I’ve been going around saying this for awhile now, but it’s time to write out why I think it’s true: school districts are the cell structure of racial capitalism.
I like the image of cell structure because cells are small, everywhere, and have a definite structure that makes an entire living system go. They’re decentralized but work coherently. They’re small compared to bigger features of bodies, like organs or blood or skin.
But if you change the cell structure of a body, you change the whole thing. I’m pretty sure the same is true for school districts when comes to racial capitalism in the United States.
Just think about what’s involved in school district lines.
Two of the most important things
The school district impacts two precious things in people’s lives: their homes and their children.
When it comes to homes, there’s a lot of layers involved. Materially speaking, school districts capitalize real estate values. A ‘good’ school district increases the price of commercial and residential real estate, and vice versa: high property values increase the taxable revenue for the district. This impacts everyone: it raises rents and the cost of living generally.
Of course, the cultural and political connections that people have to their homes are very intense as well. A sense of place and space can structure your identity such that you identify with your neighborhood, block, and district in passionate ways
Where you live, how much you spend to live there, the value of your largest asset (if you’re a homeowner), and your sense of place is really impacted by the school district.
When it comes children’s education, the impact is equally intense. Though there’s little sociological data to confirm that schooling makes ‘the difference’ in people’s life outcomes (there are so many other factors that do), in the US we’ve come to think of education as the path to opportunity. ‘Work hard in school and you’ll get a good job’ is like some kind of prayer to the American gods.
So education is about kids’ future, which is also your future—whether you have kids or not. People think about their own material and spiritual continuity through their kids. It’s also why people, even ones without kids, get so worked up about school stuff: it tugs at our sense of the future.
So the school district impacts the future, but it also impacts kids’ daily life. If your schools are underserved, violent, lacking in programs and resources, then your kids feel that. (They also feel it if the district has a lot of programs because of the super competitive middle class anxiety induced by austerity.)
If you have kids, this stuff is pretty important to you. The school district controls that too.
Just think for a second about the intensity of the school district’s social force in this country. It comes to bear on your home and kids’ present and future. That’s why the school district has been and continues to be the site of intense struggles over property and taxation; segregation and integration; identity and recognition in the curriculum.
Just imagine if something changed in school district structure. The last time we saw something systematic happen there was the integration movements that started in federal courts and moved into every state, city, and town. That really got people worked up. So much so that it took a counter-revolution in the courts, districts, and governments at every level to stop the changes.
A site in the conjuncture
I’d go so far as to say that the school district is a key site in what Antonio Gramsci called the conjuncture, or the teetering balance of forces over which the ruling class tries to maintain control in the class struggle. What makes the conjuncture interesting is that a ruling class (composed of different blocs that don’t always agree) can’t cover all the tensions. There are wrinkles, or what Marx called contradictions, that they have trouble smoothing out.
Being a socialist means keeping an eye out for these contradictions in the conjuncture. Where does the ruling class have trouble? What tensions might implode the tenuous control it maintains?
Schools districts are an often-overlooked place in this sense. You don’t see a lot of takes on school districts coming from the left. They’re difficult to understand legally and politically. They don’t make much sense geographically. They’re ultra-local, making it hard to generalize about them in state and national contexts.
But I’d argue that’s also what makes them more powerful. Louis Althusser said that schools are the silent note in the symphony of modern capitalism. So many other apparatuses like political parties and the media make a ton of noise. But schools—specifically the school districts—exist amidst and behind it all, holding racial capitalism together in a very forceful way.
That’s why I use the image of cells. And also why socialists should focus more on them. I think a change in school districts could seriously threaten racial capitalism in this country. (And a little birdie told me that Gilmore might have a book about this coming out this year. Really looking forward to it.)
Postscript on ‘racial capitalism’
Like anything on the left, the term ‘racial capitalism’ is controversial. There’s a new article in Sociological Theory on the term that’s super helpful, and a ton of great recent takes on it that are starting to get hard to keep up with (I like Charisse Burden-Stelly’s work as one example).
As usual, I have a lot more to read more about racial capitalism to understand it better, particularly as someone who’s benefitted from whiteness, though I’ve read enough to feel semi-confident about why and how I’m using it in this post.
Intellectually, the term refers to a theory of capitalism that says race is essential to it, a claim largely attributed to Cedric Robinson and his book Black Marxism. Basic idea: there’s no capitalism without racial hierarchy. In this little postscript I just want to focus on the emerging politics of this term and my own theoretical orientation towards it as I study more.
The term is more and more prominent in left political conversation. It’s helpful because, for one thing, it disarms what’s become a centrist line of attack against socialists: that we’re too white; we don’t think about diversity; we’re all Bernie Bros, etc. If you critique racial capitalism instead of just capitalism you can parry that move, which is more important than ever now that centrist Democrats are in charge of the federal government.
Lots of socialists disagree with this though and sometimes identify with a position called ‘left populism’ or ‘class first’. They think the ‘masses’ of working class, everyday people would actually support socialist politics, as long as we don’t center talk about race and ‘culture war’ or ‘identitarian’ stuff.
Doing so is too divisive, they might say. It won’t resonate with the white working class, and other fractions of the working class that don’t go in for identity politics. They might be conservative on racial equality, but support Medicare for All—so why push a line focusing on race?
Plus anti-oppression discourse been co-opted by neoliberals to make sure that it doesn’t challenge capital. So these socialists prefer not to say racial capitalism.
Politically, the question comes down to who you think socialists should try to organize and what you think will resonate with them. Frankly, I haven’t seen either approach work very well in the last six years. But now that centrists are in the driver’s seat, they’re our main obstacle—so ‘racial capitalism’ makes more sense as a line.
Philosophically, the story is a little different for me. I take a position more in line with Stuart Hall than Cedric Robinson. Hall was adamant that nothing’s really essential about capitalism except the fact that there are no guarantees. It just so happens there’s a very strong articulation between racial hierarchy and exploitation in capitalist societies throughout history. (This position also says that race is a mode of production connected to capitalism, rather than some kind of cultural plug-in, which is different than Robinson maybe—as always, I have to read more.)
I think this is a difference of kind but not degree. We get to the same conclusions with Hall’s theory, but with different philosophical underpinnings (again, so far as I understand).
So when I say the school district is the cell structure of US racial capitalism, I’m thinking more of that strong articulation than an essential connection. But the articulation is so strong I think think it makes sense to say ‘racial capitalism’, particularly given the political situation I just laid out.