We have been reminded more than a few times over the past three days that there is no literacy with a capital L. There are instead practices, more or less elaborate and codified, which reflect and shape the social relationships of their practitioners.  We have also heard that we still are not quite sure what it is that we are supposed to be teaching our students. I would like to suggest that some of the confusion results from an effort to appropriate literacy as a metaphor for a much larger program of education for the working class. For, especially when we speak of students in literacy programs in the cities, we are talking about the working class, those who sell their labor power to survive – whether they are employed or not. I’ve attempted to choose my words carefully. What I am describing is not the same thing as workers’ education. The goals of that larger educational project we are being encouraged to undertake are not so different from the predominant goals of primary and secondary schooling – the inculcation of values, the cultivation of habits, the transmission of acceptable knowledge.
But, if that’s the case, why is it being called literacy? I believe that it has come to serve as the organizing metaphor as the result of a push-pull situation. Many of those gathered in this room today have been in this line of work for a good many years and we have tried, earnestly, to persuade others of the importance and value of what we do. We have pushed. But, others have pulled. And we, I believe, have too often been pulled along. Although our initial allies might have been people who shared with us some of our conviction that the expansion of participation made possible by enhanced reading and writing needed no other justification, they have been for the most part superseded by those who press upon us the logic of enlightened self-interest.
It is now a commonplace that the industrialized nations’ continued prosperity has been endangered by the poor skills of their actual and potential workforces. An array of reports, issued by government departments or ministries, business groups, and foundations has focused our attention on the ways in which individuals are not satisfactorily prepared for work. For the most part, the report writers begin with international competition, genuflect quickly before technical innovation, doff their hats to new work arrangements, acknowledge the impact of changing demographics, endorse the speed up of assembly lines or office procedures and then lament that workers aren’t up for the new realities – some of them can’t do the jobs they are assigned to; others have bad attitudes and still others don’t even apply for jobs in the first place. The continuing recession of 1991 and 1992 in the US has muted this monologue somewhat but it’s not likely that it will lose any of its powerful hold on policy planning in educational circles anytime soon.
As a result, literacy educators find themselves, either by choice or necessity, confronted with issues of social policy concerning the relationship between literacy education and economic realities. Those who fund the variety of education and training programs for out-of-school youth and adults require ever closer coordination of literacy instruction with the demands of the workplace. In the case of workplace literacy projects, the connection is a straightforward one – literacy training should enhance the ability of workers to perform their jobs more satisfactorily. In what might be called general literacy programs, the connection is even more an implicit one – although I would suggest, no less significant. Those programs are frequently funded because they will contribute to economic development of a city, state or region. The intended participants are deemed to be individuals unprepared to fully participate in the mainstream economy.
Not surprisingly, in almost every case, those who articulate the new demands on literacy programs and their participants are the spokespersons, or the allies, of those who employ labor. What is disappointing is that the particular responsibilities of educators are not being clearly articulated. This is not meant to suggest that all literacy educators are comfortable with the implicit subordination of literacy education to work. There is often evidence of unease and attempts are frequently made to get around the policy imperatives. But, the basic premises of the policy-makers go unchallenged.
The notion that students don’t get jobs or accomplish other worthwhile purposes because of their own inadequacies becomes programmatic common sense. This common sense leads to the quick acceptance of the idea that it is reasonable, if not absolutely necessary, for literacy program resources to be devoted to personal and career counseling. Those supplementary services are not usually added on because of the contribution they might make to enhanced literacy capacity but rather because participants are imagined to be in great need of advice and assistance. I want to emphasize that this is largely unsolicited advice. As far as I know, people come to literacy programs because, in one way or another, they want to become better or more versatile readers and writers – not because they think that people who work in literacy programs have better answers to life’s difficulties.
What should concern us is that, simultaneously with the proliferation of supplementary services, programs continue to be characterized by depressingly low expectations of student accomplishment. Although usually qualified by disclaimer, literacy programs live in a world where progress is indicated by grade levels achieved (as measured by standardized tests of the psychometric variety) in hundreds of hours of instruction. I have spent many hours criticizing the use of those tests to assess individual achievement or program accomplishment. I cite them now only because they are the measures typically used by funders and policy makers.
Let me stop beating around the bush – my point is that the literacy enhancement that individuals obtain through program participation will make little or no difference in their ability to perform literacy-related tasks in the workplace. And I would suggest that there is, in fact, not much need for individual workers to have much more in the way of abstract literacy skills in order to perform the jobs they will actually get satisfactorily. It may be that there are more forms to be completed and so forth but there is little reason why individuals cannot acquire those specific skills in the context of performing a job as apprentices to more accomplished workers.
If participants do not need more `literacy’ and if programs do not, in any case, give them that much more `literacy,’ what is going on? I would suggest that what is going on is not so much literacy education as attempted social control. What programs, in effect, are doing is attempting to get people who are perhaps not yet quite resigned to their position in the labor hierarchy to interpret it, at least partially, as a justified state of affairs. This is, in large measure, accomplished through the use of tests which purport to document the reading level of individuals and to further document that such a reading level changes very slowly, if at all. If an individual makes precious little progress, then he or she must be performing at his or her natural ability level and it probably follows that the work they are able to obtain is the work they are qualified for. Sixth grade level readers get sixth grade level jobs.
