Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa

Vol. 5, No. 2, 2003

Race, Class, and Cultural Reproduction:
Critical Theories in Urban Education

Elaine M. Walker

Department of Educational
Leadership, Management and Policy

College of Education and Human Services
Seton Hall University

400 South Orange Avenue
South Orange, NJ, U.S.A.

(Received: March 17, 2003; accepted for publishing: August 7, 2003)



In spite of decades of reform attempts urban education remains an intractable policy issue for educators. National and state level data continue to show disparities in educational achievement and attainment between students from affluent and poor urban communities. If past policies have not proven to be effective in substantially improving urban educational systems the question is why? In this paper the argument is raised that urban educational policies lack sound epistemological grounding. Policies are divorced from an understanding of the “urban problematic”. Functionalist in orientation these policies have for the most part sought to “fix” urban schools by focusing on micro-ecological issues. In this paper three theoretical perspectives are explored for their potential contribution to inform research and policy on urban educational issues. The three perspectives are: 1) class theories 2) critical race theory and 3) cultural reproduction theories.

Key words: Critical theory, urban education, critical race theory.



The urban problematic remains a legitimate area of inquiry in the sociology of education. Decades of social policy have yet to result in urban educational structures that produce outcomes for students that are commensurate with those evidenced in non-urban suburban affluent communities. Historical and contemporary analysis reveal that the urban educational problematic is not only characteristic of public education in capitalist states, but also of import in developing nation states (Davis, 2000; Uchitelle, 2000). Dominant discourses in the past have drawn upon a number of theoretical arguments to account for the endemic failure of urban educational systems, and from these arguments have flowed several policy assumptions. These arguments have centered either on explanations internal to these systems, such as their bureaucratic inertia, their flawed leadership and size, or external factors, lodged in the social, cultural, and intellectual deficiencies of urban students (Grace, 1984). However, the pervasiveness of problems in urban education across national boundaries suggests putatively that their structural problems cannot be reductionally explained by their internal properties or the cultural and psychological properties of their student population. If urban education continues to pose a problem for the students it serves and by implication for the state apparatus, what factors associated with the overarching social order in which it is implicated may serve to explain its continual problem?

In this essay, I examine three streams of theoretical writings for their epistemological contribution to our understanding of urban education in the United States. These writings are associated with the historical materialist perspective of schooling, Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of cultural and social reproduction, and critical race theory. If these writings are to have import, they must help us fashion a plausible explanation of why urban schools continue to exhibit problems in spite of decades of ameliorative attempts. Moreover, their epistemic value should allow us to raise practical questions that may serve to guide policy action. The essay is schematically divided accordingly: a presentation of the Marxist perspective on schooling, a discussion of cultural and social reproduction, followed by an overview of critical race theory. The second part of the essay presents data on contemporary urban educational issues and examines the relevancy of the three main theoretical works under review in helping us to understand these issues.


Marxist Educational Theory

Attempts to identify what constitutes Marxist educational theorizing have concluded that the eclecticism of the field renders it virtually impossible to define an oeuvre of work that can be taken to represent a definitive Marxist theory of education. Instead, various aspects of Marx’s general theory have been used to theorize education. While some writers have attempted to proffer guiding posts as to what constitutes Marxist educational theory, there is less than consensus on what those are. For example, some suggest that a Marxist theory of education is one, which is rooted in Marx and Engel’s statements about education (Demaine, 1981). In contrast, it is alternatively posited that it is legitimate to tease out the educational implications of other aspects of Marx and Engel writings from their specific statements on education (Rikowski, 1996; Warren, 1978). What is generally agreed upon however, is that Althusser’s (1971) and Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) seminal works during the 1970’s were responsible for bringing a Marxist approach to the forefront of educational theorizing, from which was launched a plethora of reactive theorizing both critical of, as well as building on, their fundamental premises (Bailey, 1995; Carnoy & Levin, 1985).

In Althusserian Marxism the reproduction of the class structure in capitalist states is accomplished through the functioning of several relatively autonomous ideological state apparatuses (churches, schools, families, media, law, political systems, culture). Education is viewed as functioning as the dominant ideological state apparatus; and contributes to the perpetuation of existing values and social relations by inculcating ideologies that slot individuals for different roles in the capitalist economy. Like the systems from which they evolve, these ideologies are imbued with the interests and values of the socially powerful, and are critical to the reproduction of class domination. Ideology functions unconsciously, and through a process of interpellation the subject or individual comes to construe his or her relation to the world as “natural”. However, the individual’s construction of his/her relation to the world is simply an imaginary construction of that individual’s subjectivity.

There are obvious theoretical gaps unaccounted for in the above conceptualization of educational systems. For example, issues related to resistance and counter-hegemony are obfuscated. The focus on class dominance neglects other equally important forces of domination and power, such as those derived from gender, race, and ethnic relations. Thus the class reductionism implicit in this approach is unable to account for how the intersection of these relations with class, structure or shape ideology (Puehretmayer, 2001). Elaborations on the relationship between the state, ideology, and class relations undertaken by some scholars have sought to redress some of these difficulties. For example, Poulantzas suggests that the state in facilitating class hegemony accomplishes this not so much on relying on the repressive elements deemed by Althusser to be the defining characteristics of ideology, but rather through a series of material compromises and concessions to the masses (Poulantzas, 2000).

