By the time I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the racialized world the book describes failed to startle me. I knew a little bit about that world — at least in its Houston form. What surprised me in Coates’ writing was his surgical ability to use words to dissect our country’s racialization; his ability to empower readers — seemingly even white readers — to see our nation through his eyes and his relentless interrogation of the racial edges of “the American dream.”
As we reflect today on Brown vs. The Board of Education and its goal of educational equity, I am haunted by Coates’ damning testimony against America’s educational system and the racist state of our Union. By reading between the lines of Between the World and Me, we see that Brown failed to achieve its stated goal because Brown failed to reckon with how America’s educational system itself was complicit in perpetuating racial and economic inequalities.
Twelve years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, the statistics concerning educational, racial inequalities already highlighted how short the results of the Supreme Court’s decision fell from its rhetoric. In Where Do We Go From Here, Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that the “historic” decision “had not made history” as “all deliberate speed” translated to a mere 2 percent of schools in the Deep South achieving integration after a decade of struggle. Many of today’s statistics remain equally troubling. In a nation that defeated gravity, built spaceships, and empowered a white man to do the moonwalk, providing educational equity continues to reside outside the grasp of America’s political will or imagination. And this is a moral monstrosity.
The picture Coates paints of America’s racial and educational landscapes confirms King’s instincts were correct in believing that even after Brown and other critical Civil Rights victories, our nation continued to head in a racist direction. Coates provides no analysis of the statistics to paint his picture. Instead, Coates dissects the indoctrination that ties America’s suburban, urban, and rural schools and communities together. And the cornerstone of that indoctrination is the mythology of the American dream and exceptionalism. “I sense the schools were hiding something, drugging us with a false morality,” Coates writes, “so that we would not see, so that we did not ask… Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them.”
The false morality to which Coates points is powerfully captured in John Truslow Adams’s 1931 book, The Epic of America. Not many know the name John Truslow Adams, but he is important in the history of America’s mythology for he coined the term “American dream.” Adam’s critiqued our nation, sometimes scathingly. Yet, Adams thoroughly believed in American exceptionalism and rooted that exceptionalism in America’s readiness to provide a land of opportunity for citizens of every color and creed ready to put in the work to realize their dreams. In Adam’s mind, those who thrive in America thrive because of exceptional virtues. Those who fail, fail because of exceptional vices.
This exceptionalism, America as a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy, is the picture that America’s educational system attempts to paint as gospel truth in the minds of the American people. And it is through these fictions, this false gospel, that America’s educational system baptizes citizens into a worldview that justifies lionizing the white and wealthy while demonizing the Black and poor; a worldview that produces dreams in white America’s minds and nightmares in Black America’s neighborhoods.
Rather than the American dream, Coates demands we understand the heart of the American experiment through its war against the beauty, brilliance, and bodies of Black people. “America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” Coates writes, “but the Black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”
In America’s Unholy Ghosts, I write about the training our educational systems provide to harmonize the belief in liberty, freedom, and equality with the reality of radical and systemic racial and economic inequalities. It’s an intricate process. It begins in American history classes as we whitewash our nation’s past by commemorating our forefathers’ commitments to liberty, freedom, and equality without commenting much about their addictions to slavery and economic inequality. It continues as American educators celebrate the history of exceptional Black folks for a month while ignoring the tragic history — the chains, lynchings, and poverty — of everyday Black folks year around. Whitewashing America’s history requires a remarkable amount of amnesia, but we should never underestimate education’s ability to help us forget what we do not wish to remember.
The whitewashing of history only acts as a gateway drug for a deeper indoctrination. In social studies, Americans learn to believe economics is an amoral science that reduces the American economic imagination to grids and graphs incapable of questioning how children are going to be fed, clothed, and housed after the needs of their family were written out of our considerations. Gross domestic product, not gross domestic poverty, becomes the economic measurement of America’s self-perception. “You must always remember,” Coates warns, ”that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
As we remember Brown vs. the Board of Education, we must examine the statistics that tell the story of how our American society perpetuates educational and racial divides. But we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture. In working to realize the aims of Brown vs. the Board of Education, we cannot forget that training our children in American mythologies only increases our racial and economic divides.
We must keep Brown’s goal of educational equity while remembering the fight for educational equity is never a fight against a one-headed dragon slain by simple solutions.
The fight for equity in America is against the multi-headed beast of white supremacy and our addiction to racial and economic inequality.
This fight requires fostering a more truthful self-understanding than what our educational systems provide.
The troubling truth is that since America’s educational system is designed to foster the belief in American exceptionalism, it is perfectly engineered to act as the engine that perpetuates American made injustices. The troubling truth is that American exceptionalism never produced the self-understanding necessary for the pursuit of a more perfect union. This is why for America’s Black and Brown children our nation is not the land of opportunity described in The Epic of America but is more eerily reminiscent of the social predestination depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And that is frightening.
I do not know how America can cure its educational system. But I am beginning to believe in the power of anti-racist writers — from Coates to Ibram X. Kendi, from Jesmyn Ward to Annette Gordon-Reed — to liberate their readers’ minds from the mythologies of the American Dream.
As we reflect on Brown vs. the Board of Education, perhaps now is the time to begin training our children to listen anew to the writers ready to deal with the realities of America’s racial history. And if our children are educated to face the facts of this American life, perhaps they can lead us closer to the day when America’s educational system is no longer an engine for America’s racial inequalities.
About the Author
Joel Edward Goza is the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, which will be released in April 2019 and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Joel writes from Houston’s 5th Ward Community.