This argument has been eloquently made by Frances Piven and Richard Cloward in a discussion of the peculiar contribution of American schooling to social control:
… the point is that the conjunction of a universal common school system that advertised `no distinction of rich and poor’ with highly stigmatized arrangements to impose just such distinctions was a structural arrangement that had the effect of legitimating differential socioeconomic status by attributing it to qualities of the individual. If all children were given an opportunity for achievement, and needed only to demonstrate `talent and industry and good conduct,’ it followed that those who failed, even when large proportions of the children from particular groups failed, had only themselves to blame. One system had embraced all and embraced all equally. Some succeeded, others did not, and not because of the economic and political realities of a class society, but because some possessed personal qualities of talent and industry which others lacked. The structural arrangements of the schools implied a doctrine, in other words, about the causes of the economic hardships that people suffered, and what could be done about them. The causes were in individual characteristics, and the solution was in individual striving to demonstrate talent and good conduct. And if such strivings failed, why then there was no one to blame but oneself.
Work and Conflict
I would like to suggest that we take a look at the current preoccupation with literacy by situating it in a context of small and large conflicts in the workplace. Let’s start large. In the United States, Canada and western Europe, the two decades following World War II were characterized by a certain degree of working class prosperity. That prosperity did not, however, come without a price. In the US, the unions traded employer control of the workplace for relatively high wages and good benefits. Those wages and benefits, no matter the general improvement in living conditions they made possible, were not enough for workers. Work itself remained too demanding, too unrewarding. Deprived of the opportunity to formally exercise some control over work, the workers in the mainstays of the American economy attempted to do what they could to make it better – they sabotaged products and machinery; they doubled up on jobs so that one could rest while the other worked; they called in sick on Monday; occasionally, they went out on strike.
Changes in international production and commerce – specifically, the increased mobility of capital resulting in part from improved communication and transport – required that the employers of labor do something in response. They did several things. Often, they moved their factories. They forced the reduction of wages and benefits – usually with the more or less reluctant cooperation of the unions. In spite of that cooperation, they also forced the de-unionization of a substantial part of the US workforce. They also automated work and switched to part-time, “disposable” or “contingent” workers. All things considered, the living standards of the working class worsened dramatically.
Traditionally, worsened circumstances are imagined to make workers more vulnerable and, therefore, more willing to yield to management prerogatives. But, in spite of the attacks, workers didn’t quite do what their employers most wanted them to do – to work harder and more reliably. Instead, they seized upon the methods of resistance and subterfuge available to them to resist the imposition of more work for less pay. The forms of resistance in the workplace were echoed by the withdrawal of effort from school work and the increased reluctance to participate in the citizenship work of voting.
What I wish to emphasize is the purposefulness of those responses, not necessarily their self-consciousness. Although the purposes are seldom articulated publicly, they will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time with young people or who has worked in factories or offices. Faced with difficult circumstances and absent any apparently effective organized response, individuals create forms of resistance designed to ameliorate their circumstances and to allow them some measure of control and autonomy. The worsened circumstances of American workers (lower real wages, etc.) and the long decline of the most important of their institutionalized defenses (i.e., the labor unions) created just such a moment. It was also the moment of literacy.
Think for a moment of all the reports you have read about workplace and workforce literacy. How often have you read about conflicts in the workplace? Think now about the work you have done. How often have you been able to avoid conflict? The all but inevitable conflict we encounter at work results from the organization of work for ends other than the satisfaction of human needs and the subordination of workers for the achievement of those other ends. 
Human beings, whatever they might say about the free enterprise system, don’t especially enjoy being subordinated. Given the fact that, for the time being at least, money is necessary for the essentials of life and relatively few individuals have access to all that much free change, people have to make the best of a bad situation. They do so sometimes by working very hard and achieving some satisfaction from the realization of their own ability; sometimes, they put up with work so long as they can cultivate friendships; sometimes, they pretend to work when they’re not; sometimes, they stay out of work for as long as they can. Sometimes, they plan what to do and other times, it just happens. Sometimes, they talk or write about it; but most of the time, they just do it.
Needless to say, the people in charge of getting the work done don’t especially like this state of affairs and they spend a great deal of time trying to have it their way. So, the workplace is more often than not a battleground. Sometimes, the battles are loud and obvious; other times, quiet and obscure. But, they’re seldom absent. The drawing up of the battle lines does not occur only in the workplace. For, each day, individuals carry memories and self-images into their work. Workers gather in bars, bowling alleys, beauty parlors and each other’s living rooms. Their employers gather where they may. A big difference, though, is that employers have associations, lobbyists and money to turn their plans into this curious thing called policy.
I would like to suggest that the skills deficit policy is less analysis than strategy – part of a larger strategy for the reorganization of labor in the late twentieth century – a reorganization that is intended as much to secure the continued control of work and the accumulation of profits by those who rule the corporations as it is to equip individual workers for new technical demands of work. To a considerable extent, of course, the policy analyses are influenced by analyses of shifts in production and commerce. Plants have closed; jobs have been eliminated; other jobs have been created; some workers have to use new machines; computers are increasingly in evidence.
The public pronouncements referred to above, however, allow for no possibility that workers might be choosing to resist new work arrangements or that young people might not be thrilled by the prospects of working hard and fast to make not so very much. Instead, the report writers have defined the problem and offered a solution – the reason why people are not working well enough or not working at all is that they lack skills. Prominent among the missing skills is, of course, more or less literacy. One version has it that the crucial missing literacy skills are the basic ones; another, that the missing literacy skills are the critical ones. One could argue that the prescription of improved basic skills, on the one hand, will result in a reinforcement and legitimization of an exclusionary pattern of labor market segmentation while the prescription of critical literacy will satisfy the increased demand for technically proficient, more productive, labor in certain specific segments of that labor market. Both are intended to secure control over work and over workers.
