Cover image of Unsettling Choice: Race, Rights, and the Partitioning of Public Education by Ujju Aggarwal (2024) | University of Minnesota Press

Cover image of Unsettling Choice: Race, Rights, and the Partitioning of Public Education by Ujju Aggarwal (2024) | University of Minnesota Press

Choice works, and it works with a vengeance . . . Choice in education is the wave of the future because it represents a return to some of our most basic American values. Choice in education is no mere abstraction. Like its economic cousin, free enterprise, and its political cousin, democracy, it affords hope and opportunity.

—Ronald Reagan, Workshop on Education convened by the White House, 1989

Separating liberty from equality pretends that private interests are untainted by the state and social power when, in fact, the two are quite related. Private choices are shaped and facilitated by social institutions and government action.

—Dorothy E. Roberts, The Priority Paradigm: Private Choices and the Limits of Equality

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in February 2012 and Tasha, a Black woman in her twenties who lives in south Harlem, has arrived early for a workshop at the Head Start Center where her four-year-old child attends preschool. Upon arriving, Tasha pauses in the doorway to make sure she is in the right place. I stop arranging the classroom’s small chairs and low tables and greet Tasha, introducing myself, offering a seat, and assuring her that we will be getting started soon. There’s a drip in the classroom sink that, alternating with the “bloop” of the small fish tank, provides a percussion-like background as she waits. Soon, two more women trickle in. Like Tasha, both Nicole and Edith have children who currently attend the Head Start Center. Nicole is an immigrant from Ghana who has been living in temporary housing. Edith migrated from the Dominican Republic and lives down the block from the Head Start Center in Manhattan Valley. Next year, their children will exit Head Start and enter kindergarten. In preparation, both women take time out of their schedules to regularly participate in the weekly workshops. They have been meeting together since October.

This Tuesday, the rose-colored tiles that cover the floors take on a darker hue, as there is not much sun that makes it through the cinder block glass windows of the preschool. The thick glass provides a barrier between the small children inside and the “big kids” outside, on the avenue, who attend the two middle schools across the street. The middle schools are housed in one building, Adam Clayton Powell (ACP), which takes up the radius of an entire block. Edon is the honors middle school program for the school district. The other school, STRIVE, serves the “general” student population. As a reviewer for a highly trafficked education website put it, the “single middle school serving two different student populations . . . at times seems to have a split personality.” The mental health diagnosis results from the structures inside the school, which ensure that Black and Latinx students are separated from their largely white and also Asian counterparts: a separation rationalized by standardized tests, which are said to measure academic ability.

And so in Manhattan Valley, as elsewhere in the United States and more than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), these two groups of students who see each other every day rarely meet. They don’t eat lunch together, and more recently, after complaints from Edon students and their parents resulted in different dismissal times for the two schools, the chance for interacting outside of school is even less likely. The avenue outside, once deemed by many as a so-called gang area and associated with STRIVE students, has been changing for some time, as the neighborhood has also changed. Yet remnants of earlier years remain, and there are still security cameras outside the preschool, providing a veneer of safety.

It is the precariousness, or lack of security, for the futures of their children that has brought Tasha, Nicole, Edith, and other women from the Head Start Center together. In this case, precarity was structured by a shifting landscape of access to public schools. As we learned in the last chapter, the public elementary schools of Manhattan Valley were never in high demand—until they were. For many years, in fact, they were under-enrolled. Yet this changed over the last decade and with greater intensity in the wake of the Great Recession when federal, state, and local officials navigated and pushed forward austerity measures to help save capitalism from capitalism. These measures, like most that qualified austerity-driven politics, were not inevitable but planned and proactive decisions, often marked by the cutting of budgets and the closing of public schools. During this period, public school administrators also confronted punitive policies pushed forward through mayoral control that deployed claims of under-utilization to advance charter school expansion. At the time, charter schools were proliferating above 110th Street in Harlem, in the northern part of the district, while in Manhattan Valley and the Upper West Side the majority of public schools remained non-charter. It was in this context, then, that many schools developed strategies that included seeking out new parent-consumers who might consider investing their children, networks, fundraising skills, and financial resources in public schools. Such efforts were met by parents who were reevaluating their finances and considering whether moving to public schools could be a viable option. And as it happened, the expansion of school choice programs (which would come to include dual-language, magnet, and gifted and talented programs as well as district-wide choice schools) provided a means by which they were able to realize their goals—which were often rationalized and narrated as “saving public schools.”

[ … ]

Public schools are among the last remaining public goods in the United States, and as such they are recognized by many as institutions worthy of defending—and they are. Yet public schools are also some of our most unequal institutions, marked by exclusion and segregation, and structured as well by violence, disposability, and what some have termed the school-prison nexus that works not against, or in antagonism to public education, but through it (Meiners 2007; Nolan 2011; Sojoyner 2016; Vaught 2017). Indeed, public schools are not outside of the capitalist state but firmly embedded within it, indicative of organized abandonment (Gilmore 2008) as well as structured and dialectical divestment and investment—that is also necessary to the U.S. carceral state. Understood as such, public schools are crucial infrastructures of social reproduction that agentive actors also recognize, survive, contest, and resist, albeit in ways that may or may not be readily discernible (Bowles and Gintis 1976; Willis 1977).

