Politics Over Progress: Roc Nation Criticism Highlights Lessons About Progressives From Our Past

AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file

Consistent with America’s past, progressives claim to push for equality for all yet cleave to political norms that stifle transformative change for those who need it the most.

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It’s not often that two men known by the letters of their names – one who rapped about “…a hard knock life…” and one who spent his career making Americans’ lives smoother – can be mentioned in the same sentence.

And yet, with the efforts of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to inform Philadelphians of the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success through events from June 10 through June 21, the Brooklyn native and the late Nobel Prize winner — MLK Jr. — now share a bond in the never-ending fight for equality in America. Ironically, they share another unanticipated tie as well: critiques of their well-intended sacrifice by “allies” that suddenly opposed their tactics and approaches based on differing views on the immediacy of a moment in the march for what’s right.

“There is no tactical solution in place from the state, and children are being forced to wait for answers,” Roc Nation noted in a press release earlier this month. “With every year that goes by, more and more children – particularly from poor districts – are missing out on learning opportunities and failing to maximize the full scope of their academic potential.”

Despite Roc Nation’s concern for immediate remedy for students stuck in failing school systems, critics of Jay Z have been quick to comment on his involvement, with one noted progressive saying that she “…really wish(es) rich, out-of-touch folks who (know) nothing about education would just stop…” being involved in the fight for better scholastic results for kids. Others have made the moral fight for education equality to be nothing more than a political football of racial divisiveness. They parrot worn-out talking points – that Roc Nation’s support is nothing more than a “…campaign…to convince poor Black parents to leave the public schools…” and minimize the concern as nothing more than a move to unwittingly support “Republican-led legislation,”  despite school choice efforts being led by folks like award-winning journalist Roland Martin and award-winning educators Dr. Steve Perry, Dr. Howard Fuller, and Dr. Geoffrey Canada for years.

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Insinuations oddly mirror the tone that MLK’s critics said of him throughout his career. He routinely faced upside-down favorability ratings after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but Dr. King’s most notable criticism came from his “allies” as he sat in the Birmingham City Jail. So-called supporters publicly questioned King and his civil rights cohorts, indicating that, in essence, MLK’s intentions (like Jay-Z’s) might be ok, but the actions taken were  “activity” that was out-of-the-norm and deemed “extreme” in the struggle for civil rights.  

And whereas the legacies and themes of their careers do not mirror each other, in the instance of advancing equality – in this instance, in education – there is a parallel. For both men, they prompted a push for transformative action that supersedes the modus operandi after years of frustrating negotiations, empty promises of change, and a legacy of death and despair making ruins of the communities they professed to love. For both men, there was some action to carry the masses past insufficient glacial change, past a history that highlights that adequate improvements and ongoing infusions of hope will only come through a bold embrace of new policies and approaches to education.

In today’s turbulent times, the American progressive pushes for the audacity of hope and the immediacy of ground-breaking action. Why not in education?

Rarely does the contemporary progressive in America advocate for slow movement to address chronic woes ailing our nation. Not with gun violence, where bi-partisan approaches to the Second Amendment and gun ownership have been tackled in big cities by the land’s highest court. Not with criminal justice reform, where calls for sensible reforms were recently hijacked by demands for police abolition and defunding of police forces.  Not with election reform, where the results of the 2016 election prompted some to call for the abolishment of the Electoral College.

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Only in the push for empowering policies within K-12 education have progressives been so willing to tell a historically debased community of Americans to temper their anger and, in essence, “…still creep at horse-and-buggy pace…” toward effective, long-lasting relief. Their fixation on political loyalties (and subsequent campaign funding) makes them contradict their tenor for immediate (and even radical) change on other issues by standing in the doorway to block education freedom for thousands. They serve as a line of defense promoting a dysfunctional system that has always been poisoned to its roots, origins grounded in the days of racist redlining and its impact on neighborhood (and de facto segregated and discriminatory) public schools.

Modern progressivism betrays their political titleage. Just like their predecessors from the 1950s and 1960s, in their unwillingness to step out in boldness as a collective force for good in education freedom, they echo the reservation to “…make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble…” on the right side of history, even if that means opposing friends during our “…struggle of a lifetime…” in education. Instead, they reflexively criticize folks such as Jay-Z and others who, despite their varying backgrounds, understand the crisis in education stemming from years of neglect and months of learning loss post-COVID.

Even those who claim the best of intents can have the worst of impacts, as MLK noted when he bemoaned from that Birmingham jail cell that he was “…gravely disappointed…I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the… Ku Klux Klanner…but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action’…who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom… who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait…Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

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In MLK’s day, they were called “moderates.” Today, they call themselves progressives, but like in MLK’s letter, they stymie progress through allegiance to the status quo of political and social order in education rather than to true justice. They paternalistically believe that progress for others will come, but only through their broken methods and sluggish timetables. Their title – “progressive” – thus comes with an asterisk. After all, as they put systems over students, their push for progress and relief for the oppressed stops at the gates of a schoolyard.

In MLK’s day, the “myth of time” was the notion that the pace of racial integration and civil rights was too radical and too fast, even though the injustice they confronted was over 100 years in the making. In today’s time, the “myth of time” is the notion that Black families should eschew school choice policies and “give public education more time,” even as the injustice for them in public schools around Pennsylvania and America is also over 100 years and ongoing.

Jay-Z and Roc Nation – much like millions of other Americans over recent years – see that the lessons from that Birmingham Jail apply now in the fight for education freedom. The time is now, and it takes our action now to be the change that we seek. As MLK said, we must oppose “…the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills…Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers (sic) with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

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Who knows this pain of “social stagnation” more in modern America than those stuck in failing school systems for generations? Despite staffing increases and funding bumps, and while failing to dip into emergency funding and $6.8 billion statewide in school reserves to help students more, it’s these students – primarily Black and Brown Americans who disproportionately enroll in charter schools in Pennsylvania and overwhelming support school choice expansion nationally – who are left behind. Without transformative change now, they flounder on the periphery of the American Dream, unable to overcome the restraints of poverty without a quality education yet unable to secure a quality education without escaping the restraints of the catchment-style system of traditional public schools. They are the ones who, in words spoken during the March on Washington, “…cannot stop…and…will not and cannot be patient…” They are the ones who, without a fundamental and immediate change, might need upwards of 287 years to catch up to the academic norm in America (as noted by Dr. Steve Perry). They are the ones who vote overwhelmingly with progressive politicians, only for these elected officials to vote overwhelmingly against immediate education empowerment.

That’s why we need to transform education right now for the sake of today’s students, not broken systems. Progressives criticizing folks like Jay-Z need to pay attention. Now is the time to act. We need to transform education right now for the sake of today’s students, not broken systems. Through Jay Z’s activism and public stance in this education fight, it’s clear that – unlike progressives for years – he “…can't turn my back on the hood, I got love for them…” 

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Lenny McAllister is a Sr. Fellow for Commonwealth Foundation and previously served as CEO of the PA Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

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