Home » Volume IV, Issue 2 / Spring 2016 » Constructing an Enemy Within: Race, Literacy and School Knowledge in the Transition to Neoliberal Capitalism

Constructing an Enemy Within: Race, Literacy and School Knowledge in the Transition to Neoliberal Capitalism

Jeremy Benson, Ph.D.
Rhode Island College


President Obama’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) –now known as the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA)– has been hailed by many as overturning the insane drive toward testing and accountability that marked No Child Left Behind, the Act’s previous iteration. And yet, as with Race to the Top, which granted additional funds to states for implementing market-based reforms, standards, testing, and accountability remain at the heart of ESSA. The new act, like its predecessor, makes important claims about the links between standards, educational attainment, race, and economic success. At the same time that ESSA shifts power back to the states, a 2016 report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities indicates that most states have actually cut funding to education in the years after the Great Recession, with more cuts to come (Leachman et. al, 2016). The Economic Policy Institute reports that while unemployment numbers have declined, wage growth remains slow and living standards for working class individuals and families have not returned to what they were prior to the recession. Black unemployment is more than double that of whites, even for Black college graduates (Wilson, 2015). Thus, ESSA, like its predecessor, “seeks school-based solutions to school-based problems and totally ignores existing structural and historic relations of domination” (Gillborn, 2005, p.5) that produce racial inequality. Indeed, educational policy, as Leigh Patel (2015) puts it, “is rarely ever just about education. It is a conduit for the priorities of a society and is impacted by other social geographies of policy and practice.” Consequently, Patel suggests, “educational policy and policy analyses should be approached as locations in which intertwined structures manifest” (p. 124). Drawing primarily on the race and class analyses of Stuart Hall et al. (1978), Jodi Melamed (2006), and David Harvey (1989, 2003, 2005, 2007), this theoretical essay seeks to examine education as a terrain where “intertwined structures manifest” (Patel, 2015, p. 124). Using a historical political economic analysis of the U.S. literacy crisis of the 1970s and the ensuing A Nation at Risk report, the goal of this paper is to shed light on how education reform emerged within the neoliberal racial imaginary as a policy solution to poverty (Anyon, 2011), mapping the anxieties and instabilities fueled by the structural crises of racial capitalism onto the purported deficits and deviance of poor and working class people of color.

Since the 1970s, mounting neoliberal social and economic policies have disciplined labor and reinforced the class power of elites (Harvey, 2005), while at the same time globalization, austerity, dispossession, mass incarceration, unemployment, and a precarious low-wage labor market exacerbated situations of concentrated poverty for many people of color living in urban neighborhoods. Deficit ideologies and the educational policies and practices that embody and operationalize them continue to legitimize the disequalizing effects of neoliberal restructuring by displacing their causes off of the dynamics of racial capitalism and onto the bodies and minds of those whom restructuring renders surplus and disposable. This article will critically examine the emergence of education as a “core organ” (Wacquant, 2010) of the neoliberal racial state by looking at links between maldistribution and racialized discourses around literacy and school knowledge, and how these material and ideological relationships are situated within the development of “a new kind of urbanism in the United States” (Smith, N., pg. 117, in Merrifield and Swyngedouw, 1997; see also Lipman, 2011). The literacy crisis and A Nation at Risk not only protected the race and class hierarchies that were threatened by the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also enabled the further neoliberalization of federal education policy. Such policies as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Race to the Top (RttT), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and, most recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) not only allow for the further marketization of education, but also serve as enhanced strategies for managing the abandonment, precarity, and harm unleashed by decades of neoliberal creative destruction (Harvey, 2007).

The title of this article and its overarching theoretical framework come from Stuart Hall et al.’s (1978) book Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state and law and order in which the authors analyze how public anxieties, fueled by a crisis in the British economic base and cultural superstructure, were displaced onto immigrants of color through the social construction of the “mugger.” Black immigrants, a particularly hyper-exploited and marginalized surplus population, were stigmatized by British media and politicians as “enemies within.” Similar constructions undergirded policing in the U.S. context, as political and economic anxieties of the 1980s and 90s found purchase in discourses around the criminality of young Black “super-predators.” By framing “dangerous” groups as the cause of social and economic problems, the state was able to contain crises that were in fact structural in nature, “policing the crisis” without having to alter the distribution of wealth and power in society. How then does education “police” economic crises while maintaining the status quo racial and economic ordering of U.S. society?

Similar to Hall’s muggers, the literacy crisis and A Nation at Risk helped establish an important terrain for ushering in “the economic, cultural, and symbolic transformations” requisite to processes of neoliberal urbanization: the social construction of an “enemy within” (Smith, 1996, p. 117). By locating the cause of instability in a socially constructed “problem” population of miseducated and culturally and cognitively deficient working class and poor Black and Brown youth, discourses around literacy and school knowledge established powerful links between education and a constellation of regressive socio-economic policies and white supremacist racial ideologies. Educational policy discourse became part and parcel of the broader projects of dismantling the welfare state and undermining urban struggles for racial and economic justice; it was an apparatus for (re)ordering society according to the new racial imaginary of neoliberal-style capitalism.