Race and Control
What is essential to remember, however, is that some aspects of the control of workers at work are crafted away from the workplace itself. In the United States, a crucial and, I believe, decisive determinant of the control of workers is race. The shifting configuration of skill requirements is overlaid on a historic pattern of labor market segmentation. And the work `places’ for members of various groups have not been and are not now determined by the free workings of a market. This is, I believe, an international phenomenon but I will discuss it only in the US context.
In partial recognition of the significance of race, the national policy discussion sometimes takes a twist in the work of those who couch their concerns about skill deficits in a demographic analysis that emphasizes the “newness” of the situation we will be encountering – a much greater percentage of the workforce of the future will have dark skins and will speak a first language other than English.  This framing of the issue has set the stage for a preoccupation with and debate about multi-culturalism. It would seem that most of the powerful forces in this country have decided that it’s time to jettison a parochial approach which assumes that ‘white’ Americans are the rightful owners of this country’s past, present and future in favor of one that embraces diversity. At the same time, other, usually less powerful forces in the `white’ communities are attempting to defend their traditional privileges.
One school, representative of the perspective of the powerful, argues that the changing demographics make possible improvements in the conditions of those oppressed because of their skin color or nationality. They suggest that the coincidence of economic exigency and a changed demography makes shifts in the racial allocation of workplace assignments both necessary and possible. This kind of recommendation is not unique to the United States. In South Africa in 1977, the Riekert Commission recommended that significant changes be made in the composition of the South African workforce in order to allow that country’s corporations to fill jobs needed to keep pace with changes in the international economy.
This perspective was straightforwardly elaborated in a policy paper issued by New York City’s Department of Employment:
The coming decade presents unparalleled employment opportunities for disadvantaged persons. The opportunities arise from a declining cohort of young people to fill entry-level jobs in a variety of skilled occupations, thus opening a key part of the labor market to persons who in the past have been left behind in the competition for such jobs – low income minorities (especially young people), women, new immigrants, and certain other groups. These new opportunities are meaningless, however, if those whom they would most logically benefit lack the literacy skills to take advantage of them. 
Apart from the troubling implications of the notion that minorities are in the position they are in due to their own shortcomings, the perspective advanced by the Department of Employment neglects the increasingly large gap between entry-level jobs and the rest of the job ladder. Sue Berryman has pointed out that entry-level jobs do not usually lead to higher level jobs. The days of beginning as a bank teller and rising to become branch manager are long gone. (Berryman) What is more likely is that, in an industry such as banking, if you enter as a teller, you will leave as a teller. It’s not all attractive – even to people who are without work.
Work in Black and White
While the statistics documenting job segregation might not be known to many, the everyday consequences for the getting and keeping of jobs are known by most job-seekers. In a metropolitan labor market such as New York City, this can explain why it is that young blacks, on average, complete more years of formal education than their white or Latino working class counterparts. (Sullivan) They realize that their most significant opportunities for secure, stable employment reside in the civil service or quasi-civil service spheres and that jobs in those sectors require either specific educational credentials or the successful passing of particular tests.
It can also explain, as I hope to show, why young blacks stay out of the regular workforce and stay out of schooling. I realize that I appear to be contradicting myself. Do they stay in school or do they not stay in school? The answer is both. We are talking about ambivalent human responses to quite difficult human circumstances. What I wish to emphasize, however, is that both responses are perfectly reasonable ones. Which one a particular young person chooses will, undoubtedly, be influenced by parents, other relatives, friends and perhaps, teachers.
John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham have argued that young blacks disinvest from school because of their perception that schooling will make no difference in changing the job ceilings set for non-whites in local labor markets. (Ogbu; Fordham) This analysis has been echoed by Susan Anderson who has suggested that the dropout rate among black adolescents represents more the effectiveness of a collective boycott of the schools than individual resignation to academic failure. (Anderson) This is a remarkable development in the history of the black communities of this country for, as is well known, that community has usually made every effort to gain for its children an opportunity to become educated.
Down through the centuries, the black community has preserved deep seated beliefs in the possibility of freedom. Its traditional culture has been sustained by an extraordinary eloquence of language – a language deeply textured with scholarship and learning. Within that context, black folks have paid great attention to learning to read and write. We can recall the persistence of Frederick Douglass as he went about the business of learning to read and write by making friends with white children in Baltimore and having them help him read. Or we can recall, more recently, the extraordinary diligence of the incarcerated Malcolm X to become a reader. In both cases, we witness the achievement of the autodidact and we might be tempted to discount its significance – but we will do so only if we forget that, for more years than not, blacks were either forbidden to learn to read or were placed in schools that expected little of them. In seventh grade, the then Malcolm Little expressed a desire to become a lawyer. But he was advised by a friendly teacher:
`Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands – making things. Everybody admires your shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person – you’d get all kinds of work.’
