. By infusing the common sense of the United States' social formation with narrativized images of self-interested teachers' unions protecting their own jobs and “enriching” themselves with little concern for the students of color who increasingly make up our public school populations, the Right may be succeeding in destroying residual elements of a progressive alliance at the same time that it strengthens its own ascendancy (Holt, 2000). Calls by national teachers' unions for the improvement of teachers' working conditions through “zero tolerance” in student discipline, although in some ways justifiable, has likely only contributed to these tensions. (However, it should be noted that nothing prevents voucher schools from adopting “zero tolerance”-type policies.) Regarding this disarticulation between teachers' unions and African American parents, we want to assert that a careful appraisal of such educational dynamics in contexts such as Milwaukee will be quite instructive in both the theorization and the contestation of this process of disarticulation among potential and actual progressive allies (see Apple et al., 2003).

This situation is exacerbated by the following. For many African American urban leaders who have, sometimes even tepidly, supported vouchers, the reaction of some progressive Whites has been quite illuminating. It is characteristically a reaction of progressives who were previously content to see Blacks as “wisely” coalescing with predominantly White progressive initiatives and now see these same Blacks as foolishly allying themselves with dangerous forces. A tacit message here appears to be that Blacks do not know the real dangers of allying with “reprehensible” conservative people; only White liberals know that. It smacks of a feeling of the “White man's burden,” where liberal White educators are now angry at the “Black children” whom they had gathered under their umbrella because those children are showing independence of mind (see Fanon, 1967).


Our analysis of contradictory tensions and alliances does not mean that we need to weaken our arguments against marketization and privatization of schooling. Voucher and tax credit plans (the latter ultimately may actually be more dangerous) are still regressive policies that will most likely have some extremely problematic effects in the long term. One of the most important effects could be a demobilization of social movements within communities of color. Schools have played central roles in the creation of movements for justice. In essence, rather than being peripheral reflections of larger battles and dynamics, struggles over schooling—over what should be taught, over the relationship between schools and local communities, over the very ends and means of the institution itself—have provided a crucible for the formation of larger social movements toward equality (Apple et al., 2003; Hogan, 1982). These collective movements have transformed our definitions of rights, of who should have them, and of the role of the government in guaranteeing these rights. Absent organized, community-wide mobilizations, these transformations would not have occurred (Fraser, 1997; Giugni, McAdam, & Tilly, 1999).

This is under threat currently. Definitions of democracy based on possessive individualism, on the citizen as only a “consumer,” are inherently grounded in a process of deracing, declassing, and degendering (Ball, 1994). Yet, less advantaged raced, classed, and gendered people constitute the very groups that have employed struggles over educational access and outcomes to form themselves as self-conscious actors. If it is the case—as we strongly believe it is—that the organized efforts of social movements ultimately have led to the transformation of our educational system in more democratic directions (Apple, 2000; Hogan, 1982), the long-term effects of neoliberal definitions of democracy may be truly tragic for communities of color, not “only” in increasing inequalities in schools (see, e.g., Apple, 2001; Gillborn & Youdell, 2000; Lipman, 2004; McNeil, 2000), but also in leading to a very real loss of the impetus for collective solutions to pressing social problems.

If all problems are simply “solved” by individual choices within a market, then collective mobilizations tend to wither and perhaps even disappear.xvii Thus, although short-term support for neoliberal and neoconservative policies may seem strategically wise to some members of less powerful groups, and may in fact generate short-term mobilizations, we remain deeply worried about what will happen over time.xviii It is the long-term implications of individuating processes and ideologies, and their effects on the necessity of larger and constantly growing social mobilizations that aim toward substantive transformations within the public sphere, that need to be of concern as well.

A concern over the effects of individuation that such “choice” programs may ultimately bring is unfortunately actually mirrored in the (already limited) literature on Black support for neoliberal and neoconservative policies. All too much of the critical literature on such “strategic alliances,” even such work as Dillard's compelling book (2001), tends to focus on individuals rather than on larger social movements. As we noted above, it is social movements that historically have had the power to transform social and educational policy and practice. An emphasis on individuals does humanize the issues that are in contention and allows us to see the people behind the rightist presence within marginalized communities. However, this very focus causes us to miss the dynamics that have led to the growth of groups such as BAEO and to the strategic moves that are being selfconsciously made on the unequal social fields of power in which educational policy operates.

This doesn't vitiate the strength of what such analyses of the growing conservative tendencies among some “othered” communities have given us. However, the question is not whether it is possible to build a rightist-led coalition that will include elements of “multiculturalism.” Indeed, as we have shown in this article, such a process is in part already being successfully attempted. Instead, the questions we must constantly ask are the following: At what cost? At whose expense? Whose interests are served?