Correspondence theories share the same dilemma that Althusserian Marxism experiences by over relying on a structuralist interpretation of educational system. A central ontological tenet of traditional Marxism is that the economic base determines social formations. Bowles and Gintis in their 1976 volume entitled Schooling in Capitalist America in adopting this ontological perspective of social nature argued that educational systems are homologous reflections of the workplace. In explicating a correspondence theory of education, Bowles and Gintis argued, based on empirical data, that the practices and ideologies prevalent in American schools reproduced the social division of labor engendered by the United States capitalist economy. In particular, the correspondence principle sought to explain how the socialization function of schooling prepares individuals for accepting their role in the hierarchical structure of the workplace; how intra-generational transmission of social class and economic privilege is accomplished through unequal educational opportunities and how the historical evolution of schools arises from the conflict and contradictions associated with the transformation of work rather than from pedagogical and social democratic ideals (Bowles and Gintis, 1999).

The moribundity of this theory has been well established (Apple, 1979; Rikowski, 1997; Whitty, 1985; Willmott, 2001). The demise of correspondence theories stems from their internal theoretical weaknesses, their subversion of the overt curriculum in legitimizing social inequalities and in social reproduction, as well as their over deterministic explanation of schooling. Rikowski argues for example, that social reproduction theories of education have internally degenerated because of five core theoretical deficiencies: the base/superstructure model; functionalist cast; relative autonomy; resistance theory; and the “tension between education for autonomy and revolutionary social change” (Rikowski, 1997, p. 552).

Rikowski suggests that the uncritical economic determinism embraced by correspondence theorists represents a misunderstanding of the role of the economic base in social formation (Sayer, 1979; McLaren, 1987; Warren, 1978). Correspondence theorists have according to Sayer, failed to understand the metaphorical undertones of the base/superstructure model and hence are unable to distinguish between essential relations and their forms of manifestation (Sayer, 1979). (Essential relations embody the economic structure of a given society, which is essential to that society’s survival. However, these relations do not necessarily causally determine their social manifestations. Rather, these manifested forms such, as legal or political structures are forms through which individuals become aware of these essential relations).

The superstructural status accorded to the educational system in correspondence theories reflects a Neo-Parsonian ontological image of social reality in which the educational system functions to reproduce the base economic structure (Hogan, 1978; La Brecque, 1978; Liston, 1988; Sarup, 1978). This posture, leads Marxists educational theorists into a politically conservative view of schools. Furthermore, the notion that capitalist social relations determine the essential materiality of schools, and that the state apparatus acts and functions on behalf of capital denies that schools as structural forms have any independent autonomy, and hence the notion of structure/agency is rendered problematic (Willmott, 2001).

Critical pedagogy has sought to rescue Marxist educational theory out of this dilemma by acknowledging individual agency as an important theoretical motif (Apple, 1982; Giroux, 1983; Miron 1996). Schools are envisioned as arenas in which power, resistance and human agency coalesce around struggles for critical thinking and learning. Thus, individual agency renders unproblematic the reproductive, mediative and transformative tensions in Marxist educational theory. Educational change is no longer seen as an unmediated response to the logic of capital, and local actors do not subject educational policies to unquestioned implementation. Rather, policies are contested, redefined and recreated by local actors in line with their own consciousness (Bowe, Ball & Gold, 1992). The works of resistance theorists have further helped to refocus the debate from the overt determinism and structuralism of Althusserian Marxism and correspondence theories to discussions on the ability of educational institutions to produce actors who, imbued with agency, have the potential to develop oppositional cultures and anti-school behaviors within these institutions themselves (Sadovnik, 1991; Willis, 1977). Variants of resistance theories such as identity politics have also provided interesting insights into the dialectical interplay between identity and unequal power relations within schools (Miron, 1996). Educational actors are not viewed as passive imbibers of dominant ideologies, but as Willis notes, “active appropriators who reproduce existing structures through struggle” (Willis, 1977, p.175).


Cultural and social reproduction

While correspondence theorists are concerned with the function of schools in reproducing the hierarchical subordinate/dominant arrangements of the workplace, cultural reproduction theories, in contrast, drawing on the political economy works of Marx, as well as Weberian and Durkheimian sociological formulations, explicate the ways in which schools reproduce the class structure associated with capitalist societies (Bourdieu, 1977). The epistemological starting point for cultural and social reproduction theories is the tendencies for societies to reproduce themselves. This regenerative process is co-determined by specific forms of consciousness and culture (Shirley, 1986). Habitue, or the transposable dispositions that influence practice congruent with the structural principles of the social world, is fundamental to the reproductive process. It is through the inculcation of these dispositions by the family, educational system and social class, that the imposition of ideologies and the fluid operation of social life are able to occur (Shirley, 1986, p. 98).