With some notable exceptions, the experience of blacks in American schools has not been a happy one. At the same time, though, black parents persist in sending their children off to school; they urge that the schools be stricter, that they assign more homework, that they produce higher scores on tests. The developments that Ogbu and Fordham chronicle go against the grain not only of much of black folks’ history in this country but, as well, against the grain of what most black folks still say. The discrepancy cries out for explanation. Black folks, quintessential Americans that they are, most clearly illuminate the contradictory impulses shaping all our lives. (See Mickelson.)
In short, I would suggest that black workers and would-be workers make choices concerning their participation in the workforce and in schooling on a shifting basis of what such participation might yield. I do not think the basis of decision-making is a narrowly calculating one. I think it is suffused with an ethic of quasi-political non-collaboration which has its roots in the defeat of the last great upsurge of black folks in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But, to make that argument, I need to rehearse some history.
The ancestors of most of the black folks living in the country today arrived on these shores more than three centuries ago – hardly newcomers. As much as any and more than most, they are the very stuff that this nation is made of and that has made this nation what it is. W.E.B. DuBois long ago pointed out that black folks had given three gifts to this land – a gift of sweat and brawn, a gift of story and song and a gift of spirit. (DuBois) His point was elaborated on by C.L.R. James who suggested that, without its black residents, the United States could very well have become Canada or Australia rather than the dominant world power it is. (James)
As most know, the situation of black labor has usually been quite different from that of white labor – although the difference was not quite so predetermined as some might imagine. Few recognize the importance of the fact that for the first fifty years or so of Africans’ presence in what is now the United States, their condition was indistinguishable from that of European indentured servants. Individuals from both Europe and Africa were bound to service for a set period of years – at the end of which they would be set free. One illustration of this long ago moment of roughly equal circumstances for labor is that the words `black’ and `white’ were not in routine use; there were only Africans and Englishmen, along with relative handfuls from other countries. `Racial’ identities had not yet been created. (See Bennett.)
The equality of African and European labor did not last. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, a dramatic change took place. According to Ted Allen, one of the most diligent historians of the period, the owners of labor were threatened in several instances by a united rebellion of the laborers. The planters made a remarkable decision – that they would share some of the control with those of their fellow human beings who shared the accidental features of complexion and continent of origin over those whose skins were dark and who came from Africa in order to maintain their rule over both. (Allen)
The pale skinned laborers failed then, and more often than not since then, to notice that their collaboration in control guaranteed their own continued subjugation. Nonetheless, this historic change set in motion characteristic patterns which remain with us to this day – the differentiation of labor according to the standard of black and white. This differentiation was not identical to a distinction between European and non-European. The distinction had, and has, a fluidity to it that allows for the inclusion or exclusion of other groups as circumstances warrant. 
For two centuries, African slaves toiled on the plantations and fueled the economic engines of not only America but of Europe as well. They worked, however, not only in agriculture; slaves and freed blacks worked in both southern and northern cities. (See Wade.) They dominated several trades that can only be understood as skilled. But their place in those trades did not endure; they were relentlessly driven out by waves of European immigrants who used the protection afforded by their white skins and the citizenship rights accruing therein to threaten civic havoc if jobs remained open to blacks.
Slavery was abolished – in no small part due to the willingness of blacks to deprive the Confederacy of its workforce and to supply the Union Army with determined recruits. For a brief moment during Reconstruction, the world appeared turned over. Freedmen ran for office, dominated legislatures, established free schools for all and governed without white supremacy eating away at democratic institutions. But, the promise of Reconstruction lasted little more than a decade and the era of black serfdom commenced. Slave codes turned into Jim Crow laws and millions of blacks were tied to the land under circumstances usually little better than those they or their parents had experienced under slavery. Debt and terror kept black folks on the land of the South until the First World War. 
Only the advent of war, and the concomitant interruption of European emigration forced the factory owners of the North to turn southward to supply their needs for labor. Baron comments:
The black labor reserve in the countryside that had existed essentially as a potential source of the industrial proletariat now became a very active source. Whereas in the past this industrial reserve had not been tapped in any important way except by rural-based operations such as lumbering, with the advent of the War the industrial system as a whole began drawing on it. This new demand for black workers was to set in motion three key developments: first, the dispersion of black people out of the South into Northern urban centers; second, the formation of a distinct black proletariat in the urban centers at the very heart of the corporate-capitalist process of production; third, the break-up of tenancy agriculture in the South. World War II was to repeat the process in a magnified form and to place the stamp of irreversibility upon it.
Echoing the northward trek of their predecessors who had followed the underground railroad north on the eve of the Civil War, thousands of black workers went north to work in the factories. Though the toeholds they established were almost immediately subject to challenge by returning white war veterans, black workers remained in the North. The jobs they held and, to some extent, passed on to friends and relatives, became differentiated into those sectors considered to be appropriate for `Negro jobs.’
Eventually, changes in patterns of agricultural labor in the South forced yet more blacks off the land and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Civil Rights movement:
While the civil rights movement and the heroic efforts associated with it were necessary to break the official legality of segregation, it should be recognized that in a sense this particular form of racism was already obsolete, as its base in an exploitative system of production had drastically changed. The nature of the concessions made … can be understood only in terms of this fuller view of history. (Baron)
In addition, it is evident that the United States government was increasingly concerned to curb the most damaging excesses of segregation since the apartheid-like conditions in the South made the country vulnerable in the court of international opinion. (See Branch.)
