Race-Consciousness and Majority-White Schools in the Wake of a National Movement Against Institutional Racism
On June 8, the Franklin County School Board in Virginia voted to amend its dress code to ban clothing displaying the Confederate flag. The ban passed 6-to-0, with two members of the eight-seat board abstaining. The vote indicated a radical shift in consciousness on the Franklin County School Board, which six months earlier had voted 7-to-1 against a proposed amendment to ban displays of the Confederate flag on students' clothing. The leading advocate for the ban was Penny Blue, the board’s sole African American member, who first raised the issue in October 2019, citing “racial strife” as the basis for taking proactive measures to head off future racially incentivized encounters.
Located south of Roanoke, Franklin County School District is 78 percent White and is considered one of the least diverse districts in the Virginia public school system, which averages 51 percent of students of color. The reverse in direction over Confederate flag apparel was seemingly inspired by several Black Lives Matter demonstrations undertaken by Franklin County students and alumni in the days following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, in addition to the news about the February 23 vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Some celebrated the vote as a sign of widespread change. “If Franklin County can ban the confederate flag,” posted James Madison University student Kristin Leigh on Twitter, “ANY district can.” Conversely, complaints from the community have been predictably omnipresent, with one such comment charging, “Southern heritage banned by 1 BLM member! Americans always kneel down to minorities-sickening!”
Making a public statement about Black Lives Matter and systemic racism has become apropos for a cross-section of vocations, ranging from corporate firms, professional sports leagues, and governing bodies. But for school district leaders, especially in majority-white districts, the moment seems especially weighty, as many of those marching in the streets and engaged in ethical discourse with peers via social media are high school students. These students are expecting both guidance and support by the very public institutions that were designed as a people’s college, responsible for the tuition and well-being of all students regardless of birth or circumstance.
To that end, all stakeholders in the education field are hard-pressed to both acknowledge the varying modes that racism pervades school governance and to articulate a response to how institutionalized forms of oppression engendering school policy will be confronted before schools reopen in August. No professional involved in educating America’s children — either through direct instruction or board election oversight — is any longer pardoned of this obligation; from school directors, superintendents, principals and teachers to school board associations and state education secretaries. Franklin County School Board has provided an appropriate example of courage for others to confront this reckoning.
Although holes have always existed in the public school system, a good place to start is the landmark decision issued in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. While the court’s unanimous May 17, 1954 ruling ended segregated schools in the South, the justices failed to deliver important details about how desegregation would function. At the second hearing on Brown in the spring of 1955 to determine the process of desegregation, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that schools should desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” The ruling created a misleading sensation about the Supreme Court’s intentions to end separate and unequal aspects of schooling in America.
On one hand, schools found ways to delay court-ordered integration through either a protracted one-class-at-a-time step-ladder arrangement of integration or “freedom-of-choice” plans that gave families the option to attend a school of their choosing in the school district. On the contrary, to prohibit integration altogether, massive and passive protest measures spearheaded by segregationist groups like White Citizen Councils found school closed in states like Virginia and Arkansas within five years of Brown.
Over time, African American students enrolled in predominantly White schools while Black schools gradually closed. Against this background, schools became color-evasive milieus absent of culturally relevant classrooms while fitted with pipelines to prison. About 38,000 African American educators lost jobs within the first 11 years of Brown. A teacher of color shortage has pervaded the school system ever since.
A USA Today report published on the 50th anniversary of Brown revealed that the number of Black students then enrolled in preservice teacher programs was already in rapid decline. At the turn of the century, just six years after Brown’s golden anniversary, 84 percent of public school teachers were White, while teachers of color made up just 16 percent of the teaching force. Of that number, just eight percent were African American. That number has seen little increase in the last 20 years, as the teacher workforce today includes just 18 percent of teachers of color.
In the face of these nationwide teaching disparities, the problems impacting schools are more regional, where the lack of teacher diversity is greater in rural, suburban, and Whiter school districts, and where the administrators and instructors are more homogeneous. In schools with a White student population at 90 percent or higher, White educators account for 98 percent of the faculty. The lack of teacher diversity in 2020 compounds the problem of unequal access to educational resources (i.e. Gifted Programs), and, in turn, widens the achievement and opportunity gaps, as well as sustains a culture that provides ethnic minorities with an education that is alien to the communities from which they arrive. Moreover, the lack of teacher diversity stunts the social development of White students when not afforded the chance to have a teacher of color as an authority figure.
While proponents of Brown believe court-ordered desegregation led to increases in after-school programs, access to school facilities, per-pupil spending, reduced class sizes, and a closed gap in graduation rates between Black and White high school students, the National Center for Education Statistics shows that just 34 percent of schools today are racially integrated. This means that the racial status quo has endured long since 1954 at both majority-White schools and majority-Black and Brown schools. The reality, then, is that a very small portion of America’s youth currently reaps the legal rights promised in Brown. And even in integrated schools, where incidents of implicit bias are more common, students of color disproportionately experience punitive disciplinary action, such as in- and -out-of-school suspensions, which data shows exacerbate existing race-based achievement gaps. Moreover, there is a lack of cultural relevance at integrated schools that continues to stifle the cognitive development of students of color.
