In a Classroom of Their Own Book Review

This is a book review I had to write for my sociology of gender class

I read “In a Classroom of Their Own: The Intersection of Race and Feminist Politics in All-Black Male Schools” by Keisha Lindsay where she talks about the theoretical basis from which proponents of all-Black male schools argue their case to establish such schools. The book also details the critiques that some may raise against these institutions and the contexts from which both the praise and critique arose. The author is a professor in the departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has done work in both feminist theory as well as intersectionality. She also holds a Ph.D. from UChicago in Political Science.

The book uses language that’s not exactly the most accessible to regular people so her intended audience is probably people who are clued in to both the sociological world and are aware of ABMSs and the movement around them. To be honest, I fall into this group as I was initially interested in this book because I have done research into Washington DC’s Ron Brown High School and their approach to restorative justice and was interested to learn more.

Her book draws mostly on records and writings of other scholars and community activists as well as drawing on feminist and intersectional thought. She explains in detail the arguments from both the proponents and critics of ABMSs and takes care to give a fair view of both. I appreciate her thorough analysis and objective viewpoint since this is an issue that is hard to research without considerable effort and touches on a number of sensitive topics.

She covers how ABMSs arose out of the concept of the “endangered black male” and how its proponents co-opted much of the language and thought pioneered by black women scholars (for example, Audre Lorde in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex”) on intersectionality to explain how black men experience masculinized racism and therefore, need a dedicated space to protect black boys from the damaging effects of white, “overly feminized” classrooms in America. Her attention to the critiques made by feminists explains how some of these ideas may be misplaced and that experiential claims may not provide a complete view of the issue and may harm black girls and pigeonhole both black boys, and the white and female teachers that dominate American primary education.

Her extensive coverage of the historical context behind these ideas was really helpful in helping readers form opinions without jumping to conclusions. Her intersectional analysis of not only how racism shaped the views of ABMS proponents but also how patriarchal ideas color their activism gave a lot of much-appreciated nuance. She ends the book by illustrating how both proponents and critics can work together to improve education for black boys and girls.

One of the biggest ideas she focused on in her book challenges the assumption that any actions towards social equality is automatically good. Dr. Lindsay details how certain policies may simultaneously be liberatory towards one group and oppressive towards another. In the case of ABMSs, the premise of these schools is that black boys are targeted for their male blackness that gave them a unique potential to usurp the white patriarchal power of the existing social structure and therefore especially oppressed and endangered and that the typical classroom not only attacks their blackness but also their masculinity. By establishing single-sex black schools, these two intersections of oppression would be addressed and alleviated. However, as Dr. Lindsay points out, this is based on the mistaken premise that black girls do not need special attention as well and that white, female teachers are not capable of learning how to challenge masculinized racial bias in education. She also points out the essentialist view that proponents of ABMSs assume that boys inherently learn different than girls which, we know, is false.

We have covered how racialized misogyny affects black women’s life chances and experiences in Settles et al.’s study on black and white women’s perceptions of womanhood and how race colors the gendered experiences of women with the overarching idea that white women represent the “ideal” who embodies purity, modesty and manners while black women are often hypersexualized and perceived as possessing subhuman traits. The fact that it’s black men hypersexualizing black girls is an especially disturbing taboo manifestation of the lack of solidarity within the community.

 It also posits a narrow kind of masculinity that black boys should have which, upon closer inspection, is rooted in patriarchal ideas that black men should be the leaders and face of their race and that black girls pose a sexual distraction to boys’ learning. Her observation of this narrow essentializing of what is considered masculine echoes the findings of Smiler et al’s study of Gender Essentialism where they found the same trend of pronounced gender essentialism in male college students. It relates to our class discussion of how the perceived threat to one’s masculinity often provokes a more intense performance of masculinity which in this case is the symbolic castration of black men in denying them political and economic power which provokes the misdirected fear of and rebellion against “overly feminized classrooms”. Lastly, this also relates to our reading of the “gay” hot potato that’s passed around where the male identity is always being tested and one needs to constantly jostle for their place in the hierarchy and we can see this status volatility in the presumption that black males are in the unique position to challenge white male supremacy that black women don’t have.

The most interesting point to me that she points out is near the beginning where she notes that ABMSs are a very popular idea across the political spectrum where there’s little that people usually agree on. She points out that the idea of privatized social goods is a neoliberal tactic that not only provides a social good (supposedly) without cost to the public (which makes it easier to sell if you’re conservative) but also provides good optics to its supporters (which makes it easier to sell as a progressive), which makes it uncontroversial and attracts supporters across the political spectrum. This uncritical view of ABMSs has seen the establishment of a fair number of ABMSs and the many feminist scholars who criticize its reductionist dismissal of black girls have been sidelined or strawman-ed as being a misandrist or neglecting black boys. However, Dr. Lindsay also cautions against some feminist activists’ demands to close ABMSs and argues that while they may be formed partially on oppressive politics, it is still a worthwhile effort to specifically address how the intersection of race and gender oppresses black boys.

At the very end, she briefly mentions the disclaimer that her covering of this issue is not entirely complete and points out that those who have the loudest voices in this debate are those with access to intellectual training and resources to physically go to and participate in roundtables, interviews, to write books or pen articles, etc. She specifically mentions educational attainment and cultural capital (e.g., “middle class demeanor and decorum”) as forms of privilege that many of proponents and critics possess that gatekeeps others from being able to participate.

While it was a little difficult for me to follow along sometimes due to how it’s written, she covers a fair range of viewpoints about ABMSs and doesn’t center her personal judgements on viewpoints that she may not agree on which lends to her a good deal of credibility. I have no major critiques of the points she raises in this book and I think this is a very good starting point for anyone interested in learning more about these bold, forward-facing institutions.

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