Booker T., W.E.B., and the School Choice Movement

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house.”

from “Booker T. and W.E.B.” by Dudley Randall

In October of 2016, the NAACP called for a “moratorium on charter school expansion and for the strengthening of oversight in governance and practice.” This resolution of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization listed four conditions under which the NAACP would support further charter expansion:

(1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools

(2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system

(3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and

(4) Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

This position was met with more than a little resistance from those within the School Choice Movement. In particular, Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform said, “W.E.B. Du Bois is rolling in his grave. The NAACP, a proud organization with a historic legacy of expanding opportunity for communities of color, now itself stands in the schoolhouse door, seeking to deny life-changing educational opportunities to millions of children whose parents and families desperately seek alternatives to schools that have failed them for too long.” Du Bois cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.


Is Jeffries right? Would Du Bois, critic of capitalism, avowed socialist, and early champion for equal rights for black Americans, agree with Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos that school choice is the “civil rights issue of our time?” Or, are the principles of school choice better suited for Du Bois’ supposed ideological enemy, Booker T. Washington? It is quite possible that the conflict between the two seminal figures in black history has historically been overstated, however, the apparent ideological differences between “Booker T. and W.E.B.” are relevant to our modern debate over school choice policies.

One of the main divides between the two schools of thought lies in the answer to the question, “Who is responsible for the plight of the African American?” Washington argued that African Americans are solely responsible for their own social uplift. This came to be known as the “bootstrap” mentality; the belief that what black Americans really need is the courage and hard work necessary to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Du Bois ardently opposed this idea. He did not accept Washington’s assertion that African Americans should accept social inferiority to whites. Du Bois believed, as did virtually every civil rights leader to follow, that real change comes at the policy level and includes resistance to and negotiation and integration with white America.

Would Du Bois, critic of capitalism, avowed socialist, and early champion for equal rights for black Americans, agree with Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos that school choice is the “civil rights issue of our time?”

School choice is the twenty-first century version of Washington’s “bootstraps” mentality. Education reformers calling for vouchers and educational savings accounts call it “choice,” when the real message is, “Here is your money, now go away and deal with your own problems. We are no longer responsible for you.” Like Washington, school choice emphasizes the ability of the individual to improve their situation on their own, effectively blaming the victim for any subsequent failure. Like Washington, school choice de-emphasizes the systemic injustices and larger policy issues that continue to oppress black America, effectively clearing white America of any responsibility. Conversely, Du Bois attempted “to pull back the veil” that kept real black agency hidden from white America. Du Bois’ beliefs on education and integration are complex and perhaps shifted over time, but unlike Washington, Du Bois believed that true equality of the races involved much more than self-reliance and the illusion of “choice.”

Booker T. Washington’s beliefs on race relations as espoused in a speech he delivered in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition can rightly be characterized as “accommodationist.” Washington’s view is now widely understood as a setback for the African American struggle for justice and as permission for white America to carry on with (Jim Crow) business as usual. White southerners welcomed Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” because, in truth, it cost white America little to nothing. Du Bois, on the other hand, spoke out against the systemic racist policies and practices that followed the ending of Reconstruction in the South. He taught that African Americans were equal to white Americans and ought to be treated as such. Du Bois did not join the white program as did Washington, but rather, invited white allies to join black America in its struggle for true civil rights.


On the brochures, though not on paper, the School Choice Movement looks very diverse. Education reformers are adept at hand selecting people of color from within the movement to be in the spotlight as presenters and keynote speakers. But it is not difficult at all to look below the surface and find a sea of white men in well pressed suits. This was certainly the case at last year’s and this year’s “Oklahoma School Choice Summit” sponsored by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). The apparent racial divide between speaker and audience was so pronounced at this year’s summit that the keynote speaker, Roland S. Martin, remarked that the School Choice Movement is “too white.” Not unlike Booker T. Washington one hundred years ago, well-meaning black educators of today are being used by conservative organizations in a ruse that ultimately is only about protecting the interests of upper and middle class white America.

W.E.B. Du Bois would applaud the efforts of the NAACP and the similar call from The Movement for Black Lives to end public school privatization. There is no shortage of progressives like Barack Obama and Cory Booker who embrace the proliferation of charter schools, but true radicals see through the haze. The institutional racism still embedded within the public school system will not be eradicated through further segregation of students in “no excuses” charter schools. Black students’ lives will not matter more by shifting their education away from the racist public school policies to the even more racist private school policies. The system has problems. But true public schools have been and will continue to be the best way to provide an equitable education to all of our nation’s students. We must listen to the prophetic voices of educators of color from within public education on the best way to move forward that would be true to the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois.

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.,
“For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail.
Unless you help to make the laws,
They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope’s as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you’ve got.
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I’ll be a man.”

from “Booker T. and W.E.B.” by Dudley Randall

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s