"Middle Class Values": A Euphemism for Whiteness in Schools


BY Mambí Maestra Arrastía

Frederick Douglass Boulevard & 154th Street. From Wired New York.

On 7 May, David Brooks, the self-identified conservative New York Times op-ed columnist lauded The Promise Academy Charter Schools, a program of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, for achieving what he considers to be a "miracle": closing the achievement gap between African American students and white students by radically modifying the culture of black youth. In his article, "The Harlem Miracle," Brooks outlines and praises the philosophical structure for success that such schools use. He is particularly appreciative of the schools' ability to inculcate working poor kids of color with "middle-class" values. The very fact that Brooks hyphenates the phrase demonstrates that middle class is not solely an economic status, but a social position imbued with cultural and economic properties that can be associated with whiteness. Here is what Brooks has to say about the philosophical structure of the schools that in his mind has created "the Harlem miracle":

Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don't have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.

The no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands.

Assessments are rigorous. Standardized tests are woven into the fabric of school life.

The approach works. Ever since welfare reform, we have had success with intrusive government programs that combine paternalistic leadership, sufficient funding and a ferocious commitment to traditional, middle-class values. We may have found a remedy for the achievement gap. Which city is going to take up the challenge? Omaha? Chicago? Yours?

Reader "dbg25" from New Mexico shared his excitement about the supposed miracle that Brooks announces:

Wow! Wonderful news. This is what makes America great. A lot of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and devoting themselves to the task. Very inspirational. David, thanks for bringing it to our attention.

The study also confirms what we all have always known that a disciplined environment, high expectations and as you noted in an earlier article of "deliberate practice" makes for success. Equally, the study also makes clear that achievement is not genetic as most racists would like us to believe. Environment plays a significant part. I hope this experience can be replicated everywhere.

And this reader, John Garrett of Oakland, California, states openly admits his endorsement of schools that assimilate children into the dominant culture:

Here in Oakland, CA a handful of charters follow a similar model: rigorous demands, a focus on testing success, and a culture of assimilation, achievement and hard work.

One reader wished Brooks had provided more details on the specifics of the program:

I wish you [Brooks] had gone into detail about what makes his [Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children Zone president] program work. . . . He provides safety in the community, patrolling the streets. He offers parenting, academic classes to young single mothers while providing day care for their children. . . He provides before school and after school programs to keep his kids off the streets and out of danger.

This is what reader Zen Geiger of Augusta, Maine had to say. Geiger, like Brooks, praises educational models that whip ghetto kids into shape by injecting them with doses of "middle-class" - i.e., white - values: "They focus on academics and building a different culture than the drug and rap culture the kids are surrounded by."

Interestingly, in most of the materials I read from the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) web site,(1) HCZ and Brooks in "The Harlem Miracle" never mention the word race and never really discuss class as a social position, politics, or economics. This is certainly purposeful. Race is too "hot" a term. In Brooks's case, I think he's just being cautious. I see Brooks in much the same way that the majority of republicans (and too many U.S. citizens) see people who cross that imaginary U.S. border (in order to do the work U.S. "citizens" won't). If I may use this crude analogy for a moment: Brooks is like a racism-immigrant, someone who often illegally crosses the border of antiracist propriety and does the work, in writing, that less sophisticated racists can't do.

What both Brooks and the HCZ literature and web site provide us is a vision of poor and working class ghettos - those externally constructed state enclaves of poverty - under what HCZ characterizes as the "gravitational pull of negative forces." The political economy of the neoliberal state is never presented in HCZ's materials nor Brooks's article. Grossly absent are discussions of the social consequence of deindustrialization and deregulated free-market strategies over the last thirty-five years in addition to the dismantling of welfare under President Bill Clinton.

There is no mention of the conditions that have produced U.S. ghettos or the human ingenuity required to live in them. There is no talk of the communities that were beginning to disintegrate when I was a kid in West Harlem during the '70s. I'm talking about those urban spaces where every parent was your momma. In the eyes of HCZ, the fabric of these communities is considered to be "in tatters," yet not for the reasons I have suggested here.

