By Jalil Bishop
My life work has been dedicated to researching if systems of schooling—from K-12 to college—can provide social mobility for poor Black communities. This question was informed by my own deep investment in the belief that if I worked hard in school I could escape poverty. Mine was the type of generational poverty that too many Black families know, where as far back as you can trace and as far as you can see every Black person around you is broke. Like so many of us, I considered school my way out.
I approached schooling methodically. I earned straight As, served as class president, ran varsity track, and engaged in service work. For white students in my school, this would have been enough to secure their pathway to college and reproduce their middle-class status.
For me—Black and poor—an additional burden was placed. I had to prove not that I was one of them, but that I wanted to be.
Early on in my school career, white students made it clear to me that none of my success would ever make me one of them, but they still wanted me to testify that they were the thing to be. In the same conversation in which they would reduce my whole being to a racist stereotype, they would also ask me to answer “why are all the other Black students lazy?” or “why don’t they care about their education?” or “how can racism exist if you (a Black) are successful?”
Throughout my life, these conversations have played out again and again–with teachers, counselors, principals, professors, college classmates, and scholars alike. Before I understood they were wrong, I answered these questions. I testified.
In high school, I co-founded an African American achievement club that brought all of the Black boys together and tried to convince them that they needed to work harder and focus on school. My majority white school proudly supported the club; it assured them white racism was not the issue.
Then it became public knowledge that I was being recruited to a few Ivy League schools for track and field. White students, counselors, and principals all declared that this achievement was only because I was Black. Before, race had nothing to do with student achievement. Now my whole pathway to college was defined by it.
This was a wakeup call to the reality that my role as the “high-achieving” Black student was to testify for whiteness. My role was not to move up and damn sure was not to rise above white people in my achievements.
After I graduated, I listened to how other “high-achieving” Black people in my hometown also experienced the same white discouragement and harassment.
If we were the so-called best of the best and still white people tried to limit us, then what were they doing to the Black students who did not buy into schooling as a barometer of worth?
By the time I enrolled at Dartmouth College, I no longer believed Black students were lazy by choice, but because they were being denied key information on how to take full advantage of their schooling. I wanted every Black person to have an opportunity at a college like mine, where resources were abundant, academic advising was pervasive, and career networks were robust.
I worked in the college’s access programs and admissions office to figure out how to bring college knowledge to poor Black people. But in my senior year, I had another wakeup call. I noticed that the school was just recycling Black people from the same schools and networks. Their recruitment strategy sent them to only a small sample of private, charter, and public schools to find potential Black students.
This caused me to research Dartmouth’s history of Black student recruitment. I learned that the college enrolled its first sizeable class of 81 Black students in 1969, and they were all men. Then, in 1972, the college went co-ed and even with a pool of both Black men and women, the class sizes were still around 80 students. When I enrolled, I discovered there were 87 Black students in my class of 2014. The recent class of 2017 only enrolled 84 Black students. In 48 years, Dartmouth increased its Black student class enrollment by 3 students.
I could go back to my high school and provide all the college knowledge to each Black student, they could execute that knowledge to its fullest potential, and still they had little chance of being accepted into Dartmouth.
My experience making it to an elite college was not the model, it was the exception. I was the exceptional token Black person whose presence at Dartmouth testified that other poor Black people not in college made “bad choices.”
After graduating Dartmouth and going into an Education Ph.D. program at UCLA, I planned to focus on the institutional racism in higher education that excluded poor Black people. My research plan was to document high-achieving Black people in college to prove low admission numbers had nothing to do with our ability. I wanted to provide evidence that the real issue was the racist admission and recruiting policies of these institutions.
Then I had yet another wake up call. Mike Brown was killed right before I was supposed to move to California, and the debate that was raging across the media was whether or not he was college bound. I thought to myself, “What the hell did his status as a college student have to do with the value of his life?” Then I realized, the answer: everything.
College status and education credentials are not about who works harder nor about providing a pathway for social mobility. Systems of schooling are about sorting who has value and who does not in white society.
In my work, I refer to this sorting process as education violence. As an academic achiever, I had some value, but only if I fulfilled my role to testify. In that vein, the media’s debate was really to try and decide if Brown was a witness for whiteness–if he had a potential testimony that this white society is a meritocracy, and if Officer Darren Wilson maybe killed the wrong type of Black person. Unsurprisingly, Brown’s college status quickly became irrelevant once the media gathered enough evidence to mark him as a Black person outside of value, a criminal.
I am in my final year of my doctoral program, and I am still waking up and becoming conscious about all the ways systems of schooling are presented as a gift. Schooling is thought to be a beneficial and neutral space above white racism where hard work beats the odds every time. It is not. It is not a gift.
Increasingly, I am becoming more suspicious of myself and others who are education scholars, policymakers, and reformers. Our hyperfocus on increasing college degrees—which generally means a bachelor’s from a predominately white university—is not about or for poor Black people. It is about using a white standard of what it means to be educated, productive, and valuable as our standard for Black lives.
We believe bachelor’s degree attainment is such a silver bullet that most college access conversations and research ignores the fact that the majority of Black people are not even attending bachelor’s degree-granting institutions. Their experiences are not at the center of our research, discussions, findings, or solutions. My work and the work of others in my position is more likely to reflect the 9 percent of Black students at elite institutions like Harvard or even Howard than to consider the majority of Black students at ITT Tech or Malcolm X Community College. This is why it is easy for us to confuse college degree attainment as the primary goal rather than just one strategy to reach the goal of Black freedom.
Our education justice work should not be primarily about Black people earning high school and college degrees, it should be to declare that Black life has value and matters outside of education credentials. The real work is to abolish systems, societies, and thinking that would leave some without full livelihoods based on what type of degrees they have.
Education violence requires us tokenized, valued, and “educated” Black folks to testify to whiteness as the standard. I am asking us to refuse. Change our testimony, sabotage our value, and rebuke our tokenization. Poor Black communities deserve more than education justice work that dangles degrees in front of them like a carrot. They deserve to lead and imagine what other ways of being are possible for Black people.
Jalil Mustaffa Bishop is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Education whose work focuses on education violence in systems of schooling. He dedicates endless hours to glorifying Blackness and cussing out white supremacy on Facebook.