Individualism, Alienation, and the Enclosure of Community

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

Dissolution of Indigenous and Black Collectivity

The physical enclosure of enslaved Africans into compartments on ships mirrors the enclosure of community as Black families were intentionally broken up to partition common language groups and shared cultures, for the purpose of taking away any collective power — a strategy learned from the original acts of enclosure. 

As discussed in an earlier section, allotment not only accelerated dispossession but shattered indigenous families into “male-dominant, nuclear families, modeled after middle- class, Anglo-American households”.[1]Stremlau, R. (2005). “To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians”: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887. Journal of Family History, 30(3), 265-286. Families were separated, sometimes by hundreds of miles [2]Reyhner, J., Eder, J. (2017). American Indian Education, 2nd Edition: A History. University of Oklahoma Press., precipitating the enclosure of community. So-called civilization required individualism and nuclear family, and abandonment of the tribe for identification as an individual citizen of the state, allowing indigenous youth to become producers and consumers of goods, and to accept the conquest of nature.[3]Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas.

The Indian boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada separated children from their families, and away from their lands, forbidding the practice of cultural ceremonies, or the speaking of native languages, in an attempt to excise their very identities. In a similar way, through the policing of cultural expression, schools have disrupted “Black traditions of struggle and collectivity ”.[4]Schnyder, D. (2010). Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13(3), 349-365.

Parents and families, where it is even possible with respect to time or distance, usually only enter schools for purposes of remediation — against or on behalf of the student — rather than being invited to share in any common experience, be it learning, community-building, or otherwise. In many schools, parents are not allowed free access to the building, meaning that even access to their own children is mediated by school officials, or worse yet, school police. As with all forms of enclosure, the underlying objective seems to be undermining collectivity and continuity, by moving young people from “potential sites of cultural resistance into areas of surveilled containment”.[5]Schnyder, D. (2010). Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13(3), 349-365.

The Creation of the Child and Intergenerational Antagonisms

Kojin Karatani writes about how the child, as a distinct class of people, was socially constructed during the Enlightenment period, crediting Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, with the “discovery”.[6]Karatani, Kojin, & De Bary, Brett. (1993). Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Post-contemporary interventions). Durham: Duke University Press. Everett Reimer differentiates this ”child” from “young members of the community taking part in its normal productive and social affairs”, who must in turn receive “special care” (i.e. care outside of that which a community provides all of its members) because they are incapable of participating in and contributing to society in their own right.[7]Reimer, E. (1971). School is Dead: Alternatives in Education. Doubleday. Today we take for granted that there are developmental differences between children and adults, failing to recognize that this division is a “historical product”, and that placing special value on the life of children, “emerged as one distinct, religious ideal”.[8]Karatani, Kojin, & De Bary, Brett. (1993). Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Post-contemporary interventions). Durham: Duke University Press.

The Western social construction of the child disrupted the family for the purpose of reproducing hegemony — with schooling removing the child from their economic role in family life, and providing direct material benefit. For families beholden to Puritan values, children from the early days of colonial America, well into the twentieth century, were expected to act like “little adults”[9]Zelizer, V. A. (1994). Pricing the priceless child: The changing social value of children. Princeton University Press., either serving as “economic assets” by maintaining the household, assisting their mothers in paid labor, or being sent out of the house to apprentice under a craftsman in order to eventually be able to bring money back to the household. 

Children’s books and magazines once extolled the “virtues of work, duty, and discipline”, while demonizing the so-called “idle child” whose influence would pull the hearty protagonists away from their family responsibilities.[10]Zelizer, V. A. (1994). Pricing the priceless child: The changing social value of children. Princeton University Press. Where children were once “economic assets on family farms”, and helped maintain the households[11]Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Univ of California Press., schools trained them to be subordinate, compliant, placing the “discovery of the child […] in the context of the capitalistic reorganization of contemporary society”.[12]Karatani, Kojin, & De Bary, Brett. (1993). Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Post-contemporary interventions). Durham: Duke University Press.

There seems to be a connection between how “idle children” were seen as a problem in white American society, something to be regulated and controlled, and the  criminalization of “loitering”, which remanded free Black people back to state control through convict leasing. It suggests how Black people were and continue to be infantilized as a means of control. This seems to be in contradiction to the tendency of white authorities to “age up” Black children, except that both essentially collapse Black people into a singularity, a fixed point at which their bodies can be enclosed upon and subordinated to capital. Spatiotemporal alienation reinforced by both ideological and repressive status apparatuses. This is contrast to the values in many indigenous societies, which upheld “ideals around family, community, and nationhood”.[13]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press.