Projects like HCZ are in an obscured and perhaps unconscious collusion with neoclassical philosophies. HCZ's executive summary contends the "things that middle-class communities take for granted - working schools, usable playgrounds, decent housing, support from religious institutions, functioning civic organizations, safe streets -are all but nonexistent." Why are they nonexistent? HCZ claims: "When they do exist, their effectiveness is marginalized by pervasive neighborhood dysfunction." This logic argues that the people inside the "neighborhood dysfunction" are defective people and defective people belittle the supposed benefits of middle class values, and subsequently, they make defective hoods. HCZ claims, then, that even if the "privileges," or rather the economic and cultural properties of whiteness existed within these spaces, the dysfunction (i.e., the people) of the neighborhood would not know how to use, appreciate, or maintain the norms of middle class life. HCZ imagines that if the materiality of a neighborhood reflects whiteness, so might its residents.

Ironically, an HCZ strategy that Brooks neglects to note is HCZ's almost imperceptible admission in their literature of the external forces constructing the conditions of places like Harlem. HCZ implements a social service "pipeline" within a 100-block zone in Harlem.

The HCZ pipeline begins with The Baby College®, a series of workshops for parents of children ages 0-3.

The HCZ pipeline, as it is known, provides free programs for kids from infancy to college, in addition to "social-service," health services, and "community-building" programs. These pipeline services underscore the effects of recent neoliberal developments on poor black neighborhoods. HCZ admits that the problems of Harlem are far larger and external to its residents by stating what the project feels it needs to provide Harlem in order to enact change.

The following reader, like many others, thanks Brooks for bringing Canada's work to our attention. But this reader picks up on something missed by Brooks and other commentators. Bill Denham of Berkeley, California discusses how his son and son's friend were shot while walking down a San Francisco street. What we don't hear from this reader is the usual racialized vitriol about the "animals" who murdered his son. Instead, Denham provides us with insight into the conditions that produce the murder of sons and daughters.

When I received the call from the homicide detective--I can't explain why--my thoughts instantly went to the two young men who had taken these lives--they still lived in their same condition of hopelessness that allowed them to take another life and I felt our overwhelming collective responsibility for fostering such hopelessness in the inner-city neighborhoods of our nation. These children are our children. We allow these conditions to exist.

What I find amazing is to whom Denham either consciously or unconsciously directs his comment: white people. Denham speaks directly to the social practices that allow a much needed social responsibility to all kids to be dodged. When Denham says "our nation" what I see is a sea of white folks. When he says "our children" I feel that this white man (and I am presuming his identity) is accounting for the ways in which black and Latin@ children have always been seen as outside of the nation.

So what are the "middle-class values" Brooks touts? Brooks is referring to social norms and those respected social standards for "American" (code for white) behavior that upon their internalization will produce a child who favors what "real" Americans respect: hard work, a self-governing disposition, and controlled impulses.

And, what about the impulses of which Brooks speaks? Is he referring to that overwhelming impulse to leave your kid home alone after school because you have to work or does he mean those impulses that make it you miss that 9:30 a.m. Parent Association meeting at the school because you have to work? Does he mean that uncontrollable impulse to work day and night shifts so that the child you left home alone can eat, rise up in the morning, and go back to school? "Middle-class values" is code for race; it is a euphemism for whiteness.

The now deceased sociologist Ruth Frankenberg once generated an eight-point definition of whiteness best adapted in the following way.(2) Whiteness is:

• a place of advantage and privilege intersected by other social categories (gender, class, sexuality, & ability) that may also be a place of advantage or subordination (e.g., white man & black man or white woman and black woman);

• a position, an attitude to or outlook from which to see "selves" and others;

• a complex spectrum of cultural practices that are either seen as "normative" or rational and not racial;

• a culture whose character and identity have been shaped by history (e.g., colonialism).

