A Cultural Political Economy of School Desegregation in Seattle
by Michael J. Dumas — 2011
Background/Context: School desegregation has been variably conceptualized as a remedy for racial injustice, a means toward urban (economic) revitalization, an opportunity to celebrate human diversity, and an attempt to more equally distribute educational resources. At the center of the debate over the years is the extent to which school desegregation is a matter of class or race, of redistribution or recognition. A cultural political economy of school desegregation begins with a rejection of the popular notion that desegregation is simply, or even primarily, about race. It also eschews the idea that what is needed is a “corrective” interjection of social class and economic justice. In proposing neither a racial nor an economic solution, cultural political economy sheds doubt on the very proposition of a “racial” or “economic” analysis, politics, or remedy and helps us more powerfully explain how the cultural and material force of race and class breathes as one through the historical-political trajectory of school desegregation.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article is based on findings from a larger historical-ethnographic research project intended to explicate the cultural-ideological and structural context(s) within which Seattle’s Black leaders, educators, and activists made sense of the relationship between school desegregation and the lives and liberation of Black people in the post-civil-rights era. Here, the author uses cultural political economy as an analytical framework to elucidate the relationship(s) between cultural productions such as the construction of rights, justice, and racial progress, and political-economic formations such as the (ab)use of the state and market by certain classes—in this case, middle-class and affluent White Seattleites—to preserve their own privilege through the implementation of social and educational policies that serve to reproduce material inequities.
Setting: The study setting is Seattle, Washington.
Population/Participants: Black leaders, educators, and activists who participated in the school desegregation struggle in the city of Seattle from the mid-1970s through 2007.
Research Design: This study employed semistructured ethnographic interviews, content analysis, and historical/archival analysis.
Conclusion/Recommendations: The trajectory of school desegregation politics in Seattle, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, reveals a long and systematic political effort to delegitimize and dismantle justice-oriented redistribution of educational resources along racial lines. Cultural political economy provides an analytical framework that contributes to our theoretical understanding of the interimbrication of culture and political economy in education politics and policy-making. The author argues that understanding the interimbrication of class and race in the politics of school desegregation allows us to more clearly theorize how school desegregation policies are undermined in ways that reproduce material and cultural relations of power. Ultimately, critical researchers, educators, and youth and community activists must develop political strategies to shift the very relations of power highlighted in the Seattle case.
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