Working alongside this understanding of public schools—one that questions the mainstream narrative in which education is positioned as a cornerstone of U.S. democracy—in this chapter, I locate the conditions informing the contestatations that emerged over who Manhattan Valley’s public schools would serve and prioritize to ask what they might teach us about the structure of the public. These conditions, which included a competitive and opaque landscape of admissions, uneven access, and a limited ability to assert rights or entitlement to services, clarified that public schools, though understood by many in the context of charter school encroachment and as distinct from privatization, were characterized by neoliberal entrapments that replicated many of the same material conditions as the private realm. Following those who have demonstrated the limitations of liberal rights of inclusion as well as their productive capacities (Brown 1995; Melamed and Reddy 2019), I trace how the post–Brown v. Board of Education structuring of rights as choices circumscribed a public realm organized by market logics and qualified by a consumer citizenship. Rather than a new phenomenon or an erosion of U.S. democracy that must be saved or revived, the framework of partitioned publics makes clear that the post-Brown structuring of rights gestured instead, a realignment. As I show below, rooted in logics of racial capitalism, the neoliberal infrastructure created in this moment was enlivened through the expansion and structuring of rights to the public good of education.

What’s New? Tracking the Post-Brown Realignment

As they wait for others to arrive, the women settle themselves into the small wooden chairs made for the four-year-olds who occupy the room during the day. Nicole and Edith start sharing updates with one another about the elementary school tours they have recently attended. After listening patiently to their detailed assessments, Tasha interjects, “Wait a minute, can I ask a question? What are these meetings about?”

In response, Nicole and Edith share what they do together every week: the members of the group work to help one another find schools for their children and to make sure all schools are good and serve the community; they learn about their rights and about the schools in the district; they share their observations and also develop ways to support one another. One tactic we developed was going to visit schools in teams. The action was informed by our understanding that school staff and administrators might think twice about dismissing us as a group as opposed to any of us individually; that by visiting as a group, members might build a stronger collective assessment of a school; and that together, we might find greater strength in and defend one another.

“Going together is better,” Nicole adds, “because the schools in the district are racism and discrimination. They do not want families who are not rich and white. They do not want our children.” As one of the facilitators of the group, I was encouraged by Nicole’s straightforward response and analysis. But returning to my field notes later, the same statement gave me pause: the schools are racism and discrimination. Whether intended or not, Nicole’s construction of schools as articulating racism seemed to clarify the contradiction that joins public education, racial capitalism, and American exceptionalism. That is, public education works as a symbol of democracy, which is understood to be a work in progress. While yet unfulfilled, the promise remains, reminding us of an ever-unfolding narrative in which shortcomings can be overcome. Yet as Nicole’s comment clarifies, racism is not an aberration of public education or U.S. democracy; rather, it is their form and function.

Addressing Nicole’s explanation, Tasha queried further, “So . . . what’s new . . . I mean haven’t they always done that? I mean, you know . . . that’s the way it’s always been . . . So are they doing something different now?” While such a question might be easily dismissed or understood as indicative of an apathetic disposition, over the course of several years of conducting outreach as a community organizer, I met many parents who asked similar questions: Why care? What’s new? Isn’t that the way it’s always been? Throughout this work, one lesson I learned was the need to understand what questions like these were actually explaining rather than asking. That is, instead of signaling indifference, such questions were pedagogical and required close attention, putting into practice one of the fundamental principles that guides organizing: what we can learn— rather than explain—from, with, and in community. It is a principle and approach to organizing, rooted in traditions of popular education, that works to center a collective epistemology about the way things are and asks what insights such knowledge can provide to discerning the design, function, and structure of systems of power (Freire 1970; Willis 1977; Ransby 2003; Payne 2007; Woods 2007; Sojoyner 2016; Burrowes 2018; Vaught, Brayboy, and Jeremiah 2022).

On one hand, the question of what is new or not directs us to map the shifts taking place in the public elementary schools of Manhattan Valley. For poor and working-class families of color, these changes, outlined above, were marked by an intensification of disregard and exclusion, creating the context for Nicole’s reflection that “they do not want our children.” These conditions (of expanded choice policies and increased segregation and inequality) were not random, nor were they distinct from one another. Rather, they worked in concert. In what follows, I work to map the relation among them, considering also what we might learn from Tasha’s question, which directs us to examine how the circumstances that the women at the Head Start Center confronted were not mediated by privatization—and also by no means new.

Indeed, rather than novelty, Tasha’s provocation requires us instead to consider the question of continuity. While, in recent years, social movements have drawn increased attention to the violence of racialized dispossession, within education studies one of the following explanations is often mobilized in considering its continuity: a flat historical line between slavery, Jim Crow, and the contemporary period; novel forms of neoliberalism as privatization, which in turn result in “disparate” race-based outcomes and a devolution of U.S. democracy; and the problem of better managing inequality in schools. Centering the constraints and contradictions encountered by the women at the Head Start Center and what they might teach us about the intersections of choice, structured precarity, and racialized exclusion as they relate to questions of liberal rights and public education, I suggest a different approach to addressing Tasha’s provocation: one that emphasizes historical specificity, contingency, and a non-reified understanding of race. Drawing on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s observation that “while repetition is part of the deadly drama of living in a racial state, the particular challenge is to work out the specific realignments of the social structure in a period of rapid change” (Gilmore 2007, 214; see also Hall 1980), I track the realignment that took shape through choice— as a key principle of reform and management in public education that emerged in the post-Brown period.

[ … ] I work to dislodge choice as an assumed social fact and examine its historical production, engaging a conjunctural analysis to trace a critical genealogy of choice. I follow the relations and circulations of power […] as responses that attempted to contain the expansive demands enlivened by Black freedom struggles. In doing so, I ask what these circulations tell us about the structure and limits of inclusion within the public, or what kind of transformation would be required to make things different (Reinhold 1994; Shore Wright 1997; Sojoyner 2016; Vaught 2017; Taylor 2019).

Excerpted with edits from Chapter 2, “The Post-Brown Realignment and the Structure of Partitioned Publics,” from Unsettling Choice: Race, Rights, and the Partitioning of Public Education by Ujju Aggarwal. Published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2024 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. Used by permission.