We do know, for example, that the integration of some elements of communities that have historically been seen as “the other” has occurred and that certain elements have been brought under the umbrella of conservative modernization. For instance, some Latin Americans, Asian Americans, gays, lesbians, and others have given their support to what are surprisingly conservative causes. Although perhaps overstating her arguments for political reasons, Dillard, for example, is at her most perceptive when she sees that the roots of the support of conservative positions among some members of oppressed groups may often be based on not wanting to “be Black.” It is worth quoting her at length here.

[One] point on which Latino, Asian-American, women, and homosexual conservatives seem to agree is the desire, to restate the matter bluntly, not to be like blacks—members of a group that persists in pressing for collective redress from the government rather than pursuing the path of individualism, upward mobility, and assimilation. That some Latino and Asian-American conservatives have engaged in this narrative is troubling. If Toni Morrison is even partially correct in asserting that previous waves of immigrants have embraced (white, middle class) American identity “on the back of blacks,” then there is reason to fear that new immigrants will seek to replicate this pattern. In the process, the already tense relationships among African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans could degenerate. That some African American conservatives, a contingent that remains predominantly middle and upper-middle class, appear content to follow suit—to assimilate on the backs of the black poor—is doubly disturbing. (Dillard, 2001, p. 182)

Obviously, Dillard's arguments are not as applicable to Black activist groups such as BAEO, which invokes a Black Nationalist sensibility concerning community control of schools. Yet for the many other persons and organizations with which she does deal, Dillard's points need to be taken very seriously, for the implication of such arguments is that the major losers in the shifting discursive terrain surrounding race and identity may very well prove once again to be poor Blacks. Once more, they will be pathologized. Their voices will be silenced. And they will continue to be “everybody's convenient and favorite scapegoat” (Dillard, 2001, p. 182). Given the central place that race has played in the development of the neoconservative movement of “return” and the neoliberal movement of “choice” (Apple, 2001), we should not be surprised if rightist multiculturalism promises more of the same, but covered in a new and seemingly more diverse discourse.

“Not wanting to be Black” does not explain the support of vouchers by groups such as BAEO, of course, given its Black Nationalist sensibilities. Instead, it is the very fact of being Black, of recognizing and fighting against their social and cultural positioning as the ultimate “other,” that has caused them to seek out strategic—some might say heretical—alliances with some of the main tendencies that, paradoxically, have been in the forefront historically in supporting such positioning. In Educating the “Right” Way (Apple, 2001), one of us has called for thinking heretically about possible alliances that might subvert parts of the agendas involved in conservative modernization. Whether BAEO's “heretical actions” actually do subvert such agendas and the racial and social class stratification of schools remains to be seen. We fear that ultimately, their actions may not. But one must also ask what choices Black activists in fact do have given the structures of inequality that currently exist.


In this article, we have examined a growing phenomenon: the growth of seemingly conservative sentiments among “despised others.” At the core of our analysis is a concern about what is at stake for all of us if a rightist educational agenda succeeds in redefining what and whose knowledge is of most worth and what our social and educational policies are meant to do. Yet, no matter what one's position is on the wisdom of BAEO's strategic actions, this case provides a crucial example of the politics of disarticulation and rearticulation on the ways in which social movements and alliances are formed and reformed from of the material and ideological conditions of daily life and of the politics of discursive reappropriation (Apple, 2001; Hall, 1996).xix Thus, an analysis of such movements is important both in terms of the balance of forces and power involved in specific educational reforms and in terms of more general issues concerning the processes of social transformation and agency. A critical but sympathetic understanding of groups such as BAEO may enable us to avoid the essentialism and reductionism that enters into critical sociological work on the role of struggles over the state. It can provide a more nuanced sense of social actors and the possibilities and limits of strategic alliances in a time of conservative modernization (see Pedroni, 2004).

Although we have a good deal of sympathy for BAEO's critique of the current functioning of public schools, we have very real worries about whether they can control the uses to which their support of neoliberal policies will be put. Yet, having said this, there may be some salutary effects of their efforts to mobilize around vouchers.

If the common school loses its legitimacy among significant numbers of people within communities of color, it may force a reexamination of the unequal ways that schools are currently financed in the United States, where a school's funding is dependent on the local tax base and its very real inequalities. It also may create the conditions in which teachers and their unions may have to work much more closely with local communities than is the case now simply in order for teachers to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of people of color. We say this knowing that, oddly enough, this might provide evidence for parts of the neoliberal case about school markets. Even though the arguments of voucher supporters such as Chubb and Moe (1990) are more than a little simplistic about the nature of what counts as “rational choices” for whom and about the nature of markets themselves, it still may be the case that fear of competition over positions and schools among teachers and other educators may then have hidden effects that also may finally lead to even more support among them for needed changes in schools.

