Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, AntiBlackness, and Schooling in San Francisco
Duke University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Edward Reyes
Savannah Shange’s Progressive Dystopia is both a personal and educational account of her time as an educator and researcher at Robeson Justice Academy. Robeson resides within one of San Francisco’s remaining predominantly African American, Latinx, Asian, and Polynesian neighborhoods and defines itself as a progressive educational institution dedicated to social justice, transformative education, and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. Shange provides a detailed and raw ethnographic account of her research at Robeson while relying heavily on her own previous teaching experience, where she served as one of the few Black female teachers. She utilizes Black Anthropology research practices by including testimonies and narratives from the anti-Black faculty and staff, along with counterstories from Black students and teachers of color.
In Chapter One, Shange describes how the city of San Francisco serves as a central and relevant setting in this book. For example, Robeson’s White coprincipal (Aaron) embodies the city of San Francisco, which is known for progressive and left-leaning politics of inclusion and activism. Aaron’s presence falsely alludes to Robeson’s progressivism through his open commitment to social justice and anti-racism. Shange allows the reader inside the closed doors of Aaron’s reign over Robeson and reveals how his White, upper-class, and male privileges materialize, such as his polarizing accent that he inorganically infuses with African American Vernacular when speaking to Black students and Black faculty.
Similarly, in Chapter Two, Shange describes mid-level tech worker Garret, a White, upper class, and gay male who sits on the School Site Council, a governing body of Robeson. She reveals how both Garret and Aaron represent the new San Francisco. Garret ultimately votes to not revive her proposed social justice internship program, titled Mentoring Youth in Community Action (MYCA). The White administrators’ power and actions indicate the limitations of White progressivism in a progressive context such as San Francisco. Including the aforementioned characters in this book provides ethnographic evidence for Shange’s most salient arguments regarding these White administrators’ role in creating a carceral progressive state for the Black students enrolled at Robeson, which ironically stands as one of San Francisco’s last remaining working-class boroughs. In the next paragraphs, I will describe Shange’s argument of how Robeson fails to create a transformative and liberatory educational experience for its Black students and instead creates an oppressive and punitive environment. She contextualizes Robeson’s demographic in San Francisco by highlighting the libertarian ideologies that paved the path for Big Tech to create one of the largest income inequality gaps in the world. Big Tech excludes Black people and other People of Color, dictating residential, social, and economic placement in the city: at the bottom. Big Tech refers to the multi-trillion-dollar digital companies such as Google, Amazon, and Uber, who pay unsustainable wages to their employees. They are responsible for inflating housing and consumer goods for the majority of low-income and People of Color living in the city. These technological companies forgo hiring People of Color within their own ranks and from higher-paying jobs, which require high skilled degrees. Shange’s MYCA program planned to provide Youth of Color in San Francisco the opportunity to simultaneously gain job experience in the community’s non-profit sector and college credit. Garret’s defunding further disallows mobility and access in San Francisco’s wider political economy.
As the book’s title suggests, Shange argues that Robeson fails to accomplish its promise of a transformative and social justice-oriented education due to its carceral progressivism. For example, she defines Robeson as a progressive dystopia because the institution ultimately fails to address its anti-Blackness, leading to Black students at Robeson being punished and recommended for transferring out at disproportionately higher rates when compared to other Students of Color. To further support this point, she appropriately titles Chapter Three: “Why can’t we learn African?” highlighting the ways Black students at Robeson feel: like foreigners and aliens. Ironically, these students are attending an institution that historically served an African American population after The Great Migration, which was prompted by the ending of the Cold War. Shange details how the school’s only foreign language requirement of Spanish is indicative of how Robeson is set up to favor its Latinx student population while revealing the Black erasure and legacy of the “transatlantic” slave trade. Thus, Robeson is a dystopia because it fails to empower the very same people whose progressive institution is dedicated to uplifting.
Similarly, in Chapter Four, Shange analyzes how the race and space in Robeson criminalizes and harms Black bodies. For example, the students in the hallway seeking refuge or breaks from class and hostile teachers are hypervigilized by faculty. In one such instance, non-White Math teacher Mr. Agusalim invades fellow Black teacher and San Francisco native Ms. Zhara’s classroom, exemplifying the policing of Black students and the subjugation of Black faculty. When invading the classroom, he demands Ms. Zhara control the noise level of her classroom and reprimands a Black student that he followed before the start of Ms. Zhara’s class. Thus, Mr. Agusalim’s actions rob Ms. Zhara of her credentials in one of the few Black-led spaces at Robeson. Meanwhile, police are not allowed inside of Robeson but linger nearby, further demonstrating how Black bodies cannot feel completely safe inside or outside of Robeson. However, when Black students are transferred out of the institution, Shange notes that they no longer can benefit from the temporary physical barrier that Robeson provides against police brutality during the school’s operating hours. This demonstrates the vulnerability of Black students’ bodies.
In Chapter Five, the school’s White upper-middle class coprincipal partakes in decisions and attitudes demonstrating leniency towards non-Black Latinx students over Black students, as revealed by his actions during Robeson’s physical fight between Black and Latinx students. Moreover, pedagogical practices invoked at Robeson, and the anti-Black attitudes from Robeson’s faculty towards Black students and Black teachers support the author’s assertion that Robeson’s “White-led carceral progressivism mobilizes Xicanx nationalism as an anti-Black strategy” (Shange). However, she does not place blame on non-Black students but instead calls attention to only certain People of Color (Latina/o students) being deemed worthy of redemption and inclusion in one of San Francisco’s only remaining progressive institutions serving the city’s most vulnerable populations. In Chapter Six, at a restorative school rally, Black students recite a Spanish poem and, in doing so, enact what Shange frames as “Black Skin, Brown Mask,” which provides powerful imagery and an insightful revelation of Robeson’s dominant Black and Latinx binary (Shange). At this restorative school event, students were encouraged to heal from the school’s physical fight, which is rare for Robeson. Shange demonstrates that at Robeson, restoration can be achieved by Black students, as long as they enact elements of Latinx identity.
To a non-interdisciplinary reader, Shange’s chapters may appear dense–as her references to multiple theorists and scholars can be overwhelming. It is important to note, however, that the references reveal her strong academic genealogy in Black studies, Feminist studies, Education, Sociology, and Anthropology. Throughout the book, she draws symbolism from Robeson’s students’ and educators’ political use of #ourlivesmatter, as literally erasing Black Lives. In the final chapter, she deconstructs this Black erasure at Robeson from an abolitionist-anthropological framework making the point that in the face of Black erasure in a post-slavery afterlife, Black people will continue willful defiance and call out the progressive institutions that continue to erase them. At the end of the book, Shange positions herself as a credible insider in her critical ethnographic account of Robeson. Her research provides broader insights into the educational inequalities faced by Black students, even when they are a part of progressive institutions. When these institutions are run by White, upper-class men, they are responsible for the Black erasure of Black students via their administrators’ racist attitudes, funding decisions, and preferential treatment of non-Black students.