Corporate Imperialism vs. Black (Educational) Liberation

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s

Chicago (Flickr: Pedro Szekely)

Elizabeth Todd-Breland has written an important book on the history of Black educational politics in Chicago since the 1960s, focusing specifically on neoliberal reforms instigated by private interest groups and corporate elites, and their intersection with the political activity of Black educational reformers on the ground. My contribution to this roundtable is a meditation on a small, yet critical part of Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s in relationship to Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America during its 50th anniversary, and particularly his chapter “Corporate Imperialism vs. Black Liberation.” I outline how Todd-Breland’s analysis of neoliberal education reforms in Chicago echoes central aspects of what Allen termed “corporate imperialism” within his internal colony framework for thinking about African American political life.

Coincidentally, I picked up these two books around the same time during the spring semester. I was preparing for a panel commemorating the anniversary of Black Awakening at the 2019 National Council for Black Studies conference and I assigned A Political Education for my course on the history of African American education. It was a gift to read them alongside one another. Although separated by nearly 50 years, Allen and Todd-Breland made claims that were distinct, yet fundamentally related: corporate elites appropriated Black militant rhetoric (and leaders) of the 1960s to neutralize demands for social transformation amidst urban rebellion; and from this particular brand of corporate imperialism also emerged neoliberal educational reforms, as Todd-Breland reveals, which absorbed the rhetoric of the demands for community control and self-determination made by Black education reformers. It is this long-standing intrusion by corporate elites and private sector interest groups that laid the groundwork for contemporary realities of “School Choice” and market-based reforms.

This is all to say, Todd-Breland’s book invites a deeper interpretation of the relationship between private capital, education, and Black life during the 1960s to the present — as well as a retrospective reading of Black education into the nineteenth century. Her political economic analysis of education reform in Chicago since the 1960s marks a nodal point in the expansive history of corporate imperialism and African American education.

Corporate Imperialism is Integral to the Story of Black Education

It should come as no surprise that there have been “white architects of black education” controlling its institutional development since the Civil War. As African Americans established schools to prepare for and assert their freedom, corporate reformers absorbed Black demands for education by creating policies that worked to pacify Black scholastic desires with schooling models that accommodated racist, white southern ways of life and the visions of corporate elites. They were principally interested in the reunification of the North and South, and then the expansion of business. So, by the second decade of the twentieth century, Black education was controlled by a small number of corporate foundations. These included big names like Rockefeller (who developed the General Education Board in 1902), Peabody, Rosenwald, and Phelps Stokes, to name a few. With no input from Black people themselves, and accountable to no one, these corporate elites identified what kind of Black education was worthy of funding and most fitted for the society they were interested in constructing.

Some African Americans resisted the control of corporate reformers. Others embraced their dollars and (sometimes) the mandates that came along with them out of pragmatism. Some came to align ideologically with these white corporate elites. Whatever the case, this is a significant part of Black education’s development from the late-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. Corporate foundations achieved near complete control, becoming the dominant reformers (institutionally and ideologically speaking) of Black education by the start of the first World War.

Given the economic precarity of Black communities striving to expand their access to educational opportunities, few alternatives existed if they desired paths that were not in compliance with these corporate elites and the governing structures they implemented throughout the South. In reality, this looked like the internal colony regime that Allen named and critiqued in Black Awakening, where he argued that African Americans were “subject to the will and domination of white America,” and that after the legal and political victories of the long Black freedom struggle, this evolved primarily into a form of “indirect rule.” Corporate imperialism was a central component of this indirect rule — a means to establish neo-colonial control of Black communities, which often required the participation of token African Americans. The colonial relationship Allen named was not infant in form, even if it was implemented in new ways during the time he was writing, and what becomes clear from Todd-Breland’s book is how this phenomenon of “corporate imperialism” manifested in particular ways in the realm of education during that same time.