Having said this, however, we predict the opposite. Although these changes may occur, it is unfortunately much more likely that the effects will be ones less positive in their long-term consequences. Less funding will be given to public schools. A politics of blame will evolve in which parents who have no choice but to keep their children in underfunded and highly policed inner-city schools and the teachers who remain in those schools will be seen as the source of the problem of the common school—not the highly stratified and unequal society that supports and sustains a system of highly unequal educational opportunities. Much depends on the balance of forces at the time. Given what has been shown about the often negative results of the combination of neoconservative and neoliberal reforms in schools, we are not sanguine about what will happen (Apple, 2001; Lipman, 2004; McNeil, 2000). At the very least, though, we need to be aware that the complicated politics and strategic maneuvering occurring on the terrain of educational policy will have complicated, contradictory, and unforeseen results. The example of BAEO signifies the beginning, not the end, of this story.

Although we have focused on the growth of strategic alliances between “despised others” and conservative forces in the United States, we predict that such alliances may not be limited to this one nation.xx Furthermore, we envision that the conceptual modifications that such evidence suggests and that we have sought to develop clearly here concerning the importance of subaltern groups in conservative formation will help researchers in other contexts to discern similar processes and trajectories. We can imagine that tactical investments in fleeting conservative alliances and subject positions among marginalized communities will play an increasingly significant role both here and elsewhere.

This may be disturbing to many progressively inclined educators, and this leads to our final point. Any groups that disagree with BAEO about the wisdom of supporting vouchers and of making tactical alliances with the Right have a task that goes well beyond simply criticizing their position or their strategy. Critics of BAEO's positions and strategies must have a detailed and in-depth understanding of what generates the anger at the lack of responsiveness that all too many school systems have shown to communities of color and the poor and working class for decades. The deplorable school conditions and gross inequities in educational access and control that remain in the post-Brown era—and to which groups like BAEO are responding—are real and immensely destructive to real children in real communities (see, for example, Kozol, 1991). Thus, those who worry about BAEO must ask what they themselves are for. They need to redouble their own efforts to end the racial contract that underpins “our” economic and political institutions (Mills, 1997), work even harder to provide the economic and cultural conditions that would make African American parents have faith in their schools, and challenge the ways in which a politics of “Whiteness” underpins so much of the daily life of this society. Simply saying no to BAEO, then, in an era marked by the persistence of many of the massive injustices that the Brown decision sought to address, is not enough. Indeed, we would claim that it is a racializing act itself unless it is accompanied by powerful antiracist actions.

We would like to thank David Gillborn, Steven Selden, and especially Amy Stuart Wells for their perceptive comments on the issues raised in this article.


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i In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the critics of desegregation were most vocal, nearly 6,000 African American students were attending predominantly White suburban schools through the voluntary transfer (i.e., “choice”) Chapter 220 program (Schmidt, 1993).

ii Milwaukee is one of only a handful of desegregation cases that allows students to cross urban-suburban boundaries after 1974 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Milliken v. Bradley case against metropolitan wide remedies, except when Constitutional violations could be clearly linked to each suburb (see Hankin, 1989).

iii This, of course, was and is not only the case in Milwaukee. As Wells et al. (2004, 2005) and many other scholars have documented, White privilege was constantly reasserted into the context of desegregation policies that, in theory, were intended to remedy years of discrimination against Black and Latino students. For a copy of the Wells et al. (2004) report, see

iv As will be discussed at length later in this article, we must recognize that most members of what are often referred to as minority groups travel the highway labeled market in considerably less comfort than the powerful interests at the heart of this story. Quite often, disenfranchised people find themselves on this road only as the equivalent of hitchhikers, subject to the whims of those who navigate this highway with the sense of confidence and ownership that is the hallmark of their power and class habitus (Bourdieu, 1984). Yet for some of the less well-off on the side of the road, the road at least offers the hope that it might pass closer to a vision of community control and opportunity than previous avenues have allowed. Therefore, as we will later argue, for many African American parents choosing market alternatives such as vouchers, “anywhere else” sometimes seems better than where we stand educationally in our urban cores right now.

v Perhaps this statement oversimplifies things a bit. Notions of “economic democracy” (i.e., free markets) in the current moment have actually become entangled in complicated ways with conceptions of political democracy; the conceptual slippage that this entanglement enables is actually more useful for those who endorse and benefit from this reconceptualization as compared with a complete displacement of the political by the economic.

vi Although her analysis could be more detailed and subtle in certain places, Dillard (2001) does a good job of detailing the “structures of feeling” of conservative affiliations among a number of people who usually are not expected to take such positions. She deals with a wide range of different forms of conservative leanings, from the economy, the legitimacy of activist government, the politics of the body, and the role of religion in public affairs, on the one hand, to questions dealing with what knowledge should and should not be taught as "legitimate" and, say, the place of race in university admissions on the other.

