What Funding the Police Has Meant for Black, Brown, and Indigenous Communities


There is a Cherokee proverb that features a grandfather speaking to his grandson:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil; he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good; he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

To transform toxic systems—systems that devour Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies, systems that cannibalize communities, systems such as policing that gorge on not only public dollars but also the spines of the very people they are supposed to protect and serve—to transform these systems, you have to starve them. Similarly, if you want to understand what “defund the police” means, you have to understand what funding the police has meant, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous (BLI) peoples.

Michelle Alexander offers some insight into this question. For Alexander, funding the police in the U.S. has not only sequenced the repetition of state-sanctioned strikes against vulnerable people, it has also driven mass incarceration—thus, the social death and continued physical bondage of said people. Alexander tracks the rise of mass incarceration to the Nixon era with its now infamous “war on drug” rhetoric—a  discursive political campaign that, Alexander contends, postures back to the sinister and enduring legacies of anti-Blackness and white supremacy in the U.S.

During the Nixon era, drug abuse was not the nation’s most pressing social problem, at least in comparison to what would take place from the early 1970s to mid 1990s following our country’s declaration of war against drugs. This period of intranational intransigence spawned a dark period in U.S. history, a nightmare for Black America that lasted close to 30 years. Thus, the “war” proved less a campaign against drugs than a re-weaponization of U.S. national policy and policing against Black bodies. In reality, the “war on drugs” was a “war on Black people” that provoked not only a rise in police brutality across the U.S.—most notably the beatings of Rodney King in L.A. and the murder of Malice Green in Detroit—it also precipitated the rise of a carceral state, where prisons where used, once again, to not only confine Black people but also shackle our ability to move freely throughout U.S. society.

Drug abuse in the U.S. post-Vietnam did, however, hit epidemic levels. This epidemic was fueled by government support. There is a growing list of allegations that suggests certain drugs that littered our city streets in the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s were, in fact, smuggled into the U.S. by the state and distributed, at least in part, by the police. There is, further, evidence that the CIA holds some responsibility for fomenting the crack epidemic; not only did the agency deliver drugs from outposts in parts of Central and South America and Asia to cities such as Detroit, L.A., Chicago, and New York, both the CIA (and, to a less known extent, the FBI) also weaponized the same city streets to destabilize organized community campaigns that were vying for social, racial, and economic justice and healing.

Since the “war on drugs” was mostly a fiction premised on the illicit bigotries of the Nixon era, it is appropriate to conclude that the U.S. government created the problem that it would later fund local municipalities to “fix.” This fix meant proliferating firearms and other munitions into majority Black and Brown city streets—a clear irony illustrating how the U.S. government had put in place programs to arm Black and Brown citizens against themselves while enlisting the police to wage war against the Black and Brown citizens they armed. (Perhaps a more disturbing irony is that this strategy of playing both sides is not new in the history of the U.S.—think the Iran Contra scandal.)

From 1970 to 2010, not only did the prison population exponentially increase, local and state police budgets ballooned. (It is further notable that in the post 9-11 and BLM eras, the federal government used similar tactics to continue the sale of munitions and other weapons of war to local, county, and state police departments, equipping not only civilians but also the civilian protection agencies with arms to wage war on the very people they were enlisted to protect and serve.)

The nation’s war on BLI people, perhaps, reached a peak in NYC under mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was infamous for his use of the NYPD to help remake the city of New York as a more ‘hospitable’ place for the privileged. “Remaking” NYC meant creating green zones within the city that further exacerbated the trends of concentrated privilege and isolated vulnerability—hence, reinforcing the city’s commitment to segregation. During Giuliani’s tenure, a tale of two cities emerged even more apparently than usual in NYC, as NYC administered justice against Black and Brown people as a matter of duty more diligently than other municipalities.

Giuliani’s draconian regime of policing meant further investment in the NYPD through the proliferation of federal monies for new police hires—hires that were disproportionately white. This investment in policing had a dark pay off. Arrest rates in NYC increased as the city population swelled, in part, due to a return of white residents to the city. This return of white residents followed a departure of the city’s Black residents—who began to vanish from NYC due to growing hostility and economic hardship and displacement via gentrification and mass incarceration.

Under the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s hyper-investment in policing would not only continue; it would expand (proliferated by funding sources that went beyond the federal government). Bloomberg, who would go on to institute the now infamous stop-and-frisk policy, deputized police prejudice against BLI people through the billionaire mayor’s use of his generous philanthropic connections. This allowed him to continue the manic trend of hiring police in NYC, to amass an army of privilege protectors who received bonus pay for “productivity.”

Bloomberg’s commitment to policing was about more than justice. His stop-and-frisk policy quite literally broke the law by shrieking constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure. It also reinforced an overseer class that echoes back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared that a Black person has “no rights in which the white man was bound to respect.”

