Domingo Morel’s Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy makes this simple assertion about what Morel calls “conservative logic”: that not only are Blacks “not fit to lead their own communities but that they are not responsible stewards of their own children’s education and well-being” (131). Today, this shift, from public authority to private control under the guise of market efficiency and accountability, is called neoliberalism. But in the case of Black spaces, neoliberalism has become a technocratic term to obscure the racial politics that underlies the particular ways in which democracy and equity is applied to Black spaces and bodies. Morel’s work shows that the practice of school district takeovers; and alongside of it, the imposition of “emergency management” of Black jurisdictions like Flint, Michigan, rests not on the imperatives of neoliberalism as is often asserted but rather on a much longer and toxic history of racial politics. Takeover delivers quantitative evidence to substantiate a trend that to date has been lacking in empirical support: that there is an uneven imposition of state takeovers of school districts on those districts whose student bodies are majority Black or Brown and whose jurisdiction lies within local governments that are themselves places with a high degree of Black and/or Brown political empowerment. Morel shows that state takeovers are not about delivering quality education; instead, they are foremost about curbing Black control over public resources. This latter impulse, of Black disempowerment, has a long ugly history from the post–Reconstruction Era onward.

One of the first things that Morel accomplishes is a swift dismantling of the claims and inconsistencies “conservative logic” has made or embraced to justify state takeovers. Marshalling an extensive range of data, Morels finds that “concerns with low academic performance alone do not explain state takeovers.” Second, Morel finds that performance alone doesn’t explain why Black (and less so Brown) districts are almost exclusively subject to the “most punitive [kinds] of state takeover” (72). And third, Morel argues that the idea of takeovers is “puzzling” given that research shows that collaboration among education stakeholders, parents, teachers, administrators, communities, and elected officials is most effective for bringing about education improvement.

These puzzles are easily understood if we view takeovers not as a series of technocratic policy fixes or even a result of a moral crusade on behalf of Black /Brown children, but rather as the result of political battles that date from the Black and Brown citizenship claims emerging out of the 1960s and their instantiation into Black and Brown urban regimes. In short, Morel argues that “racial politics” has been a major factor in the emergence of state takeovers. The path toward the emergence of state takeovers as an instrument wielded by opponents of Black empowerment was not straightforward. Morel shows how a post–New Deal, Great Society–fueled “federal-urban” axis nurtured the emergence of Black urban regimes. Support for this “federal-urban” axis was waning by the time of the Nixon administration, which in turn facilitated a decisive shift toward what Morel called a “federal-state” axis of power. Although rising conservatism shaped this latter set of arrangements, the rise of state-level power was also fueled by resistance to local Black empowerment and the policy successes this empowerment had achieved. Under the federal-state axis, state-elected officials began a process of centralizing more power and diminishing the clout of cities, especially cities that were majority Black and/or Brown.

Morel’s investigation into the emergence of “takeover” as both ideology and tool shows us the new actors and organizations that would help to build an intellectual and policy justification for the seizure of power from Black jurisdictions, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (both founded in 1973) and the Cato Institute (founded in 1976). Many of these organizations helped to create and spread “conservative logic” as well as the rhetoric of education reform as a more palatable and technocratic response to deny or delay Black and Brown demands for equity and inclusion.

While actors at the federal level played a role in formulating the idea of state takeover, it was state politics that played the key role in shaping how takeovers would unfold, which communities would benefit, and which communities would be harmed. Democratic state politics often heavily relies on a state’s urban electorate, and in the case of New Jersey, is heavily reliant on Newark and the surrounding Essex County Democratic machine. By contrast, Republicans represent the state’s White suburban voters. In the face of the rising cost of living, and a state economy transitioning from manufacturing to a service-based economy, education equity groups made a successful case for dramatic changes in state funding of local education that helped to maintain disparities between the state’s still very much racially segregated suburbs. Republican politicians were successful in persuading their White suburban supporters to believe that Black residents were undeserving recipients of their “hard earned” tax dollars. Why were they—hard-working taxpayers—“riding in Fords [cars]” while inner-city Black and Brown residents were being offered “Mercedes”? The solution offered by Governor Tom Kean was to impose “accountability” measures on the districts eligible for fiscal equalization. “Corruption,” “graft,” and “incompetence” would have to be rooted out in order to justify equalization of education spending. Only when these systems were “turned around” from their condition of “academic bankruptcy” could issues of school funding be addressed. As Morel shows, the roots of school takeovers were the racial politics of the 1970s. The education reform movement, birthed out of events such as the 1983 Nation at Risk report, simply provided a new rhetoric to sustain a long-standing pattern of minority disempowerment.

Morel also shows that a state takeover is a much more nuanced political process. While a state takeover and accompanying oversight might seem to act like an on/off switch, but in practice—in Newark, New Jersey, and Central Falls, Rhode Island—it was actually more of an accelerator/brake system. A fluid group of actors battled over the expansion and contraction of state oversight: Republican versus Democratic governors; local communities and their elected officials; education leaders ranging from the state superintendent to state-installed district superintendents, teachers and staff, and parents. In the case studies presented by Morel, as well as in current events, we see that at certain points, state oversight may be dominant, imposing not only cutbacks in funding but also requirements to open up charter schools alongside the closure of neighborhood schools. At other points, the state may step back, allowing for a simulacrum of local control. Yet even in the latter scenario, all the players recognize the state of affairs as temporary, lasting only until a friendly Democratic governor is replaced with its Republican opposite. In Newark, this push-pull would come to a head with the election of Cory Booker as mayor of Newark and Chris Christie as a “Blue state” Republican governor with national ambitions. It was this moment that Newark’s system underwent a full neoliberal assault.

Studies of urban neoliberalism have suggested that the “grip of neoliberalism” on our collective political imagination is so tight that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to it. Morel’s work shows that while racial politics may have led to the expansion of neoliberalism as a tool to advance disempowerment, his case studies of Central Falls and Newark suggest that “racial politics” can provide an organizational basis of opposition. Racial politics coupled with the development of broad-based coalitions and solidarities can act as a counterbalance to the rollout of neoliberal governance, sometimes temporarily halting its expansion or, as in the case of Newark, significantly rolling it back.

Morel’s Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy is a significant work that provides an empirical as well as political understanding of why and how Black and Brown communities are targeted for democratic dismantling and neoliberal governance. In both case studies—Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Newark, New Jersey—ongoing political organizing and the creation and development of social and community solidarity within these targeted communities can lay the groundwork for a potentially permanent restoration of local control, and a blueprint for resistance for other communities in the future.

Kimberley S. Johnson
New York University