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Literacy and Racial Justice

Literacy and Racial Justice

The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education

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Catherine Prendergast. Foreword by Gloria Ladson-Billings


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
224 pages, 6 x 9, 2 illustrations


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About the Book

In anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Catherine Prendergast draws on a combination of insights from legal studies and literacy studies to interrogate contemporary multicultural literacy initiatives, thus providing a sound historical basis that informs current debates over affirmative action, school vouchers, reparations, and high-stakes standardized testing.

As a result of Brown and subsequent crucial civil rights court cases, literacy and racial justice are firmly enmeshed in the American imagination—so much so that it is difficult to discuss one without referencing the other. Breaking with the accepted wisdom that the Brown decision was an unambiguous victory for the betterment of race relations, Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education finds that the ruling reinforced traditional conceptions of literacy as primarily white property to be controlled and disseminated by an empowered majority. Prendergast examines civil rights era Supreme Court rulings and immigration cases spanning a century of racial injustice to challenge the myth of assimilation through literacy. Advancing from Ways with Words, Shirley Brice Heath’s landmark study of desegregated communities, Prendergast argues that it is a shared understanding of literacy as white property which continues to impact problematic classroom dynamics and education practices.

To offer a positive model for reimagining literacy instruction that is truly in the service of racial justice, Prendergast presents a naturalistic study of an alternative public secondary school. Outlining new directions and priorities for inclusive literacy scholarship in America, Literacy and Racial Justice concludes that a literate citizen is one who can engage rather than overlook longstanding legacies of racial strife.


Catherine Prendergast is an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Educational Review, Written Communication, CCC, and JAC; and she is the recipient of the 1999 CCCC Richard Braddock Award for her article, “Race: The Absent Presence in Composition Studies.”


“This is an ambitious book that lives up to its promise. It moves deftly between theory and practice and destabilizes many taken for granted notions of what it means to be a literate U.S. citizen. It unearths the privilege and arrogance of both the legal and educational establishments and promotes expansive thinking in both arenas. It is a breath of fresh air in what has been a very stale atmosphere.”

—Gloria Ladson-Billings, from the Foreword