Whereas, correspondence theories privilege economic capital, cultural and social reproduction theorizing privilege symbolic capital in the form of cultural and social capital. The inter-generational transmission of symbolic capital is taken to occur through the process of cultural reproduction. Bourdieu (1977) recognizes that there are different habitue held by different social groupings both across and within social classes. Concomitantly, cultural and social resources are viewed to be differentially distributed among each subgroup. Cultural capital assumes three forms: dispositions of body and mind; objectified cultural goods, and institutionalized states, such as educational qualifications (Nash, 1990). Thus cultural capital in addition to educational qualifications or titles embodies language, modes of leisure and arts consumption (Shirley, 1986, p. 100). Social capital on the other hand, refers to actual or potential resources derived from the existence of a network of institutionalized inter- relationships that can be activated for support. Passeron (1986) notes that if a social structure is characterized by system disparities between groups, privileged groups will seek to perpetuate their privilege by drawing upon their cultural and social capital, which is much greater than that possessed by underprivileged groups.

For both Bourdieu and Passeron, in spite of the arbitrariness of cultures, the dominant classes are able to wield symbolic violence by imbuing their cultural arbitrariness with a universal quality. The arbitrariness and illegitimacy of the dominant culture is misrecognized both by subordinated groups and schools. Indeed, schools play an important role in fostering cultural and social reproduction by granting legitimacy and universality to the arbitrary cultures of the dominant group. Bourdieu theorizes that the internal logic of schools is such that they uncritically and unabashedly accept the cultural codes of the dominant classes, inferring that students from these classes enter schools receptive to learning; while viewing students from dominated classes as possessing habitue inimical to learning (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1979). Unlike, correspondence theorists who postulate educational systems as being overdetermined by the economy and the state, cultural theorists tends to posit a dialectical relationship between these systems and social class mediated by habitus (Shirley, 1986, p. 105).

A number of criticisms can be leveled against the structuralism in cultural reproduction theories. For example, critics of structuralism suggest that it is the group rather than culture that exists prior to the individual. The group is responsible for socializing the young into those sets of internal cultural routines that impact its reproduction. Cultural reproduction theories also obfuscate the role of individual agency by focusing on the internalized cultural codes as the determinants of social action. Indeed, the obfuscation of individual choice and a theory of social action render cultural reproduction theories problematic in the explanation of how individuals socially positioned with the same habitus, and resources may develop personal trajectories that are dissimilar. Reproductive theories are also unable to adequately account for historical change.

While Bourdieu and Passeron’s theorizing advances the understanding of the role of social class in socio-cultural reproduction, both their works as well as the works of correspondence theorists reify class location over other important socially structured relationships, such as those associated with race and gender, although both race and gender have been found to be theoretically salient to the trajectory of experiences of concrete groups within and outside the educational systems.


Critical race theory

Ladson-Billings and Tate contend that race has been theoretically marginalized in the study of social inequality, and that its epistemological relevance for understanding differential educational outcomes has been theoretically eclipsed by the focus on class (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Critical Race Theory (CRT) has been invoked as an alternative way of theorizing social and educational inequalities. Its origin lies in the work of legal scholars who in their criticism of the American judicial system have advanced the notion that racism is a normal science that has created an asymmetrical society.1 Furthermore, the legal system, its structure and discourse, not only maintain such racial hierarchies, but is viewed s being pivotal to their construction as well (Bell, 1992; Delgado, 1995). Oppositional in focus, critical race theory sets out to debunk the traditional and liberal notions of jurisprudence embodied in legal scholarship. Representing a splinter with critical legal scholarship, critical race theories attempt to interject the social into law, by infusing race into leftist legal thinking, and leftist legal thinking into race (Thomson, 1997).

Critical race theorists suggest that the American social structure is one characterized by immutable social relations based on race (Delgado, 1995). Racism forms the corpus of the collective unconsciousness; and law, rather than being determinate, rational, and principled, represents nothing more than a political expression of whites’ superordinates’s position. For these theorists, the civil rights movement as well as liberal legalistic notions such as formal equal opportunity and color blind equality can never result in a symmetrical society; since such notions are defined and interpreted from a white as opposed to a black perspective (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller & Thomas, 1995). These theorists therefore reject majoritarian concepts in favor of dominated groups naming and defining their own realities. Positivism is viewed with suspicion and a postmodernist subjective perspective is adopted through which narratives and story telling become the methodological vehicles for defining these realities (Delgado & Stefancic, 1995). For the early proponents of this perspective, the essentialism of blacks as a dominated group can never be fully grasped nor understood by whites, since such essentialism can never be experienced by whites (Crenshaw et al., 1995).

