This mini-series "On Education" is a compiled list of short essays concerning theoretical approaches to classroom pedagogy and their broader implications upon us as educators and our students.
Read Past Contributions:
Part Five: Humanization through Liberal or Vocational Education?
Part Six: Articulating the World and the Implications of Literacy on Overcoming Limit-Situations
Part Six: Articulating the World and the Implications of Literacy on Overcoming Limit-Situations
Near the end of his autobiography Malcolm X explicates upon his post-Mecca transcendence of the Nation of Islam’s narrow Black Nationalist philosophy he had so vehemently promoted previously. Despite political pundits claiming the coming of a “post-racial era” with the election of Barack Obama, America remains a country divided by and categorized along conceptions of racial affiliation, along with a collection of racist institutions with American capitalism serving as the nexus. Malcolm explains that during his trip to Mecca he began to understand that blanket condemnations of whites were not only wrong, but counterproductive to the liberation he sought for blacks. He explains that he witnessed “brotherhood between all men, of all nationalities and complexions” (Haley, p. 417). He postulates that “racism [is] so deeply rooted in the white people collectively…[that] many whites are even actually unaware of their own racism” (Haley, p.417). He furthers the concept that colonialism, imperialism, and, by extension, the capitalist need to expand has divided third world peoples here and abroad so that the poor fight amongst themselves rather than organizing collectively against the oppressor. Malcolm embraced the label of “revolutionist” and argued the need for dismantling the system of oppression in place (Haley, p. 423). He further explicated the concept that “it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man” (Haley, p. 427). Malcolm, of course, spoke openly about socialism at the end of his life after his visits to Africa. However, it is clear he remained at a crossroads that would have allowed space for his political trajectory to develop on various paths had his life not ended so abruptly.
His choice of words, his new idealized forms of black and white organization, his willingness to work with whites, and his condemnation of the political economy and dominant ideology are particularly relevant to educators today. In fact, his understanding that racial tensions are stirred by the dominant societal institutions is a concept educators must understand if they are to challenge the virulence of racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that are perpetuated by the class structure. His arguments help to foster an understanding that class society remains the root of the problem. This is not to say that prejudice will be automatically removed with the removal of the class structure, but it implies that the dismantling of such a class society is a prerequisite to the abolition of bigotry and institutionalized forms of oppression. Without this vital concept, educators would be left to dealing with instances of racism or bigotry in one of two ways; they would be perceived as personalized flaws, a problem of individual prejudice that fails to address institutional oppression (this can be labeled the liberal conception of racism) or as intrinsic, unfixable, permanent problems of human nature (this is the Black Nationalist view of racism). Both of these approaches represent a non-dialectical, anti-materialist approach that attempts to displace historical phenomena from the material conditions which produce them.
Racism, a problem Malcolm spent a majority of his life addressing, flows naturally from a system that functions to serve a small minority. Without artificial wedges to separate the oppressed, exploited, laboring masses, the ruling class would be hard-pressed to maintain their status, power, and wealth, or the system which grants them the ability to garner such luxuries. Prominent liberals had already embraced the concept of racism as an individualistic form of prejudice. With the election of the first black man as President, however, many have begun to articulate an enhanced conception of the old “blame the victim” ideology. As author Dinesh D’Souza explains:
As I watched Obama take the oath of office…I also felt a sense of vindication. In 1995, I published a controversial book The End of Racism. The meaning of the title was not that there was no more racism in America…My argument was that racism, which once used to be systematic, had now become episodic…racism existed, but it no longer controlled the lives of blacks and other minorities. Indeed, racial discrimination could not explain why some groups succeeded in America and why other groups did not...for African Americans, their position near the bottom rung of the ladder could be better explained by cultural factors than by racial victimization (D’Souza).
These new postulations of regurgitated liberal conceptions of racism are dangerous, not only for those targeted by them, such as communities of color, but for progressive educators who wish to combat racism wherever it rears its ugly head. The educator inside of the United States in the 21st century must come to grips with the reality that American capitalism always has been, and remains to be, inherently racist. As the world embarks on the greatest international economic crisis since the Great Depression, educators must be ready to engage in dialogue about the root cause of inequalities in American society and foster critical discussion concerning realistic, broad-reaching solutions to such collective problems.
For instance, to assume that racism is an individual problem that certain people must be “cleansed” of would ignore the glaring fact that Black and Latino poverty rates have remained steadily higher than white poverty (over 20 percent, with child youth statistics much higher). It would not account for the increased instances of police brutality and murder in communities of color or the inequalities marginalized groups face when involved with the so-called justice system (overzealous prosecutors, less access to rehabilitation, prodigious incarceration rates, and the list continues). This conception of racism cannot adequately explain why, although unemployment is skyrocketing nationally across color lines, in many cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago, black unemployment is at or near 50 percent (Taylor). Finally, and educators must come to par with this, it does not provide an adequate explanation for why public schools, after a brief glimmer of hope with post-civil rights integration, have become more segregated now than they were thirty years ago; school systems in Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and many other urban areas are 80-95 percent Black and Hispanic (Kozol). Social commentator and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor postulates these are rational outcomes of the dominant political economy:
The material impact on the lives of Black workers should be clear enough, but ideologically, the systematic and institutional impoverishment of African American communities perpetuates the impression that Blacks are inferior and defective. These perceptions are perpetuated and magnified by the mass media, Hollywood and the general means of ideological and cultural production in bourgeois society. The recurrence and persistence of racism in this economic system is not accidental or arbitrary. American capitalism is intrinsically racist (Taylor).
The liberal conception of racism, which will undoubtedly become common rhetoric given the meteoric rise of Obama into the Whitehouse, must be challenged by educators who desire to combat racism in all of its forms. Doing so requires arguing and promoting the idea that multiracial, autonomous organizations can be built to fight back against institutionalized oppression. Class solidarity among working class and poor people of all colors is an integral principle if liberation of all oppressed groups is to be on the agenda.
Thus, educators can learn important lessons from Malcolm and the conclusions he was formulating near the end of his life. Had he been given the time to articulate his new understanding of racism further, the possibilities for what he could have accomplished are endless. Leaders, however, are nothing without the power of the people. History has shown that leaders cannot be messiahs who, like Moses, lead the suffering masses out of the oppressive conditions they face. If it was up to leaders to lead the people to the gates of liberation, who is to say they could not lead them back into the pits of oppression? Every educator, every worker, every student, every human being who aims for the goal of social justice must be actively involved and rigorously engaged as a democratic participant in their own liberation. Malcolm’s assassination, along with revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Fred Hampton, has shown that leaders can be killed; they can also be bought off (various third world revolutionary groups, Sunni Awakening Councils in Iraq, etc.), entrenched in the establishment (Tom Hayden, Van Holden), imprisoned (Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Huey Newton), misguided (Weathermen), or become the oppressors themselves (Castro, Mugabe, and various Communist Parties around the world). Educators cannot rely upon benevolent politicians or skilled orators to fix the problems of society; it must come from the grassroots, collective pressure of organized activists and human beings willing to engage in the writing of their own history. To paraphrase Fred Hampton, you can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution. You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom fighting.
Works CitedD’Souza, D. “Obama and Post-Racist America,” To The Source, 5 April 2009,
Haley, A. (1964) The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group.
Kozol, J. “Still Separate, Still Unequal: America’s Educational Apartheid,” Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 311, September 2005, 5 April 2009,
Taylor, K. “Race in the Obama Era,” 5 April 2009,