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Catherine Prendergast. Literacy and Racial Justice: the Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education.

Catherine Prendergast. Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2003. 205 pp. $25.00.

For the almost 30 years that I've been educator--first as a public school junior high language arts teacher in what in the 1970's was called "the third track;" then as an instructor with a fresh M. A. attempting to manage the job of "Director of Developmental Studies," as it was termed in the 1980's, at a community college on an Indian Reservation; and most recently as a teacher of writing and literacy theory and researcher of literacy practices--the American educational system has been in a state of seeming perpetual crisis. Controversies abound and multiply: over the proper content for English courses and the role of student discourse, over standardized testing and teacher accountability, over community ownership of school policies and proposed "national curricula," over vouchers and charter schools, over cultural "values" and students' rights to their own language, over school "failure," particularly in America's cities, and corporate management models for education. Catherine Prendergast's Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education situates these ongoing controversies into a larger political and historical context. Specifically, she reads the fraught educational landscape of the second half of the twentieth century as arising directly from the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and claims that literacy became the fulcrum for questions of racial justice precisely because educational practices and institutions have for so long been the "site of racial injustice in America" (2).

The five essays that make up Prendergast's volume plot the "intersections" between racial politics and educational practice and, in so doing, shed a great deal of light on the nature and intent of current educational initiatives and controversies. A short but pointed Foreword, by Gloria Ladson-Billings, provides a personal and vivid recounting of how legal discourse and educational practice have been "recruited to maintain a system of racial inequity and discrimination that is antithetical to the democratic principles that the nation alleges" (xi).

In the introduction and in Chapter 1, "The Economy of Literacy," Prendergast examines the Brown ruling, a ruling that was ostensibly intended to end racism's power over educational policy and practice, but ultimately did not. Prendergast uses contemporary literacy theory and critical race theorists' reading of the Brown ruling to argue that the justices' explicit and implicit arguments reify a view of education as essentially White property. That is, the arguments and remedies of Brown constructed equal opportunity as the right of racial minorities to be educated among Whites: the quality of schooling that Black children receive is directly dependent not only on a White presence in schools but on Whites' implicit willingness to share their privilege and property with Black children. Seen in this way, Brown's effect was not an end to racism in our nation's schools, but rather a slight shift--in grounds and in language--in how that racism continued to be manifested. According to Prendergast, Justice Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP understood that this litigation strategy was a kind of end around segregation, a trickster-like attempt to turn racism upon itself.

Prendergast's readings of the 1976 Washington v. Davis and the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke cases suggest that, despite some gains for people of color, the NAACP's "end around" strategy was ultimately not successful. Chapter Two, "Bakke's Legacy: The New Rhetoric of Racial Justice," traces the African American legal community's response to two decades of Supreme Court rulings on race and education. At a conference convened just a few months after the Court's Bakke ruling, the scholars and litigants who had for years crafted legal strategies and arguments designed to end racism's hold on American education came to the conclusion that racism had continued unabated despite Brown; the Bakke ruling simply made this painful truth impossible to ignore any longer. (That the conference was held at Harvard is ironic, given the disastrous role that Harvard, as the nation's most privileged "literacy institution," played in the Bakke decision.) Prendergast examines the rise of critical race theory as a direct response to a failed civil rights strategy in America's courts and schools. Looking in some detail at the careers and writings of Patricia Williams and Derrick Bell, Prendergast notes how the discourse strategies and political positions of the African American legal community became both less restrained and more directly personal.

The book's remaining chapters--"Desegregation Comes to the Piedmont: Locating Ways with Word," "Give me your Literate," and "Literacy and Racial Justice in Practice: High School X"--may be of most use and interest to a slightly narrower audience of writing teachers, language theorists, and educational researchers. Chapter Three examines the seeming absence of race issues and racial identity in Shirley Brice Heath's Ways with Words. Prendergast was able, with the cooperation of Heath, to examine some of the personal documents, letters, and drafts that Heath produced during her research in the Carolina Piedmont and during the writing of Ways with Words. Prendergast's reading of these documents shows how race was deeply implicated in Heath's project and helps to explain its odd absence in the final published text.

The final essay in the volume, "Literacy and Racial Justice in Practice," is based on Prendergast's experiences as a tutor and aide, and later as a researcher, at "High School X" (a pseudonym for a Midwestern alternative high school). Here, Prendergast presents a realistic view of the stresses, tensions, and occasional triumphs of a partially-integrated school whose mission is an explicit recognition and celebration of difference. Although the lack of financial support for the school in the local African American community is an ongoing frustration for school administrators, Prendergast maintains that her study of HSX can provide some particularized insights for teachers and researchers and some "lessons" for a realistic approach to the ongoing racism of the American education system. The book's conclusion addresses the thorny issues of ubiquitous educational testing, the role of the scholar in political change, and the reparations movement.

Although the book is not without its faults--for instance, Prendergast's analysis of the court cases would have been more compelling had she examined the rulings and opinions of the justices, rather than relying on secondary sources, and the way that the term "literacy" slips around, unmoored by any attempt at definition, can be confusing--Literacy and Racial Justice tells an important story. Readers will discover in this story new insights into their own experiences--as students, teachers, and scholars--even as they struggle, with Prendergast, to understand both the too-often disheartening realities of today's schools and the society whose history and values those schools enact.

Christina Haas

Kent State University
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Author:Haas, Christina
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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