Critical Race Theory has been the subject of much debate and discourse. While much of this debate is legalistic there are some general comments on its internal weaknesses that are worth reiterating. For one, the theory’s reductionist tendencies are viewed as obfuscating alternative modes of theorizing the social. Questions such as how does the economic structuring of a given society shape divisions within the society are left unexplored. Furthermore, what theoretical accommodations are needed to explain the intersectionality of race, gender, and class are never developed. Simultaneously, the issue of essentialism vs. non-essentialism is unresolved in its nascent theoretical formulations. Do blacks constitute a differentiated or undifferentiated group? Moreover, its narrow intellectual base has been criticized for its marginalization of the experiences of other subjugated groups, for example Hispanics, Asians, women and homosexuals.2 It has also been argued that while the theory successfully deconstructs the law, it offers minimal insights into reconstructive possibilities (Pyle, 1999). Finally, its possibilities to inform a viable social and political movement are deemed to be limited because of its overly academic focus, which renders it politically impotent. In spite of these criticisms, Critical race theorists have been applauded for interjecting the perspectives of racial minorities into contemporary American jurisprudence (Araujo, 1997).

The application of the notions embodied in the Critical Race Theory approach to educational issues was formally attempted by Ladson-Billings and Tate in the paper titled “Toward a critical race theory of education” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). The arguments set out a number of propositions and meta-propositions on the viability of race as a theoretical and analytical construct for understanding educational inequalities. There are three core propositions on which these arguments are founded: (a) that race significantly determines inequality in the United States; (b) that the society is based on property rights and (c) that the “intersection of race and property creates an analytic tool through which social and school inequality can be understood” (p. 48). Ladson-Billings and Tate suggest that the explanatory power of class and gender either singularly or in their interaction with race does not fully account for all of the variance that is observed in educational achievement differences. They point to the fact, for example, that when class is held constant, the achievement of blacks is still lower than that of whites. This, along with other evidence such as drop-out differential rates for whites and blacks leads them to conclude that race more than gender and class is the defining construct in understanding inequities in achievement.

The notion of property right in its application to educational issues is purported to subsume not only conventional understandings such as property tax, science labs, and computers, but also intellectual property, which includes the curriculum. Both real and intellectual properties are deemed necessary to the creation of conditions facilitative of “opportunities to learn”. Ladson-Billings and Tate contend that students of color are denied such opportunities, as the schools they attend are poor in real and intellectual capital. In explicating the assumptions behind the third proposition, Ladson-Billings and Tate argue that within the educational system whiteness has been imbued with alienable characteristics, meaning that whiteness, as “property” possesses transferable qualities. Drawing on the legal characteristics of property such as rights of dispositions, rights to use and enjoyment, absolute right to exclude, and reputation and status, they attempt to demonstrate how in educational settings whiteness can be construed as property. For example, they note that when students are rewarded for conforming to white cultural practices this illustrates one of the characteristics of property- that is, the right of disposition.

Similar to legal critical race theories, Ladson-Billings and Tate argue for a methodology that shuns positivism and embraces narratives, counter stories and story telling. These methodologies are viewed to be counterhegemonic and help not only the oppressed but also the oppressor to understand the impact of the latter’s actions on the lives of dominated groups. Understanding the educational system, they suggest, is incomplete without the silenced authentic voices of people of color being rendered unmute. Thus, they argue, research of educational issues should proceed from oppressed groups engaging in defining and naming their own realities.

Ladson-Billings and Tate’s (1995) arguments have not spawned much debate, perhaps attesting to the fact that they have not been given much credibility within traditional educational discourse. There has been some burgeoning research utilizing the methodological paradigms espoused by critical race scholarship, but the research base is still somewhat limited.3 My own criticism of the arguments rests on the following grounds: First, the arguments are theoretically underdeveloped. Offered as a set of propositions, these propositions seem to stand independent of each other, and never reconnected to form a coherent theoretical approach. For example, the article advances two distinct renderings of the notion of property without ever explaining the relationship between the two. Second, while critical race legal scholars more pointedly address ontological issues, those seeking to apply this paradigm to educational issues never confront them. Critical race theorists writing on legal issues attempt to explicate the relationship between the functioning of legal structures and that associated with other social, cultural, and political structures. In Ladson-Billings and Tate’s work, how educational structures are maintained, reproduced or affected by other relevant structures are never fully taken up. Third, there is no logical progression from the propositions advanced to a set of viable policy solutions. Although they offer a critique of the multicultural movement in education there is no sense from their work as to how Critical Race Theory could be used to address the issues. I therefore find the epistemological relevance of their work to be significantly affected by these shortcomings. However, in spite of this reservation, I believe their work brings attention to the fact that race cannot be theoretically discounted in our examination of the educational system in this country, especially within the context of urban schooling.


Urban educational issues

The term urban education is used with much reflexivity in the literature. The tendency has been to use the term to simply designate schooling that occurs in a geo-economic context conflated with the notion of race. Urban education is thus frequently taken to be synonymous with the concept of “big city schools” that is a form of schooling that occurs within a geographically large jurisdiction. More recently, ghetto schooling has been introduced into the lexicon of descriptors that are applied to this form of schooling (Anyon, 1997). However, Wacquant’s criticism of the sociological usage of the term “ghetto” is of equal relevance to its transference in usage to urban education (Wacquant, 1997). Wacquant points out that the intellectual bantering of the term has robbed it not only of its historical roots, but its sociological content as well.

