Christine E. Sleeter, PhD. is Professor Emerita in the College of Professional Studies at California State University Monterey Bay, where she was a founding faculty member. She currently serves as President of the National Association for Multicultural Education. Her research focuses on anti-racist multicultural education and multicultural teacher education. She has published over 100 articles in edited books and journals such as Journal of Teacher Education, Race Ethnicity & Education, Teaching and Teacher Education, and Curriculum Inquiry. Her recent books include Professional Development for Culturally Responsive and Relationship-Based Pedagogy (Peter Lang) and Teaching with Vision (with Catherine Cornbleth; Teachers College Press. She has been invited to speak in most U.S. states as well as several countries. Awards for her work include the American Educational Research Association Social Justice Award, the California State University Monterey Bay President’s Medal, and the Central Washington University Distinguished Alum.
You have probably recently witnessed class sizes in schools surpassing reasonable thresholds, teachers losing their jobs, and university tuition increasing. For example, California Watch reports that not only have California’s class sizes risen by an average of 5 students at the primary level and 3 at higher grade levels (making 31 students the new average in classrooms from fourth grade on up), but almost 60% of the state’s school districts have shaved days off the school year. You have probably also witnessed pensions erode, libraries close, and social safety nets for impoverished families shrink.
Although you are likely aware of the growing gap between rich and poor in the U.S., you might not be aware of the extent of the gap. In their book Winner Take All Politics, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point out that between 1979 and 2006, while the lower 80% of the population experienced a 21% rise in income on the average (counting benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps); the top 1% enjoyed a 256% growth in income. While some wealth at the top is inherited, almost 60% of the top 0.1% are executives, managers, and financial professionals who have been able to create and legitimate the processes that are substantially enriching them, even while most of the rest of the country is experiencing cutbacks. Although we like to think that the U.S. does not have a permanent class system and that anyone can “make it,” the reality, according to Hacker and Pierson, is that the U.S. now ranks near the bottom of the industrialized world in intergenerational mobility. And although the current economic crisis puts these patterns into sharp relief, they have been developing over the past decades.
Why does the bottom 80% allow this to happen? After all, it is the bottom 80% of the population that is most likely to notice larger class sizes in public schools (with consequent reduced individual attention to each student), crumbling transportation infrastructure, the shift of paying for health insurance from employers to individual families, and fewer options for care of elderly family members. I suggest that a significant factor is that the bottom 80% is divided by race, ethnicity, religion and other factors, and that as long as attention stays focused on our differences, we remain unable to see or work toward our collective self-interests.
In his book Backlash, Will Bunch describes what he learned listening to angry White Americans across the U.S. in the wake of the election of President Obama: many fear the demographic shift they see around them, and view the election of a Black President as evidence of a loss of White control. Bunch argues that many working class Whites, even those who lack health insurance or a retirement plan, would rather ally themselves with the majority White top 10% than see tax money go to urban (read: Black) poor whom they believe expect handouts and now have a President willing to give them just that.
Division is also too often apparent among those of us who work for equity. Now, one of the things I appreciate about those who work for equity and social justice is what I call “commitment democracy” – affirmation of the right of each of us to work for the issues to which we are most strongly committed. One might work for immigration rights, gay rights, or disability rights; one might take on the school-to-prison pipeline, environmental racism, or homelessness. Although we wish others would join us in working for the issues we feel most strongly about, we don’t necessarily ally ourselves with other people’s struggles. As a result, different struggles are frequently pitted against each other, such as support for the environment versus jobs, support for unions versus critiques of patriarchal union bosses, or support for holding teachers accountable for teaching minoritized students versus critiques of mandated testing.
In response to the escalating wealth gap, Occupy Wall Street has caught fire. According to its website, Occupy Wall Street is a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” Occupy Wall Street may become a broad-based social movement; it may also evaporate if it becomes a single-issue movement that really serves only a fraction of the population.
I believe that the larger issue underlying concerns of diverse Americans is whether education and other public institutions should be private consumption items, or resources for the public good, with the public being explicitly diverse racially, ethnically, culturally, sexually, and linguistically. If we reframe our diverse commitments as resting on the core value of advancing the public good for a diverse public, and if we come to terms with how diverse communities have often not been treated as full members of that public, we might be able to link commitments in a way that strengthens all of us, and that restores our hope in a better future for our children and youth.