Importantly, the constructedness of whiteness does not take away from the fact that its presence, its function, its practice, and its process have very real social, political, and economic consequences.

Brooks asserts that poor and working class kids do not innately possess "internalized models" of whiteness. In essence, Brooks is saying that if a kid does not have white, middle class values, she has no cultural values worthy of respect. The thinking is that if schools provide real values training, perhaps blackness will be extricated from the child. Arguments like these regarding behavior are more accurately arguments about nature and nurture; they are assertions about inherent, innate, or essential qualities while simultaneously being arguments about culture. If culture is something mutable and biology is something fixed, the presumption is that while the biology of the child is supposedly deviant, schools can and should change what biology has produced: a "blackened" being with deviant ways. Using Frankenberg's definition of whiteness, we might say that schools like HCZ are attempting to change their students' culture. We might say that such efforts to alter what might be construed as the effects of biology are actually a part of the "conditions and practice of whiteness."(3)

When Brooks praises HCZ schools for their efforts, he is applauding what he believes to be their attempts to leave behind the irrational, primordial world for a more "disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture." Brooks is extolling their methods for developing good autonomous citizens. Citizens who will behave (control their impulses) work hard in the service industry for which they are ultimately being trained.

HCZ schools utilize something that American studies scholar Maria Saldaña-Portillo characterizes as a sort of developmental ideology. She discusses this thinking in relation to the various men like Che Guevara who led Latin American revolutions, but in the context of the new schools of the neoliberal era, we can begin to see the developmental frame through which schools like HCZ's teach their students. These schools are taking what they believe to be the pre-modern savage and moving her and him through the various stages of behavioral development until the school realizes a model, self-governing (neo)liberal, or rather middle class citizen "devoid of ethnos."(4) Perhaps Brooks believes that taking kids through such stages will produce dark bodies who live in opposition to and at variance with difference.

[NOTE: I have dropped in this argument about neoliberalism without any intention of following it through. I discuss my claims regarding neoliberalism more thoroughly in my article in Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, "Capital's Daisy Chain: Exposing the Chicago Corporate Coalition."]

Brooks is, perhaps unintentionally, obfuscating a tension between a traditional, more 18th-century liberal argument and a contemporary, seemingly benign and benevolent neoliberal version. The former says the problems with African American kids are inherent (biologically racial). Neoliberalism argues that the issues with Black kids are not about race, they are about a (deviant) culture in need of rescue and remedy. In fact, HCZ has acquiesced to the social safety gap that neoliberalism has created.

Neoliberalism wants poor and working class communities to develop private organizations like HCZ, which act as single, autonomous individuals - and, in fact, are recognized as such by law. Private entities, both human and organizational, are not dependent; they take care of themselves and teach poor people the same values. Through HCZ's neighborhood programs and schools it has legitimated the state's absence in at least a 100-block zone of Harlem.

And just what are the rescue techniques and remedies? Long school hours modeled on long work days, academic rigor, proper business attire and demeanor.

Geoffrey Canada (center in gray suit), President and Chief Executive Officer for HCZ since 1990.

Brooks writes that only "paternalistic leadership . . . and a ferocious commitment to traditional, middle-class values" will do the trick. The force of his language distresses me. The American Heritage Dictionary's example for the adjective "ferocious" is "the wolverine is nature's most ferocious and violent animal." Should schools be ferociously committed to cultural inculcation? Such a belief is a commitment to a sort of violence. Education is not supposed to be a weapon used to ferociously tame the supposed wild child, but in this national climate, which promotes notions of academic militarism, the act of learning, even the right to learn has become something that entails brutality.

When I used to facilitate conflict resolution and peer mediation trainings for Children's Creative Response to Conflict and Educators for Social Responsibility in public schools throughout NYC, what I witnessed was a different kind of educational violence than the one taking place in schools, particularly regimented charter and public schools today.

