Voices in Education

How Crisis Narratives Undermine Educational Justice for Black Youth
“Crisis” seems to be the state of things lately. From weather-induced catastrophes, to devastation in Syria, to escalation with North Korea, to gun violence in Chicago, the term crisis has been used with abandon. And whether by media outlets, policy makers, or friends in conversation, the language of crisis is meant to do something—it calls us to action. It provokes our deepest sense of urgency, often predicated on fear or the uncertainty of an unknown, but seemingly dismal future. 
Isn’t this a good thing? Don’t we need immediate action in a crisis?  Certainly, if my kitchen caught fire I would do everything in my power to put it out right away. The dilemma, however, is not in the urgency toward action, but in the context of what we consider to be crises and how it informs our actions. My kitchen catching fire because I neglected to watch something cooking is different from my kitchen catching fire for the third time in five years due to faulty electrical wiring. Both cases are the result of neglect, but the latter is not a crisis. It is a predicted outcome of a structural problem in my home, and thus should be treated differently.
In my article in the Summer 2017 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, I explore how educational crisis narratives are misapplied to the predicted outcomes of structural problems concerning the education of black youth. Crisis—an inherently temporal concept—does not allow for the historical depth and complexity necessary to understand the systemic denial of quality and liberatory educational spaces to the descendants of enslaved Africans. In 2006, the president of the American Educational Research Association, Gloria Ladson-Billings, proclaimed that the nation is not experiencing a racialized “achievement gap” but rather the predicted outcomes of an “education debt” (p.5). She argued that when we chase after elusive fixes to eliminate the racialized gap in standardized test scores, we neglect the historical accumulation of economic, political, and moral disinvestment in the education of black youth. And yet this profound reframing of the disparities many describe as the most prevalent crisis in education today has been virtually ignored by mainstream policy makers and administrators who continue to position the achievement gap as a national crisis that deserves our collective attention.
The narrative of crisis in black education is largely what allows the nation to stay blind to the historical accumulation of the education debt and the reparational approaches needed to address it. Crisis narratives do other work besides appealing to our base desires of urgency. McCarty (2012) argues, “Crisis evokes antagonism, pathology, villainy, and heroism in an unstable situation of danger, risk, and fear” (p. 2).  Klein (2007) reminds us that crises allow for opportunities for profiteers to exploit and manipulate the fears of the vulnerable. Additionally, those dedicated to racial justice can be intrigued and swayed by the lure of ahistorical, quick-fix solutions to structural problems, such as prescriptive curricular packages to increase standardized test scores, firing teachers whose students do not narrow the gap, closing “failing” neighborhood schools, and other free market-based strategies for educational equity. Interestingly, for the nearly two decades these strategies have been implemented at a cost to taxpayers, the racialized achievement gap has basically remained the same (US Department of Education, 2015).
Following black education historians like Anderson, Watkins, Ladson-Billings, Hilliard, and Williams, I argue we need more holistic frameworks to address historical educational dispossession and its modern consequences. Using chronicity as a framework to examine current manifestations of historical patterns affords researchers, educators, and administrators the depth necessary to truly confront educational debt. By synthesizing what sociolinguists and sociocultural theorists have developed as synchronic (current snapshot, ahistorical) and diachronic (recurring patterns, historical) analyses, we can develop more robust approaches to liberatory education for black youth. We need both the urgency that current snapshots of the educational landscape provide and the maturity to understand the ways in which the nation has consistently reified the dispossession of the education of black youth. In my article I provide a dual-synchronic/diachronic framing of black education by tracing over a century of structural barriers to quality, liberatory education.
If you believe black youth face an educational crisis today, I challenge you to name any historical moment when the descendants of enslaved Africans did not face some educational crisis in the United States. From the slavery statutes of the nineteenth century forbidding any formal education, to post-Reconstruction when mis-education was codified in legislation, to the post-Brown v. Board era when technologies were developed to maintain racialized school hierarchies in the face of desegregation, black youth have always faced precarious educational circumstances. Any modern remedies that do not take into account a holistic auditing of these historical accumulations will remain partial, superficial, and a continuation of black mis-education.

Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Macmillan.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12. 
McCarty, T. L. (2012). Enduring inequities, imagined futures: Circulating policy 
discourses and dilemmas in the anthropology of education. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 43(1), 1–12. DOI:10.1111/j.1548-1492.2011.01152.x.
US Department of Education. (2015). Have achievement gaps changed? Institute of 
Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/achievement-gaps

About the Author: Brian Lozenski is an assistant professor in the Educational Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. His research focuses on critical pedagogy, community engagement, and youth-led critical inquiry in communities of African descent. His article, "Beyond Mediocrity: The Dialectics of Crisis in the Continuing Miseducation of Black Youth," will appear in the forthcoming Summer 2017 issue of the Harvard Educational Review