Harvard Educational Review
  1. Black Power/White Power in Public Education

    By Ralph Edwards and Charles V. Willie

    Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. 128 pp. $45.00.

    What are the guiding principles that make community action more likely to succeed? Who provides the critical leadership in local African American communities? How is such leadership provided? How do these leadership characteristics and actions of local African American communities play out in the post–civil rights era? Are subdominant people powerless to change their conditions? These are some of the fundamental questions that are posed and analyzed in Black Power/White Power in Public Education by Ralph Edwards and Charles V. Willie. In this book, Edwards and Willie present two fascinating and informative community case studies of educational issues in Boston’s public schools. They focus on two main issues — the hiring and firing of Boston’s first African American superintendent and the shift of the Boston school committee from an elected body to a mayor-appointed body. Edwards and Willie analyze these two issues as a way to understand “how community structures and processes limit or facilitate the choices of individuals and influence people to take action either consistent or inconsistent with their group interests” (p. 11).

    Too often, researchers and social commentators look to national issues to understand how communities function and the ways that structures support or detract from community actions. Edwards and Willie’s book is a well-written, clear, and compelling reminder that, as Tip O’Neill said, “all politics is local” and power is possessed by all in a given community. While some groups may be more dominant than others, effective community actions teach us that subdominant people (those without formal power) can use their power to disrupt and stop processes that do not serve their fundamental interests. In this sense, Edwards and Willie argue that the dominant and subdominant play complementary roles.

    Using Manuel Castell’s principles of community organization as their guiding framework, the authors identify the presence and absence of his principles in African American community efforts in Boston during the post–civil rights era. By investigating “Black leadership and decisionmaking and the responses of Whites” (p. 10), Edwards and Willie add to our understanding of how internal power structures develop, take shape, and are acted upon in a particular local African American community. This book is a must read for researchers, community organizers, and school officials seeking to understand the crucial role that community participation and cooperation can play in the effective decisionmaking process of our public schools.

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