Why America Needs Justice-Oriented Civic Education Now More Than Ever
The United Negro Improvement Association. The Congress of Racial Equity. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The National Association of Colored Women. The National Association For the Advancement of Colored People. The Black Panther Party.
The list of civic organizations that helped shape the course of racial justice in the 20th century seems almost endless.
But as a Trump administration looms overhead, all but ensuring a wave of uncertainty, few Americans possess the civic knowledge needed to fully comprehend the source of harmful policies, and where exactly to direct resistance efforts.
Civic knowledge, or at least the type I advocate for, goes beyond knowing that there are three branches of government, or that Supreme Court appointments are for life. It is the fundamental understanding of the role we as citizens play within a democracy in a way that brings the idea of government ‘for the people and by the people’ to life.
While civic education in the classroom wanes in favor of college-readiness assessments, the truth remains that communities of color could never truly depend on public schools (often segregated) to deliver the sometimes radical yet always justice-oriented civic education needed to mobilize younger generations for equality.
The vast majority of civic organizations (aside from those founded and sustained by college students) held meetings and other programming at community centers, libraries and churches. But as rights groups became fragmented, resources diminished and more and more young people become ‘unchurched,’ opportunities for knowledge sharing and strategic planning have become drastically limited.
However, a sheer lack of interest may be one of the biggest factors behind low civic knowledge. Dozens of NAACP chapters across the country are either at risk of shutting down or already have due to insufficient membership.
Phrased differently, the organization that was at the forefront of the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and bailed out activists during demonstrations of civil disobedience is struggling to sustain its mission because people do not see it necessary to support it.
That is heartbreaking.
And yet, even as marginalized communities prepare to confront the reality of life under a president who was endorsed by the KKK, and a prospective attorney general who believes that the same civic organizations that led the fight for racial equity were somehow “un-American,” our commitment to the aim of these organizations, whether previously established or quite young, like the Black Lives Matter movement, must be accompanied by a reinvigorated commitment to civic education.
The reluctant truth is that, no matter how destructive a Trump presidency turns out to be, the groundwork was laid by politicians of all stripes, including those who come from our own communities. Understanding their role in the creation of policies and decisions that are antagonistic to people of color is the first step in holding them accountable and demanding better.
Take, for example, local prosecutors who use the power of their office to obstruct justice for black lives, as was the case with Keith Lamont Scott. Rather than responding to Trump’s dog-whistle rhetoric of bringing back “law and order” as if it were novel, our task moving forward is to respond to this claim and the policies that will spring forth from it while simultaneously responding to the officials and politicians whose policies achieve the same end goal, just without the rhetoric.
And though elections should operate as a tool of harm reduction, especially within a two-party system, our communities can benefit directly from deeper knowledge of the workings of electoral politics. Contrary to how it is portrayed by mainstream media, presidential elections are not the end-all be-all of politics. From school funding, to traffic tickets, to sanctuary status, to who gets prosecuted and in what way, the policies that directly impact the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities are set by local officials—not presidents.
Even as it relates to national legislation, executive orders issued by the president can only affect so much; it is the laws written and passed by Congress that remain in place decades, or sometimes generations later. Given this tidbit of information, there should be no reason as to why local and midterm elections generate far less turnout than presidential elections.
As organizations such as Black Lives Matter, BYP100 and Assata’s Daughters carry the torch and continue organizing communities to action in places like Oakland, Chicago, New York and Washington D.C., justice-oriented civic education should be everywhere. If the organizations of the past refuse to adapt to the problems of today, we must form new ones.
Likewise, if we can’t get to the academy, then the academy should be brought to the streets; a formal understanding of politics and government, both electoral and otherwise, should not be reserved for those with college degrees, when it is precisely those without them who are often at the brunt of harmful political decisions.
Civic education in America may not be enumerated within the Bill of Rights, but it does not change the fact that it remains the ultimate, tried and true weapon in in the fight for justice and equity.