From "Hustla718" at Citydata.com

Back then, in the early '90s, under-resourced public schools were the norm for those who worked in and attended them - it was the way it was spozed to be for those kids in those neighborhoods. Going into these schools, I always felt like I was walking into a world cordoned off from the rest of society. Everyone in the buildings I visited knew that no one on the outside really knew what was going on inside and in truth, no one really cared.

No one knew about the special education teacher in Bushwick, Brooklyn--way before white folks ever dared to live there. This teacher who would stand in the doorway of her classroom when the kids were coming down the hall toward her room after lunch and bellow: "Okay animals, zoo's open!" No one knew about the cockroaches I saw crawling on the kids' desks while the kids were still in them. No knew how afraid of the rats in their homes and in their school halls children were.

From Wehaitians.com

No knew how afraid eleven year old Jean Paul was of the Ton Ton Macout who he thought might find his family in Brooklyn and murder them with a machete in their sleep.

No one knew how cold it was inside those schools during the winter where often cardboard that a teacher had found took the place of glass in classroom windows. No knew that I began bringing extra tissue in my purse to these schools after the day I asked a teacher in the South Bronx to point me toward the bathroom. In a nonplussed manner, the teacher pointed with her thumb in one direction and then reached in her draw to pull out a roll of toilet paper hung on an old, rusted hanger. "Here" she said, "You'll need this." What was the hanger for, I wondered? When I entered a stall, I was to find some hole, if I was lucky, some hook that remained, and then I was to hang her toilet roll and tear the sheets from it like at home. Perhaps this small and rare feeling of conventional toileting would distract me from the clogged, toilet-paperless, soapless, hand towel-less, hole-in-the-ceiling-pipes-dripping-cage in which I was squatting to "do my business."

No one knew about the schools except the kids, the teachers who dared to come back each day, the staff, other do-gooder agencies trying to plug a dam with their pinky fingers, me, and the politicians in NYC and D.C.

It was all too much to hold inside me. I'd ride the train in tears. Sometimes my dad would pick me up and I'd just sit in the passenger seat with no words, just a swelling so thick. And if I couldn't hold the images and the experiences of the schools, what was it, what is it in kids that allows them to do so? What plugin have we installed that makes them able to hold all the horrors we can't?

So, back then, this sort of violence was not not surreptitious; it was standard fare for poor and working class immigrant children and U.S.-born children of color born. Although it felt like a secret being kept by the city, the state, and the country, it most certainly was not. This was not a classified story. This was the violent, prevalent narrative of U.S. public education. This sort of violence was so normal that it wasn't really talked about as much as it is today - not until NCLB.

NCLB introduced an additional social, mental, and economic violence. NCLB introduced regulations, discipline, rigor, and not just on the kids but on the entire education system. If schools can't prove that they are whipping their kids into (middle class) shape, under NCLB poor schools could lose what little they have in terms of funding (as well as their students who are allowed to transfer to "better" schools if their own is failing). Communities have been lambasted for not providing "organized homes" which would "internalize models" of good middle-class values. There seems to be this continuum where at one end we went from thinking that a lack of sufficient funding was the sole problem hurting ghetto schools and at the other, we have NCLB coercing us that the solution lies in a whip and a lot of inculcating the kids with the cultural values and social norms of whiteness.

I want to end here with a brief discussion of the title Brooks chose for his article: "The Harlem Miracle" (emphasis mine). I always dissuade my students from using Wikipedia as a source, but in this instance I must break my own rule because the definition it provides of the term "miracle" is very useful here--in addition, the source from which this part of the definition is taken is reliable (British theologian John Polkinghorne). Wikipedia states that the word miracle refers to "any statistically unlikely but beneficial event . . . regarded as 'wonderful' regardless of its likelihood, such as birth." In addition, it notes that a "miracle is a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature, such that can be explained by divine intervention, and is sometimes associated with a miracle-worker."