The creation of the child, the enclosure of this identity within the broader family, mandated a special place for them, where their unique form of labor could also be subordinated to the demands of capital. At the same time, ideas of “development” and “maturity” foreclosed upon the possibility of young people as legitimate knowledge creators, contributors to family life in their own right. 

This separation, I would argue, formed the basis for the kind of intergenerational antagonism so common today. Every modern adult was once a “child” as currently constructed, placed in a separate class and schooled toward purposes of accumulation for the primary owners of capital, rather than the material well-being of the family. The proliferation of the nuclear structure seems to be predicated on the idea that the child must fully detach from the family once they become an adult, as the productive activity of schooling gives way to the demands of labor.

Integration, Isolation, and Black Cultural Criminalization

Black culture, as an expression of Black autonomy, is inherently in conflict with white supremacy, which aims to keep Black people subordinate to capital. In that the school curriculum upholds this hegemony, it is incompatible with Black autonomy. The struggle of Black students with testing, and the educational program in general is a direct manifestation of this conflict between autonomy and subordination. 

Therefore, in order for hegemony to be maintained, classes that allow Black autonomy are displaced by “enrichment classes” — perhaps better named “reproduction classes”. These classes, in remedial math or reading, do not promote explicit white supremacist values or ideology; rather their strength is in the negation of Black identity and culture.

That this logic of negation is about capital accumulation, stylized in common discourse as “economic growth” is never more transparent than in the funding schemes of policy such as NCLB — an investment in negation that expects healthy returns in “productivity“, compliance, and “efficiency”, and is “part of a long dialectic struggle that aims to counter Black resistance to oppressive forms of public education”.[14]Schnyder, D. (2010). Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13(3), 349-365.

It makes sense that Black people’s ability to define ourselves “outside the boundaries” would rely upon Black collectivity or solidarity, given that the very opposite of enclosure is the “commons” — a resistance not only to the negation of culture and autonomy, but to Western individualism, which itself is at the core of white supremacy. 

In order to “dampen Black resistance against White supremacist modes of governance”, schools have functioned as enclosures of Black culture, and Black autonomy, which in turn were “positioned as inherently dangerous/criminal/dysfunctional”.[15]Schnyder, D. (2010). Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13(3), 349-365.

This all invites a new interpretation of the concept of “failing school”, wherein we must consider what exactly such a school is failing to accomplish , particularly where the students are Black, Brown, and Indigenous. If the success of culturally-negating curriculum is measured by scores on a test, a high percentage of low grades on those tests would seem to indicate a failure of this program of negation. Is it, then, successful by other metrics? Could low test scores indicate a triumph of Black or Brown autonomy?

White Supremacy, Individualism, and the Enclosure of Identity

Individualism — the orientation that one is responsible for and accountable only to themselves, and that all achievements or failures are the products of one’s own will and work — conflicts with the inherent human need to form community. But this is reconciled by the individual collapsing the “other” into the self. Whiteness achieves this by stripping people of their culture and history, reducing them to a set of common physical characteristics, which allows them to be subsumed. Whiteness itself is the assimilation of different ethnicities (Irish, Polish, Italian, etc) into a singular Anglo-Saxon protestant “culture”. The liberal pivot has been an ongoing attempt to also subsume Black culture — yet never Black bodies. 

The “self” becomes the standard for humanity, and those who cannot be subsumed into this standard — because of language, culture, religion, the audacity to question or resist, and/or any other racialized characteristics — are systematically reduced to less than human, and for that, a direct threat to “self”, which in turn justifies violence against them. 

White supremacy is an expression of individualism giving rise to tribalism, wherein the “tribe” — the white race — is an extended self, due to a sense of commensurability, a false kind of pluralism wherein “group identities were subordinate to shared attributes and attitudes” [16]Podair, J. E. (1994). “White” Values,“Black” Values: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy and New York City Culture, 1965–1975. Radical History Review, 1994(59), 36-59.. This has all been constructed in violent opposition to those “others” who cannot be subsumed. 

Where others, through the prism of race, act as mirrors, they can be conflated with the self. The tribe becomes invisible as its own phenomenon without genuine reflection. Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, being the most difficult to assimilate, are reduced to monolithic opposites.