The definitional looseness with which the term urban education is used has obfuscated important socio-economic and educational variations among urban educational institutions. Furthermore, the term conjures up images of dysfunctional educational and social institutions, acute levels of poverty, and high degrees of underachievement. The fact that some urban communities do exhibit these characteristics does not mean that education in all urban contexts must take place within dysfunctional institutions or be characterized by high levels of underachievement. Table I presents census, district, and state level data on 48 urban public school districts belonging to the Council of the Great City Schools. The data shows that the cities in which these school districts exist are not uniformly bounded by the same socio-economic conditions. For example, in the year 2000, while the unemployment rates for 31 of these cities were above the national rate of 4.0, 15 were at or below the national rate. Percent renters in these cities also varied widely.

Nevertheless, these public school systems, with few exceptions, demonstrate remarkable similarities in their race and class compositions. The district and state level data provided in the Table reveal institutional structures highly segregated by race and class. Indeed, comparison of the racial distribution in these schools with the overall racial distributions in the cities indicate a higher concentration of Black and Hispanic students relative to their overall distribution in these cities (See Table I). Moreover, as the data demonstrate, this concentration is becoming more, rather than less pronounced. The socio-historic origins of this trend have been well documented (Orefield, 1988; Peterson, 1981). Increasing out-migration of whites and the black middle class, as well as the socio-cultural abandonment of the schools by these groups even when they remain within their spatial boundaries have contributed to the schools’ segregated characteristics.

Achievement data indicate that in spite of some improvement, these school systems evince performance levels that lag behind levels evident in more affluent communities (See Jerald, 1998). Furthermore, within the urban districts themselves, there is a monotonical relationship between the degree of poverty and achievement. In a joint study undertaken by the Council of the Great City Schools and ACT, which examined performance on the ACT over 10 years, districts with poverty rates greater than 67% consistently performed below those with poverty rates between 66% and 34%, and 33% and lower. This trend was evident on all areas tested on the ACT (The Council of the Great City Schools and ACT, 2001).

However, schools in urban areas have not always been places of endemic failure, a fact that suggests that these institutions have to be situated within an analytical approach that identifies the cultural-historic as well as the socio-economic historic breaks that have resulted in their present social configurations. Such an analysis was undertaken by Anyon in her study of the evolution of the public schools in Newark, New Jersey (Anyon, 1997). In addition, the manner in which urban educational problems have been broached have varied with the ideological predispositions of those in power (Carlson, 1993). Miron’s admonition that urban schooling must be grasped by interrogating its socio-political construction is thus of import (Miron, 1996). The tropes of dysfunctionality and underachievement must be placed within their epistemic and ideological contexts.

Indeed the whole concept of achievement in urban contexts requires further unpacking. Critical scholarship has shown that the fabric of education –curriculum and instruction– are not normatively neutral, but rather as Pinar and Bowers point out can be construed as political texts (Pinar & Bowers, 1992). Moreover, as political texts, their outcomes are significantly associated with race, class and gender. Lucas’s tracking of inequality in American high schools reveals using a Marxist framework how patterns of course taking has a pervasive influence on differences in academic achievement and in maintaining social inequalities (Lucas, 1999). Lucas contend that students confront a more covert and subtle form of stratification than that which was apparent with tracking. Students of color and students from poor socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be enrolled in courses that limit their opportunities for postsecondary education than students with dissimilar origins.

It should be clear from what has been said so far that the identification of urban educational problems is thus, more complex than appears at first blush. The social arrangements among urban schools vary, so do their connections to other societal arrangements (Stone, 1998). Yet, in spite of such differences, one can suggest, that inarguably the concentration of poor minority students within these institutions is one of their most salient sociological characteristics.

This concentration of poverty is inextricably linked to the economic structures of the cities in which these schools are located. Studies on the political economy of cities in the United States have shown how the transformation from manufacturing to service economies has had a deleterious impact on their residents, and in particular their black and Hispanic sub- populations (Kasarda, 1986). Moreover, the process of globalization, which is now evident in the postmodern era, has served to enhance the degree of immiseration among these groups. This effect is manifested not so much in the peripheries of these cities, but in their geo-spatial inner cores. At the same time, however, attempts to portray the magnitude of the economic woes of the inner city are not without some difficulties. For example, Wilson notes that simply focusing on official unemployment statistics underestimates the number of individuals who lack a relationship with the labor market. Indeed, Wilson suggests that when account is taken of those who opt out of the job market or those who had never formally established a relationship with the labor market, the rate of joblessness increases appreciably. Thus, Wilson notes, that in Chicago in 1990, only one in every three adults age 16 and over in poor communities in that city was employed. The effects of the economic demise of the inner city can be seen in its institutions, racial, and social relations (Wilson, 1999).

