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The dialectics of dreams and failure: racialized violence as higher education’s “crisis ordinariness”

Update 1/14: Although it doesn’t change the fact that standardized tests are a form of institutional racism that exacerbate unequal access to education, a recent letter to the editor of The Atlantic suggests that some of the data in the article may have been misinterpreted, misrepresented, or inaccurate. I will post any follow-up responses by either the authors or editors.


As a graduate student, part of my research explores our commonly held sensibilities about what it means to educate the public. The assumption is that our educational imaginaries—how we conceive of public education and education’s situatedness within society—structure the material realities of these projects and determine the kinds of work they can do. Inspired by recent projects to rethink and reclaim failure, specifically Jack Halberstam’sThe Queer Art of Failure, I’m interested in how community colleges have come to be understood as racialized spaces of failure, and why this stereotype not only makes no sense, but reaffirms the “success” of an unsustainable and inadequate higher education system that we have never been able to fund. As Craig Steven Wilder demonstrates, our system of higher education wouldn’t have been possible without the racial violence of the Atlantic slave trade, settler colonialism, and indigenous dispossession.[1] In the mid twentieth-century, efforts to democratize access to higher education were supported by the G.I. bill, which was made possible by U.S. profits from the second world war—hardly an ethical or desirable source of funding. Currently, the average adjunct instructor is paid $2,987 per three-credit course[2] and students graduate thousands of dollars in debt. Although we are in a moment of crisis, it is part of a long, ongoing history of crisis, what Lauren Berlant calls “crisis ordinariness.” Rather than acting as if we are in a state of exceptional crisis, operating in defense mode and slashing budgets, we need to understand racialized violence as higher education’s constitutive crisis ordinariness. Failure is structured intoour system of higher education, economically reproduced while idealistically obscured through the very American rhetoric of educational dreams, progress, and mobility. But what if we could rethink these dialectics of dreams and failure, and shift our understanding of public education as an effort to bring long histories of inequality and racialized violence into crisis?

A recent article in the Atlantic details the racism of determining college admission based on standardized test scores (at my own university). In“When High Achievers Have No Place to Go”, LynNell Hancock and Meredith Kolodner detail how “star students from immigrant and minority families often find themselves locked out of the City University of New York—a system originally designed just for them.” CUNY administrators, like those at universities across the country, are so very careful to create marketing materials that advertise the diversity of their student bodies (check out the subway ads), while simultaneously, as the article details, increasing the test scores required for admission, thus decreasing the number of black and Latino students who can attend the city’s colleges. It is an example of what Sara Ahmed describes as the representational affirmation of diversity that obscures material practices of institutional racism.[3] CUNY’s efforts to increase its admissions profile in order to appear more selective are decreasing the value of a CUNY education.

CUNY’s increasingly stratified and segregated two-tier system of community colleges that purportedly prepare students for degrees at bachelor’s-granting institutions are part of a larger national trend, analyzed by Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel in  The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America 1900-1985.

Although the mid-twentieth century emergence of community colleges marked a moment in which women, and later, people of color, were to claim a sliver of this American dream, as Brint and Karabel argue, this amounted to little more than imaginative incorporation: students were encouraged to aspire to economic mobility and the wealth that would accompany a bachelor’s degree, while junior colleges effectively managed, limited, and restricted the number of students who would pass from two-year schools to a four-year, bachelor’s-granting institution. Indeed, as the authors of The Atlantic article note, “A 2011study showed that a student who enters a CUNY community college has only an 8 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree at any school.”

An increased reliance on standardized testing to determine college admissions perpetuates conditions of institutional racism. Hancock and Kolodner’s article does an excellent job demonstrating how standardized tests measure privilege, wealth, and opportunity. They cite important research, such as William Bowen’s Crossing the Finish line, which demonstrates how a student’s GPA is a far more reliable index of college preparedness than standardized test scores, and “a 2010 Princeton University analysis of selective colleges that dropped their reliance on standardized tests [and] found that ethnic and racial diversity vastly improved.” In addition to passing and carefully implementing President Obama’s proposal to help students attend community college tuition-free, we need to ban the use of proprietary standardized tests to determine college eligibility. Hancock and Kolodner end with a list of viable alternatives for moving away from high-stakes testing, to which I would add recent experiments in alternative metrics, such as badging.[4]

In my own work, I’ve explored the relationship between higher education and racial violence throughout American history—from the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois to the contemporary sitcom, Community. While Hancock and Kolodner demonstrate how these histories are playing out in the current admissions practices at the City University of New York, we should understand their critique of standardized testing as a form of institutional racism to extend beyond local and contemporary conditions.

[1]See Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

[3]See On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

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