Gilberto Arriaza names white supremacy and individualism as two of the “four central ideologies of violence”, along with “religious fundamentalism” and “patriarchal domination”.[17]Arriaza, G. (2003). Overview: The Intersection of Ideologies of Violence. Social Justice, 1-3. Grande identifies individualism as the foundation for the “ideology of privatization”[18]Grande, S. (2010). Chapter 21: Red Pedagogy. Counterpoints, 356, 199-207., which stems from the original enclosure movement and informs the guiding logic of capitalism. White supremacy reinforces this enclosure of identity by justifying the suppression or destruction of the “other” — those who separated by partitions of race — for purposes of dispossession and dominance. Where Black, Brown, and Indigenous people cannot be subsumed into the “white tribe”, there have been countless efforts to impose the values of competition and individualism, in contrast to the values of “cooperation and positive interpersonal relationships.[19]Almeida, D. (1997). The Hidden Half – A History of Native American Women’s Education. Harvard Educational Review, 67(4), 757-772.

The interplay between individualism and white supremacy at once subsumes all white people into a common identity, grounded in the destruction or conquest of everyone else. The formerly Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian, German, Jewish, and other discrete European identities, traded their cultural affiliations for identification with settler colonial dominance and capitalist accumulation — and with it, an enclosure of identity, and alienation from the broader human family.

Defeated Overseers and the Politics of Representation

“Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th-century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent.” 

— Malcolm X, Message to the Grassroots (1964)

For some time now I’ve been wrestling with the reality of Black leadership in schools, the conflict between what I expect them to be, by sheer virtue of their blackness — and with that the assumption that they have Black students’ best interests in mind (or at heart) — and what I’ve observed to be a pattern of incompetence, pettiness, and self-serving behavior. The New Shuck and Jive. In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol interviews a Black principal, over his feeling that “black principals were sometimes feeding into the desires of the white society”. The principal responded:

The United States now has, in many black administrators of the public schools, precisely the defeated overseers it needs to justify this terrible immiseration. It is a tradition that goes back at least 300 years. A few of us are favored. They invite us to a White House ceremony and award us something-a ‘certificate of excellence’-for our achievement. So we accept some things and we forget some other things and what we can’t forget we learn how to shut out of mind and we adopt the rhetoric that is required of us and we speak of ‘quality’ or ‘excellence’-not justice.[20]Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. Crown.

“Defeated overseers” is an incredible turn of phrase, because it at once associates these Black leaders with the treacherous agents of slavery, while conveying some empathy for them, attributing their traitorous behavior to a sense of hopelessness. Perhaps they too are victims of a racist system, and have folded themselves into its very mechanism as a matter of survival. 

There is this complex dynamic, too, where white observers like Kozol, or white liberals who speak or write about education, can’t speak ill of these Black leaders without the risk of being seen as racist, thereby making them immune to criticism and giving them license to continue as corrupt agents of the system. It’s similar to what happened with Obama. While some critiques were racist in character, that very fact created a chilling effect on any legitimate critique. It had the secondary consequence of making Black people reflexively come to his defense, deepening the chilling effect. What white liberal was going to double down on their critique by arguing with Black people about the merits of the first Black president?

I imagine there was a similar dynamic with Joe Clark, the Black New Jersey school principal who got a national reputation for “tough love”, received presidential recognition, and inspired the film Lean on Me. This Black man, walking around, surveilling Black children, with a bullhorn and a bat. What else is that, other than performance for the benefit of white observers? 

Kozol mentions that two-thirds of students Clark kicked out of Eastside ended up in the county jail, essentially talking about the school-to-prison pipeline, before this was even a term. This Black man directly contributed to more Black people in prison, but somehow he deserves a film starring Morgan Freeman. Only a film written and directed by white people would extol the virtues of a Black man terrorizing and subordinating Black children, and feeding them into the carceral system. Most telling is that Clark left his job as a school principal to become the director of a juvenile detention center.[21]Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. Crown.

The example of Joe Clark shows how detrimental Black people in positions of power, leadership, or high visibility, can be, where they indeed “feed into the desires of white society”. It invokes for me, a popular saying: “Skinfolk ain’t kinfolk”, which itself brings up the idea of identity politics. But there is a distinction to be made.

There is the real identity politics, as defined by the Combahee River Collective, a politics that centers identity — in this case, black women’s identity — wherein the actions taken, the policies fought for, are to their benefit[22]Combahee River Collective (1983). The Combahee River Collective Statement. In Smith, B. (Ed.), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (pp. 264-74). Kitchen Table–Women of Color Press.. Who enacts those policies do not themselves have to beblack women. Then there is the misnamed ”identity politics”, better called a politics of representation, which refers to people voting for or supporting figures who share their identity, independent of positions or policies.

