Racism in our schools

Yet another study has come out, confirming what anyone with eyes and ears and a high school education should already know: Black students are treated less like students and more like potential criminals in our public schools. In this case, the study in question found that black students are FOUR TIMES more likely to be suspended than white kids for the SAME infractions, and that in middle and high school, they are likely to be treated as or more harshly for their FIRST infraction than white students are for their SECOND one. (https://www.marketwatch.com/story/black-children-are-more-likely-to-be-disciplined-than-white-kids-for-the-same-behavior-2019-10-16)

In that study, principals were asked to assign punishments and to decide whether students were “troublemakers” by reviewing similar scenarios in which the student had a “white” name or a “black” one. The results replicated what we see ANY time such a study is done, whether it’s in the arena of education, employment, housing, etc. Racism is very real in the culture in general. But it seems particularly poignant when it affects children too young to understand that they don’t deserve the treatment they receive and whose futures are seriously jeopardized by the actions of those tasked with setting them on the road to success. As lifelong educator myself, I have been, and continue to be, a part of this problem.

Why, when study after study shows the same results, hasn’t education as a discipline, cleaned up its racist act?

After all, Education should be the silver bullet when it comes to racism, right? It should be how we replace historical and cultural ignorance with an understanding of how this country used four hundred years of slave labor to establish itself as an economic leader, how lands were stolen from those who lived there for untold generations , leaving them to be treated as trespassers and worse, how our own founding fathers made sure that the playing field was not only raked in favor of white men, but that many of their fellow Americans weren’t even allowed in the game.

Education should be the first step in breaking free from the nightmare of racism. Instead, it is one of racism’s best tools in replicating itself. And it doesn’t start in a grade school teacher’s classroom. Or the principal’s office. It starts before teachers and administrators have their first contact with students.

I went to the most diverse (and socio-economically depressed) middle and high schools in my town. Because my schools were a combination of some of the best AND worst teachers I had experienced, I decided to become a teacher — in order to emulate the former and replace the latter. To become a teacher, I got a BA in my subject area, and completed a teacher education program at my university’s College of Education.

When I was training to teach high school, race was touched on in only one class: something called Multicultural concerns (it is now called Socio-cultural Concerns, but I’m willing to bet the reading list hasn’t changed in 20+ years.). When I took this class, I had some SMALL awareness of how race could impact a child’s education because I had seen the way it affected my friends in middle and high school. Our honors track at my high school, for example, had literally NO students of color for my “year” (class of 1985). Latinx students were regularly placed in remedial classes regardless of their ability of mastery of English. And white students regularly won athletic scholarships while black students could really only hope for athletic ones.

The rest of the Multicultural class was made up of white, middle/upper-middle class women preparing to be teachers (for all the wrong reasons, but that’s another discussion). In this, it looked like pretty much every other education class I took.

Throughout the class, we read interesting texts, full of first and third-person accounts of the very real impacts that current (and largely unchanged) educational system practices and personal prejudices cause for students of color (and for black and Latinx students specifically). The instructor was a white youngish man (there was almost no faculty of color at the College of Education at the time), and really tried to help the class see how black, brown, and poor students face overt obstacles, low expectations, are tracked into remedial classes, special ed, and other “alternative ed” programs, and are subject to the impact of personal interactions in the classroom that leave them with the clear message that they are “less than.”

All of this made sense to me because of my background: I had seen it in action, and these texts and the professor’s lectures just showed me how systemic these practices were. But every other student in the class fought back against this data.

And a large portion of their arguments (such as they were — mostly it was just flat-out denial) came down to their inability to see ANY experience different from their own. I and the instructor listened as racial epithets in the classroom were dismissively compared to “that one time my teacher yelled at me for borrowing a pencil for the umpteenth time.” Systemic tracking of black students into remedial classes was written off as “parents too lazy to work with their kids on their homework.” “Underperformance” on standardized tests was “lack of willingness to work” on the part of kids of color (despite the instructor talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, kids who got their one and only half decent meal of the day at school as part of the free-lunch programs, and the proven cultural bias of such tests (“They just need to stop thinking the rest of the world is gonna learn Ebonics!”).