ESEA and the War on the (Culture of) Poverty

During the War on Poverty of the 1960s, federal education policy linked racial justice to economic opportunity within what Melamed (2006) refers to as “racial liberalism,” a form of “official antiracism” in which the state “recognizes racial inequality as a problem, and it secures a liberal symbolic framework for race reform centered in abstract equality, market individualism, and inclusive civic nationalism” (p.2). That is, the state takes up the mantle of being an antiracist state, with the incorporation of African Americans into the global capitalist economy fixed as the hallmark of an equal society. The expansion of educational opportunity emerged as a crucial policy discourse for formulating this new pro-capitalist antiracism. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and Title I, which allocates additional funding to high poverty schools, were embedded within the official antiracism of the War on Poverty. ESEA drew on a liberal race paradigm that linked racial stigma, framed within a culture of poverty thesis, to discourses around human capital development and equal opportunity to rationalize increased federal activism in, and funding for, public education. By increasing access to human capital development, the antiracist state could claim to mitigate the impact of stigmatized Black cultural formations on integration and economic attainment on the one hand, while obscuring the actual material causes of racialized poverty on the other. Thus education became an integral part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, whereby the incorporation of impoverished African Americans and Latinos into the labor market was seen as hinging on equal access to the educational resources required for human capital development. As such, ESEA emphasized compensatory funding for schools as a way to solve the problem of poverty, providing additional resources for disadvantaged students and monitoring states to ensure educational equity (McGuinn, 2006). In doing so, ESEA “did not aim to alter the operation of the labor market or to protect the least advantaged from its inequities and uncertainties, but rather to develop their human capital so that they could participate in it” (Kantor and Lowe, 2006, p. 8). In keeping with the individualistic, market-oriented frame of the liberal race paradigm, increased investment in human capital via new school funding formulas emerged as an imagined federal policy solution to Black and Brown poverty as formulated within the white racial imaginary: privileging and protecting the social ordering afforded by what George Lipsitz (2006) terms “the possessive investment in whiteness” by displacing structural causes of inequality onto the cognitive deficits and deviance caused by the “culture of poverty” created by people of color living in high poverty urban areas.

Because education was seen as crucial to labor market participation and social mobility within the welfarist human capital framework of the War on Poverty, ESEA emphasized redistribution and focused on the role of equitable inputs into education as being the key to mitigating urban poverty. Title I, which received $1.06 billion of the original $1.3 billion appropriated for ESEA, increased per-pupil expenditures in high poverty districts, funneling additional funds into teaching staff, facilities, technology, curriculum, and instruction (McGuinn, 2006, p. 29). As levers for “redirecting (and increasing) the monies that flowed into local agencies,” ESEA, and Title I in particular, were part and parcel of the kind of expansive, interventionist, and redistributive state associated with welfarism under the War on Poverty (Piven & Cloward, 1993, p. 282). School districts would identify “educationally deprived” children, determine their needs, and design programs to meet them. The district would then submit an application to the state Department of Education for approval. Once the state approved, it would monitor districts and submit fiscal reports and evaluations of local projects to the United States Office of Education. The federal role was limited to approving applications submitted by states for participation in the program and making sure they received the additional money. Beyond that, there were no federal mandates, prescriptions, or accountability mechanisms (Murphy, J. in Odden, A. 1991). The expansion of Title I was a welfarist strategy that exemplified the notion of “government as a transforming agency that could solve such long-standing problems as discrimination and poverty;” for as long as the needs of capital were met and profits were growing, “it seemed both possible and desirable to take part of the growth dividend and redistribute it to those who had been left out of the affluent society” via increased educational investment (Tabb, 1982, p. 12).

With the coming of the dramatic economic crises of the early and mid-1970s, there was an increased tendency by grassroots organizations, such as the National Welfare Rights Organization and the National Organization for Women, to bypass resistant and sluggish local and state governments and put pressure directly on the federal government to expand welfare (Piven & Cloward, 1993). Increased disorder and grassroots political pressure resulted in greater welfare supports for individuals and families as the government sought to quell unrest among surplus populations. As the Title I program expanded in the early 1970s due to more effective grassroots activism, districts began experimenting with new strategies such as in-classroom aides, afterschool programs, and smaller class sizes. Many schools saw an influx of new personnel –special education teachers, reading specialists, and teacher aides— and many students labeled as “disadvantaged” were pulled out of traditional programs and placed in programs where they received special instruction in reading and math (Peterson, Rabbe, & Wong, in Odden, 1991).

Activism and unrest also resulted in an increased linking of Title I to the welfare state more generally, as organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization fought to increase Title I expenditures not only for traditional educational inputs, but also for food, clothing, health, and other supports for impoverished youth and families (Murphy in Odden, 1991). As a result of increases in funding for ESEA and Title I, total educational revenues skyrocketed from $14.7 billion in 1960, to $40.3 billion in 1970, to $96.9 billion in 1980. Expenditures per pupil grew (in 2000-01 dollars) from $3,482 in 1969-70, to $4,710 in 1979-80. During the same period, the federal government’s share of educational expenditures rose from 8 percent to 9.8 percent, the state’s share increased from 39.9 percent to 46.8 percent, and the local share hovered at around 44 percent (Odden and Picus, 2000).

