“It’s a red alert moment and all Americans should be deeply concerned about their country,” Christopher Rufo warned on Fox News as he urged ex-President Trump to ban federal expenditures from promoting critical race theory. Within three days, Trump issued an executive order banning federal agencies from conducting race-based training, launching a debate that would last over a year.

 

The debate has since raged through every level of government. State lawmakers have inundated their legislatures with bills aimed to censor their schools’ conversations regarding race while political candidates around the country campaigned with rhetoric focused on critical race theory. Perhaps the unlikeliest of places, K-12 public schools became ground-zero for the debate as grieving parents saturated their local school board meetings and cried foul against purported indoctrination.

 

Teachers and administrators responded with agility and professionalism. They organized guest speakers and seminars to explore the history of the theory and its traditional application. As discussions evolved, it soon became clear that this controversy was no controversy at all – that critical race theory is a theoretical framework traditionally studied in graduate level courses, emerging from the field of law.

 

This realization offered administrators and teachers a sharp defense against claims of indoctrination: critical race theory is not part of K-12 curricula. And, while I understand the importance of playing defense to rebut such ridiculous claims of indoctrination, we have the opportunity to expand these conversations and start playing offense. If these conversations don’t draw our attention to the uglier, tacit themes within this debate, we’d forfeit an important opportunity to expose the true controversy and continue the visions of the great Civil Rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Fred Hampton, and Angela Davis.

 

The controversy I’m talking about is the collection of covert, systemic injustices that undermine education and our students – the injustices that the critical race lens exposes. The controversy I’m talking about is the fact that Black communities are more likely to be polluted than any other; the fact that Black workers earn far less for comparable work; the fact that Black families are among those most likely to live in poverty; the fact that Black patients pay the largest share of their income towards healthcare costs for worse health outcomes; and, the fact that Black students are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources in buildings in need of immediate repair. And while New Jersey has attempted to make equitable school funding a priority, no level of school funding subsidies will change the fact that Black students disproportionately return to an environment of economic adversity once the last school bell rings.

 

The adage ‘Maslow before Bloom’ could not be more relevant to this tension – the idea that students’ physiological needs must be met before an opportunity to learn even exists. Our students are expected to thrive without the economic environment necessary to even survive. Despite teachers’ best efforts, no amount of extra help, sacrificed lunches, or differentiated instruction is a match for such adversity. If we are to improve education, we must look beyond our schools and rectify the systems that suppress opportunities for advancement. It is not our students in need of remediation. It is not our teachers in need of remediation. This is a political problem, and it is our federal policies in need of remediation.

 

What I’m calling for is a universal healthcare system that guarantees healthcare as a human right, a federal jobs program that guarantees a livable wage, environmental justice legislation that protects neighborhoods from pollution whose residents often don’t enjoy the financial luxury to escape, and a federal commitment to education funding. I’m calling for an economic environment that creates opportunities for the advancement of all people and refuses to subject the health of its people to commodification. If we are to improve education, all these policies are prerequisites and incremental changes are inadequate.

 

These ideas are not new and they’re not even my own. They are policies which were called for by Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Fred Hampton, and Angela Davis. To focus on just one of these injustices, Dr. Martin Luther King drew attention health care injustice: “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman because it often results in physical death.” During his journey for justice, Dr. King worked with Dr. Quentin Young who advocated for a single-payer healthcare system: “We’ve come to believe that single payer is not the best solution. It’s the only solution.” Angela Davis echoed this call: “[We need] single-payer healthcare.” A single-payer, universal healthcare system is endorsed by an exhaustive list of diverse coalitions, including the NAACP, Women’s March, the AFL-CIO, and the National Education Association. These endorsements are the results of the philosophy that healthcare is a human right and the quality of care patients receive should not depend on economic status.

 

Dr. King also warned about the inadequacy of incremental change in addressing injustice: “At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.” He also critiqued moderates who insisted on incrementalism and believed they were among those who interfered most with liberation: ‘The moderate who believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom is the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom.’ He even suggested the moderate was a greater barrier to justice than the Ku Klux Klanner.

 

These are the injustices a critical race lens exposes. They are covert and their implications bleed into every sector of the economy – education included. The theory emerged after The Civil Rights Act, after segregation had been outlawed, because its authors understood that liberation meant so much more than banning overt racism and segregation – that exorcising one form of oppression in exchange for another did not equate to equality.

 

We must approach education reform with the same critical lens. While the critical race seminars I attended the past year were filled with empathy and love and people who sincerely cared for racial and social justice, the conversations were far too narrow to overcome such systemic problems. Conversations usually focused on local stories and methods for de-escalating confrontations regarding curricula. These conversations are extremely valuable, but they must be accompanied by the core issues that perpetuate oppression – the core issues that affect our students’ opportunities. It wasn’t until I attended a speech by Dr. Henry Louis Gates at the New Jersey Educators’ Association convention that I heard these issues – universal healthcare, voting rights, the industrial prison complex, climate change, and a livable wage – in a speech about education.

 

For the sake of interest convergence (a central tenet of critical race theory), though these problems disproportionately affect Black communities, these are injustices overwhelmingly suffered by the working class in general, no matter one’s race and no matter one’s political affiliation. The working class, in general, is being exploited by a corporate healthcare system in which premiums and deductibles have outgrown wages by more than double over the past decade, by poverty wages, and by an electoral system that suppresses the voices of the most vulnerable. A single-payer, universal healthcare system improves the quality of life for everyone. A livable wage improves the quality of life for everyone. A healthy environment improves the quality of life for everyone. Federal investments in education improves the quality for everyone.

 

Christopher Rufo spent only six months talking about critical race theory before energizing a movement so effective that it resulted in national media coverage for over a year, immediate executive action, motivated candidates around the country to run for office, and compelled residents to dedicate hours at local school board meetings every month. Alternatively, healthcare injustices have been exposed for far longer than six months and, despite the incremental improvements of the Affordable Care Act, working class patients of all races, working class patients of all political affiliations continue to avoid treatments due to costs, patients continue to die due to rationing their medications, patients continue to face financial disaster because of medical expenses.

 

If the conservative right can coalesce so effectively around such a fallacy, why is it so difficult for the left to coalesce as boldly around policies that are so morally obvious? Are we willing to protect our students from remediation until we have confronted the framework of deficiency in which they are asked to perform? Are we willing to reject the idea that we cannot provide the same universal healthcare system that every other developed country seemed to have accomplished decades ago? Are we willing to challenge the moderate Democrats, despite the ‘D’ next to their name?

Donald Norcross does not support a single-payer, universal healthcare system (H.R. 1976). Donald Norcross voted to weaken financial protections for communities of color (H.R. 1737).

Donald Norcross voted for the Key Stone XL (H.R. 3), despite the rise of cancer in indigenous communities, despite the National Geographic calling such energy as “the world’s most destructive oil operation.” 

Donald Norcross touts the Covanta incinerator, despite its status as the largest polluter in Camden County, despite Camden County’s highest-in-state of asthma-related hospitalization, despite Camden County receiving an ‘F’ for their air quality from the American Lung Association.

Donald Norcross voted to expand the military budget $24 billion beyond the request of The White House (H.R. 4350).