I think that Brooks has labeled Geoffrey Canada a supernatural interventionist--an angel. Canada has supposedly worked a miracle on those born aberrant. Is it true that only some force beyond the laws of nature could render these subjects docile and the primitive transfigured? This is not the first time that Brooks has subtly essentialized poverty, race, and culture. His "Gangsta, in French" was written in response to the 2005 youth revolt in the banlieues of France.

In the fall of 2005, after the murder by police of two sub-Saharan, French youth, kids set fire to what I would argue were symbols of state power: schools, school buses, and police cars. In this article, Brooks implies that it was the supposed "poses and worldview" (and transnational, cultural reach) of Black American "gangsta rap" that taught poor and working class French youth of color how to "riot." Side note: France is infamous for its "assimilation" policies. Additionally, at the time of the riots, the unemployment rate in the banlieues was an appalling 30%, which was five percent below the poverty rate for African Americans pre-Katrina.(5) And, this percentage is only short by about ten percent in terms of the poverty rate HCZ claims that the strategies of its schools combat.(6)

Ultimately, what I hear Brooks, a wonderful mouthpiece for NCLB saying is: Damn you, you poverty 'stricken' colored kids, if you were just more like us, if you'd just been born more like us. If you were more like the liberal universalists who read the articles I write for The New York Times. If you were like 'the rest of us,' we wouldn't have to train you to obey our code of behavior and sometimes feel guilty about it. We wouldn't have to sing a school's praises when it, like plantation overseers for the nation-state, teach you kids to sit up straight, look whiteness in the eye, concede defeat, and surrender your souls.

1. See The Harlem Children's Zone web site, in particular HCZ's "Project Model Executive Summary" (April 2009).

2. See Ruth Frankenberg's "The Mirage of an Unmarked Whiteness" in The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Eds. Eds.Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Irene J. Nexica, Eric Klinenberg, et al. (Duke University Press, 2001).

3. Ibid.

4. See María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo's The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development. (Duke University Press, 2003).

5. Ibid.

6. See John R. Logan's report for Brown University's Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences program, "The Impact of Katrina: Race and Class in Storm-Damaged Neighborhoods."


Hi, I like this blog on the Harlem Miracle because it bring me back to my younger days. I tried to teach my kids to treat school as a game. Like former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards says "You play the Game to Win". The Game to win in my day was to make the Honor Roll. I tried to instill into my kids being smart is cool. We don't need congress or anyone else to help kids learn other than providing the proper tools and safe environment to make it happen. I remember a quote in my college Black studies class about busing "Its not the Bus its US". Education starts at home with a family that prays together stays together. Do a survey of how many kids sit down daily and have a family meal and discussion. That's your problem we don't know what our kids do everyday.

i see this shit every day i'm at pctv.

This piece reminds me of the book Schooled to Order by David Nasaw. I imagine it was written in the late 10970's or early 1980's, however, it looks at the evolution of our educational system. It is fascinating to see how skills and behaviors that were being taught to "lower class" white kids so that they would improve their skills while working in factories has now come to be associated with the middle class. The original intent of art class? To improve fine motor skills for girls doing delicate sewing work by hand for endless hours in dim lights. Every aspect of our educational system was put together in order to support the Capitalist machine and its abuse of children. Protestant (white) Work Ethic was the fuel that ran the machine and it has perpetuated since. The target of the structure has always been focused on "other" - starting with Irish immigrants - and moving through class and race as though to "tame" the wild beast. Sing anthems and become one - surrender your individuality in the name of efficiency and work. Work, work work is the engine behind this machine and it is amazing that centuries later this system has hardly changed and has been so widely accepted as to draw Black leaders into embracing its core beliefs, all driven by the desire for Capital.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Mambí Maestra published on May 10, 2009 5:12 PM.

"Guess Who's Coming Over?" was the previous entry in this blog.

Postscript to "Middle Class Values: A Euphemism for Whiteness in Schools" is the next entry in this blog.

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