Breaking Away, Together: Conceptions of the Public and Democratic Practice in School District Secession Movements

Authors: Alice Huff*, UCLA
Topics: Urban Geography, Political Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: school district secession, racial violence, neoliberalization, geographies of education, local control, politics of place
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: 8228, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The U.S. has a long history of school district secession explicitly aimed at securing white supremacy. The phenomenon is once again on the rise. In recent years, however, wealthier, whiter communities attempting to break away from majority-black urban districts have described their motivations primarily in terms of a desire for local control. In this paper I examine spatialized and racialized conceptions of belonging in school district secession narratives for insight into how neoliberalization, racial violence, and democratic imaginaries shape the politics of place. Drawing on publicly circulated commentary on school district secession in three Southern cities, I find that while contemporary secession narratives deploy rhetoric associated with neoliberalization and color-blind racism, these influences manifest in unexpected, even contradictory, ways. For instance, while supporters of school district secession tend to support competition, limited government and freedom from taxation, they also engage others in collective efforts to form and fund new systems of public governance. Similarly, while contemporary secession narratives tend to avoid references to race through appeals for local control, when proponents of secession do discuss race they often do so in ways not entirely anticipated by theorizations of color-blind racism; they acknowledge the severity of racial inequality but excuse themselves from addressing it. I argue that shifting conceptions of the public and democratic practice make these contradictions more intelligible. While the dominant secessionist conception of the public is not as narrow as is sometimes argued, it is also not robust enough to promote more just geographies of education.

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