Eating in School Cafeterias Isn’t Apartheid and Other Things I Shouldn’t Have to Tell Grown People

There is a troubling pattern of racialized rhetoric to education activism. The latest to come to my attention is from Grant Wiggins, president of Authentic Education. He begins the short post with a definition of apartheid and ends it by making a parallel to teachers having separate eating and bathroom facilities from students.

I’m not kidding:

Huh! Where is there apartheid like this now?

In schools everywhere. Separate eating places and toilets for teachers and for students.

Wiggins clearly says that he being a little provocative. He underestimates himself. In eliding the racialized history of class distinctions he is being majorly provocative in all of the worst ways. He isn’t alone.

I have talked about how class analysis of contemporary higher education labor issues baldly ignores the racist roots of its activism. Too often the rhetoric coming from real, substantive, meaningful education activists lazily deploys racist imagery and history to evoke emotional responses. Poorly paid teachers and adjuncts are slaves, education is a new civil rights movement (as if Brown v Board wasn’t both about education and the “old” civil rights movement), and teacher bathrooms are apartheid.

All of this follows a well-documented cultural amnesia where racism in this country is concerned. Our memorliazation of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement has erased white violence, structural violence, and the bodies that minded the gap.

Wiggins begins with a definition of apartheid and its emblematic of the flaws in his argument:

 Apartheid. An appalling series of practices that seem devilishly horrible in the way they target such mundane and all too human activities.

Sometimes the symbolic nature of words and definitions obscures the intensity of emotional, embodied experience. This is such a case.

U.S. apartheid was not “devilishly horrible”. It was brutal and violent. Sanctions for crossing  boundaries between blackness and whiteness was not merely inconvenient, such as using a different cafeteria. Sanctions wereemmitt death sentences. Emmett Till’s bloated corpse is an apartheid sanction*. Hanging bodies in town squares is an apartheid sanction. Imprisonment is an apartheid sanction. Social, economic, and civic enclosure that sliced blackness into fractional humans and citizens is apartheid sanction. Separate cafeterias may be “devilishly horrible” but if apartheid is more violent, systemic, punitive, historical and far-reaching than devilishly horrible conveys, then separate cafeterias is not apartheid.

Perhaps the most telling part of Wiggins’ post is his line about U.S. apartheid ending “over 50 years ago”. This kind of analytical framing of apartheid as purely a legal construct belies apartheid’s reality. Jim Crow – the U.S. apartheid to which Wiggins alludes – was not just a legal system. It was a social and political and economic system. Many of its victims are still alive. Perhaps we should ask them if separate school cafeterias feel like living under Jim Crow. My parents are two such survivors. I would be happy to put Wiggins in touch with them. In fact, I’d love for him to talk to Vivian who graduated from a segregated school in poor eastern N.C. and has been the only black woman in a white male union environment most of her working life.

This neat construction of apartheid also ignores that the legacy of the apartheid system lives on in the generational transmission of diminished life chances for African Americans. We are less likely to benefit from the multitude of citizenship privileges afforded by the inherited wealth that slavery and apartheid made nearly impossible for us to accrue: increasing life spans, good health, marriageability, educational attainment, home ownership, occupational attainment, and freedom (as defined by not being enmeshed in the judicial system).

Some of those teachers to whom Wiggins refers as living apartheid in separate school cafeterias and bathrooms are black. Defining them as a class structure erases the racial and racist structure that also defines their professional status. Research has struggled to understand why African American teachers leave the classroom but there is some consensus that it is less a pipeline issue than a leaky valve problem, i.e. black teachers are recruited in good numbers but leave.

The stories of black educators, in some ways, echo similar accounts from white teachers but differ in ways that lies bare the flaws in Wiggins’ apartheid analogy.  While many share concerns about pay, prestige, and work conditions a survey found that “organizational conditions” is the number one reason that minority teachers leave the classroom. Survey data makes it hard to unpack what that means exactly, but a plethora of qualitative accounts suggest that not only are black teachers dealing with messy org structures, politics, and funding issues like all teachers, but they are also dealing with subtle and explicit racism from colleagues and superiors. Those kinds of conditions are an extension of the apartheid Wiggins neatly bookends with a year, showing its effects are very much alive and operating through the analytical class frameworks that would erase this reality to go for a cheap analogy about how cafeterias are like apartheid.

These kinds of analogies do nothing to further class analysis or activism. They isolate African Americans without whom any populist movement or democratic education movement is doomed to fail and ignores how solving class issues in education labor won’t solve education labor’s race issues.

It’s not just provocative. It’s shoddy cheap race currency parading as principled intellectualism.

*And when Till’s mother insisted on an open casket for her murdered son, she was resisting precisely the kind of emotional oppression of the visceral consequences of apartheid in which Wiggins engages. She wouldn’t let them reduce it to mere words like “death” and “murder”. See what they did to my baby, indeed.

6 thoughts on “Eating in School Cafeterias Isn’t Apartheid and Other Things I Shouldn’t Have to Tell Grown People

  1. It annoys me when white people want to use and compare apartheid and slavery to push their agenda. It’s not the same and the can’t be so obtuse than to realize how offensive and insulting it is.

  2. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    When people use words like “apartheid”, “racism” and “slavery” to mean why I got less chocolate icing in my cake :/ Not using the words with more expansive connotations means you are limiting their histories and just washing them off as nothing but specks.

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