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Self-Determination for Who?

The Case of Ras Baraka’s Neoliberal Newark

Newark mayor Cory Booker garnered national accolades, and tens of millions in foundation funding, to advance his neoliberal reform agenda for the city’s public schools. Locally, though, he was met by a wave of popular opposition to his privatization drive and thus decided on an exit to the US Senate. His successor, Ras Baraka, rode that opposition to the city hall, though the demands of this movement also conflicted with his economic development agenda. John Arena looks at how Black self-determination ideology helped manage the contradictory pressures facing the self-described radical mayor.

Series: Black Power and Black Self-Determination in a New Time and New Spaces

No city in the United States, majority African American or otherwise, is more closely identified in the public imaginary with the politics of Black Power and Self-Determination than Newark, New Jersey. This is due, in great part, to the Herculean work and legacy of the city’s most famous radical, Amiri Baraka. Despite his impressive accomplishments, Baraka’s efforts to forge Black Power through “unity without uniformity”—the theme of the 1972 National Black “Gary” Convention, the high-water mark of the Black Power movement –ultimately collapsed under the sharpening class and other differences that increasingly divided a putative “black community.”

In Newark, the denouement of “unity without uniformity”, or at least its limits, occurred in 1974. Nearing the end of his first term, Mayor Gibson, who became city’s first black mayor thanks to Baraka’s organizing acumen, failed to support the latter’s efforts to construct an Afro-centric housing development in the city’s North Ward. This was, from the perspective of Gibson’s Black Power supporters, the culmination of a series of betrayals at achieving Black self-determination, that is to “nationalize the city’s institutions as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola.” [1] This all led to a definitive political break between Amiri Baraka and his supporters and the mayor they had put in office just four years earlier.

Amiri Baraka’s aborted attempt to operationalize Black self-determination in Newark occurred during the mid‑1970s transition from what David Harvey called the “managerialst” city of the Keynesian era to the rise of “neoliberal entrepreneurial” regimes. Four decades later, his son Ras Baraka, as I document in my book Expelling Public Schools: How Antiracist Politics Enable School Privatization in Newark, rode to the Newark mayor’s office on the back of a movement opposing a core component of Cory Booker’s by-then crisis-ridden, neoliberal regime—the privatization of public schools. [2] Ironically, the efforts to privatize public education drew inspiration and legitimation as an anti-racist effort from the “the black independent school movement” that Baraka’s father, and other Black Power activists had advanced. These private school initiatives, such as Newark’s “African Free School”, that Black Power activists undertook were projected as central to achieving the movement’s goals of community control, ending the racist psychological damage inflicted on black students by public schools, and constructing “the prospective infrastructure for an independent black nation.” [3]

Cory Booker and the “new civil rights movement of our day”

In neoliberal Newark, the spearhead of the school privatization movement, and one of its most prominent faces nationally, was Cory Booker, the city’s third African American mayor. Arriving in Newark in 1997, Booker hit the ground running as he was elected to a Central Ward council seat in 1998, ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 2002, and then won a four-year term in 2006. During his ascent Booker challenged the James-led “black urban regime”—black-led, majority black cities, with the black mayors backed by a majority black electoral coalition—form of municipal government that had governed the city since the early 1970s. While James enthusiastically embraced and implemented neoliberal urban restructuring, such as overseeing mass demolition of the city’s public housing and providing subsidies for downtown redevelopment, his support did not extend to school reform. In contrast, Booker championed “school choice”—privatization in the form of vouchers and later charters—as his key public policy initiative, with his national “coming out” being a 2000 address to the conservative Manhattan Institute on the topic.

Booker and other backers of school privatization portrayed their Wall Street-backed efforts—a 2009 New York Times exposé [4] placed hedge fund capitalists “at the movement’s epicenter”—as “the Civil Rights Movement of our Day” to end inequality in education. That is, like their Black Power predecessors, privatization was wrapped as a progressive, empowering endeavor. Though, for the neoliberal anti-racists, inequality, most starkly reflected in educational achievement gaps between white students and their African American and Latino counterparts, was defined as the central problem to be overcome through privatization. The movement’s solution to address these racial inequalities was, consistent with neoliberal principles, state intervention to create market options. To achieve real equal opportunity required breaking up the state monopoly of public schools by providing parents, especially African American and Latino, with educational market alternatives. The movement, therefore, was essentially a neoliberal version of what political scientist Preston Smith II calls “racial democracy”, one that aims for radical “equal opportunity” within a capitalist society. That is, the aim is not to eradicate inequality, but rather have it—the “goods” and “bads” of capitalism—evenly distributed by race, gender, sexuality and other ascriptive categories. [5]

Once taking office in 2006, Booker collaborated with what sociologist Linsey McGoey terms “philanthrocapitalist” foundations, including Gates, Walton, Jobs, and Fischer, to significantly expand charter schools in the city. [6] Then, in 2010, after the election of Republican governor Chris Christie, and a $100 million matching grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Booker worked with the new state-appointed superintendent to impose a shock-therapy, mass privatization remaking of the public school system. The model for Booker and Christie was post-Katrina New Orleans, where the city’s corporate elite, with assistance from Democrats and Republicans, at all levels of the state, used the 2005 disaster to privatize the city’s public schools—along with the city’s public housing and public hospital—and break the teachers’ union, the largest in Louisiana. In contrast to the New Orleans experience, Newark’s elite-driven movement to privatize the city’s public schools galvanized a mass movement of parents, students, community activists and dissident members of the Newark Teachers’ Union to defend the city’s public schools. In the face of this movement, Booker decided against a third term and instead made an early 2013 exit to the US Senate. In the ensuing mayoral race Ras Baraka, then a city councilman and high school principal, rode the opposition to city hall.