Given its history in the U.S., it is no coincidence that modern policing resembles the institutions, policies, and principles of antebellum society and its rootedness in settler colonialism. Bloomberg knew what many other U.S. Americans implicitly know: that the overseer and the police serve similar if not the same functions—to protect white property, to punish and penalize Black bodies that defy white control, to legislate the whims of the privileged class, and to legitimate the myths and stereotypes of white supremacy by enforcing a code of morals that vilifies and criminalizes Black bodies—and thus deems us expendable. Throughout American history, various kinds of “policing” have been put in place to uphold a kind of racial hierarchy, or, as Alexander has put it, to “redesign the racial caste.”

The (re)administration of the U.S. system of racial caste has, further, been uplifted by a peculiar set of pseudosciences that strings together the cruelest moments of policing. These moments have produced concepts such as ‘zero tolerance,’ ‘no excuses,’ and ‘broken windows’—concepts that appeal to grotesques articulations of punishment as opposed to mercy and other kinds of care-centered framings of justice premised on a concern for our collective humanity.

Such moments in policing also beckon to the strange logics of eugenics that rationalized whites as protectors (think “the white man’s burden”), placing vulnerable people even further at risk of danger and annihilation. These strange logics have been used, historically and recently by the sitting U.S. president, to justify a need for more police contact and the kinds of unmerited meddling and instigation practices that have led to harsher forms of punishment and even death for BLI people.

The construction of policing in the U.S., thus, points to the false construction of a kind of “criminal class” or even “criminal race.” Police policies such as “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” provide a clear picture of how criminalization has become very much linked to how the state sees some of its citizens. The deep investment in policing that has taken place across the U.S., further, exposes one of our most egregious national priorities—that of positioning certain citizens as enemy targets.

From the perspective of BLI people, policing in the U.S. has not been about service and protection; it’s been about racist forms of aggression that fetishize on our extinction. Therefore, it is not leap to see U.S. American policing, itself, as a form/function of racism, and if we take this form/function of racism to it logical conclusion, then we better understand what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed when he said: “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.”  Funding the police in the U.S. has been a state-sanctioned investment in killing us.

This, of course, is true for groups in addition to Black Americans. For Arab Americans—the most recently constructed criminal class by whites from whom whites “need” protection—policing has meant hyper surveillance accompanied by entry into the lower caste of the racial hierarchy. For Brown people, it has meant mass deportations, mass incarceration, hyper surveillance, and the accusation that one’s very birth, one’s very existence, is a crime.

To outlaw entire populations of people, however, is as American as apple pie—we did it to Japanese Americans during World War II; we did it to Indigenous people after plundering their lands; we did it to Chinese people after importing them to the U.S. to build the western end of the continental railroad network. After all, what is a protagonist without the condemned antagonist? Such depictions of good versus bad are essential to the melodramatic delusions white American have been taught to dream in. In the U.S., white Americans have perfected the dark art of twisting tales—of turning victims into villains.

So, what has funding the police meant for BLI people? It has meant a particular kind of story shaped by aggression, fear, violence, and social control. This story has featured the criminalization, the social and physical deaths, of those of us whom the police were not designed to serve. Strikingly, it has not meant less crime or more opportunity. It has not meant better service, for in many U.S. cities, if you call the police for assistance, you might end up waiting hours for a response. It has not meant safer schools or safer communities or the eradication of racial oppression or the end of economic devastation or healing from structural trauma. How could the police eradicate diseases that they were put in place to help spread?

Funding the police has meant little for BLI people—with the notable exceptions of our marking for debasement and our priming for slaughter.

Indeed, this marking, this priming, has been a way to protect the purchase of a particular kind of racial narrative and the privileges it affords people who see themselves as white. Then, defunding police is a necessary step in our continuing struggle for racial justice. Racial justice requires an investment, and this nation’s overinvestment in policing diverts crucial funds away from the new institutions and useful solutions that must be tailored to our specific community needs.

Currently, our progress is shackled by a system too reliant upon police to do things for us that police cannot, should not, and were not designed to do. We need to defund the police so that we can hire and train our own community protectors—a cadre of care workers more apt to service our human needs, to help eliminate the kinds of conditions responsible for acts of desperation that are, indeed, threats against our public safety. We need investments in systems not bent on jailing us, but designed to liberate us through jobs, education, and other social programs that directly empower people. Investing in human freedom as opposed to human bondage is the best use of public funds. As Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier (and cheaper) to build strong children than to repair broken men.”


David E. Kirkland is a professor of urban education at New York University. He serves as the executive director of The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. He can be reached at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

The Black House Matters


Five neighbors lived on Rainbow Ave. Each of them had a beautiful house. One had a black house. One had a white House. One had a brown house. One had a red house. And one had a green house.

One night, the black house caught fire. The family who lived in the black house ran to its neighbors and begged them for water. Since the brown house sat next the black house, the family went to the brown house first. The mother of the black house said, “We need water to put out the fire burning down our house.”

The family who lived in the brown house asked, “What happened to your water?”

The mother of the black house said, “The water we have is not enough, but if we combine our cups then we will indeed have enough water to put out the fire. Can you please lend us your cup of water?”

The family who lived in the brown house thought to themselves, “If our house caught fire, we would want our neighbors to help.” The family who lived in the brown house gave the family who lived in the black house its cup of water, but it was not enough to put out the fire.

So, the family who lived in the black house ran to their neighbors who lived on the other side them in the red house. The father of the black house said, “We need water to put out the fire burning down our house.”