In spite of these increased expenditures, like other welfare programs of the late 1960s, ESEA and Title I did not seek out a transformation of racial capitalist structures that produced poverty for people of color living in urban areas, but rather emerged as an institutionalized investment in human capital that was part of a constellation of “governmental programs designed to moderate widespread political unrest among the black poor” (Piven & Cloward, 1993, p. 337). By linking Black and Brown poverty to cultural deficits treatable by increased federal investment in human capital development, ESEA and Title I embodied the “core procedures” of a racial liberalism that “sutures official antiracism to state policy in a manner that hinders the calling into question of global capitalism” (Melamed, 2006, p. 14). Despite being couched within the equity-oriented rhetoric of the War on Poverty, ESEA reinforced “the hyperextraction of surplus value from racialized bodies” by deploying “a normative cultural model of race…as a discourse to justify inequality for some as fair or neutral” (ibid). By embedding anti-poverty efforts within particular, historically specific white supremacist imaginings of the relationship between race, culture and capitalism, ESEA not only obscured the structural relations of domination behind urban poverty, but also laid important discursive and material groundwork that would enable the politics of dispossession and disposability that would target poor and working class people of color under the emerging neoliberal regime.

Education Policy at the Juncture of Crisis and Contradiction

By the 1970s, however, the expansion of ESEA and Title I enveloped the state in a contradiction in terms of its relationship to the shifting needs of racial capitalism: the expanding federal role in shaping and funding education policy in the mid-1970s was rationalized by welfarist rhetoric at a time when the welfare state and its accompanying racial ideologies were falling into disrepute (Quadagno, 1996), and the relationship between the state and capital were transforming alongside national and global changes in the political economy. The embedded liberalism of the welfare state brought on substantial, albeit racially and geographically uneven, economic growth in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. As David Harvey (2005) points out, the 1970s signaled a “serious crisis of capital accumulation” (p. 12) for white economic elites and corporations. This crisis, accompanied by inflation and widespread unemployment, particularly for people of color living in urban areas, would destabilize hegemonic understandings of the relationship between education, race, and poverty.

Urban crises of the 1970s were part of a “global restructuring process” as corporations escaped “the control of spatially based governing structures” in order to “maximize profits without regard for the social cost or the social needs” of the poor and working class (Tabb, 1982, p. 6). Inflation, caused by the globalization of the dollar as banks and corporations increasingly turned to investment in less-regulated European markets and newly opened markets in the global south to increase profits (as opposed to expanded industrial production at home), could not be managed by Keynesian monetary policies. The weakening of the dollar, coupled with pressure from labor to raise wages, slowed the rate of profit. Industrial capitalists increasingly relocated abroad, shifted to financial speculation to reinvigorate profit flows or, when possible, displaced the burden of slowing profits onto workers by attacking wages and benefits (Panitch & Gindin, 2012).

In response to these attacks by capital, labor militancy was robust: in 1970 alone, there were nation-wide strikes by 133,000 General Electric workers, 152,000 federal postal workers, 110,000 truckers, 355,000 General Motors workers, and 360,000 railroad workers, as well as smaller scale, local strikes by “construction workers, teachers, coalminers, rubber workers, longshoremen…and taxi drivers” (Panitch & Gindin, 2012, p. 141). Black and Latino workers and organizers in the public and private sectors resisted the efforts of business to counter declines in profit, defending wages, benefits, and pensions. In spite of these efforts, expanded globalization, deindustrialization, and social disinvestment brought on waves of mass unemployment in communities of color, resulting in an increase in poverty and a vast reserve of surplus laborers.

The racial disorder engendered by deteriorating economic conditions in the early 1970s was framed by white elites as being enabled by the welfare state, as employers “understood that by shielding working people from some of the hazards of the market, relief reduces the power of employers over workers” and thereby “undermines labor discipline” (Piven & Cloward, 1993, p. 345). In other words, if unemployment isn’t miserable enough, surplus populations will be less likely to accept low wage jobs, and the employed will risk unemployment to fight for higher wages and benefits. The reinvigoration of profit required disciplining labor, that is, driving down wages by diminishing workers’ sense of job security and increasing the vulnerabilities and misery associated with unemployment. Because dismantling the welfare state would increase the precariousness of work and unemployment, it emerged as a core strategy for restructuring the state in a way that would revitalize profits and increase elite class power (Harvey, 1989, 2005).

Between 1973 and 1975, the welfare state fell into contradiction with the shifting accumulation needs of racial capitalism (Harvey, 2005; Gilmore, 2007; Melamed, 2006; Panitch & Gindin, 2012). The United States entered a deep recession; at the same time, labor militancy by Black and Brown workers and organizers, as well as urban racial revolts by people of color rendered surplus and disposable by the new political economy, posed a “clear political threat to economic elites and ruling classes” who “had to move decisively if they were to protect themselves from political and economic annihilation” (Harvey, 2005, p.15). The state itself was threatened alongside capital, as it faced growing social unrest, declining revenues, vast debts and a legitimacy crisis from the Vietnam War, and alarming social-democratic developments abroad as a new left socialist-inspired political economic strategies emerged and gained traction in Europe and South America (ibid). The Ford and Carter administrations, seeking to restore confidence in the dollar and attract investment, opted to restore profitability at the expense of welfare supports, wages, benefits, and unemployment. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) argues, “the postwar pragmatic care once unevenly bestowed on labor was transferred, with an icing of solicitude, to capital. The state focused on capital’s needs –particularly on how to minimize impediments, and maximize opportunities, for capital recruitment and retention” (p. 53). Neoliberal statecraft was underway, most notably marked by a paradigm shift in its relation to capital.

