Manufacturing Failure: Race, Revitalization and the Takeover of Detroit Public Schools

Posted: 27 Nov 2018

See all articles by AJ Rice

AJ Rice

Michigan State University - African American and African Studies

Date Written: November 18, 2018


Since 1999, the right to self-govern has been severely restricted in the nation’s largest Black public-school district. Only controlled by the local, democratically elected school board for five years during that period, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and its leadership has been portrayed by the media, business leaders, and educational philanthropists as a “failure” and in need of “educational reform.” This paper asks the following questions: How did the education reform movement affect Detroit’s public-school system from 1999-2017? What has education reform meant to parents/guardians who had children enrolled in DPS during the period of emergency management, from 2009-2017? Using discourse analysis and in-depth interviews with Detroit residents, this paper examines Michigan’s takeover of DPS, which resulted in the removal of the city’s elected school officials. The paper consists of four main arguments. First, it demonstrates how white elites discursively represent(ed) Detroit’s public-school system as “failed” and mobilized an ostensibly benign rhetoric of “education reform” to enable the creation of educational markets in the city. Second, this paper describes how the project of urban education reform is deeply intertwined with the corporate-driven “revitalization” of Detroit and the rise of political and economic inequality in the metropolitan region. Third, I illustrate the ways the neoliberal education reform movement represents a direct assault on the autonomy of Black urban governance and citizenship. And finally, I show how emerging forms of local resistance by Black community members are challenging the marketization of public education in the largest chocolate city of the United States. While dominant research on neoliberalism, globalization, and urban development centers class as the significant driver of spatial, political, and economic change, this paper draws on the fields of urban studies, Black politics, and education studies, and demonstrates how racial oppression remains a cornerstone of local and global processes of urban restructuring within the “new” Detroit. By interrogating the connections between urban “revitalization”/dispossession and the politics of educational reform, this project reveals capitalism’s continued dependence on both economic exploitation and racial oppression, while capturing the struggles of Detroit’s residents to maintain and reimagine Black self-determination.

Keywords: Detroit, Education Reform, Racial Capitalism, Neoliberalism, Revitalization

Suggested Citation

Rice, AJ, Manufacturing Failure: Race, Revitalization and the Takeover of Detroit Public Schools (November 18, 2018). 2019 National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS) Annual Meeting. Available at SSRN:

AJ Rice (Contact Author)

Michigan State University - African American and African Studies ( email )

East Lansing, MI
United States

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