Todd-Breland Reveals the Persistence of Corporate Imperialism in Black Education

The contemporary iteration of corporate reforms commonly referred to as “School Choice” dramatically expanded in the final decade of the twentieth century, even as the seeds were planted in the late 1960s. Decades after demands for Black Power and community control rang prominent, advocates of market-based reforms would harken back to this rhetoric to push their agendas. Writing of the increase of market-based reforms in the 1990s, Todd-Breland argued, “School choice advocates repurposed the Black self-determinist language of collective community control into a proprietary assertion of the right of individual parents to choose between public, private, and public-private hybrid forms of schooling. In this environment, corporate leaders, philanthropic organizations, and education advocacy groups became the spokespersons for education reform in the city, rather than parents, teachers, students, or members of the largely Black and Latinx communities” (196, 215). This appeal gained traction with some community education programs, many of which were set in motion in the late ’60s and early ’70s. For instance, Black-run independent schools, after struggling to survive by the late 1980s and early nineties — if they survived at all — were some of the first to take advantage of charter schools.

Here, it’s prudent to heed Allen’s assertion that, “The neo-colonial thrust of corporate efforts in the ghetto is not necessarily correlated with the personal intentions of businessmen. Indeed, many of them are sincere reformers. Rather, this neocolonialism is an inevitable product of the structure of corporate capitalism” (222). Todd-Breland makes a similar assertion about the Black educational reformers in Chicago, who came to embrace market-based reforms. There was a clear divergence between the interests of Black people on the ground appropriating these reforms and the interests of corporate elites driving them. When leaders of independent Black educational institutions “fought to create charter schools,” for instance, “they were not blindly colluding with an emerging corporatist order but responding to the historical denial of quality education to black communities” (217).

“But corporate planning is antithetical to black self-determination,” Allen reminds us. “Corporate planning involves the subtle but nonetheless real manipulation of consumers in order to maintain and regulate demand for products. It involves corporate control of sources of supply and labor” (223). Expressed more pointedly, as it pertains to the educational landscape we have inherited, market-based school reforms are invested in an expanding industry premised on Black student underachievement. Narratives of Black student crisis are what stimulate the market for corporate driven education reform. Black student suffering drives the demand for the educational “choices” these corporate elites now supply.

Corporate elites’ intrusion on education reforms, particularly those targeting Black students, must always be viewed with suspicion. By design, these private interests are only invested as long as there is a clearly identified benefit to their profit margins. When this is no longer the case, they have the ability to retreat, leaving students and communities to search for the next best thing. Furthermore, expanding the influence of these private entities deteriorates and/or neglects the development of a public infrastructure expressly created to serve the general welfare of the public (even as this has its limits, for we know educational opportunity as a public good has been stratified along racial lines). The neglect of this public infrastructure leaves African Americans most vulnerable in the long term.

Todd-Breland’s A Political Education indexes the insidious role corporate imperialism has played in the developmental trajectory of Black education for over a century. As she writes, “The strange bedfellows that have coalesced around neoliberal approaches to education reform are a product of these longer histories. Black people both challenged and contributed to this emerging order.” More than this, Todd-Breland echoes a deeper truth: in the context of education or otherwise, there are but shallow heights to what Black people can achieve when acting in the interest of capital.

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Jarvis R. Givens

Jarvis R. Givens is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Suzanne Young Murray assistant professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. As an interdisciplinary historian, Givens' research falls at the intersection of the history of American education, 19th and 20th century African American history, and critical theories of race and schooling. His first book, 'Schooling in Forbidden Fields: Carter G. Woodson and the Demands of Black Education' (forthcoming, Harvard University Press), analyzes Carter G. Woodson's (1875-1950) critiques of the American school, the new curricular materials he developed, and how ordinary teachers put his ideas into practice during Jim Crow.

Comments on “Corporate Imperialism vs. Black (Educational) Liberation

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    Thank you for your commentary Professor Givens. As an African American educator, I have pondered the concept of Charter Schools and philanthropists assisting in establishing some of these schools. I recognized that some philanthropists were really seeking reforms, but I could not reconcile others being primarily profit based. I appreciate your perspective and much needed clarification in this area.

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    Thank you Professor Givens for your insights and much needed clarification in this area.

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