Once again, black folks had risen up to demand that the nation be more than it was. The influence of the movement spread beyond the towns and cities of the segregated South; it came North and encountered virulent opposition. But, simultaneously, it came North and began to speak to white workers directly. In cities such as Detroit, black workers took the lead in opposing both the plans of employers and the collaborations of unions. (See Georgakas and Surkin.)
The black movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, like Reconstruction before it, was ultimately defeated. And it is that defeat which sets the stage for the current situation. Although the victories of the period usually receive the most attention, the extent of the defeat must be acknowledged as well. The most eloquent leaders of the black movement were murdered and its most provocative political organizations were destroyed – at least partially with government support. Coming soon after the political defeat, yet another assault was launched on the jobs of black workers. Whereas in the nineteenth century the displacement of black labor had occurred due to the aggressive actions of immigrant workers, the displacement of the late twentieth occurred through the transfer of those jobs outside the major cities to rural areas or to other countries.
Since then, by most measures, the lives of non-white folks across this country have become more difficult. Popular analyses emphasize terms such as `the underclass’ which conveniently transform social oppression into individual pathology. It is not necessary to underestimate the terrible social disintegration evident in many non-white communities in order to realize that arguments which locate the cause of the pain and misery in the characteristics or deficits of the members of those communities ignore both recent and not-so-recent history.
This talk is not intended to address those issues directly. The relationship between oppression and anti-social, if not criminal, behavior is a complicated one and it would serve little purpose to throw off a few quick lines concerning it. What I do wish to address, however, is the relationship of some in the black community to work. As demonstrated above, the labor of black folks has played an indispensable part in this nation’s history. And, for the better part of the 20th Century, black folks have been fighting for the chance to work on an equal footing with white workers.
In this last period of time, however, it became apparent that even the elimination of de jure discrimination would not eliminate the segmentation or `ghettoization’ of the labor market. Some have argued that blacks with skills have obtained the positions they are entitled to and now constitute a substantial middle class. Those left behind in the poorest neighborhoods are those who remain unprepared to take advantage of opportunities – primarily because they lack basic skills required for entry-level positions. The supposition that people who are out of work and therefore apparently can’t get jobs are in that predicament because they lack basic skills obviously obtains a good deal of confirmation when varieties of psychometrically designed standardized tests are used to screen individuals for jobs or training programs. 
However, disproportionately high non-white unemployment is rooted, not in differential human aptitude, but in socially determined arrangements, ideas, customs and traditions. Several researchers have documented the persistence of a racially stratified labor market. Walter Stafford of the Community Service Society in New York City found that 68% of all blacks work in only 20 of the city’s 212 industries – mainly hospitals, banks, insurance companies, telephone communications, and department stores. At the same time, blacks have almost no representation in 130 out of almost 200 industries in the city’s private sector. When blacks are represented in “core industries,” they typically occupy clerical positions. (Stafford) Norman Fainstein summarized the situation:
… the economic situation of blacks is rooted more in the character of the employment opportunities in growing industries than in the disappearance of ‘entry-level’ jobs in declining industries. Unlike the immigrants of yesterday, the problem for blacks is not so much inadequate educations as the channeling of the educated into relatively poor jobs and the exclusion of the uneducated from work altogether. (Fainstein)
In New York City, the construction industry to this day remains almost lily-white and almost all male. I want to emphasize that it’s not just the employers who perpetuate these practices; it’s also perpetuated by white workers and their trade unions. (See Hill.) In the middle of the 19th century, all of the jobs that we now know as construction jobs in cities like New York and Philadelphia were filled by black men. They were driven out of those jobs by Irish and German immigrant workers. They have not yet gotten back in.
What do black workers and would-be workers do upon encountering this labor market? Ogbu has suggested that many of those in school decide that school success is not worth the effort. I would suggest that, upon leaving school, many decide that it is better not to participate in the labor market – better “to withdraw from the race.” I suggest that many young black people have an intuitive sense that to participate in the existing labor market, to take the jobs that they’re slotted for – low-paying jobs which will not allow them to live as well as they believe reasonable – would be to accommodate themselves to the system, to collaborate in the system. And, whatever other problems they may have, they choose not to do so. They instead survive, more or less well, by working in off-the-books jobs, relying on public assistance and/or criminal activity. This pattern is not new – it was described in great detail by Malcolm X more than twenty years ago. But its significance has not been fully appreciated. There are no neat lines setting off one activity from the other. And there are no neat lines setting off constructive and destructive behavior.
I don’t want to overstate the significance of this pattern. I am definitely not suggesting that it represents a thought-out and intentionally decided upon position – at least not at a group level. Rather I am suggesting that it resembles the following description of patterns of criminal activity among young blacks in England:
For these are no ordinary white boys and girls, with a well-developed, ascribed consciousness of subordination already available to them. They are an excluded black group in a dominant white world. And their growing black consciousness has given them, however rudimentarily, a sort of awareness of the systematic nature of the forces driving them into certain pathways, and of the structuring principle of racism at work of which they are the victims. Few young blacks consciously choose crime as a form of political revenge against white society. But consciousness and motives do not work that way. It is more likely that, finding themselves drifting or driven into one of the few remaining strategies for survival open to them, they develop a collective definition of their situation; and, in doing so, they draw on the available reservoir of charged feelings and emotions about racism and its system. Reasons and rationales, vocabularies of action, meaning or motive, frequently, in concrete experience, follow rather than precede practical actions. This does not mean that they are simply convenient excuses, cover stories. It means that certain patterns of action can be retrospectively glossed and reinterpreted in the light of meanings which progressively emerge. … Thus it comes about that the attitudes towards and the understanding of crime amongst black youth remain profoundly ambiguous, suffused with the ethos of racism which bounds their life on all sides, yet with no clear precipitation as a conscious or organised political strategy. (Hall, et. al.)