The family who lived in the red house asked, “What happened to your water?”

The father of the black house said, “Our water is not enough, but if we combine our cups then we will indeed have enough water to put out the fire. Can you please lend us your cup of water?”

The family who lived in the red house thought to themselves, “When our house was on fire, no one was here to help us. Now let us help our neighbors because we know how it feels to have a burning house.” The family who lived in the red house gave the family who lived in the black house its cup of water, but it was not enough to put out the fire.

The family who lived in the black house ran across the street to the green house and begged their neighbors for water. The children of the black house said, “We need water to put out the fire burning down our house.”

The family who lived in the green house asked, “What happened to your water?”

The children of the black house said, “The water we have is not enough, but if we combine our cups then we will indeed have enough water to put out the fire. Can you please lend us your cup of water?”

The family who lived in the green house thought to itself, “When we moved to this block, the family in the black house spoke out for us so that we could have a cup of water.” The family who lived in the green house gave the family who lived in the black house its cup of water, but it was not enough to put out the fire.

So, the family who lived in the black house ran to their neighbors who lived in the white house and begged them for water. The grandmother of the black house said, “We need water to put out the fire burning down our house.”

The father who owned the white house said, “Is your house more important than ours? On this block, all houses matter. We are equal. You have your own cup of water, so why should I give you mine.”

The other families understood that equality was not always fair. They understood that sometimes you had to treat people differently in order to achieve fairness, so each of them had gladly given up their water though their water wasn’t enough to put out the fire. The fire still burn because the family living in the black house was one cup of water short.

Knowing this, each of the families on Rainbow Ave. looked at the owner of the white house and said together, “the black house matters; it’s on fire.”

The owner of the white house insisted, “All houses matter.” He clinched his cup of water more tightly.

Then the children of the white house grabbed the cup of water from their father’s hand. They said, “Dad, if the black house burns down, then all houses can’t matter.” The children of the white house gave the water to the family who lived in the black house. They poured the final cup of water on the black house until the flames were finally gone.

And because the black house mattered, Rainbow Ave. was saved.

What is Racism? Unpacking the Seven I’s


The country, perhaps even the world, is currently engaged in an unprecedented moment of political upheaval, which has spurred a moment of long overdue social reflection. People are awakening to and acknowledging—some for the first time—the extent to which racism is real. They see the images of Black bodies lying prostrate on top of asphalt while blue knees bear heavy upon Black necks. They see Black women and girls being shot and murdered by police officers while doing nothing more than sitting, standing, or sleeping in their own homes. They see the tragic scenes of disparity play out on every feasible stage of American life from jobs to housing, trends that pattern almost every aspect of American life from education to health care. Still for many, racism feels episodic and isolated—what one person does to another as opposed to something more pervasive and complex. Racism itself is often reduced in the global consciousness to an uncomfortable or inconvenient set of diminishing beliefs that fall prey too easily to guilt, refusal, apathy, and amnesia. As the world pauses, reflects upon, and comes to terms with the reality of racism, it’s important, however, to struggle to understand what racism really is, how complex it is, and how it is far more pervasive than some may think.

There are at least seven different expressions of racism—what I call the seven “I’s,” building on the work of race scholars who have sought to define racism in greater complexity to interrupt monolithic notions that predominate mainstream understandings of the concept. The point of pulling racism apart in this way is not to overly simplify it. Indeed, many if not all of the “I’s” are constantly working together, flattening on top of and living fluidly within each other in ways that make it nearly impossible to distinguish one expression of racism from another. Still, it is important to name the differences, to operationalize the ways that racism as a complex system functions at multiple levels. So what is racism?

Interpersonal Racism

Racism is interpersonal. Interpersonal racism is racism’s most recognizable expression. It is the acts of racism that we see between people. But so often when we think of racism, we think of interpersonal racism only. What is conjured is the lone racist individual who hurls their racial biases onto others, inflicting injury (e.g., racially motivated violent acts), insult (e.g., racial slurs), or other inclinations (e.g., racially motivated low expectations or doubts). Interpersonal racism occurs in typically obvious ways: individuals refusing to do business with, socialize with, or share resources with people of a certain race. It often involves violence (physical force and otherwise), which tends to be hyper visible and fairly evident. Interpersonal racism also tends to be reduced or simplified using unhelpful, judgmental, and dichotomous terms—e.g., bad, evil, malicious—as Robin DiAngelo points out in her book White Fragility. It is often the case that “good” people can and usually do commit interpersonally racist acts. As such, interpersonal racism isn’t an expression of extreme positions, as such extremes disregard human complexity and motivate people to conceal their racial biases instead of confronting them. Interpersonal racism is, thus, best understood not in terms of good or bad people but in terms of biased or unbiased acts that have devastating, immediate, and lasting societal and individual implications.