What does it say that more than 60 years have passed and majority-White schools still default to colorblindness? What does this mean for American educators that are now challenged to meet the needs of intersectional identity categories, such as race, gender, language, class, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation? It would be one thing if 2020 was the first year that educators engaged in a discussion over whether the education system propagates colonial hegemonic systems of society-at-large. But the fact of the matter is, the public school system has long existed as an incubator of White supremacy.
Educators at majority-White schools must now reckon with the loud and rife cries for an end to systemic oppression in education. To achieve some amount of trust from communities of color that are justly cynical about how the public school system will treat their children next fall, school leaders must do more than just tell students that they see where the school system has wrong them. Progress should be about the commitment to changing the way board directors, administrators, teachers, parents, and taxpayers feel about the meaning of educational equity.
The mission moving forward is to take the civil rights movement into the classroom; to make the fight for justice a community-wide effort, involving partnerships with community non-profits, businesses, public libraries, youth and heritage centers, in addition to collaborative efforts among school districts and surrounding communities. There is also an obligation to extract from America’s schools those individuals who cannot see beyond the utopian myth that all lives have mattered in this society. This worldview will continue to devalue the direct and indirect traumatic experiences endured by Black and Brown students.
Recognizing that even in the absence of racism de jure, racism de facto persists in the education system because of the ways White supremacy stealthily permeates policy and practice. Sure, it helps to remove racist identifiers, e.g. the Confederate flag, and to change buildings named after figures tied to slavery, but the responsibility of school district leaders is to scrutinize the district’s procedures and culture. It is harder to impeach policy than individuals or symbols that put a face to the problem. And since “institutional racism requires neither conscious effort nor individual intent,” as Michael Eric Dyson explains, all parties are complicit in preserving a racial hierarchy in the school system. As a result, all of a school’s historically marginalized students, in particular Black, Indigenous, and other students of color are tormented by both curricular and disciplinary forces in addition to willful efforts by some educators to ignore obvious sensations of isolation.
To District Leaders (School Directors, Administrators, Principals):
(1) Do not conduct equity work on your own. Seek help from the outside that can audit your school’s policies and practices and make suggestions for institutional change. A commitment to equity must not “comfort or prioritize the interests of people with privilege,” as Paul Gorski of the Equity Literacy Institute noted in a June 17 webinar titled “Equity Detours.” This work is meant to enhance students’ sense of belonging. It is not designed to ease the fragile emotions of educators who feel “we are not ready for this.”
(2) Guarantee support to students and teachers that will assume leadership in your district’s equity work. Ensure that students themselves have the agency to shape the culture of the school.
(3) While the superintendent must be the individual responsible for provoking a sense of urgency, every school director must be unconditionally supportive about placing equity front and center in the district.
(1) Educate yourself in texts that address race-conscious pedagogies and antiracism.
(2) Conduct a self-reflection aimed at exploring racial presumptions nurtured over a lifetime by peer groups, the media, and the education system.
(3) Advance your education in race-conscious pedagogies and antiracism. The steps to work through at this point are as follows (see the Figure 1.1 below): (a) Increase understanding on the problem of colorblindness, implicit bias, and stereotype threat; (b) Progress toward a study on White privilege, which will enhance understanding of how Whiteness works to value Eurocentric norms while devaluing racial and ethnic others; (c) Start decolonizing the curriculum by asking the following questions: What shortcomings do you have as an educator? How does your subject matter lack representation? What content is taught? How have you traditionally instructed?; (d) Only after years of working on points one through three will you attain a transformative juncture of your pedagogical awakening enabling you to frame your course in critical race theory. It is important to know that the work of a race-conscious pedagogue is ongoing. (e) The final step in achieving race consciousness is only attained by realizing that race intersects with other identity categories. Race consciousness, in other words, is the ability to understanding the nuances of intersectionality and to use that knowledge to create an inclusive learning environment that generates a sense of belonging and empowerment for everyone in the classroom.
School leaders must make peace with the notion that education is not neutral. Race-conscious pedagogy is not just about centering race in the curriculum. It is about empowering students with freedom principles that hone abilities to think critically about a text, the world, and their lived experiences. As Henry Giroux, founder of critical pedagogy and professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, explains to his students, “Those arguing that education should be neutral are really arguing for a version of education in which nobody is accountable.” Herein lies the ultimate question for which educators must reckon: In the wake of the national movement against institutional racism, what does your silence at this moment communicate to your students? They are paying attention. And they won’t accept neutrality.