In We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, University of Georgia education professor Bettina Love offers a striking and searing take on U.S. education. Drawing on close to 20 years of experience working in, and researching, urban schools, Love argues that Black, Latinx and Native American children—full of promise and possibilities—are regularly and methodically deprived of educational opportunities to thrive and grow.
And data bears this out. From suspension rates and school funding, to access to quality teachers and advanced coursework, non-White students are systematically marginalized by the institution of American schooling. Love presents both an indictment of current realities and a blueprint for radical change inspired by abolitionists of the civil rights era.
Love recently spoke with The Crisis about calling on educators to understand the systemic nature of racism, reimagine schools as sites of educational freedom, and work toward equitable and just classrooms.
Melinda D. Anderson: You make a provocative argument that the U.S. education system is maintained by — and profits from — the suffering of children of color. What is your basis for this conclusion?
Bettina Love: It comes from thinking about an education system for the last 250 years that has profited from Black and Brown children’s suffering. Cops in our schools, metal detectors and security cameras all feed the surveillance industry. The testing industry says if they didn’t pass the test, great — we’ll sell you more stuff so now they can pass. And if you can't get good teachers, that’s fine. We will have Teach for America come in. Or we will open charter schools. So you take a 30,000-foot view and see all of these different players who are profiting from the ideas that Black and Brown children are not beautiful, not creative or not smart. That Black and Brown children can't control themselves. And that has created whole industries that are profiting off of our suffering.
Anderson: The “educational survival complex” is a term you’ve coined for popular education reform policies — such as character education, pre-packaged curriculum and test-taking skills. Why do you consider these strategies little more than survival tactics?
Love: If you think about schooling, the narrative is that Black and Brown children are not worthy of an education. They don't have good character, they don't have good test-taking skills. And all of these things begin to influence how we feel as Black and Brown people, and how teachers think of us. The educational survival complex is educating Black children to survive, not to thrive, in school. We read about dropout factories — high schools where very few students graduate. But they’re not dropping out, they're being pushed out. And those who graduate, they've just survived the place. But everyone’s getting paid. I tried to be intentional about my language to make these connections.
Anderson: While much of the discourse centers on “achievement gaps,” you cite Black researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings’ concept of “education debt” to reframe the conversation. Can you talk more about this idea?
Love: Dr. Ladson-Billings talks about acknowledging and confronting the accumulated debt owed to marginalized students. But what would it mean to pay off this debt? Rather than just asking for more money for our schools, what if we asked for our kids to be educated in the ways we know works for our children, for them to learn in healing spaces, and for schools to become part of the community again? We need to take the national conversation we're having right now about reparations and move it very quickly to education, and think deeply about the education debt that needs to be paid — particularly how our kids are always trying to function within racist, hateful spaces. You can't learn in those spaces. You can't see your potential in those spaces. And that's not fair.
Anderson: You introduce the idea of abolitionist teaching as a way to dismantle systemic racism and patterns of injustice in schools — in the tradition of grassroots civil rights activists like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. How can this approach lead to better outcomes for youth of color?
Love: I write that abolitionists’ greatest tools against injustice were their imaginations. To be an abolitionist teacher means doing the everyday work of understanding how racism and whiteness function in our society. Abolitionist teaching examines the root causes. Because we can't do this work consumed by whiteness. You will start to blame children, and you will blame their communities, if you don't understand how whiteness works. Abolitionism is a path forward — teachers who walk into the classroom valuing the beauty that they have in front of them, and understanding what it means to teach from an anti-racist viewpoint. But it’s also not just a teaching pedagogy. Abolitionism is everyday life — how you see the world and yourself in it.
— Melinda D. Anderson is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist reporting on race and equity in education. Follow her @mdawriter