Institutionalized Racism

Racism isn’t limited to its interpersonal expression. Institutionalized racism is another expression of racism reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, marriage, healthcare, political power, and education. It is racism that is institutionalized—that is, accepted as part of everyday life, everyday systems and structures, and our common habits, thoughts, and policies. It is also, if not more so, expressed through social entities that are designed upon foundations of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. White supremacy is a system of valuation, the ways in which almost every aspect of society has been shaped by, for, and to further people who have positioned themselves as white (and generally with the support of others) to affirm, value, maintain, and even glorify the myths of whiteness. Anti-Blackness, a partner to white supremacy, is a system that devalues all aspects of Blackness—Black bodies, Black lives, and Black life (which includes Black languages, Black rituals, Black spaces, Black time, Black foods, and so on.). When these systems become the stitching of our institutions, our institutions themselves become an acute mechanism for reinforcing racist ideas and outcomes. Racist ideas and outcomes both attend to the logics of white supremacy and anti-Blackness and yield to the social processes and practices that erect and maintain racial hierarchy. (Racial hierarchy is the stratification and valuation of things based solely on their proximity to whiteness—i.e., white supremacy—and distance from Blackness—i.e., anti-Blackness.) By understanding institutionalized racism, we acknowledge the ways that racism is historical, systemic, structural, and does not require interpersonal interactions or individual actors to exist.

Internalized Racism

Internalized racism speaks to the extent to which white supremacy and anti-Blackness are part of the schema that people use to see themselves, their positions in the world, and their abilities to act upon that world. Part of this “I” is what W.E.B. DuBois saw as seeing oneself and the world through the eyes of another “who looks on in bemused pity and contempt.” Internalize racism is the white gaze, peering inward. It is achieved through what Antonio Gramsci calls cultural hegemony, the success of the dominant culture in projecting itself upon the masses whereby we the masses consent to and self-inflict our own racial oppression. Building upon these ideas, Steve Biko suggests that internalized racism is “the most potent weapon of the oppressor”—that is, “the minds of the oppressed.” In his book The Miseducation of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson would put it this way (and I am paraphrasing): If you control a person’s thinking you don’t have to worry about that person’s actions. You don’t have to tell that person to go out the back door; they’ll go without being told. And if there is no back door, they will cut one out for their special benefit. Their education makes it necessary.

Internalized racism is, thus, a kind of social conditioning or mind control. It is the kind of mind control that tells people positioned as white that they are better (a form of internalized racism that stems from white supremacy) and Black people that they are worse (a form of internalized racism that stems from anti-Blackness). These messages can live beyond the mind and inhabit the body. They become lenses not just for seeing others similar to or different from the Self, but lenses for seeing the Self, for valuing and loving or devaluing and despising the Self. When that self is white, internalized racism sends a message to over-value the white self. When the self is Black, internalized racism sends a message to undervalue—thus, devalue—the Black self. For non-white people, the concept often implies a practice of self-hatred. It also implies the ways that all groups come to (over) love whiteness and white ways of being above more intragroup expressions of life (which in turn are usually loathed, especially when those intragroup expressions emanate from Black life).

Ideological Racism

Ideological racism is an ecological paradigm concerned with the ways that racism is nested in our natural social environments. This expression of racism lives in our belief structures and is, thus, one of the most powerful expressions of racism because it informs and is informed by all the other expressions. Ideological racism exists in what Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus,” or our socially engrained skills, habits, and dispositions. For Bourdieu, habitus speaks to the way that individuals perceive the social world around them and react to it. Thus, ideological racism is not just a system of beliefs, it is also a pattern of practices that stems from belief systems—assumptions, interests, and other motivating drives/factors—that condition the ways individuals think, behave, and function in a given social environment.

Indifferent Racism

Indifferent racism is an expression of abstinence toward race and racism. Ibram X. Kendi explains that this abstinence is itself a racist act. For Kendi, one cannot be a non-racist. A non-racist is someone who doesn’t actively participate in racism but who also doesn’t actively participate in ending it—thus helping to reinforce racism through their silence. Racism doesn’t have a neutral position. Either you are for or against it. Thus, silence on racism is a racist act, for according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

Since it is an expression of racism that is far more prevalent than more blatant expressions, indifferent racism is seen by some scholars such as Michelle Alexander as the fuel that allows racial oppression to persist. Such oppression, Alexander explains, lives in our denials, which are violent and extreme, particularly for people whose racial victimization has been ignored or dismissed. To choose not to see race is to give racism unbridled permission to act.

Further, indifference erases, evades, denies, dismisses, declares victory prematurely, but never offers solutions. The impetus for indifferent racism is typically an impatience mixed with an impotence grounded in guilt, arrogance, or other selfish drives that allow people to align their justifications for not acting or wanting to act with the excuses of impossibility, implausibility, or ignorance. Indifferent racism depends upon these fictions, mobilized out of a desire to move beyond an issue before it is dealt with or to reduce the importance or meaning of an issue so long as that issue both/either presents benefits and/or prevents harm to people who position themselves as white. In his much celebrated novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison puts indifferent racism this way:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

Iconographical Racism

As suggested here, racism can be expressed in a number of ways, both legible and illegible. However, one of most virulent expressions of racism resides in racist symbols such as flags, signs, statutes, hand signals, body art, etc. These symbolic representations of racism give expression to the iconography of racism. This is what I call iconographical racism, which is an expression of racism that allows for subtlety, indirectness, and implication. According to Smitherman and van djik, iconographical racism may, paradoxically, be expressed by the unsaid, or conveyed by apparent “tolerance” and egalitarian liberalism. It is capable of veiling racist acts through image and emblem, through caricature or other symbolic representations that express the logics and legacies of white supremacy and anti-Blackness at once. For example, real sentiments are both expressed and felt through the confederate iconography that sweep through the U.S. (not just the U.S. South). The same intense emotions rise when seeing commemorated the physical edifices of chattel slavery—such as the actual slave auction block in Fredericksburg, VA. These icons conjure scenes, as well, of Black people with exaggerated lips eating watermelon and other minstrel depictions that mock Black life, landscapes of cotton and other symbols that work as reminders of our nation’s dark past, reminders that decree that some lives are to be valued less, that Black lives do not matter or worst mattered only insomuch as they were the property of another. Such icons are typically (re)traumatizing for people, but worse they help to normalize racists ideas for everyone.

Invisible Racism

Invisible racism is just that, racism that is unseen. The majority of racist acts in the U.S. if not the globe is invisible because so much of racism is lodged inside things that don’t easily or simply present themselves. Invisible racism is the part of the iceberg hidden underwater. It is often coded, implicit, and engrained; it is the water floating around the fish—the very air we breathe. Because it is so ubiquitous, it is often taken as natural and, thus, difficult to see. It is a substructure of each of the other I’s, as interpersonal, institutionalized, internalized, ideological, indifferent, and iconographical expressions of racism are often, themselves, invisible. Of course, there are expressions of racism more explicitly designed to not be seen; these expressions of invisible racism are covert—disguised and subtle as oppose to being obvious. They work subliminally, at the level of the unconscious, or politically, as a form of manipulation. Regardless the function, invisible racism is filtered through a set of master narratives and social scripts maintained and only made manifest by the grand social portraits of a society and, indeed, a globe in peril.

So What is Racism?

Racism, ultimately, is an expression of power linked to a complex system of human subjugation that has a basis in a perverse and incendiary science, history, and politics of race. But racism itself is born from the illicit marriage between white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It is never just an expression of one of the I’s. It is all of them together all the time, for the I’s flatten on top of each other and move in directions, converging and diverging at moments, but always folding back to some center. That center is the core—a nucleus—where white supremacy and anti-Blackness meet.


David E. Kirkland is a professor of urban education at New York University. He serves as the executive director of The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. He can be reached at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

How We Can Center Equity and Racial Justice When Schools Reopen



About two weeks ago, the CDC released guidance for reopening our nation’s schools. That guidance isn’t sensitive to racial justice and is, therefore, not enough to advance equity.

As an educator, I’m convinced that, as the world grapples with plagues of white supremacy and anti-Blackness, should we fail to center equity, school reopenings will be disastrous, particularly for Black students. We must reopen schools based on love-driven decisions that acknowledge the presence of white supremacy and anti-Blackness and use both research evidence and local input to guide the development of reopening plans that are both humanizing and health conscious.

COVID-19 has placed into sharp relief how white supremacy and anti-Blackness functions as social ecology where vulnerable people in our country suffer more, where inequity is a condition of our society that plays out at the intersections of race, gender, language, housing, nutrition, age, ability, income level, and social class.

Even though this moment is exposing how our society is currently ill-designed to favor its most vulnerable citizens, various narratives of disparity have long shaped our understanding of education. Even before COVID-19 and the civil unrest following the lynchings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black and Brown students were more likely to suffer the worst outcomes of schooling and less likely to experience the best compared to their more privileged white peers.

It is true that these disparities increase over time and intensify the intersections of difference. However, none of this novel; none of it is new.

To get to different results when schools reopen, we must  embrace new aims, embrace hard truths that we have so long too comfortably evaded. However, these aims must never be shaped by what this moment has taken from us but by what it has given us, such as the chance to slow down, speak truth, and confront the challenges that face us.

During this crucial intermission, there are at least three things we can do now to promote racial justice and center equity as we prepare to go back to school:

First, we can listen.

There are many ways to listen, but, as my colleague Niobe Way suggests, we must listen thickly. Thick listening involves creating space for others to speak while we hear them. We must also listen to the bodies of the people our schools do not serve well, as such bodies express needs and wants not always easily put into words.

Next, we can begin the process of healing.

The first part of this process is acknowledging that something has happened—has, indeed, long been happening—to us, not just to our physical bodies but also to the souls of our schools.

How can we turn the lens of anti-racist, trauma-informed care outward so that we might heal the injured systems that currently wound our children? Indeed, there is another global pandemic that vulnerable children face—the lingering plague of biases that course through the veins of our schools. Healing our schools from this disease will take time. But before we get back to them, we must acknowledge that they are sick and are in need of healing too.

Third, we can partner.

In doing so, we must resist the impulse to make decisions alone and instead enlist the support of those closest to the problem because they are also closest to the solution. If we want to get closer to solutions, then we must get closer to those who have them.

This moment has taught us many important lessons. Perhaps chief among them is that we are in this struggle together. The decisions that I make impact more than just me, and the decisions that you make impact more than just you.

If we are to build brighter and bolder schools on the other side of the physical, social, and economic pandemics, we will have to grab hands, put all of our answers on one table, and do as James Baldwin has suggested: “Search deeply within answers for the questions they conceal.” Once we arrive at the right questions, we will be more likely to arrive at the right answers.

If we do these three things, we will be more likely to envision systems or sets of environments that are welcoming and affirming, where the least-desired or redundant components from school activities are omitted. But doing these three things will mean refusing the idea that schools must be places of punishment and instead sites of joy.

This joy-based reimagining of schools will involve divesting in policing as we know it, removing police and metal detectors from our schools, more prosocial human-to-human interaction, collaborative learning, less or no homework, very few assessments that are continuous in nature, and group assessments that feel less burdensome. Most importantly, it will require us to create new spaces that center students and let go of anything that continues to marginalize, devalue, exclude, and harm them.


David E. Kirkland is a professor of urban education at New York University. He also serves as the executive director of The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. He can be reached at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

On the Other Side Mourning


We looked out

saw streets littered with the wind

Bodies raptured into homes on lockdown

Four walls stared at me and began to whisper

I thought I was alone until I whispered back

They say that hope is a tease that lures you in

with promises that don’t always come true

I say that hope is often hidden from us

on the other side of darkness where dreams reside

It cannot be found in things that we might seek because

we only know the real world when the shades have been lifted from our eyes

Before COVID we did not see how Black and Brown bodies were being wasted

How sickness and economic deprivation were not new

Eyes would not see what was clearly in front of them until the maps came in

Plotting points that we knew all too well

That Black and Brown lives have barely mattered under the sun

They say that nothing is new under the sun

But on the other side of the post-COVID sky

They also say you can hear things that you rarely heard before

Like the tanagers singing in Central Park

Or the receding waves of pollution that flooded the skies of our cities

We see now the ways that environmental injustice bumps up against racial injustice

sits alongside economic injustice

invests in xenophobia and dudes who called themselves president

Setting precedents for closing down shit that was never theirs to close!

I can’t sleep some nights cause COVID’s got me woke as fuck

I can no longer diet in daydreams, convincing myself that remote education is a real thing

It feels like an oxymoron to me

By definition, education can never be remote – as in stranded alone on an island

Or pushed away like kids do peas or society does Black and Brown folk

Put out like trash on Sunday evenings

set aside on streets to be removed from sight

while we forget that landfills are real

They called COVID “novel,” but this shit ain’t new

Same old pains and same old struggles

Pandemics in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are as diasporic as our kinship ties

The only thing novel about COVID is its name

and the ways that it has made some folk finally surrender to reality

But if they see us . . .

They will see that we are more than just the disproportionate percentage of bodies occupying ICUs

We are also the collective commitment of humanity daring life to respond

We are the club quarantines

And the IG live DJ battles

We are the consciousness of ZOOM chats

The counselors begging teachers to give students time to heal

We are the voice of those crying out in the wilderness

Baptizing the moment in the waters of our grandmothers’ tears

We are

Promise keepers

Peace prophets

Life givers

Collective community healers

Wisdom whisperers

We are something not even COVID can kill

Because our lives are more than the anguish of disease

Or the fixed routines that uplift capitalism and human misery

More than the death tickers that complicate our TV screens

More than the buildings and streets that longed for a pause

Our lives are the quilt-work of our Ancestors who stitched air into eternity

And we join them in this moment and in the moments to come

Knowing that, though we may be sitting alone, we are not lonely

So we raise our voices in unison

Triumphantly saying, “Weeping may endure for a night

But joy waits for us on the other side of morning.”

More than words: Teaching literacy to vulnerable learners

Recognition is a political act. We cannot talk about it without talking about power. Like other systems of power, who is recognized in literacy education is defined by who is seen, and who is seen are students who are well fed, compliant, come from homes saturated in print, have loving parents, and possess confidence and previous good experiences in school.

By flattening literacy to this idealized (for some) identity, literacy teaching imagines a very narrow version of us—a version that is incomplete and favors privileged identities over vulnerable ones. The farther away students are from this identity, the less likely literacy classrooms will work for them.

When students do not come packaged the “right” way, too often our systems decide we cannot teach them. Instead of adapting to them, our systems label them, suggesting that something is wrong with vulnerable students. They label them as lazy, unfocused, misguided. In a sense, they blame their families, their genders, their socioeconomic circumstances, or anything else about vulnerable youth that deviates from the ideal. Our systems fail to see them, and thus our systems fail them.

There is clear evidence that this inability to see some students drives educational outcome disparities. The problem is not necessarily the unseen but our assumptions about what we see. Seeing is not neutral.

Read the full article here.

Lemonade (for Excel at NYU 2019)


Rumi said: “Soul receives from soul that knowledge.”

So drink from cups that overfill,
And pour into ones that seem empty.

Dream dreams that eyes cannot see
See things not always present or visible.

Rumi said: “If knowledge of mysteries comes after emptiness of mind,
That is illumination of heart.”