As industries closed and relocated to more profitable regions, federal monetary and housing policy, deregulation, and bailouts made financialization all the more profitable, and more businesses turned to speculation rather than production to shore up profits. State intervention shifted gears as the role of government was increasingly to “remove restrictions on trade and corporate investment, reduce corporate taxes and eliminate regulation of industry, limit the power of unions, turn public services and infrastructure over to the market, and withdraw from provision of social welfare” (Lipman, 2011, p. 8). Unions shrank, wage increases slowed behind the rate of inflation, benefits were slashed, income maintenance programs were eliminated, wages in general declined for the working class and poor, and businesses made vast cuts to their permanent workforce and leaned more heavily on part-time, contingent low-wage labor (Piven & Cloward, 1993). As a result, urban poverty increased 22 percent between 1970 and 1980, and the number of those living in extreme poverty areas –geographic areas with a poverty rate at 40% or greater– or in shelters increased by 161 percent (Anyon, 1997).

Deindustrialization, financialization, and the accompanying attacks on welfare and labor had a drastic impact on wages, unemployment, and poverty –social costs and harms that were disproportionately borne by working class and poor people of color. Though African Americans made educational gains in the 1960s and 70s, and some modest economic gains, the majority remained locked in “concentrated poverty in America’s inner cities” and faced “prolonged unemployment, underemployment, and detachment from the labor market” (Anyon, 2005, p. 40). The wage gap between whites and African Americans grew in spite of educational gains during the 1970s, and though there was a decreasing gap in test scores between African Americans and Whites, people of color continued to occupy the lower rungs and surplus pools of the labor market (ibid).

Entrenched racial inequality remained during the transition to a neoliberal political economy, in spite of increased educational achievement for Black and Latino youth. For instance, 32 percent of African American men in 1969 were working at or below poverty level wages, 26 percent of Latinos, and 12 percent of Whites. By 1979, the number of working poor African Americans climbed to 37 percent, Latinos to 31 percent, and Whites to 16 percent, and by 1989, 42 percent of African Americans, 38 percent of Latinos, and 20 percent of Whites were working at or below poverty level wages. In situations of equal education, African Americans and Latinos were also disproportionately represented among the working poor (Corcoran & Chaudry, 1997). Where poor Whites experienced moderate social mobility, African Americans experienced higher rates of intergenerational poverty. 17 percent of Whites born in poverty between 1942 and 1972 remained there as adults, whereas 42 percent of African Americans born during the same period remained in poverty (Wagmiller & Adelman, 2009).

Such contradictions strained the credibility of the “official antiracism” of the declining welfare state, undermining the logic of the liberal race paradigm: the problem of racial inequality was not in fact being solved by the “suturing” of African American and Latino integration to projects of transnational capitalism (Melamed, 2006) through increased investments in human capital. The upheavals wrought by globalization diminished economic opportunity and exacerbated environmental hazards, deteriorating infrastructure, and carceral intrusions into poor and working class urban neighborhoods. Education, an apparatus crucial to neoliberal statecraft, was engaged in the construction and dissemination of new racial ideologies with the potential to naturalize the emerging modes of exploitation, dispossession, and disposability requisite to racial ordering and capital accumulation under these new conditions.

Literacy Crisis and the Enemy Within

Following Jodi Melamed (2006) race is a “technology of dehumanization historically intrinsic to capitalist development” (p. 12). The “manufactured” literacy crisis in the late 1970s and early 80s (Berliner, 1995; Shor, 1986) helped recreate and reinforce this technology for new modes of production by tacitly embedding racial knowledge within a moral panic around the relationship between literacy and college and career readiness. These linkages would have important implications for the shifting policy priorities to come.

In 1975, the New York Times reported on its front page that scores on the SAT had fallen steadily for over a decade. The College Board appointed a commission to find out why scores were falling. Ignoring data indicating the severe bias in the SAT itself, and stable scores on other tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Board pointed the finger at the increased number of minority students who were taking the test, but whose scores, due to their lower literacy and verbal skills, were lower than white students or “traditional test takers” (Ravitch, 2011, p. 24; Shor, 1986). That same year, Newsweek published a cover story entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Write” which argued for a renewed emphasis on basic skills and Standard English (Shor, 1986). The article is alarmist, warning parents that “the chances are less than ever that” their children “will be able to write English at the minimal college level when they get there” and that “their skills in writing English may not even qualify them for secretarial or clerical work” (Sheil, 1975). “The statistics on literacy grow more appalling each year,” and in order to “stop the rot,” the article advocates an increased “focus on sentence and paragraph construction,” “traditional drills,” and an emphasis by teachers that “not all writing is equally admirable” (ibid). The article concludes:

The point is that there have to be some fixed rules, however tedious, if the codes of human communication are to remain decipherable. If the written language is placed at the mercy of every new colloquialism and if every fresh dialect demands and gets equal sway, then we will soon find ourselves back in Babel. In America today, as in the never-never world Alice discovered on her trip through the looking-glass, there are too many people intent on being masters of their language and too few willing to be its servants (ibid).

