Given the horrific history of race relations in the United States and our continued collective struggle to come to terms with this essential issue, of all the low life angles taken by corporate education reformers and their allies in government, none is lower and more repugnant than their calculated usurpation of the language and iconography of the blood stained civil rights movement. Arne Duncan began by braying on and on about how education is “the civil rights issue of our time ” ever since Obama installed him on his throne at the Department of Education in 2009. Duncan’s multi-millionaire hedge fund manager pals and the chorus of tax exempt-non-profit-organization warriors have been echoing the line ever since. And they have been doing so with absolute impunity. New Yorkers were treated to a variation of this theme just a few weeks ago during Commissioner John King’s “forum” in Brooklyn, where well fed, middle class white operatives of Michelle Rhee’s StudentFirstNY organization earned their pay by insinuating, when not our right declaring, that opposition to the Common Core State Standards was somehow depriving the African American children of Brooklyn their civil rights.
The corporate ed reformers and their allies have been repeating the line for so long they seem to be utterly oblivious to how offensive they are.
Consider the language and imagery of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington on Wednesday in his simultaneous defense of school “choice” and attack on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to make charter schools pay rent.
“Our committees in the House will remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure no one from the government stands in the school house door between any child and a good education,” said Cantor, in remarks at the Brookings Institution.”
As they are an allusion to one of the more repugnant if horrifically powerful images of the Civil Rights struggle, the words “ no one from the government stands in the school house door” leapt out at me and hit me like a hammer. And I suspect they did so to many with even a cursory knowledge of a time, not so long ago, when the power of the state was arrayed to uphold outright, undisguised, naked racism.
There is but one infamous “ stand in a schoolhouse door” moment in American history and Cantor, though a moral ignoramus, has to know this. The stand in the schoolhouse door was made at the University of Alabama by proto-Tea Partier, segregationist Governor George Wallace on June 11, 1963. Wallace’s stand was a symbolic gesture in a failed attempt to block the entry of two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, into the university. The image made Wallace nationally famous, or infamous, overnight. Exactly as he knew it would.
It’s hard to believe that Cantor stumbled upon his choice of an image innocently. It is simply too loaded for that. And it is simply to powerful. And it’s hard to forgive someone who would use such words and such an image to implicitly link people like de Blasio or, by extension, anyone who opposes charter schools, with figures like George Wallace and his repugnant politics. But that is exactly why such words and the images they conjure up are used.
Someday, and hopefully soon, someone will write the comprehensive history of the corporate reform campaign and their ruthless and insidious campaign to privatize the American public school system. When that happens, there should be a chapter devoted exclusively to the wholesale usurpation and manipulation of the language and images of the Civil Rights Movement in this effort. For the souls of those who suffered so bravely and with such nobility, it is the very least that can be done. In the meantime, we do well by calling these people out for what they are: usurpers and worse.