But, what about white students and workers? What has been happening to them and what have they been doing? Most schools that white children and teenagers attend are boring, mind-numbing places. Many young white people have not been especially inclined to spend a great deal of time or effort on school work since they too know it will not really make all that much difference. The educational critic, Ira Shor, has interpreted the decline of scores on the SAT and other measures as the consequence of a prolonged sit-down strike in the schools. (Shor) Perhaps, then, a difference between young whites and young blacks is the tactic of struggle. Blacks boycott and whites sit down.
Nonetheless, white teenagers leaving school have continued to have access to better jobs than their black counterparts. That access begins while they are still in school. In a place like New York City, the great employers of teenagers are neighborhood shops, restaurants and supermarkets. Anyone familiar with the city will know that many of the city’s black neighborhoods have very few of those types of establishments and the ones that are there are not owned by blacks. As a result, the opportunities for a somewhat customary filling of jobs by neighborhood kids do not exist as often as they do in the white neighborhoods.
The preferential access continues into the job market proper. Knowledge of job openings still travels very much along family circuits and, even without intentional discrimination, young white people learn about better opportunities since their parents and other relatives work in places where those better opportunities open up. On top of that, it has been documented that at least some of the city’s employment agencies routinely steer white clients to better job interviews.
In spite of these advantages, young whites have not been all that happy lately. Since there has been little enough evidence of a popular rebellion along the lines of what happened during the 1960’s and since those espousing racial equality have, for the most part, decided that it is not possible to speak to whites about race, the most rebellious of the young whites have often wound up being attracted by the Nazis and the Klan. (Langer) According to reports from Louisiana, for example, David Duke’s support has always been strongest among young white men.
The estrangement of white students from the schools has, I believe, given rise to many of the most significant educational reform initiatives. Specifically, a report issued by the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce and published by the National Center on Education and the Economy in Rochester, New York, entitled “America’s Choice: high wages or low skills!” is inspired, in part, by the effort of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party to bring back white workers. Hilary Clinton serves on the Board of Directors of the Center and the Commission was chaired by Ira Magaziner, a prominent Clinton adviser. In any case, the report calls for a thorough revamping of American schools to produce “world class” workers who can work in “high performance workplaces” and allow the United States to compete with the best of Europe and Asia. Its argument goes like this – if American workers don’t have high skills, then they’ll only be able to get low wages. Skills, of course, will have to be measured and although the tests may change, it is all but inevitable that the results will not. If the reforms are successful, white workers will have high skills and high wages while black workers will have low skills and low or no wages.
I’d like to suggest that we should interpret people’s activity as simultaneously evidencing both rebellion against and accommodation to their circumstances. I am not suggesting that there are some who rebel and others who accommodate. Rather, most people do both in distinctive, if not idiosyncratic, combinations. They don’t do so self-consciously and their verbalizations do not necessarily reflect what they are doing. Thus, interviews and questionnaires, let alone aggregate statistics, reveal very little of the complexity of their motives or of the range of their possible next steps. However, while I draw a great deal of hope from the evidence of rebellion, I am quite aware that un-self-conscious rebelliousness often enough yields little in long-term progress and indeed its negative outcomes (for example, addiction, criminality and imprisonment) can often serve to confirm the apparent inevitability of the current state of affairs. So, I quite explicitly believe that we need to develop ways of tapping into that rebelliousness and encouraging its autonomous development into a self-conscious strategy. But, the development of such a strategy requires that we have a sophisticated understanding of exactly what it is we want to change. In this particular context, what I think we want to change are the institutional arrangements, customs and traditions reproducing racial inequality in US society.
Non-white people are engaged in a more or less continual battle against those arrangements and traditions. For example, many in the black communities are aware of the profound discrepancy between tests and job performance. And they are all too well aware of the way in which those same tests have been used to systematically thwart their prospects for promotion to positions of influence and relative power within various bureaucracies – perhaps most dramatically within the educational and criminal justice bureaucracies. Numerous legal suits have been filed and landmark cases have been won by black plaintiffs on the issues of cultural bias and irrelevance of tests.
I imagine it would be possible to interpret what I have said thus far as an argument that literacy is not all that significant and perhaps we should turn our attention away from it. Let me try to repair the damage. James Gee and Neville Alexander have argued in somewhat parallel fashion that literacy or language acquisition is potentially constitutive of new identities.
Gee has argued that literacy itself is the mastery of a secondary discourse. In that framework, discourse systems are indeed the ways in which people define themselves in terms of the many different communities they participate in and therefore are very much the stuff of the identities that people imagine they might have. (Gee) Recall, if you will, my earlier point about young people developing a `realistic’ sense of their possibilities. What I believe to be important is not to deny the insight embodied in that realism but rather to work against its fatalistic components and to nourish in young and not-so-young people the idiosyncratic and disjointed elements of their ideas and actions that work at cross purposes with a resignation to that fatalism and to suggest that those counter impulses can be crystallized to produce new discourses and new social identities.