My fellow students assumed that the material and cultural conditions of all students are identical to their own, growing up. Thus the needs of all students are identical. Thus no change is necessary on the part of the teacher, regardless of the make-up of the class. Thus failure can NEVER be the fault of the system. If white kids succeed, it’s PROOF that everyone else simply isn’t working hard enough. When you add this “righteous” justification to the fact that many people decide to become teachers simply because they had the educational system “dialed” as high schoolers, knowing how to put in a minimum of effort for maximum return (in the form of grades), and wanted to continue to exist in a system that had already benefited them so much, you can see how it becomes a cycle in which all the same mistakes are replicated endlessly.

The one thing that we were NEVER encouraged to do was to reflect on our actions. We were never taught about implicit bias. We were NEVER called out during our student teaching for ANYTHING that might have been impacted by implicit or overt bias. And after that class, race ceased to be an issue except when it came to choosing what schools we would work in (when those same students showed an amazing ability to suddenly “see” the color that they had, up to that moment, claimed didn’t exist in their eyes): they knew the schools with more black and brown kids were the most under-funded schools and thus, those were last on their future employment wish-list.

Which also meant that even those of us, like me, who stupidly thought we were more enlightened, were trained in a system that made it not just okay but even beneficial to ignore our own implicit bias, even up to the point of fostering “white savior” syndrome. After all, if you did actively choose to teach in my old high school, for example, it was widely acknowledged that you were making a sacrifice, that your job would be more difficult, you’d have less parental support, and you’d have to put more of your own money into your classroom. You were a “hero,” and told so both by your classmates AND your instructors and advisors.

A system like that is self-reinforcing, and you enter it the moment you decide to teach.

It’s also important to consider that colleges of education, rather than being places of innovation and new thought, are actually places where you are actively told to sit down and shut up and that whatever the current methodology is, it works equally well for ALL students. When you have (white) people going into a broken system and you are actively teaching them not to ask inconvenient questions, not to challenge the system, and not to reflect on their own part in supporting that system, it’s just a recipe for disaster for students who are not white, middle-class, and (often) male.

In the end, what this then boils down to is a situation where teachers can read all the studies on how black and brown children are under-served, over-disciplined, and tracked into the school-to-prison pipeline and always be thinking one of two things (based on their backgrounds). If they are like one of the women in my class, they think “there’s missing information that accounts for the real cause” (and sometimes, as we all know, that “real” cause is just that black and brown people are intellectually inferior and more violent). And if they are one of the “good liberals” like me, then this injustice is always something unfortunate that happens “over there” somewhere, and is NOT playing itself out in our classrooms (because we cannot see ourselves capable of this shit, when the truth is that we ALL — me included — are doing it all the time).

Because the system is so enclosed and controlled and punishes real reflection on classroom management outside of pure methodology, it seems that the only way to change the system is to recruit more teachers of color, and this starts with the colleges of Education hiring more professors of color. I don’t remember ANY professors of color in my years in my College of Education. Looking back now, only five faculty members out of sixty are black or brown. Yes, the Dean himself is black. But none of the professors in the graduate programs in “Equity and Diversity” appear to be black (and the one Lebanese professor is the only brown one). This is important for reasons beyond representation (which is itself powerful).

Because I don’t think that my classmates would have felt as comfortable assigning blame for racial injustice on black and brown children and their parents had they had to do that to a black professor (since, as I said, challenging power of current methodology — or your professors — is verbotten in most colleges of education). Had they been forced to LISTEN, rather than allowed to justify…had they had their own implicit bias pointed out to them in class by a Latina professor, as they were doing it, I think they might have actually absorbed some of the material as having a relation to their futures as teachers. Had I been challenged on these things, I likely would have made fewer mistakes than I did once I was in a classroom and lessened the damage I have done.

And race/gender/orientation/socioeconomic status needs to be something dealt with in ALL education classes. I started my teaching program in 1989, the same year Peggy McIntosh published “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and yet, in five years in that college, I never heard “white privilege” (or ANY kind of privilege) discussed, nor was I introduced to the idea that certain students carried heavier backpacks than I did. Either of these ideas would have been powerful messages for both me and my classmates. We were frequently presented with scenarios and potential solutions for our classrooms, for example, but race, gender, orientation, or socioeconomic status was never (except in the last case, since even white kids can be poor, I suppose) part of those scenarios. Such thought experiments should include all these elements and we should be asked to think them through IN LIGHT of these heavier backpacks.

But that’s not enough. We really need to actively recruit black and brown people to be teachers. And we need to do it WITHOUT putting them in a bad place economically (because teachers’ salaries already suck). We need to offer top-performing high school black and brown students a cost-free college education in exchange for going into teaching (so no college loans to financially cripple them), and cash incentives (paid yearly as a bonus, maybe — haven’t figured that part out) for them to teach in schools with higher populations of students of color. This will help everyone, regardless of their racial or any other status. After all, studies also show that students — whatever their skin tone — prefer teachers of color. (https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/10/07/496717541/study-finds-students-of-all-races-prefer-teachers-of-color)

We also need to remember that the tone of a school is set by the principal and others in the office, and so training in school administration needs to include a heavy emphasis on implicit bias. If we also required principals — and others involved in discipline — to track their disciplining of students and then fed those metrics BACK to them AND made them part of reports on their school, that would go far in remedying the problem. School staff in charge of discipline aren’t tracked on most of this stuff now unless they are actively part of a study. But wouldn’t it be great to be able, as a parent, look at your local schools’ rating and see a metric about the equity of discipline dispensed and the performance of students of color compared to white students before deciding whether to send you child there or ask for a school variance? More school administrators of color would be excellent as well, preferably recruited from among successful teachers in the same schools, if possible.

To be clear, none of this is meant as an excuse for current teachers or administrators — “they didn’t teach me to understand bias!” — because there isn’t one. Being is an enclosed system that reproduces racism is no more forgiveable than being your average white person who doesn’t give a damn about racism or who “doesn’t see color.” We all have eyes. We all have ears. And the truth is there for those who want to begin the life-long journey of anti-racism.

The two differences I see between generic racism and educational racism are that one, this involves kids, and if your job is kids, then it is part of your job description as a teacher to pull your head out of your ass to try to understand the challenges students of color face and how you are either adding to that burden or trying to relieve it. If you cannot do that, you have no business in a classroom with children of ANY color, since you are just replicating harm and those who harm.

And two, this is a good place to start as a culture. If we can place teachers in our classrooms who understand (or better, experienced) implicit bias, then not only can we change the experience of the students in the classroom, but we can change the sensitivity of ALL children to these obstacles and harmful behaviors. They can help white students to see the racism they are conditioned to and act in support of, and they can help black and brown children by giving them better support in navigating (and not internalizing) that racism. And because education is a closed system, the minute we start generating STUDENTS who have this more enlightened perspective, we can encourage them to stay in that system by becoming teachers, and then admins, and then college professors at colleges of education. (It would be faster to do this top down, but I honestly don’t think we are willing to do that because it would require more abrupt admission that the system is rigged.) Once it’s in the system, it’ll be hard to shake.

I realize that, in the solutions I am proposing, I am putting a lot of this labor on black and brown people. But I don’t think there’s another way, if only because we, as white people, are too blind, too untrustworthy, and too inculcated to create the level of change necessary. After all, there are PLENTY of “good liberal” whites already teaching in the school system, and we haven’t moved the needle.

I also think that black and brown teachers and administrators leading the way is one of the quickest ways to effect change at the societal level because it would put an end to the ways we damage black and brown children in the environment they are required to be in by law. Remove that damage, and black and brown children will grow up with less self-doubt, confusion, pain, and fear as adults. They are owed that freedom — it is long overdue. But I no longer feel as though that’s something that a white-led education system can deliver.

Instead, we need to remember that our first duty is to the students, and our students benefit from having teachers of color in the classroom and in the school office. White teachers, administrators and professors have failed to correct the racism that plagues the school system ourselves. We need to be prepared to elevate those who can, and to learn from them. We owe our students nothing less.

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Laura Akers

Laura Akers

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