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Class in a “Classless” Society

Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education
by Peter Sacks, $24.95, University of California Press; (May 2007) ISBN-10: 0520245881, ISBN-13: 978-0520245884,
388 pp.

Public education is not the level playing field that Americans like to imagine it is, Peter Sacks tells us. Not only is the system failing young people from ethnic, racial and linguistic minority groups, but it is also failing all children who are not from privileged backgrounds. By extension then, it is failing even the well-advantaged, the society at large and the democratic ideal specifically.

Sacks is an author and journalist whose last book was, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It.

With a storyteller’s eye, the author tackles “the taboo subject of social class in American society and in our educational system in particular.” He lays out his case for how and where it fails, through the voice of students like Ashlea, an aspiring White high school junior who grew up in a trailer park with parents of limited means and education.

With extensive reporting, relevant data and sharp insights, Sacks demonstrates how the Ashleas of the world, as well as her schoolmates of various disadvantaged groups, enter the race for education several laps behind and usually remain there That is because, as he argues, their parents cannot provide the “cultural capital” — connections, power, sophistication, in-group knowledge, enriched experiences — the elite enjoy as a matter of course. Students like Ashlea, for instance, often have parents who do not even know the right questions to ask to make sure their children get the proper curriculums and tests to qualify for college.

This leaves the non-elites vulnerable to a system already stacked against them, he finds. His reporting and the statistical charts included indicate that the chances of getting an equal education in school, enrolling in any college and earning any of kind of degree remain elusive for those who are not part of the elite when they enter the schoolhouse door. Education is “a self-reinforcing system that reproduces social class advantage” and widens gaps rather than narrows them, he says.

If this continues, he concludes, it is not only the Ashleas who lose, but also the nation as a whole — through damage to our collective ideal of what America is as well as to our very real economic health. This is vital reading for educators and policy makers.

Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class (George Gund Foundation Imprint in African-American Studies) by Karyn R. Lacy, $21.95, University of California Press, (July 2007), ISBN-10: 0520251164, ISBN-13: 978-0520251168, 280 pp.

An assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, Dr. Karyn R. Lacy, studied Blacks in three middle-class suburbs of Washington, D.C., to see how they choose or switch social identities depending on situations. She describes the ways in which they navigate through the intersections and blockades of race, class and geography.

Lacy conducted in-depth interviews with 30 couples (all given fictional names) and mingled extensively in their communities: one that was predominantly White middle-class, one that was predominantly Black middle-class and one that was majority-Black and upper-middle-class. She includes an appendix on her methods.

Research on poor Blacks, working-class Blacks and lower-middle-class Blacks may be extensive, but work on understanding more affluent African-Americans is scant. As such, this is useful background and a springboard for more research across a number of disciplines.

Ethical Leadership in the Community College: Bridging Theory and Daily Practice by George R. Boggs (Foreword), David M. Hellmich (Editor), $40, Jossey-Bass/Anker Series (May 2007), ISBN-10: 1933371226 ISBN-13: 978-1933371221, 208 pp.

This book of essays on the ethical challenges and aspirations of community college leaders today would be an informative reference for administrators, perhaps as a good starting point for a retreat or training of new trustees and staff. Background on the contributors, reference notes for each essay, conclusions and an index add to its usefulness.

— Angela P. Dodson is the former executive editor of Black Issues Book Review and a former community college instructor.

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