Harvard Educational Review
  1. Progressive Dystopia

    Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco

    Savannah Shange

    Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 232 pp. $25.95 (paper).

    How does anti-Blackness encroach on even the most progressive education reforms? This is the central question that frames Savannah Shange’s Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. By incisively analyzing the persistence of anti-Blackness in a social justice–oriented public high school in San Francisco, Shange pushes readers to consider the limits of progressive education reforms that remain tethered to the liberal state. By exploring the tensions between coalition building and anti-Blackness at the progressive boundaries of public education, Shange is able to surface the myriad ways in which late-liberal statecraft, or the administration of state power in the post-Fordist-Keynesianism global landscape, perpetuates Black exclusion even in ostensibly liberated spaces. Ultimately, Shange argues that Black liberation within an anti-Black state is an impossibility: Black freedom cannot be achieved in or through progressive organizations that remain tied to state projects of education reform. Rather, what is ultimately needed for Black lives to matter in schools (and society) is a “messy breakup with the state” (p. 4).

    Progressive Dystopia draws on fieldwork as well as Shange’s prior work as a program coordinator, college counselor, and classroom teacher at Robeson Justice Academy, and her detailed ethnographic work is enhanced by her long-standing familiarity and relationships with the Robeson community. Shange pushes beyond the borders of Robeson Justice Academy, however, as she anchors her analysis in the racial political economy of San Francisco. In addition to an ethnographic study of coalition building at Robeson, Shange simultaneously positions her work as an ethnography of statecraft, or the set of state practices that permeate multiple institutions. For Shange, a critical anthropology of the state provides the theoretical and empirical leverage required to trace the ways state power maps onto “blackness as lived and loved on a daily basis” (p. 4).

    Shange’s text is framed around three key themes: progressive dystopia, carceral progressivism, and willful defiance. She draws on the work of Octavia Butler to juxtapose utopian depictions of San Francisco as a hip, progressive city welcoming to innovative techies with the dystopic realities of displacement, anti-Black violence, and colonialism. This landscape is not limited to San Francisco, however. Shange positions San Francisco as one “coordinate in global antiblack space” (p. 82) that includes other progressive dystopias like New York and Cape Town. Robeson, a school with an activist and social justice mission, is not immune to this landscape; rather, its own exclusionary practices against Black students exemplify the persistence of anti-Blackness in multiple layers of state projects. At the same time, Shange’s use of dystopian imagery calls for a view of a future beyond the end of the late-liberal, anti-Black state.

    As Shange imagines this landscape of progressive dystopia, she develops a second organizing theme, carceral progressivism, to highlight the ways even well-intentioned social justice–oriented reforms can perpetuate anti-Black racism. Moving beyond the more typical narratives of the school-to-prison pipeline, she uses the term carceral in a broad and mundane sense, demonstrating how power moves through interlocking mechanisms of public and private institutions and actors. She illustrates how ostensibly anti-carceral policies at Robeson nonetheless reenact “the logics of Black punition and disposability” (p. 15). An example of this paradox is in chapter 7, “Black Skin, Brown Masks: Carceral Progressivism and the Co-optation of Xicanx Nationalism,” where Shange explores Robeson’s response to an interracial fight between a group of Robeson students and “outsiders,” many of whom were former students pushed out of Robeson. Although the White principal of Robeson, Aaron, decried the use of school resource officers, zero-tolerance policies, and other ostensive mechanisms of the carceral school within the school walls, after the fight he readily admitted his willingness to call the police on the participants who did not currently attend Robeson. In a clear establishment of boundaries between “us” and “them,” Aaron states, “I don’t have time for outsiders. I don’t give a crap about them” (p. 135). His willingness to criminalize Black and Latinx youth beyond the border of Robeson belies his commitment to racial equity in society; the liberatory mission of Robeson is coterminous with its enrollment. Although Aaron is willing to reform the application of carceral technologies within the walls of Robeson, he is ultimately unwilling to divest from the racialized carceral logics undergirding the liberal state.

    The third framing theme, willful defiance, considers “how marginalized communities adapt the odds and ends of restrictive mechanisms as tools for survivance” (p. 16). Shange employs the frame of willful defiance to trace how Black employees and students at Robeson defy and push against surveillance and control at school in a practice of Black refusal that denies the legitimacy of the racist state. Chapter 3, “‘Why Can’t We Learn African?’ Academic Pathways, Coalition Pedagogy, and the Demands of Abolition,” explores the frustrated exasperation of one Black student, Abuelita, in a beginner Spanish class: “Why can’t we learn African?” (p. 60). Offering Spanish class as a “best-case scenario” of progressive, multicultural coalition building, Shange uses Black students’ challenges of Spanish instruction to tease out how better course offerings—in this case a culturally responsive college-track language course—do not necessarily lead to racially just outcomes for Black students. In her probe of Abuelita’s question, Shange highlights how the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and intercontinental trade have subjected African peoples to colonial languages that have since been taken up as their own. In this way, the politics of language reveals the gap between antiracism and abolition: even antiracist practices lead to incorporation into an anti-Black state. Despite the “win” of offering a state-sanctioned college-prep course that employed anti-anti-Black pedagogy, Abuelita’s pushback against learning Spanish reflects the obstacles of belonging that Black students face even in a best-case, progressive environment.

    One of Progressive Dystopia’s strengths is how it seamlessly weaves rich theory throughout the text. Employing a vast canon of female Black studies scholars, such as Saidiya Hartman, Sylvia Wynter, Kathryn McKittrick, and Christina Sharpe, Shange evidences a commitment to Black feminist epistemology while also demonstrating how these works can provide useful analytic framing for understanding the relationship between anti-Blackness and progressive education reform. At the same time, there are places in the text where the theoretical framing would benefit from more grounding. For example, in chapter 4, “The Kids in the Hall: Space and Governance in Frisco’s Plantation Futures,” Shange builds on the works of McKittrick and Hartman to conceptualize the school and classroom as an extension of plantation logics. Focusing specifically on Black students who spend time in the school hallways, she rereads their refusal to engage in class as a marronage act of fugitivity, an expression of refusal of the anti-Black system. While Shange’s overall point that students’ willful defiance should be interpreted as a critique of society is strong, the connection to fugitivity and plantation logics would have been strengthened by problematizing students’ decision to show up to school in the first place. In other words, can the school hallway, a space easily and frequently patrolled by Robeson staff, truly be a fugitive space?

    Progressive Dystopia is an essential read for anyone interested in social justice education, education reform, abolitionist practice and theory, and anti-Blackness in schools. Similar to education studies by Damien Sojoyner, Bettina Love, Eve Ewing, and Erica Meiners that directly engage the relationship between liberal statecraft and anti-Blackness in schools, Shange convincingly argues that what is ultimately needed for Black lives to matter in schools (and society) is a rebuilding, not fixing, of schooling institutions. By teasing out the difference between intent and impact, Progressive Dystopia exposes the double-bind of late liberalism and progressive reforms that fall under its umbrella: even as institutions commit to ending racial inequity in schools, those institutions are steeped in histories and cultures of anti-Blackness and racial inequities. As calls to defund the police mount across the country, Shange’s work powerfully suggests that schooling, too, may benefit from a radical dismantling and rendering.

    Rebecca Horwitz-Willis
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