The plight of United States inner cities is not without parallel in other western democracies. Friedrichs (2002), in summarizing the literature on poverty studies in Europe writes:

The European studies find the residents in poverty area to have very similar characteristics: living from transfer payments (unemployment aid, public assistance), substandard housing conditions, disproportionate representation of people from racial-ethnic minority groups, low levels of schooling, single-headed families (mothers) with children, abuse of alcohol or drugs, violence as an everyday pattern of intra-family conflict resolution, deviant behavior and crime (p. 102).

Understanding urban educational issues must therefore foreground and interrogate factors related to the economic substructure for its impact on urban communities and their social institutions. To that end, Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) proposition that schools are reflective of the internal contradictions of the capitalist economy is useful. With the emergence of new forms of postmodern economic structures (for example, knowledge base and technological industries) urban communities will be faced with new challenges. As Wilson (1999) notes, globalization is demanding a new type of labor pool, one highly endowed with technical skills. Thus a relevant research and policy issue for educators concerns an interrogation of the implication of economic shifts for urban labor markets and schools. More pointedly, how should schooling in urban areas as well as the educational system more generally be structured to meet the demands of postmodernity? Green’s work on globalization, education, and the nation state has highlighted how state educational policies in the United States in the face of increasing globalization have had significant negative consequences for large segments of its population and by extension black and Latino youths (Green, 1997).

Thus, answering this question cannot be isolated from understanding the ways in which policies and practices serve to reinforce the asymmetrical nature of the society. Data on population demographics in inner-city poverty areas in the United States as well as in Europe reveal the intersection of class and race. For example, 1990 census data reveal that in large metropolitan areas blacks and Hispanics make up the largest proportion of residents living in high poverty neighborhoods (Jargowsky, 1997). While human capital and spatial mismatch theories have sought to further refine our understanding of the earning differentials and potentials of residents in these communities, studies have shown that these theories do not proffer a satisfactory closure to our understanding of the plight of the disadvantaged minority worker (Browne, Hewitt, Tigges & Green, 2001). For example, the National Center for Educational Statistics (2000) report on differences in educational and economic outcomes indicate significant black-white wage gaps for two national samples of black males who were similar to white males in terms of educational achievement, educational attainment, and work experiences. In explaining this gap the report noted:

The portion of the gap not accounted for by differences in achievement, attainment, or experience could have been due to differences in unobserved skills, the regional availability of high-paying jobs, access to job networks, or outright wage discrimination against black men (p. 21).

Bernstein’s (1995) study of the black-white wage gap for 25-to-34-year-olds arrived at a similar conclusion on wage discrimination. In examining wages over a twenty-year period from 1973 to 1993, Bernstein found that the gap for men stayed at between 18 to 20 percent. He also noted that the relative decline in wages for black men was evident across all levels of schooling. Although the gap was smaller for females, the data reported in Bernstein’s study reflected a widening of the gap between black and white females from 7 to 16 percent. Semynov, Haberfield, Cohen & Lewin-Epstein (2000) also found that ordinal inequality in occupation increased with the greater proportion of blacks and other minorities residing in a city. Specifically they found that the larger the number of blacks and minorities residing in a city the greater their distribution in low-status, low-income occupations. This continuing labor market discrimination against blacks calls into question the efficacy of the assumption that educational attainment and achievement will ipso facto result in improved employment prospects and earning capacity for blacks, similar to those evident among the white population.

Further, studies on schooling in the United States have identified a number of discursive practices that have adversely affected African-American and Hispanic students.4 For example, a recently published report by the National Research Council highlighted the continuing trend for minority students to be over- represented in special education programs. According to the report, African-American students are 1.6 times more likely to be classified as emotionally disturbed and twice as likely to be classified as mentally retarded than whites (Donovan & Cross, 2002). Research that has analyzed district patterns in classification such as those undertaken by Oswald Coutinho & Best (2000) and Oswald Coutinho, Singh & Best (1999) have found that in high poverty districts black and Latino students are classified more often as being learning disabled and emotionally disturbed, while in low-poverty districts, these students tend to be labeled as being mentally retarded. While the Council’s report proffers various explanations for such trends, the report notes:

The majority of children in special education and gifted programs are referred by teachers. If a teacher is biased in evaluating student performance and behavior, current procedures provide ample room for those biases to be reflected in referrals. Some experimental research suggests that teachers do hold such biases (p. 4).

It is for these reasons that I find legitimacy to the notion advanced by critical race theorists that racialization of the major social institutions is endemic, and that racial as well as transracial policies derived from liberal discourse are insufficient for redressing this problem.5 As McClaren and Dantley (1990) posit, the racialized experiences of students both within and outside of educational settings necessitate the development of new forms of social praxis which address the “specificity of lived experiences and the lived sense of differences which students experience based upon their race” (p. 41).