vii "Progressive" traditions in the United States were not free of such racializing and racist logics. See, for example, Selden (1999).

viii That the number of African American groups that are making alliances with distinctly conservative movements is growing says something very important about the fascination with identity politics among many progressive scholars and activists in education and elsewhere. Too often, writing on identity (wrongly) assumes that identity politics is a good thing, that people inexorably move in progressive directions as they pursue what Nancy Fraser would call a politics of recognition (1997). Yet, any serious study of rightist movements demonstrates that identity politics is just as apt to take, say, angry and retrogressive forms—antigay, racist nativism, antiwomen, and so on. For many such people, "we" are the new oppressed, with that "we" not including most people of color, feminists, “sexual deviants,” immigrants, and so on (see, e.g., Blee, 2002; Kintz, 1997). Yet, as we noted earlier, even people within these "despised" groups themselves may (strategically) take on such retrogressive stances.

ix We do not mean to imply that the conservative tradition in American politics is the only one that does this. Rather, dominant traditions in American politics, whether liberal or conservative, are generally culpable in this regard.

x BAEO is a heterogeneous organization. Much, though not all, of BAEO's leadership is from the middle class, but it does have a good deal of grassroots support. Where it specifically meets and intersects with rightist organizations, those who interact with such organizations tend not to be among the poor and working class. However, a class analysis is not sufficient here. Racial solidarity may come first; race fundamentally mediates class relations. Thus, the issue of the class position of BAEO's leadership needs to be thought about in complex and subtle ways.

xi In some ways, this is similar to the long history of critical cultural analyses that demonstrate that people form bricolages in their daily lives and can employ language and commodities in ways undreamed of by the original producers of the language and products (see, e.g., Willis, 1990).

xii The continuing research on BAEO and similar groups by one of us (Tom) sheds considerable light on this. See Pedroni, 2004.

xiii In this regard, the political issue that they are facing is in some ways similar to the debates over “market socialism.” Can economic and political forms developed under the auspices of less progressive tendencies and power relations be employed to further goals that are organized around a very different set of ideological sentiments? See, for example, Bardhan and Roemer (1993) and Ollman (1998).

xiv We do not want to argue that all these decisions are based on some sort of rational choice model. There are powerful emotional economies at work here. On the ways in which emotional economies work in mobilizations, see Kintz (1997).

xv In an essay entitled “Becoming Right: Education and the Formation of Conservative Movements,” the argument was made that relatively ideologically unformed citizens “became Right"—that is, became more fully formed conservative actors within rightist social movements—as the result of a complex set of interactions between individuals' elements of “good sense” and the intransigence of a bureaucratic state (Apple, 1996; Apple et al., 2003). Here we wish to propose a substantive addition to this argument. Our present research points to the possibility and actuality of individuals and groups making tactical investments in conservative subject positions and social movements while still retaining political investments and identities that are anything but conservative. Although such individuals and groups do not “become Right,” their tactical investment in rightist social movements does lend significant credibility and legitimacy to rightist forms.

xvi The names of the interview participants have been changed to preserve their anonymity. Complete transcripts of the interviews upon which the analysis here is based are available upon request from the authors of this article.

xvii However, we do not wish to sound overly deterministic here. Although we maintain that this is in fact the most likely outcome, a model of linear causality, misapplied here, would deny the agency that voucher parents actually possess in the process of conservative formation. Rather than “the collective” withering in Milwaukee, there is significant evidence that much of the movement is about moving resources to more community-controlled (albeit private) schools (Pedroni, 2004). The argument among many parents is precisely that vouchers enable them to choose schools that are more rooted in the community, in Black culture, and even in Black faith. This, however, is only a possibility. Once again, we need to remember that these strategic moves do not take place on a level playing field.

xviii Dillard (2001) herself is very fair in her assessment of what the implications of such support may be. She nicely shows the contradictions of the arguments and logic of the people she focuses upon. In doing so, she draws upon some of the more cogent analyses of the relationship between democracy and the maintenance of the public sphere on the one hand, and an expansive and rich understanding of what it means to be a citizen on the other. Readers of her discussion would also be well served to connect her arguments to the historical struggles over the very meanings of our concepts of democracy, freedom, and citizenship, such as that found in Eric Foner's illuminating book, The Story of American Freedom (1998), but Dillard's discussion is substantive and useful. It also serves as a reminder of the continuing importance of a number of democratic and critical writers, such as Hannah Arendt (1973, 1990), whose work, although not perfect by any means, unfortunately is no longer read as often as it should be.

xix An analysis of groups such as BAEO could enable us to extend the range of Basil Bernstein's work on recontextualization as well. See Bernstein, 1990.

xx Extensive observations by one of us in New Zealand and England over the past decade confirm that this in fact is a distinct possibility.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 9, 2005, p. 2068-2105 ID Number: 12154, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:35:20 PM

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