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It’s Time to Abolish Schools

Professor kihana miraya ross says the time is right to rethink educational institutions, especially for Black students.

kihana ross article
kihana miraya rossImage: Shane Collins

By kihana miraya ross
Fall 2020
Voices
4 Responses

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. 

“... 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.

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Reader Responses

  • The professor suggests that we abolish schools. But she doesn't make clear whether abolition would apply to white students also, or only to Black students.

    If the professor is suggesting that schools be ended for white students also, I am sure there would be little support in the wider community. Education is much too important a factor in the success of too many people.

    If instead she is proposing that schools be abolished only for Black children, that idea seems to suggest that Blacks have their own education system. I find that idea counterproductive.

    Certainly, there are problems in the experience of some or even many Black children in schools in America. Those problems may involve the way they are treated or the perspective of the content, or even some of both. But the answer is not to establish a separate system for each of the races.

    As a history major in college, and later a history teacher, I learned that some Black philosophers in the 1960s, and people like Du Bois before them, advocated for such a separate society — essentially, a society within a society. But I don't think that is the answer. The answer has to be reform, perhaps significant reform, but not separation. Otherwise, we really are no longer a nation.

    Fredric Katz ’76 Mechanicville, N.Y., via Northwestern Magazine

  • I was disappointed after reading this article. I am very open minded and look for perspectives on topics I had not thought of — your article being one of them. But I also expect a balanced view — good with bad, right with wrong.

    In your article, you said "schools have failed black children." Couldn't an argument be made that Black students have failed schools?

    As a first-generation immigrant, I always admired the melting pot that the U.S. is. Having free public education means that ALL kids learn from the same teachers, same language, even accents, same mannerisms, and of course, same curriculum. If some group of kids choose NOT to benefit from it for their own good — don't they have some responsibility for it? If all other kids follow rules but you don't, what should be done?

    And lastly, if you so strongly believe that the schools should be abolished, BEFORE throwing the baby with bath water, how about starting a school (in this case) for Black children and show how well it would work?

    Jayant Kanitkar ’85 MBA, Concord, Calif., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Thank you for publishing kihana miraya ross's opinion piece on abolishing schools (and thank you to kihana for writing it!). I've witnessed firsthand that our education system does not work for Black students the same way it works for me, and now I work at a higher education institution where anti-Blackness prevails throughout campus. It's frightening to wonder what would happen if we loosened our grip on the prestige our Northwestern degrees have given us, but it's even more frightening to think we're also clinging to white supremacist structures every time we proudly announce our alma mater.

    Caitlin Klask ’13 MS, Seattle , via Northwestern Magazine

  • Several ideas in Kihana Miraya Ross’s Faculty Opinion, Northwestern Magazine fall 2020, strike me as highly problematic. She charges that “students may learn that brutally enslaved Africans [enslaved in the first place by other Africans, it should be mentioned] were ‘workers’ who came to the U.S. in the context of immigration.” Maybe some moron said or wrote that, but such nonsense is certainly not in significant works on slavery published since Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution, 1956. I majored in History at NU (BA 1971), and never heard such an idea there. Among my excellent teachers was George Fredrickson, author of the classic The Black Image in the White Mind, 1971. Ross libels the history profession as a whole.

    Her idea of anti-Blackness, I take it, relates to anti-Semitism. There are certainly parallels between the two. For example, American higher education and real estate practices barred Jews or set quotas for their admission for centuries, as has happened for Blacks here. But Professor Ross must know that Nazi anti-Semitism meant the destruction of the Jews. A handful of lunatics, no more, proposes that end for the American Black population. Meanwhile, Northwestern and every other major university, the New York Times, the New Yorker, my local public library, Major League Baseball, the town in which I live, and many other groups and organizations are now deeply engaged in anti-anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness does exist in this country; yet Ross teaches at NU; four other, apparently Black profs are featured on page 10; and Attica Locke gets a glowing article. So it is possible for talented Black people to get excellent jobs and speak openly about American life. If anti-Blackness is still a policy anywhere, it is under strong attack.

    Ross’s suggestion to abolish schools may be only a provocative idea, but she presents no alternative. She has every right to be enraged about discrimination and murder of Black people. However, as hard as it may be for African Americans, we all need to speak calmly, refer to major studies of slavery and injustice, and recognize current remedial efforts as we work to fix our society.

    Robert W. Thurston ’71 Oxford, Ohio, via Northwestern Magazine

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