Can the Klan Save Public Education?

One normally thinks of the Ku Klux Klan as a sort of far-right social mobilization. Nevertheless, I’m reading a book called No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland which reminds us that things are never so simple. Aside from its anti-black agenda, the Klan of the 1920s, especially in the North where the African-American population was small, was big into the evils of Catholic immigrants. As a result, the Oakland Klan busied itself campaigning for things like “the separation of Church and State” and good “free, universal public schools” in an effort to assimilate immigrants and limit the Church’s political power. They were also, in the Oakland of the day, associated with campaigns against the corrupt “ethnic” political machine of West Oakland and did things like campaign for the awarding of contracts on a competitive or, even better, for the direct delivery of services. Relatedly, I suppose, Woodrow Wilson was a progressive in many ways (and continues to be thought of as such) but was also responsible for implementing a lot of new segregation policies on the heels of Teddy Roosevelt’s relatively enlightened administration.

None of this is to rehabilitate the Klan in our historical memory or to suggest that liberals pick up racist nativism as part of our political strategy. It is to say, however, that in an era of rising movements for school vouchers, home schooling, the privatization of this and that, and a general effort to dismantle the public sector, it’s worth thinking about the ways “left-wing” opposition to these measures can be given a nationalist gloss. Part of what happens if we privatize the education sector is that we dismantle the main vehicle by which people are socialized into American culture and society. Some conservative voucher-lovers would welcome this development, as it allows them to isolate their kids from American pluralism and have them raised purely within the context of (white, Protestant) Christian culture. Bringing first- and second-generation immigrants into play, however, changes this dynamic. Does the right really want a country in which immigrant parents live in immigrant neighborhoods and send their to ethno-religiously segregated private schools at public expense? Some elements probably do, but others could be attracted by the notion that only real public schools can help build the civic identity whose continued existence is vital for the continued viability of the American project.

The trouble here is that this line of argumentation (still represented by the “Blaine amendments” to many state constitutions) is currently in a bad heir due to its descent from white supremacist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reconstructing it apart from that context is a difficult endeavor. Probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a serious effort to make this happen is Steven Macedo’s Diversity and Distrust: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy, which rests at a such a high level of abstraction that it’s political and policy relevance may be somewhat doubted. Still as this review in Education Next, probably the leading journal of rightwing education thought, suggests, this is a line of argument that, though coming “from the left” in Macedo’s case, gets a sympathetic hearing on the right.