Black and Brown speakers of non-Standard English, and the teachers and schools that “failed” them, were construed as a threat to American social values and economic stability. Like Hall et al.’s (1978) muggers, literacy among poor youth of color “had become a central symbol for the many tensions and problems besetting American social and political life in general…because of its ability to connote a whole complex of social themes in which the ‘crisis of American society’ was reflected” (p. 19). The remedy for this nexus of political, economic, and racial crises was a “core curriculum” that could transmit “an official value system disguised as universal knowledge” and thereby “restore the hierarchy of power threatened by egalitarian social movements” (Shor, 1986, p. 23). Economic instability was exported to schools via the construction of a literacy crisis among poor youth of color. These racialized educational discourses around achievement, excellence, standards, and accountability were drawn on as policymakers and elites imagined new priorities for educational and other social policies.

To say that the literacy crisis incited a “moral panic” is to say that themes of race, class, and education “condensed” into a discourse around literacy which served as “the articulator” or “ideological conductor” of fears and anxieties around the larger economic crises and racial revolts that were threatening and destabilizing the status quo (Hall et al., 1978, p. viii). As the welfare state was dismantled and the social costs of capitalism were exported to increasingly unstable poor and working class families of color, the literacy crisis buttressed this structural shift by linking economic problems to issues of excellence, achievement, and accountability in education. Similar to Stuart Hall’s muggers, the literacy crisis “took its own kind of stranglehold on the public and official imagination” (p.5), blaming poor and working class people of color for both the educational and economic problems of the 1970s, thereby “providing a spearhead for a white backlash against blacks and the poverty programmes (which seemed to be giving blacks an unfair advantage)” (Hall et al., 1978, p. 20). By constructing an “enemy within,” the literacy crisis rendered education an important ideological terrain for the new policy priorities of the “conservative restoration” (Shor, 1986). The moral panic around literacy realigned education such that a policy regime that emphasized basic skills, standards, and traditional values emerged that could reinforce the race and class ordering of the United States during the shift to neoliberalism.

As David Harvey (1989) notes, “ideological and political hegemony in any society depends on an ability to control the material context of personal and social experience” (p. 227). “Considerable power,” he continues, “goes to those who command the techniques of representation” (p. 233). As such, the moral panic incited by the literacy crisis deployed a racialized critique of public education that represented educational and economic issues in ways that were coherent with the needs of flexible capital accumulation. It gave legitimacy to a racialized political economy by suturing economic problems to the literacy practices of the poor. By representing poor and working class youth of color as deficient and an enemy within whose cultural formations threatened the very social fabric and economic stability of the nation, the conservative restoration emerged as a set of discourses and policies intended to “fix” these problem populations via a reform agenda that would transform the purposes of education, advance a core of official knowledge (given these new purposes), and alter school governance in order to reinforce traditional authority structures and give elite groups more control over the content and purposes of schooling (Apple, 1993).

The moral panic of the literacy crisis recreated the culture of poverty thesis for new times and constructed a discursive terrain for the neoliberalization of education to emerge as a solution that linked “the desire for stable values” with “a much more competitive individualism” and “ideologies of entrepreneurialism, paternalism, and privatism” (Harvey, 1989, p. 171, 192). Furthermore, the shift to an emphasis on standards, achievement, excellence, and assessment instigated shifts in pedagogy and curriculum that altered “the conditions of consciousness formation and political action” (ibid, p. 192; see also Freire, 1970; and Shor, 1992).

The gradual transformation of educational discourse which accompanied the shift towards neoliberal racial capitalism culminated in A Nation at Risk (1983), as the purported cultural deficits of poor people of color were elevated from being an impediment to a racial, ethnic, or linguistic group’s ability to compete in the labor market, to the level of a threat to American competitiveness, security, and global hegemony. Through the publication of A Nation at Risk, and the education policies that followed in the 1990s and 2000s, the culture of poverty thesis was reworked into a new racial “technology for dehumanization” (Melamed, 2006, p. 12). As such, the report called for new policy priorities and instruments to transform education into an effective state apparatus better aligned to, and undergirding, the shift to neoliberal racial capitalism.