Alexander, writing about South Africa, has argued that language use is a primary determinant of identity. He suggests that tribal and `ethnic’ identities, for example, owe a great deal to the use of different languages across the region. Since he is, at the same time, convinced that those ethnic identities serve only to perpetuate the continued existence of white rule, he argues that new identities need to be crafted at least partially on the basis of a new language policy. (Alexander–skeptical readers are encouraged to read again the history of the Soweto revolt of 1976 which began as a protest against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in `African’ schools.)
What is needed is not an approach to literacy and language learning that further fossilizes old identities but rather one which nourishes the cultivation of new ones – with new notions of possibility and responsibility. A generation ago, `girls’ became `women’ as a result of the emergence of a women’s liberation movement and `queers’ became `gays’ as the result of the emergence of a homosexual rights movement. I cite all these examples now only to provide a bit of evidence that identities are not given at birth and that changed circumstances can create new possibilities.
Changed circumstances, in part, arise from political activity by large numbers of people. Sometimes, this activity takes the form of an organized movement but it is the activity itself that is key. Furthermore, I’d like to suggest that in the United States it is the activity of non-white people that poses the most dramatic opportunities for effective social change. (See James.) That activity will, in turn, provide dramatic opportunities for all of us to discover new selves. Not to belabor the point, I believe that our most enduring problems will be most satisfactorily addressed by the emergence and growth of a resurgent mass movement – a movement that will almost certainly depend on and draw strength from black protest. No one, and certainly not I, can will that movement into being. But, we can prepare for it by establishing situations, within and without formal school settings, for individuals to expand their own political capacities.
Let me make clear that I am not talking about political propaganda or indoctrination. Indeed, I specifically reject that kind of approach although I realize that it has its adherents. Instead, I think we would be better served by creating opportunities for people to imagine themselves acting in different ways than they might be accustomed to. Literacy acquisition and use are well suited for that purpose. Part of the use of literacy in this context can allow for a re-discovery of forgotten chapters of history.
At the same time, I realize that this approach has its risks. For example, there are ways in which many young people might imagine themselves acting that will dismay and frighten their elders. I see no way around that issue. There are choices to be made – either we continue with things as they are and bear the consequences or we attempt to create a different future – a course that will undoubtedly be more dangerous for those who step forward.
To return to an earlier theme, I believe that many people are not especially open to acquiring very much of anything that school type situations have to offer. In other words, there’s a down side to the kind of embryonic resistance that I was praising. As I have said, resistance and accommodation co-exist in the minds and hearts of many people and cynical resignation is often the resolution. I believe that the ambivalence has to be addressed directly.
But, there’s a problem. The schools that people attend in this country are not often controlled by people who wish things to be different, let alone by people who are interested in nurturing a new movement. The agenda of those schools is set by some very powerful interests in this society although it is very much a contested agenda. While those interests are currently preoccupied with changing the functioning of the educational system to achieve short-term goals more to its liking (such as improved basic skills and better attitudes towards work), they are not especially concerned with expanding political capacities. Indeed, were the goal brought to their attention, they would in all likelihood oppose it as both unreasonable and undesirable. Thus, we have to be alert to the possibilities that open up within educational systems to see if there are ways in which we can use situations for purposes that are somewhat different than those intended by their architects.
If spaces are there, we should be prepared to fill them with the kind of literacy practice evident in the Citizenship Schools of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the leadership of Septima Clark. You probably recall that those schools were established to enable people to pass the literacy tests required for voter registration in various southern states. It was the high purpose that they were established for which established a context for meaningful learning. We are long overdue for a new articulation of high purposes.
Enhanced literacy practices might make an important contribution to a popular critical examination of these issues. And they might make an important contribution to the rebirth of an insurgent popular movement. But, they might not. In the same essay cited above, Piven and Cloward caution us against a too facile assumption that literacy will yield political wisdom for ordinary folks:
… mass literacy inhibits the capacity of people to develop relatively autonomous interpretations of their particular social reality, for ordinary people do not produce their truths in literate form. (Piven & Cloward)
For the most part, mass literacy has been accomplished through participation in schools or school-like structures. Those who work in literacy have oftentimes imagined that they are not like schools. Perhaps they have been wrong. If we wish to make a contribution towards the development of literacy practices that are both popular and rebellious, we will have to become more accustomed to challenging the priorities and prerogatives of policy makers and more inclined to examine critically our own practice.
Many of those who are recommending the linking together of education and work preparation are determined to alter the attitudes and values of prospective and actual workers and to make them correspond to the demands of the workplace as they would have that workplace function. Those who work in literacy should be very cautious about their involvement in such efforts.
It is not likely that the contributions of literacy programs will be decisive. Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine that literacy programs might provide space for those interested to examine their circumstances in the context of enhancing their literacy capacities. But, we must go beyond refined instructional technique and must recognize (and be prepared to criticize) the larger circumstances which shape the lives of our students and our own.
Alexander, Neville. “An approach to the national question in South Africa,” Azania Worker. Volume 2, No. 2. December, 1985.
Allen, Ted. “They Would Have Destroyed Me,” Radical America.
America’s Choice: high skills or low wages. National Center on Education and the Economy. Rochester, 1990.
Anderson, Susan. “Eyes on the Prize, Not the People,” The Nation. October 16, 1989.
Baron, Harold. “The Demand for Black Labor,” Radical America. Vol. 5, No. 2 (March-April 1971).
Bennett, Lerone. Before the Mayflower. Chicago, 1969.
