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‘Progressive Dystopia’ and The Significance of Race in Racial Achievement Gaps

By Derik Suria

Photo by Kehn Hermano from Pexels

What does ‘Progressive Dystopia’ mean and how is it relevant?

Progressive Dystopia is a term coined by Savannah Shange, a professor of anthropology focusing on ethnic and critical race theory. In her ethnographic study centered on Robeson Justice Academy in San Francisco, Shange explores the works of a high school dedicated to incorporating restorative justice in their school and bridging racial-ethnic academic achievement to ultimately avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. However, despite not only being founded by educational activists and multi-ethnic parents while being tailored explicitly toward low-income, marginalized students, the school still perpetuates ideas of Black punition while reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline.

To best describe her findings, Progressive Dystopia describes common (and often liberal) narratives of social justice and society’s desire to eliminate racial bias in stark contrast with the realities of increasing rates of exclusionary discipline, suspension, and expulsion of Black students. This metaphor of a dystopia is in and of itself a representation of the state of progressive liberalism. Through the dichotomy of San Francisco’s perception as a liberal haven and the dystopian realities of displacement and anti-black behavior, Shange highlights the disjuncture between commitments to narrowing the racial achievement gap and the harsh reality.

How racial prejudice presents itself in discussions of achievement gaps

A crucial part of forging this Progressive Dystopia is how race is implicated when discussing racial achievement gaps. Widely held views in the 19th and 20th centuries were that Black, Native American, and Hispanic people were inherently less intelligent than white people; this view is consistent with slavery, manifest destiny, and Jim Crow segregation. These ingrained, racist notions of fundamental differences in intelligence continue to present themselves in discussions of the racial achievement gap. Rationalizing achievement gaps through cultural prejudice that attributes differences in upbringing and culture as a key factor in the achievement gap detracts from a crucial factor—the quality of schooling. Popular sociological theories (like the ones listed below) reinforce outdated, racist ideas.

  • John McWhorter's culture of anti-intellectualism ascribes discrepancies in academic achievement to the combined effects of an inherited inferiority complex and a general acceptance of weakness and failure

  • Shelby Steeler’s idea of victimology is where Black people irrationally blame white people for their struggles (in this context lesser academic achievement and socioeconomic success)

  • Orlando Patterson and Juan Williams’ theory of the culture of “gangsta rap” suggests Black people overvalue flashy jewelry and violence while fostering an opposition toward hard work (specifically in an academic context)

The consequences of implicating race in discussions of racial achievement gaps

Cultural and sociological theories like these are particularly damaging as they normalize failure and complacency in trends of racial-ethnic academic achievement. A study by Pedro A Noguera examining two suburban high school districts found that white students were disproportionately represented in advanced or AP classes. Due to this lack of representation, students of color were indirectly discouraged from joining advanced classes. Although local policymakers made commitments to close the achievement gap (partially due to the No Child Left Behind Act), this case study reminds us of the difficulty of implementing genuine and impactful policies to close the achievement gap. These issues are exacerbated by the continued reinforcement of the idea of inherent cultural and behavioral factors cause the achievement gap—which leads to a false sense of complacency among students, parents, and most importantly, schooling institutions. As a result, the lagging performance of students of color may be internalized by educators as an exogenous factor. This normalization of failure makes it even more difficult to bridge the achievement gap.

Noguera concludes that while policies and commitments are the first steps toward genuine progress, parents, educators, and students have to take initiative as well. Specifically, student motivation is a primary driver of academic achievement. Research has proven that without an internal motivation and desire to learn, schools fail to narrow achievement gaps. At Effective to Great Education, we aim to nurture student motivation and self-regulation that make up the cornerstones of our social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum. More broadly, it is our vision to provide equitable SEL learning opportunities, particularly to underfunded and marginalized communities to bridge the achievement gap.


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