Elevating the Enemy: A Nation at Risk and the Rise of Neoliberal Federal Education Policy

Education discourse in the 1980s increasingly concerned “the distribution and use of money for the purpose of providing educational services and producing student achievement” (Odden and Picus, 2000, p. 1). There was a shift away from equity as a rhetorical underpinning of policy, and the state avoided redistributive, egalitarian educational discourses that framed educational inequality in relation to the diminished property tax bases of historically disinvested Black and Brown neighborhoods and districts. Instead, the state embraced a discourse that situated poverty within a logic linking social mobility to the amount of federal funds spent on education, the use of those funds, and levels of student achievement. Policymakers, elites, and politicians wanted to know how the level and use of dollars affected achievement (Odden and Picus, 2000) and aimed to restructure schooling accordingly, yet did so in a way that divorced the causes of educational inequality from the wider social context of institutionalized racism, deindustrialization, the transition to a service economy, increasing economic instability and polarization, and the shaky state of U.S. global hegemony (Harvey, 2003; Lipman, 1998; Sassen, 2001).

Political economic context: The maldistribution of wealth and harm

Macro-level economic and social policies that facilitated the transition to deindustrialization, financialization, and the growth of the low-wage service sector brought with them waves of disinvestment, dispossession, and dislocations for poor and working class people of color. These dynamics are reflected in shifts in the uneven distribution of wealth and harm along lines of race and class, leading up to, and following, the publication of A Nation at Risk. There were multiple global economic crises in the 1980s, and A Nation at Risk appeared on the heels of a deep recession in the United States in 1982, in which the country saw a 50 percent jump in bankruptcies, a devastating decline in agricultural exports, and an increase in interest rates. Unemployment moved from 7 percent in 1980 to 8 percent in 1981, then to 10.8 percent and peaking at 16.3 percent in 1982. Interest-rate increases instigated by the Federal Reserve, intended to break inflation, resulted in a fall in home sales. The rise in unemployment, interest rates, and declining property values coincided with dismal approval ratings for Reagan, which reached an all-time low of 35% in early 1983 (Leonhardt, 2009; Rosentiel, 2010).

Poverty continued to grow in the 1980s. The poverty threshold for a family of four in 1983 was $10,178. In 1978, 15.8 percent of the U.S. population lived at or below 125 percent of the poverty level; by 1983, that number had grown to 20.3 percent. Furthermore, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty, below 50 percent of the poverty line, in 1978 was 3.6; by 1983, it had almost doubled, reaching 5.9 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014). A 1984 Census Bureau study looking at changes in poverty levels between 1981 and 1982 reveals the profound growth in poverty, especially among poor families of color living in the urban core, in the years leading up to the publication of A Nation at Risk. Between 1981 and 1982, in the third consecutive year of increasing poverty rates, the number of people in poverty rose from 31.8 million to 34.4 million, jumping 2.6 million or 8.1 percent. This was the highest level the nation had seen since 1966.

Differences in the increases in the poverty rate ran along lines of race and gender. Of the people living below the poverty level in 1982, 23.5 million were white, 9.7 million were African American, and 4.3 million were Latino. Between 1981 and 1982, however, poverty rates increased from 11 to 12 percent of whites, from 26.5 to 29.9 percent of Latinos, and from 34.2 to 35.6 percent of African Americans, indicating not only higher rates of poverty among families of color, but statistically significant disproportionate increases for African Americans and Latinos during this period. Women also faced higher increases in poverty rates, rising from 26.6 to 27.7 percent, as compared to 18.1 to 18.8 percent for men (a 1.1 percent increase for women and a .7 percent increase for men). There was also an increase in poverty rates for single parent female-headed families, which hit 3.4 million poor families in 1982, increasing from a 34.6 percent poverty rate in 1981 to a 36.3 percent rate in 1982. Children were hard hit by the economic restructuring of the late 1970s and early 1980s; between 1981 and 1982, the number of children living in poverty increased from 12.3 million to 13.5 million, the rate rising from 19.8 percent to 21.7 percent. Out of all age groups, children under 15 faced the largest increase in poverty rates during this period (U.S. Census Bureau, 1984).

This growth in poverty was racially and spatially articulated, disproportionately affecting families of color living in urban core neighborhoods. Of all people living below poverty line in 1982, 61.8 percent lived in metropolitan areas, 36.9 percent of them in central cities and 24.9 percent outside the central city in suburban areas, nearby small cities, and towns. Of all poor whites in 1982, 28.7 percent lived in central city areas, as compared to 56.1 percent of Blacks. Furthermore, only 7.7 percent of poor whites lived in high poverty areas, compared to 32.3 percent of Blacks. Central city neighborhoods of metropolitan areas faced greater increases in poverty than areas outside the central city. In central city areas, there was an increase from 11.2 million people living under the poverty level in 1981 to 12.7 million people in 1982, whereas poverty in outside central city areas increased from 8.1 to 8.6 million. Central city areas faced a 19.9 percent unemployment rate, compared to only 9.3 percent for areas outside the central city. 10.4 percent of white people living in metropolitan areas were below the poverty level in 1982, compared to 33.5 percent of African Americans. Likewise, 14.5 percent of white people living in center city areas were poor, compared to 36.9 percent of African Americans. Even in predominantly white suburban areas outside the central city, 25 percent of African Americans were poor, as opposed to only 8.1 percent of whites (U.S. Census Bureau, 1984).

