In a recent New York Times op-ed, I argued that racism isn’t the right word to understand the unrelenting police killings of people racialized Black in this country. The right term is anti-Blackness, which illuminates society’s inability to recognize our humanity.
But anti-Blackness is also a useful frame to consider the myriad other facets of society where there are detrimental consequences for being marked as Black in an anti-Black world.
One of those is schools. Yes, schools, where there are often countless dedicated teachers who work tirelessly against the tide of a neoliberal agenda unwavering in its commitment to privatize the entire enterprise of education and eradicate public schools. These institutions are also sites of anti-Blackness.
Beginning in preschool, Black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, from teacher-issued referrals, to corporal punishment, to police arrests and their attendant violence. And it is not simply that Black students are over-represented in these areas, but rather it is about the ways our bodies — our skin, our hair, our clothes, our voice, our body language, our cadence, our presence — have always represented a dangerous intrusion within educational institutions structured by anti-Black solidarity.
We must also talk about Black erasure and misrepresentation in curricular content where, for example, students may learn that brutally enslaved Africans were “workers” who came to the U.S. in the context of immigration. Students may learn to gather for food and fireworks on the Fourth of July, a nationally recognized holiday that celebrates the freedom of white men who simultaneously owned human beings and furniture. They may learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without interrogating his dream deferred.
So while W.E.B. Du Bois reminds us that the idea of universal, state-supported public education was originally “a Negro idea,” students and their families are still living in what I call the afterlife of school segregation. Black students remain systematically dehumanized and positioned as uneducable.
This does not mean we cannot also recognize what we may call “Black joy” in schools. Or that we diminish the work of those extraordinary educators who have made it their life’s mission to ignite and nurture a passion in our children for lifelong learning. But overall, schools have historically and contemporarily failed Black children.
In the weeks that followed the gruesome police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the release of video that showed white vigilantes hunting and shooting Ahmaud Arbery, the streets erupted in sorrow and rage. Protesters used their voices to elevate the decadeslong work of activists demanding divestment, defunding and even the abolition of police.
While some have begun calling for the abolition of police in schools, what would it mean to consider the abolition of schools themselves? What would happen if we acknowledged that, just as the system of policing in this country has rotten roots, not bad apples, the educational system has never been, and may never be, what Black students need for a liberatory educational experience?
To be clear: Dreams of abolition are born out of a love of Black people and Black children. Conceptualizing the abolition of schools is about recognizing this spectacular historical moment and building on the foundation to reimagine educational spaces where Black students aren’t normalized as other. It is about acknowledging that after decades of school reform, Black students continue to suffer. It is about thinking through what it would mean to completely rebuild in ways where Black children could learn — weightless, unracialized and human.
kihana miraya ross is an assistant professor of African American studies.