Seek knowledge outside mysteries, though,
And find mystery in knowledge
Hidden in the secrets of the every day
Of smiles that never grow old
Of the love our mothers give in their sacrifices

Sip on experience
Quench soul from cups that overfill with knowledge
Because “soul receives from soul” mysteries that come after emptiness of mind,
That is illumination of thought.

Drink from the presence of pain,
Not from those other jars
For pain becomes fuel when we chose to swallow it.

Know then, that every object, every being,
Is a jar full of delight.

Be a connoisseur of circumstance,
Drink pain like raindrops until it runs away like rivers
Becomes your life force like the Nile . . .
But taste with caution, unless you drown.

Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a queen, and choose the purest,

Drink from the cup that overflows,
Let it move you
“as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
And is just ambling about.”

For lemons can be found in the sand
Sour tasting
Or bitter like dirt
Plant your seeds in them anyhow
Let them grow
Into Lemon Trees

. . . and learn to bask in the shade.

Is the illiteracy-to-prison connection real?

For the past five years, I have been studying the relationship between literacy and incarceration. In public discourse, the relationship seems so normalized that few people question its validity. But how valid is it? Researchers maintain there is a clear relationship between literacy and incarceration in the United States. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, two thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The U.S. Department of Justice suggests that upward of 85% of all systems-involved youth and more than 60% of all prison inmates are “functionally illiterate.” According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level, “meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” Although these numbers are alarming, they do not necessarily prove a link between literacy and incarceration. They might, however, suggest something more inauspicious—that the people we lock up are the same people we fail to teach to read and write. But why?

Please read the full the article in Literacy Today or here.

What Charlottesville Means To Me

Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds. I have always kept an open mind, a flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of the intelligent search for truth. –Malcolm X

The daily reminders and the crushing weight of knowing what this country so eagerly denies are disheartening: We live in a racist country. This is not a big secret and should shock no one. The nation, for whatever it’s worth, elected a racist president in some ways to make up for electing its first Black one.

We must stop hiding from the truth that we live in a racist country because this denial is both dangerous and implosive. If we can’t admit to the racism that plagues us, we will never position ourselves to press past it.

The events today in #Charlottesville and the president’s dismissive response to them are both upsetting and sobering. There are too many of us who close our eyes to stories like these, as to wish racism away even as it feasts on our souls.

There are those who will argue that I am racist for writing about/condemning racism, as if their dismissal of me will absolve them of their own racist denial. There are also people who will argue that this president is not a white supremacist even though there is no evidence that he is not. But to the contrary . . .

Our response to racism cannot be passive or polite. I don’t want to read or hear another Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela quotation that tells us that we are something that we are not. I don’t want another whitewashed conversation about how much progress we have made to trick people into “feeling better,” which is more about lulling us into complacency so that we will be less likely to resist this miserable condition we find ourselves in.

I live with the pain of racism everyday along with millions, if not billions, of other people. I am reminded of this as soon as I walk out my apartment and enter my place of work: Racism exists. I notice the trends: the disparities in pay; the questionings of Black intelligence; the infantilization, criminalization, and vilification of the Black body. I bear witness to the scene of racial transgression against Black people, the violence and illogical hatred that spews at us for no particular reason (other than the fascination that God made some of our skins Black). My soul withers within me under this scorching heat–under the flames of bigotry and the suffocating smoke of indifference.

I want the truth, so I will write the truth here: Trump is a bigot, and there is a faction of bigots that makes up a significant part of his base. We would be naive to believe that they are alone.

I direct a research center that focuses on issues of equity. We wage peace against the violence of racism and discrimination in education. And to be sure, some of the people I work with are racists who, ironically and sadly, “engage” in anti-racist work.

I have colleagues, some of whom can quote every racial justice theory popular in the academy, who also do “antiracist” work, who themselves won’t even speak to but loathe some Black people—especially those of us who refuse to be “respectable.”

I know so-called white liberals who in the company of other liberals (in the squalid liberal public) will laugh and “love” on Black people, but when they are outside the coziness and poshness of liberal gatherings, these people quite literally run from Black folk, especially “non-respectable” Black folk, because to them Black folk are like white walkers from Game of Thrones. (This has happened to me at least five times. Each time, I crack up. Note to these people: I’m not gonna rob you. I don’t rob people.)

What Charlottesville means to me is this: that we have a lot of work to do. And we must be honest about this if our intentions are actually to improve the racial situation in the U.S. If we can’t admit this, then I can’t buy the idea that people are as committed as they say they are to getting past our dark and sickening racist past and present.

Racism persists in the shadow of our lies. I am, nonetheless, persuaded that we can end racism when we begin to embrace our darkest truths . . .

A Crusade for Billions? How a Betsy DeVos Department of Education Could Lead to a Massive Transfer of Public Funds into the Private Sector


On Monday, January 30, 2017, hundreds of patient protectors braved the bitter New York City cold to stand firmly in defiance against the impending appointment of billionaire school-choice crusader Betsy DeVos, 58, for Secretary of Education. The brazen assembly, short on time yet not lacking hope, was among one of many gatherings crisscrossing the nation. Since DeVos’s name first surfaced as President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, a stubborn, nation-wide procession of feet has emerged in stride to protest what many fear is the beginning of the end of public education in the U.S., as we know.

From the march-worn concrete streets of New York City to the rally-fatigued lawns of the National Mall, the rising chorus of dissent to DeVos’s appointment is not without merit. On the eve of the U.S. Senate vote to confirm Devos’s nomination as education secretary, Democratic Senators staged a day-long talking protest to convince a least one more Republican Senator to switch her or his vote. In line with Senate Democratic efforts, there have been countless social media campaigns aimed at convincing legislators in the Senate to reject DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Given what we know about her–DeVos’s ties to the multibillion dollar Amway Corporation, for which she is heiress–people are well within reason to question and, even worse, fear how she might run the U.S. Department of Education. In this light, it is important to note that DeVos’s husband, Richard DeVos, Jr., inherited his billions from Amway, a company known for exploitative business practices, i.e., multilevel marketing–also known as pyramid schemes–to funnel precious resources from the thin pockets of the masses to the greedy bank accounts of the gluttonous few.

While her record on education appears to be lacking, what DeVos brings to the job of Secretary of Education is an unmatched charisma for fiscal alchemy–the ability to turn other public money into private profit. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the only real educational policy DeVos seems to have durable knowledge of is the Title I provision (the most lucrative provision) under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–better known as No Child Left Behind.

Under No Child Left Behind, in access of $14.5 billion of federal monies were set aside to address education funding inequities by financially bolstering school districts with large proportions of poor children. The stated purpose of the funding was to give poor children greater access to the same types of learning opportunities as wealthier children who reside in affluent districts with schools that benefit from higher property taxes, among other supports.

Further, we know that, as a result of choice policies such as the voucher programs that DeVos champions, 20 percent of all Title I monies earmarked for poor students–roughly $2.6 billion–end up in school districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families. This often overlooked detail could shed light on some of DeVos’s intentions as Secretary of Education, while giving us incredible insight into a department of education that, under a DeVos regime, could resemble a Ponzi scheme.

Much of DeVos’s past efforts in education, an associated knowledge of educational policy, seem to deal with mechanizations for a massive transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private sector, that is, from taxpaying citizens investing in a public education project crucial for the development of our nation’s youth and the maintenance of our democracy to the uber wealthy elites who conceal their money in hidden offshore accounts. Many of such individuals, like President Trump, neither pay taxes nor plan to. Thus, in relationship to her lack of knowledge of policies such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), created to serve vulnerable students, Devos’s focused knowledge of Title I reads as alarming. According to Nate Malkus, a contributor to U.S. News and World Report, “Given DeVos’ long history of advocating for school choice and Trump’s proposed $20 billion investment in it, her pointed position deserves a full discussion.”

According to New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has a passionate record of steering Title I monies away from public schools. For example, the Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts boast the 10 largest shares of students in U.S. charter schools. The State of Michigan sends $1 billion in education funding to charter schools annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation. Moreover, the DeVos family, the most prominent name in Republican politics in Michigan, have been the biggest financial and political backers of education resource diversions into the private sector.

With the selection of DeVos, President Trump seems serious about the $20 billion school voucher plan he rolled out during his campaign. The proposal would redirect huge swaths of the federal education budget away from school districts and toward low-income parents, allowing them to spend a voucher at a public or private school of their choice, including for-profit, virtual, religious, and other predatory systems of schooling.

To be sure, DeVos enters the conversation with enormous conflicts of interest. She and her family have invested millions in divestments schemes, lobbying the federal and State of Michigan governments to open up education markets to opportunistic millionaires. She and her family have also invested in online K-12 education ventures, alternative systems of education that too often prey upon our nation’s most vulnerable students to turn a profit.

Indeed, this playbook on exploitation is not without familiarity, particularly for an administration whose leader, Donald Trump, has become the icon for exploitation in private education. Remember President Trump was regularly dogged on the campaign trail for his own failed foray into for-profit education with the now infamous Trump University.

The other part of this story deals with the policy that DeVos doesn’t know: IDEA–a policy advancing equity in education, assuring rights of otherly abled students to participate and gain an education equal to that of all other students across a range of abilities. DeVos’s ignorance of IDEA could suggest that she isn’t interested in educational equity, or is, at best, indifferent to it. Thus, we must question her public rhetoric on education–especially when she pivots to equity claims to conceal her broader history in support of school privatization (even at the expense of educational equity).

Had she been genuinely concerned about public education, DeVos would have known what IDEA is. Had she been genuinely concerned for the education of all American youth, she would be aware of how disastrous policies that redistribute public funds to the private sector are. If she were really concerned about American youth, she would have regarded her own resume in public education, and pulled herself out the running for Secretary of Education.

All this seems too late now. What matters is this: President Trump did not select Ms. DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her affect toward the vulnerable, her love of public education, or her knowledge of disability legislation. (Remember he is the only president in my lifetime who has publicly mocked disabled Americans.) President Trump choose Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her record, which is replete with examples of diversions of crucial funding away from the vulnerable and into the pockets of the rich.

Trump, himself, has a rich history of this kind of profiteering. So does DeVos.



David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.