The staggering growth in poverty among people of color in the early 1980s, and its spatial expression in core urban areas, was exacerbated by severe cuts to public housing. In 1979, 38.5 percent of subsidized housing recipients were African American. In 1982, Reagan terminated most federal funding for new construction of subsidized housing and raised the price of existing housing by 5 percent (Quadagno, 1996). In addition, federal urban development funds fell from $19.8 billion in 1980 to $8.7 billion in 1990. In 1980, one out of every five dollars cities spent came from the federal government; by 1990 it was one out of every ten. As a result, central business district (CBD) development was funded by a mix of public money (tax breaks and subsidies) and private dollars directed at projects initiated by developers, bankers, finance, and corporations (Moody, 2007). Public money also subsidized the suburbanization of production, resulting in the movement of high tech jobs and manufacturing into racially hostile suburban areas unreachable by the public transportation methods poor and working class urban laborers relied upon (Lipman, 2008; Anyon, 2005). Technological shifts that accompanied flexible accumulation placed higher educational demands on workers as high-paying, entry level manufacturing jobs evaporated, leaving unskilled, undereducated surplus populations facing either low-wage service industry work, part-time highly contingent labor, or unemployment. As a result, the distribution of wealth became increasingly polarized in the 1980s. For instance, between 1983-89, the top 20 percent of the U.S. population gained just under 99 percent of the growth in the marketable wealth. The bottom 80 percent gained only a little over 1 percent, and suffered most of the loss in income (Lipman, 1998).

Naturalizing neoliberalization: The “indispensible investment”

The political economic transformations described above created a vast surplus population of unemployed and impoverished people of color. Previously, the welfare state “[solved] accumulation problems — at least in the medium run — by assuming some of the costs of ‘reproducing’ labor power” and “[solved] legitimation problems by providing public jobs or income transfers for people who are made superfluous by the advance of capitalism” (Piven & Cloward, 1993, p. 414). However, as welfare was dismantled and the social wage diminished, responsibility for meeting the costs of social reproduction shifted off of the state and onto individuals and families.

In accordance with these broader shifts, A Nation at Risk reinforced individual responsibility by reframing education as the cause of, and solution to, economic problems. Alongside the machinery of mass incarceration, neoliberal educational reform too articulated a policy solution for policing Black and Latino surplus populations; “to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system… Learning is the indispensable investment required for success” (Gardner, 1983). Following Cindi Katz (2008), A Nation at Risk exemplified the way the state and corporate capitalism manufacture threats, distracting people from social concerns and political economic anxiety by engaging them in “particular kinds of domestic development and projects” (p. 6). In this case, the threat was displaced off of the political economy and onto the cultural and cognitive deficits of Black and Brown children and families, with learning –the “indispensable investment”– a project around which the neoliberal agenda could coalesce.

That is, to solve economic problems, poor and working class students of color needed to be more tightly controlled, and their learning had to be more finely tuned to the changing needs of increasingly globalized corporations, finance, and industry (Apple, 1993). As such, the report reminds us:

History is not kind to idlers… The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops. America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer.

The publication of A Nation at Risk helped naturalize neoliberalization by resolving some of the contradictions that existed between the emerging regimes of capital mobility and flexible accumulation on the one hand, and the fallacious human capital and liberal race underpinnings of ESEA and Title I on the other. The devaluation of labor power via flexibilization (Harvey, 1989) and the shift towards a low-wage service economy (Sassen, 2001) exacerbated racial inequality, while the dismantling of welfare meant that the state had to manage the resultant instability without recourse to the redistributive mechanisms of the welfare state. A Nation at Risk reconstructed the relationship between the state, its educational apparatus, and racial inequality. Instead of drawing on redistributive discourses around educational investment and human capital to construct the antiracist state, it construed the state as an agent of racial justice by asserting a neoliberal racial imaginary within which education would guarantee fairness via tighter controls, choice, and competition in the colorblind free market.

But as Stuart Hall (2011) cautions us, “Ideology is always contradictory… Ideology works best by suturing together contradictory lines of argument and emotional investments” (p. 18). The ideological task of A Nation at Risk was to mobilize educational discourse in a way that would reconcile increased racial inequality and economic insecurity with the often-contradictory promises and values of both neoconservatism and neoliberalism. Following Hall (2011), A Nation at Risk had to “suture” the educational solutions for racialized inequality to the same racial capitalist forces and ideologies that produced them. By deploying powerful discourses around excellence and risk, A Nation at Risk situated racial inequality within the larger discourses of individual failure and cultural (racial) deficiency that appealed to neoconservative values around individual responsibility and cultural unity, while simultaneously constructing a discursive terrain where the incentives and sanctions of the colorblind free market could present themselves as viable solutions to social problems (Apple, 1993; Harvey, 2005). The threat to children’s futures, then, lay not within an increasingly volatile and racially hostile neoliberal political economy, but rather within the children themselves, and the education system that continually failed to institute the right corrective measures.