Unquestionably, persistent poverty and labor market discrimination against blacks have a deleterious impact on urban schools both at the macro and micro levels. In a public education system premised on local control, schools in poverty areas because of their weak economies lack the tax base to provide an education that is commensurate with that provided in wealthier communities (Wenglinsky, 1998).It has been well documented and successfully adjudicated in several states’ supreme courts that the inequities in school finance have resulted in a prolonged disenfranchisement of students in poor communities.6 In spite of these victories, the issue of parity funding for poor schools remains an ideological and political struggle. Quite recently, an Appellate panel in New York State, struck down a lower court decision which would have ensured increased funding to New York City schools (Perez-Pena, 2002). According to the Appellate panel, the state is obliged to provide students with no more than a middle school education in order to prepare them for no more than the lowest-paying jobs (Perez-Pena, 2002, Section A: p. 1). This ruling implies that the primary function of New York City’s schools is to educate its 73% minority student population to fill jobs for which it has been clearly demonstrated little demand exists.

Continual labor market discrimination, inadequate funding of city schools, and weak city economies all constitute significant structural barriers for urban residents. The works of cultural theorists underscore the relationship among social class, the accumulation of social and cultural capital, educational attainment, and social mobility in meritocratic societies. However, students in poverty areas, because of these structural barriers, lack the social and cultural capital that are valued and rewarded in these societies (Roscigno, 1998; Roscigno & Ainsworth, 1999). Their social institutions, weakened by the cumulative effects of discrimination and marginalization are handicapped in helping them to build this capital. Additionally, inadequate funding of urban schools places these institutions at distinct disadvantages in their abilities to compensate for the low levels of cultural and social capital their student bodies possess. Indeed, as the data in Table II illustrate, poor urban school districts in the state of New Jersey based on a per pupil expenditure spend at least 62% less than their wealthier counterparts on extra-curricular activities. However, current public school policies have minimal provisions for redistributing social and cultural capital in order to assist inner city students to function within institutions whose structuring of knowledge and modes of pedagogy are consonant with the social and cultural capital of the dominant classes (Apple, 1982).

Table II. Extracurricular costs in a sample of affluent and poor school districts in New Jersey: 2001-2002 figures

Yet, in spite of the obvious impact of these “extant” structural factors, public policy has treated urban schools as closed institutions. It has been argued that schools have no control over these factors, and cannot be held responsible for the ills that they engender. However, the cumulative evidence has shown that ameliorative reform policies that treat inner city schools as closed institutions have failed to have a sustaining impact on their improvement (Berlowitz, 1994). Federal programs such as the Title 1 Compensatory programs as well as more recent reform initiatives, such as whole school reforms and decentralization, have failed to live up to their policy expectations (Cuban, 2001; Viadero, 2001). The current move towards market-based solutions is also likely to be equally ineffectual, since this movement like previous educational reform efforts have tended to emanate from elite groups whose understanding of urban educational issues, and of inner-city communities and their residents can be challenged. Moreover and of greater fundamental value to the discussion at hand is Green’s (1997) observation that the introduction of market-like mechanisms within education is likely to create educational systems which are less democratic, and where inequalities in outcomes are likely to be more pronounced (p. 20).

The experience of Montgomery County in Maryland is illustrative of how elite generated policies can fail to realize their intended goals by a lack of understanding of the sociological fabric of urban communities. Montgomery County in the State of Maryland in response to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that school districts allow students in high poverty failing schools to transfer to more successful schools, identified 6000 students eligible to switch to more affluent successful schools at the end of the 2002 academic school year. Of that number, only 102 students applied for transfers to more successful schools and only five of these students were from low-income families, the targeted population, in spite of significant outreach efforts on the part of county officials (Levine, 2002). Among the many reasons proffered by county officials and parents to explain the low numbers of poor families applying for transfers was the fact that many poor families who don’t have cars walk their children to schools and may not want them far away. Other factors include concerns that given the demographic differences between poor and affluent schools; children of poverty will be an easily identifiable group in these environments (Levine, 2002: p. B7).


Conclusion: Research and policy implications

The arguments outlined in this paper underscore the saliency of class and race for our understandings of urban education in particular, and the structuring of the American society in general. That class still plays a pivotal role in social mobility is evidenced by findings, which reveal significant correlations across generations between parental professions and those of their offspring’s. Solon (1992) found for example, that a significant correlation existed between the income mobility of fathers and sons. Sons whose fathers’ incomes fell in the bottom quartile were more likely to have income levels in the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution. Strong supportive evidence has also been furnished in the paper as to the pivotal role of race in structuring and determining the life chances of various social groups. Based on these observations, I would argue that understanding urban educational issues necessitates the development of an integrative framework that synthesizes the ideas that flow from different theoretical streams, and in particular those streams that converge on issues of race, class, and political economy.

