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Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage

The nearly universal sweeping outrageu2014some with a level of glee that must not be ignoredu2014calls for close consideration itself.

Social media and even mainstream media appear poised to leap on Secretary Arne Duncan with both feet due to his swipe at white suburban moms.

The nearly universal sweeping outrage—some with a level of glee that must not be ignored—calls for close consideration itself.

First, rejecting Duncan’s comments about white suburban moms and Common Core critics is completely valid. I join hands with the education community in rejecting Duncan’s claims, his discourse, and his efforts to discredit a significant, credible, and growing resistance to CC that should not be trivialized and marginalized as Duncan does.

However, I find the magnitude and swiftness of the responses to this “white suburban moms” incident disappointing in the larger context of Duncan’s entire tenure as Secretary of Education.

In the first moments of Obama’s administration, Duncan has personified and voiced an education agenda that disproportionately impacts black, brown, and poor children in powerfully negative ways. And the entire agenda has been consistently cloaked in discourse characterizing these policies as the Civil Rights issue of the day.

As well, Duncan has perpetuated and embraced “no excuses” narratives while directly and indirectly endorsing education reform and policies that target and mis-serve high-poverty students, African American and Latina/o students, and English Language learners—charter schools, Teach for America, accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing.

Public commentary that highlights that education reform under Obama and Duncan fails the pursuit of equity in the context of race and class in the U.S. tends to fall on deaf ears. The same urgency witnessed in the responses to Duncan’s “white suburban moms” contrasts significantly from the silence surrounding challenges to Duncan’s discourse and policies that are classist and racist, policy designed for “other people’s children.”

The problem is not that educators and scholars have failed to identify that education reform under Obama and Duncan have continued and increased federal and state education policy creating two inequitable education systems—one for the white and affluent, another for minorities and the impoverished—because these important messages have been raised.

The problem is that rejecting education reform discourse and policy based on race and class concerns doesn’t resonate in the U.S.

As I have asked numerous times, what would the political and public support for TFA be if the organization was providing recent college graduates with no degrees in education and only five weeks of training to teach Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes filled with affluent white students? (A similar question about KIPP raises the same issue.)

Indirectly, from the response to Duncan’s “white suburban moms” comments, now we know.

The measure of a people must not come from how we flinch when the privileged suffer; the measure of a people must come from how we tolerate (or ignore) the conditions that impact the impoverished and the powerless.

If white outrage is the only outrage that counts in the U.S., any victory won from that outrage is no victory at all.

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