We live with the discursive and material consequences of the literacy crisis and A Nation at Risk today. This essay has argued that the racially coded invocation of a crisis in literacy and school knowledge stigmatized poor and working class people of color and framed them as an “enemy within,” a dull and dangerous caste, high water surging forth in a “tide of mediocrity” that was creating profound insecurity at home and diminishing U.S. global competitiveness abroad. This anxiety-provoking narrative mapped insecurity onto a racialized problem population, and called for a policing by the state in the form of tightened curricular and pedagogical controls, a mandated treatment regimen of standards and tests, as well as zero tolerance school discipline policies. This kind of policing would boost cognitive and technical skills, establish “excellence in education,” and thereby secure U.S. economic productivity, competitiveness, and hegemony. But it would take time before the neoliberal standards and testing regime could really establish itself, and its full blown implementation would not emerge as the dominant educational policy paradigm until Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000 and Improving America’s Schools Act in the 1990s, hitting full stride, of course, with The No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top in the 2000s.

Globalization in the 1980s caused a decline in profits from production, so more U.S. corporations turned to deregulated and complex financial instruments to supplement transnational, flexible accumulation processes and reinvigorate profit flows, a process that intensified in the 1990s and 2000s culminating the Great Recession of 2008. This kind of capitalism requires an ongoing disciplining of the labor force, further deregulation, austerity, and the continual opening of new markets and capital markets at home and abroad through racialized processes of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003). At the same time that capital accumulation processes have necessitated disinvestment in and dispossession of educational and other public goods and services, to say nothing of the destruction of entire neighborhoods and the containment and outright disposability of surplus populations, policies like NCLB were incorporating urban education deeper into the “new financial architecture” (Harvey, 2003, p. 73) of neoliberal urbanism. Neoliberal education policies like the Every Student Succeeds Act, with its emphasis on proliferating of charter schools and realigning and refining the testing and accountability regimes of NCLB, must be considered in relation to historically accumulated effects of a racialized politics of austerity, disinvestment, dispossession, and disposability that were part and parcel of the economic restructuring of the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, the ongoing financialization of the U.S. economy has brought with it increased inequality (Sassen, 2001; Lipman, 2011) and volatility—and thus more social and economic crises, and as such a shift in modes of state intervention from crisis prevention to crisis containment (Panitch and Gindin, 2013). Education in modern times remains an effort at containing and policing such crises, and does so today through what Jodi Melamed (2006) refers to as neoliberal multiculturalism:

Neoliberal multiculturalism breaks with an older racism’s reliance on phenotype to innovate new ways of fixing human capacities to naturalize inequality. The new racism deploys economic, ideological, cultural, and religious distinctions to produce lesser personhoods, laying these new categories of privilege and stigma across conventional racial categories, fracturing them into differential status groups (p. 14).

Educational policy discourse and reform facilitated the transition to deindustrialization, financialization, and the growing unemployment and low-wage service sector we see today. These racialized political economic shifts resulted in the even greater maldistribution of wealth and harm. The anxiety-provoking narratives of the literacy crisis and A Nation at Risk pinned insecurity to a problem population, and called for a profound policing of education by the state in the form of the tightened curricular and pedagogical controls, high stakes testing, accountability, and school choice. The resultant cluster of neoliberal education reforms ultimately called for the development of a repressive educational apparatus which, as a “core organ of the state” (Wacquant, 2010), would function as a “terminal outlet” (Foucault, 1977) for state power as it stifled the dissent and unrest generated by neoliberal racial capitalism through projects of pedagogical and curricular pacification, forced assimilation into the dominant culture, and a grim mix of marginalization, surveillance, and “police in the hallways” (Nolan, 2011).

Furthermore, these developments have asserted a productive role for public education, articulating its “expressive function and ramifying material effects… which are to generate controlling images and public categories, to stoke collective emotions, and accentuate salient social boundaries” (Wacquant, 2010, p. 215). That is, pedagogical and curricular events mandated by NCLB, Race to the Top, and ESSA involve a host of powerful representations, interactions, and performances that attempt to orient racialized subjects toward certain ways of seeing and being that are amenable to neoliberal modes of capital accumulation and new technologies for the ongoing racial ordering of U.S. society.

In this essay I set out to analyze the historical development of these repressive and productive functions of education through examining the literacy crisis and A Nation at Risk, and the ways this kind of policing reinforced race and class hierarchies during the tumultuous shift to neoliberal racial capitalism. Similar, yet revised, educational discourses continue to shape policy, pedagogy, and curriculum today, with profound impacts on the lives of poor and working class youth and families within and beyond the school walls. Furthermore, the future of public education is uncertain, and untethered neoliberal racial capitalism has left the world so precarious for urban youth that one can even imagine a school-to-prison-pipeline, let alone provide empirical evidence that it exists (e.g., Nolan, 2011). The disposabilization of poor and low-income youth of color hinges, in part, on the interimbrication of these stigmatizing educational discourses and the material forces of neoliberal racial capitalism that render Black and Brown youth exploitable and/or surplus. This, of course, is no more immutable than it is natural. If, as Bourdieu (1998) suggests, to become dominant or “strong,” neoliberalism must appear “dehistoricized at its roots” (p. 2), then one task for critical educators and researchers is to weaken neoliberalism by historicizing it, injecting into our work as teachers and scholars a critical historical consciousness that destabilizes the naturalizing tendencies of dominant discourses and thereby redistributes vulnerability upward to neoliberal racial capitalism’s elite architects and beneficiaries.


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