While it would be virtually impossible for such a framework to exhaust the plethora of theorizing on the urban problematic, facially the evidence of policies premised on some theories could be used as the basis for omitting them from such a framework. For example, cultural deficit models that once enjoyed currency in the field of urban education have been largely discredited. Policies associated with institutional analysis, which narrowly focus on the distribution of power within school organizations have yet to result in any meaningful and sustaining changes in student achievement in any big city school district that has attempted to redistribute power (Walker, 2002). The tendency for urban education reform policies to myopically treat urban schools as “walled-off” institutions as well as the tendency to focus on the institutional structures of urban schools as what need to be fixed, may be one hypothesis that explains the weaknesses of these reform efforts. Given these past failures, research and policy must proceed from an understanding that since urban schools are not impervious to the nexuses of relationships and processes in their immediate environments, solutions to urban educational problems must perforce take into account these influences.

The adoption of such a posture does not presuppose an overly deterministic image of urban schools. Past as well as current data indicate a substantial mass of critical agency within urban educational institutions (Miron, 1996). Neither does it foreclose the development of policies that seek to redress discursive practices that are evident within these school systems. However, the pervasiveness of urban educational problems in this country as well as others is highly suggestive of a more integrative approach to not only research but policy formulation as well. Moreover, it needs to be understood that problems evident within urban educational institutions are themselves conditioned by the influences emanating from larger social forces.

This paper has attempted to show that the class, race, and cultural reproduction paradigms are at least three perspectives that merit consideration in spite of the fact that each is still problematic. Further, I believe that the intersectionality of all three has considerable explanatory power for understanding other superstructural issues in urban education such as desegregation, school finance, political influence distribution, interest group politics, teaching and learning as well as the relationship between urban educational institutions and the state.

The common materialist theoretical base shared by social and cultural reproduction theories and correspondence theories is well apparent. Not so obvious is the epistemological links, which critical race theory may have with these two perspectives. In this paper, I focused on the lineage of critical race theory that can be traced to legal scholars writing on race. This variant of critical race theory was chosen for review in the paper, since it is this approach that some scholars have attempted to introduce into the study of educational issues. Although it would appear from the works reviewed in this paper that race is analytically juxtaposed to class, I do not believe that the introduction of race as an analytical construct in the study of urban education necessarily represents an epistemological break with a materialist approach. Fields argues that race and class occupy different analytical spaces and thus cannot be offered as alternative explanatory schemas for each other (Fields, 1982). Fields suggest that while class can be objectively understood based on relations to the means of production, race as a construct lacks an objective base, since the notion that groups are biologically inferior is a spurious one. Race thus is an ideological construct rooted in historical events. From this vantage point, race is not transhistorical, and like the concept of class can be analytically located within a historical materialist framework. As an ideological construct race serves important mediating functions and is important to the understanding of hegemonic structures within the society. The urban education problematic, I contend must be placed within an analytical framework, which incorporates notions of race and class and the reproductive tendencies inhering in class and social formations.

The complexity of schooling in urban areas highlights the necessity for us to expand our theoretical focus. Slavish adherence to one or more epistemic orientation fails to provide an accurate accounting of this complexity. Livingston (1995) in a critique of some neo-Marxist schools writes:

Educational change is hardly an inevitable progression expressing the structural imperatives of capitalist production, nor is it merely the contingent expression of particular class conflicts. Rather, educational change is the indeterminate result of confrontations and negotiations between historically contingent groups of class-based agents, which are simultaneously constituted in gender and ethnic terms (p. 65).

How such constituted arrangements impact educational practice and relations within urban schools requires further theoretical elaboration and understanding.

In conclusion, schools must be understood as being highly permeable institutions. Their permeability suggests that our understanding of how they function and how to make them better must accommodate this knowledge. Moreover, there needs to be a greater emphasis on comparative research in urban education. Contemporary research on urban educational issues has tended to be fragmentary and primarily issue-based. A more comprehensive framework would help us to move beyond the fragmentation, which is now evident, and better inform social policy. As C. Wrights Mills noted: “The emphasis upon fragmenting practical social problems tends to atomize social objectives. The studies so informed are not integrated into designs comprehensive enough to serve collective action” (Wright Mills, 1943, quoted in Bash, Coulby & Jones,1985).

One could legitimately question the newness of the arguments raised in the paper. I would argue that it is important to revisit these issues, precisely because they have been lost in the current policy debates on urban schools. Scrutiny of recent federal and state policies, for example the school choice movement, privatization initiatives, and the federal No Child Left Behind Legislation clearly reveals a trend towards affixing the blame for educational problems on the schools themselves.



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1 This movement emerged during the 1960’s and seventies when a group of black legal scholars concerned with their marginalization within academia challenged the legal system.

2 For example, using qualitative inquiry and storytelling some scholars have begun to examine student resistance in urban contexts. Attempts have also been made to use CRT to examine issues related to curriculum.

3 Tracking has also been identified as one practice, which has deleteriously impacted poor and minority students.

4 See also Berlowitz (1994) critique on the failure of egalitarian educational reform. See reference for citation.

5 See Walker (in press).

6 See for example, Frederick Hess (1999) work on the politics of urban school reform.

Please cite the source as:

Walker, E. M. (2003). Race, class, and cultural reproduction: Critical theories in urban education. Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa, 5 (2). Retrieved month day, year from: