The Black Geographic: Charter Expansion and Politics in the Southern City
Rachel Williams

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of California, Berkeley

Primary Discipline

School choice evolved from an obstructionist tactic by white, middle-class families and policy makers determined to undermine desegregation efforts to a policy utilized by some advocates to (re)construct civil rights for Black communities (Scott, 2011; Orfield & Frankenberg, 2013). Since 1991, advocates offer charter schools as a policy lever to improve educational opportunities for Black students – with substantial federal and philanthropic support – despite mixed evidence on their effectiveness. Building on historical analyses that illuminate the ways school, housing, and city policies converged to construct racially segregated cities and suburbs in the post-World War II era (Erickson, 2016), this dissertation explores contemporary modes of segregation, such as exploitative housing policies and county secession, in relationship to charter growth in a majority Black city in the U.S. South. This case study integrates qualitative and spatial methods to examine the political, economic, and spatial dynamics shaping charter expansion in Memphis, Tennessee between 2008 and 2021. By exploring the contemporary implications of the historical relationship between Jim Crow era segregation, education policy, and unequal political and economic power, this case study illuminates the locally contingent processes that shape how charter schools take root in new places, while building knowledge on the structural conditions that shape Black politics in a majority Black U.S. Southern city. As the Southern plantation economy established the racial logics and ideological foundation that structured national institutions, this present-day analysis will illuminate continuity and change between segregation, capital, schools, and Black intra-racial politics within neoliberal political economy.
About Rachel Williams
Rachel Williams is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research agenda explores the linkages between the political economy, segregation, education policy, and Black politics. Her dissertation utilizes qualitative and spatial methods to examine the contemporary processes that reconfigure racial injustice under new terms at the intersection of public policy domains—housing, education, and district fragmentation. Rachel examines charter growth in relationship to new modes of segregation, such as predatory housing policies and county secession, while drawing linkages to Black politics in a majority Black city in the U.S. South. Rachel received a M.P.P. in Education Policy from Vanderbilt University and a B.A. in Psychology from Dillard University. Prior to graduate studies, she worked in the public policy and advocacy department at Illinois Action for Children.

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