Keith E. Benson is Education Chair at Camden County NAACP, a teacher at Camden High School, and a Doctoral student at Rutgers University GSE. This is the 2nd post today addressed to President Obama – the first was from James Harris, immediate past president of NJ NAACP. Read that here. Promoted by Rosi
On November 4th, 2008 I, as well as many other Camden residents celebrated your victory in the Presidential election against John McCain. Indeed I remember residents of Greenwood Avenue in the Parkside section of Camden, literally celebrating in the streets with the election of the nation’s first black president – something many of us believed we would never see in America with its deplorable history regarding its treatment of black and brown people. A new optimism was apparent and visible on November 5th, 2008 and lasted for some time, until the reality of what an Obama presidency meant for urban America became apparent. By many metrics, things have gotten worse for the most vulnerable urban Americans under your administration, due in part to the intransigence of our US Congress, hostile policies put forth at the state and local levels, but also because of some your very own policies. In Camden, NJ there is no clearer embodiment of the harm some of your policies have wrought upon the urban poor, than in education.
Federal Education policies like NCLB enacted under George W. Bush, and your own Race to the Top have alienated minority communities and preyed on the society’s most vulnerable children and schools. With respect to education in Camden, a city plagued by structural racism and generational poverty (where the median income is $26,000 and 40% of residents live in poverty), the exploitation endured by residents is similar to many other urban cities across the country. Camden citizens are forbidden from voting for their local school board members (which curtails community participation and engagement), Camden neighborhood public schools are shuttered with little consideration given to residents or children, politically-connected corporate charters are imposed on Camden neighborhoods, and our students experience an endless stream of standardized testing unrelated to the self-actualizing education they should receive, and that other students get. Further, the presence of minority teachers in Camden, as in other urban cities, is rapidly declining and being replaced by charter teachers who are often white and transient. Perhaps even worse, there seems to be nothing the Camden community can do, democratically, to reverse our educational reality sustained by your policies.
I do not intend to portray Camden schools as perfect, or as an educational panacea, and I still have to hope you have Camden students’ best interest in mind and heart (despite simultaneously marginalizing our community), but is my wish that you and others see the problems plaguing education in Camden as symptomatic of our Camden poverty. While contemporary education policies and initiatives tend to focus on assessment of students, school leadership approaches, and urban district governance (all of which impact how students spend roughly six hours of their day), from a policy standpoint, what remains unaddressed is that poverty profoundly impacts the remaining 18 hours students spend outside of school. And though it is popular for celebrities and public figures to proclaim that the antidote to urban poverty is more (or “better”) education, an enormous body of research literature and academic studies refute that assertion. This is not to say that education, or formalized schooling is meaningless, but education unfortunately is too often an exercise of social reproduction. America is not a meritocracy; and socio-economic mobility is increasingly becoming mythical. At birth affluent and middle-class students have access to privilege, opportunities, and social networks that even honor students in Camden can only imagine. Thus low income, and lack of economic possibilities for urban Americans are the primary hurdles impacting Camden education – and you, Mr. Obama are the man who can meaningfully address this issue.