I am always skeptical of the efforts to “increase the number of black educators”, as an end in itself. Advocates will cite the research that says that black students — and really all students — benefit significantly from having even one black teacher in their lives.[23]Gershenson, S., Hart, C. M., Hyman, J., Lindsay, C., & Papageorge, N. W. (2018). The long-run impacts of same-race teachers. National Bureau of Economic Research. The problem lies in the assumption that all of these Black teachers will be supportive and loving and justice-oriented, rather than merely reproducing the conditions of white supremacy that they themselves have internalized.

To be clear, I do actually support there being more black educators and leaders. They just need to be the right kind of black educators and leaders. Those who put their love and concern for Black children at the heart of their work, rather than status-climbing on Black children’s backs, and using their own race to deflect responsibility.

“Uncle Tom” is deeply inadequate to describing the latter kind of Black educator, because “Tom” has no power. “Defeated Overseers”, on the other hand, is perfect, in how these Black leaders “function as warden and direct repressive agent against the masses of black people”.[24]Churchville, J. (1970). On Correct Black Education. In Wright, N. (1970). What Black Educators are Saying. Hawthorn Books. They are the school analogue to what Glen Ford (2020) calls the “Black misleadership class”, Black politicians who “monopolize Black politics on behalf of their corporate overseers”.[25]Ford, G. (2020, January 16). MLK and the Black Misleadership Class. Black Agenda Report.

These are the same Black leaders who in the 1960s and 1970s “were careful not to challenge the democratic and free market consensus” and avoided any critiques of capitalism[26]Alkebulan, P. (2007). Survival pending revolution: The history of the Black Panther Party. University of Alabama Press.. These are the same “house Negroes” who work themselves “into the ground to enrich the owner of the school” — this being the State in most cases.[27]Lave, J., & McDermott, R. (2002). Estranged Labor Learning. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 4(1), 19-48.

If on the global scale, managing the “Negro problem” was a public relations issue[28]Alkebulan, P. (2007). Survival pending revolution: The history of the Black Panther Party. University of Alabama Press., white liberal politics of representation do the same thing on the local scale to sustain the internal integrity of empire. The integrity of the US public image is necessary to validate capitalism as the superior economic system. Walter Rodney recognized this phenomenon of Black misleadership in Africa and the Caribbean, these “agent[s] of the whites in the metropolis, with an army and a police force designed to maintain the imperialist way of things”.[29]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade.

While Rodney was speaking about rulers in African nations newly independent from colonial rule, his analysis applies on the micro scale to US schools, each its own fiefdom, albeit within a larger system of control. Where these principals are Black means very little, as their very job functions situate them as agents of a white supremacist school system, “partners of imperialist interests actively engaged in perpetuating the sufferings of their people”[30]Adeleke, T. (2000). Guerilla Intellectualism: Walter A. Rodney and the Weapon of Knowledge in the Struggle for Black Liberation. Journal of Thought, 35(1), 37-59., indeed with their own police force to maintain the imperial/colonial logic of schooling. 

This phenomenon extends to Black teachers as well, those who are “engaged in a campaign of respectability politics meant to socialize and assimilate students of color into the current system”, suffering from what Cherry-McDaniel calls “settler teacher syndrome”.[31]Cherry-McDaniel, M. (2019). Skinfolk Ain’t Always Kinfolk: The Dangers of Assuming and Assigning Inherent Cultural Responsiveness to Teachers of Color. Educational Studies, 55(2), 241–251.

On the one hand, there is an assumption that Black teachers and principals, by virtue of their common race/ethnicity, are acting on behalf of Black students. On the other, these   educators’ blackness is invoked, symbolically, by the white establishment to fulfill their commitment to “benignly neutral diversity that ’celebrates’ cultural differences while muting the ideological forces that privilege certain differences and marginalize others”.[32]Lomawaima, K. T., & McCarty, T. L. (2006). “To Remain an Indian”: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education. Teachers College Press.

It also serves to deflect accusations of racism, and the critical gaze of those who would indict the system they seek to uphold. This is a game of optics, of public relations, analogous to how the U.S. government framed the ‘Negro problem’ as “a public relations issue that must be solved or managed for the benefit of American foreign policy”.[33]Alkebulan, P. (2007). Survival pending revolution: The history of the Black Panther Party. University of Alabama Press. By putting dark faces in high places, the establishment is able to maintain relations of domination with a shallow Black veneer. This maintains the enclosure of community by situating these race traitors as a buffer class between white power and Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.