Managing contradictions through self-determination ideology

Ras Baraka faced a real conundrum in his 2014 race to become mayor of his beloved hometown. In his ascent to power he identified himself as a champion of the disruptive social movement fighting to defend the city’s public schools in the face of Booker’s elite-backed effort to charter the district. At the same time, Baraka was committed to a rent-intensification development of which charter schools, with many of the new shining school buildings located in the downtown area, were a central component. His campaign reflected these contradictory pressures. On one hand Baraka gave fiery speeches at rallies defending public schools and provided activists a platform to address students at Central High School where he was the principal. On the other he worked to disabuse the local corporate elite of the “mythology that’s out there around who I am and my family.” In a gathering of the city’s corporate elite, soon after launching his electoral insurgency, he reassured them that:

I’m not green. I don’t have horns coming out of my head. I don’t breathe fire. I’m not going to shut downtown down. I’m not going to close all the charter schools. [7]

Despite these reassurances, the election was widely understood as a referendum on charter schools, with Baraka’s opponent, attorney Shavar Jeffries, being a leading “school choice” activist heavily backed by Wall Street. [8] Baraka counterbalanced Jeffries’ money power with the disruptive power of the movement defending public schools, with the largest source of his campaign contributions coming from labor unions. How would Baraka continue to manage these competing claims—between his movement-backers committed to defending public schools by stopping the expansion of charters, if not their roll back, while his corporate governing partners championed an opposing agenda?

Figure 1. 2014 Baraka for Mayor campaign mailer

Ironically, Baraka’s ostensible bête noire—the crude, bullying, Newark-born, and suburban-bred, white Republican governor, Chris Christie—provided crucial assistance to the self-described “radical mayor” in managing his administration’s central contradiction. In 1995, as part of a growing state and national trend, Republican Governor Christine Whitman ordered the state takeover of the Newark public schools, and the following year she signed legislation establishing the state’s first charter schools. Newark’s first charters opened in 1997 and began a significant increase under Booker’s first term (2006–2010).

The solution to Baraka’s contradictory project came through severing the struggles for self- determination from that of stopping and rolling back privatization. Therefore, the demand for a return of Newark’s public schools to “local control”—or, in more radical verbiage, for “self-determination”— became the rallying cry of the Baraka campaign and even more so once taking power. And Christie, with his regular invective, helped underscore the racist edge of his rule and the need for local control. In the face of calls for removal of the state-appointed school superintendent, Christie let it be regularly known that “We run the school district in Newark, not”, in a demeaning, thinly-veiled racist reference, “them”. [9] The pugnacious Christie, whose calling card was bullying public school teachers, helped make it easier for Baraka to direct the focus of his allied-movement toward “self-determination” and away from a struggle against privatization.

Baraka centered the first year of his administration on this class balancing act. On one side he worked to reassure the charters that he was not their enemy, including by bringing them and their movement opponents together in his November 2014 “Newark Education Convention: Reclaiming a Village” gathering. While during the campaign he denounced the privatizers for cynically invoking the civil rights movement to advance their agenda, he now bestowed legitimacy on these claims. At the same time, in concert with the Newark Student Union, he stepped up pressure to remove Cami Anderson—the Christie-appointed superintendent—and regain local control. These efforts reached a crescendo in May 2015 with a massive student walkout that converged on city hall and then proceeded to block traffic on a major thoroughfare. The following month, as Christie was gearing up for his Presidential run, Governor Christie and Mayor Baraka announced a deal to remove Anderson and name a new superintendent—one also very central the charter movement—to oversee, in collaboration with Baraka, the return of the city’s public schools to local control.

Figure 2. May 22, 2015, Student Walkout and Rally at Newark City Hall

Photo courtesy of Nyle Fort.

As Baraka successfully turned the eyes of his supporters to the prize of self-determination, the movement fighting the spread of privatization faded. Thus, two years after the Christie-Baraka accord, the mayor had no problem gathering both charter and public school partisans at the “emancipation celebration” to mark the state board of education voting to restore local control powers to the Newark board of education. Baraka was able to pull off this feat since, as he emphasized at the gathering, the struggle was always about “local control”, not privatization.

The further proliferation of charters during Baraka’s first term underscored that privatization was indeed not the issue, at least for his administration. But the continued march of the market also exposed the hollowness of the “local control” victory since the Newark school board exercised no control over the privately run, yet publicly funded charters—with a progressively larger chunk of funding taken from the Newark public schools budget to operate them. Indeed, Baraka’s channeling of the movement into a purely racial democratic struggle, by jettisoning the fight over privatization, made a mockery of the claims that Newark had achieved “self-determination”. But the ideology and practice of self-determination, which informed the struggles of Amiri Baraka and other Black Power activists in the 1960s and 1970s, did prove particularly useful for shoring up the neoliberal rule of one its progeny.

Harold Cruse famously critiqued Black Power exponents as casting “a revolutionary sounding theme” while in “substance was, in fact, a methodological retreat” from its revolutionary pretensions. [10] In the Newark case, the exponents of “local control”, i.e. “self-determination”, projected the Black Power-inspired slogan as a radical challenge to the neoliberal agenda, but ended up using it as ideological cover for its own retreat. Would Cruse be surprised?

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To cite this article:

John Arena, “Self-Determination for Who?. The Case of Ras Baraka’s Neoliberal Newark”, Metropolitics, 17 November 2023. URL :

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