Spotlights

Three Questions: Professor George Noblit

"Three Questions" is a series that explores the work of members of the School of Education's faculty and its students.

George Noblit, the Joseph R. Neikirk Distinguished Professor of Sociology of Education, has a new book out: “School Desegregation: Oral Histories toward Understanding the Effects of White Domination,” published by Sense Publishers.

The book, edited by Noblit, seeks to inform the Millennial Generation about what school desegregation was actually about – the struggle over white domination in the United States. Standard textbooks tell of heroic efforts of African Americans to achieve civil rights but typically do not describe those who sought to deny those rights.

The oral histories contained in “School Desegregation” describe the white resistance to desegregation and how that resistance continues to influence educational policies today.

1. While there’s widespread knowledge of the work and striving of people involved in the civil rights movement, there’s been relatively little exploration of the work of their opponents – people who actively sought to preserve white domination of society. Why hasn’t there been more examination of whites’ resistance in histories of the era?

While there’s widespread knowledge of the work and striving of people involved in the civil rights movement, there’s been relatively little exploration of the work of their opponents – people who actively sought to preserve white domination of society. Why hasn’t there been more examination of whites’ resistance in histories of the era?

History, of course, gets rewritten by the powerful. At the time of school desegregation, the resistance of whites and the role of white politicians and the larger white citizenry in the South was clear. Newspapers commented upon it and political cartoons were often scathing about it. There also have been many historical accounts of the ‘massive resistance’ to desegregation but these have been ignored by politicians and the white public.

The history is there what has been missing is the desire to read it. If it had been read, we would have realized that the last 30 plus years of educational policy has been built on a campaign to mislead the public about the quality of our public schools and teachers.

2. You assert in your book that much of the educational reform movement of recent years is the result of a political backlash aimed at undoing school desegregation efforts and reasserting white domination. How did this come about?

School desegregation was being effective in many ways. Students of color for example were making intellectual gains. This threatened the belief that whites were the dominant race and thus deserved to have an unearned privilege in education and employment.

The “Excellence Movement” in education that started in the 1980s portrayed school desegregation, teachers, and schools as failing the nation and thus warranting an unprecedented takeover of education by the federal government and a coalition of business leaders. The so-called data for this rewrite of history was ‘manufactured’ and many scholars noted this at the time and subsequently.

However, this backlash to desegregation spoke to the worries of whites that they were losing control of the U.S. The “Excellence Movement” led to school reform and standards and accountability efforts, all of which I now see as unraveling.

It is time to recognize that it was white backlash that has created the belief that schools are failing, that teachers are ineffective, and that equity is problematic. School desegregation did not ‘cause’ any of this. It was a lie told by white elites then and has now become a taken for granted belief. All this is the effect of the white backlash, not racial equity.

3. You say the Millennial Generation is poised to undo many of the racial equity gains achieved by their parents and grandparents. What has to happen to reverse this course?

The Millennial Generation is said to have many characteristics some of which may help this effort, some of which may hinder. Yet the reality is that they will experience the transition from a majority white society to a majority that is of color. They are also seemingly geared towards teamwork and are maybe a little too confident about their abilities.

Both of these will be needed and taxed in the next 30 years. It is clear that both educationally and economically what is holding back the U.S. is our deep and systematic inequalities.

What is needed is unlearning the 30 year lie and all of the educational policy that is built on top of the lie. The Millennial Generation must not build on what their parents have done but rather step away from it. It must start with a belief all people are capable, all are deserving and all must be respected. It, of course, also will require a politics that my generation probably cannot even imagine. I am ashamed that I have to ask my children and all children to undo what we have done.