Berryman, Sue. Future Plans and Research in Human Resource Development. Presentation at the 43rd National Conference and Exposition of the American Society for Training and Development. June 22, 1987.
Berryman, Sue. “Shadows in the Wings: The Next Educational Reform,” National Center on Education and Employment. Teachers College. February 12, 1987.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters. New York, 1988.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, 1969.
Fainstein, Norman. “The Underclass/Skills Mismatch Hypothesis as an Explanation for Black Economic Deprivation,” Politics and Society, 15:4 (1986-87).
Fordham, Signithia. “Racelessness as a Factor in Black Students: Pragmatic Strategy or Pyrrhic Victory?” Harvard Educational Review. Volume 58, No. 1. February, 1988: 54-84.
Gee, James P. “What is Literacy?” Teaching and Learning: The Journal of Natural Inquiry, 2 (1987): 3-11.
Georgakas, Dan and Surkin, Marvin. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying.
Haley, Alex & Malcolm X. Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, 1966.
Hall, Stuart, et. al. Policing the Crisis. Birmingham,
Hill, Herbert. “The Racial Practices of Organized Labor: The Contemporary Record,” In Jacobson, The Negro and the American Labor Movement. Garden City, 1968.
Holt, Thomas. “Knowledge is Power: The Black Struggle for Literacy,” In Lunsford, Moglen, Slevin. The Right to Literacy. New York, 1990.
Lightfoot, Sara Lawrence. “Portraits of Exemplary Secondary Schools: George Washington Carver Comprehensive High School,” Daedalus, Fall 1981: 17-37.
Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin. “The Attitude-Achievement Paradox Among Black Adolescents,” Sociology of Education. Vol. 63 (January-February, 1990).
New York City Department of Employment, “Creating Opportunities for the Most Disadvantaged,” A Policy Paper on the Allocation of 1989-1991. November, 1988.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. New York, 1968.
Ogbu, John. “Literacy and Schooling in Subordinate Cultures: Case of Black Americans,” In Kintgen, et. al. Perspectives on Literacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press: 1988.
Piven, Frances Fox & Cloward, Richard. “Social Policy and the Formation of Political Consciousness,” Political Power and Social Theory. Volume 1, 117-152.
Stafford, Walter. “Closed Labor Markets: Underrepresentation of Blacks, Hispanics and Women in New York City’s Core Industries and Jobs,” Community Service Society, 1985.
Sullivan, Mercer. Getting Paid. Ithaca: 1989.
Wade, Richard. Slavery in the Cities. New York, 1964.
 This notion echoes the work of the English historian, Edward Thompson, who argued that class is not a thing, that instead it was a complex set of social relationships, sustained and sometimes transformed by social practices, situated in circumstances that were the residue of social practices from the past. These realities are stubborn enough; they don’t usually change all that easily, for good and bad results. And the interplay of practices, relationships and circumstances is a complicated one. To understand or change them requires extensive knowledge across many disciplines. As C.L.R. James once said of cricket, those who only know literacy do not really know literacy.
 At the same time, since work allows us to cultivate important relationships and to become versatile at many tasks, it has a fundamentally paradoxical character.
 I find this twist, however, to be troubling. The whole conception of something new happening assumes a biological/cultural identity among `white’ Americans which sets them off from the `newcomers.’
 Sara Lawrence Lightfoot has commented on this argument:
There is the realistic perception that blacks, especially poor blacks, have for generations been disfranchised, powerless, and excluded from society’s resources and bounty. The experience of exclusion and oppression has led some to fight for their meager share of the American pie, but has led many more to withdraw from the race, to assume that it is rigged and refuse to run. The new ideology … conveys a double message and conflicting imagery. It says that blacks have been treated unfairly, but that the system is basically fair. To overcome the profound injustices, … students need to learn how to successfully negotiate the system, must refuse to become discouraged by the barriers they will face, and must become exemplary models of discipline and civility.
 For example, towards the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century, large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived in the United States. In the eyes of some native born white Americans, those newcomers were not ‘white men.’ (See Higham.)
 “In the north itself during this period there was minimal work for blacks, even though the Northern economy was labor-starved to the extent that it promoted and absorbed a European immigration of over 15,000,000 persons. Blacks were not only shut off from the new jobs, but lost many of the jobs they had traditionally held.” (Baron)
 As many are aware, those tests continue to be the focus of many serious critiques and the obviousness with which it is assumed that they test anything that’s worth testing is no longer taken for granted. Part of the basic skills argument is couched in a rhetoric which proclaims that the job market is changing as the result of a new high-tech information services era. Individuals will need more and more skills to get the jobs that are being developed. However, statistics on job growth, measured by percentages, can be very deceptive because, if you only look at the percentage figures, you could wind up thinking that job openings in a particular area (for example, para-legal work) are much larger than another area such as building maintenance. But if you look at the actual numbers, the number of new para-legal jobs in a given period of time is much less than the number of new janitor jobs or than the new fast food jobs. The percentages might be higher, but the absolute number is smaller. If we add, to the new jobs, replacement jobs for people leaving town, people retiring, people dying, (where the jobs that are created by those vacancies are typically ones that are in things like building maintenance and food service and hospital work, that are not part of the new, high-tech, information age), we can develop a much more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of labor market activity.
 Things seldom stand still; now, ‘queer’ has been adopted as a proud label by some gay activists.
Leave a Reply