Anti-Racist Education

There is a lot of great dialog going on in America right now around race. Obviously, it is long overdue and it breaks my heart that it required something as monstrous as the death of George Floyd to provoke it, but sometimes we have to take silver linings where we can get them. While reforming the police is necessary– the militarization, aggression, lawlessness, racial bias in where and for what we enforce laws rigorously, and lack of community building are huge problems we must tackle– fixing the way we enforce laws is an insufficient response to our racial disparities. Education is vital and to put it bluntly, the current system does a horrible job of teaching and supporting our black students. Please take a moment to read “How to be an Anti-Racist Teacher,” by Pirette McKamey. This quote hit me hard:

When black students’ academic strengths are overlooked, black students are marginalized. They are kept out of advanced courses, given bad grades, and sent to the dean’s office. Over the years, the power that they initially bring to school is siphoned off by educators at every level of the educational system who do not respect, and in some cases do not wish to respect, the intellectual contributions of black students.

I have seen this to be true in both research and my life. Often, I prefer to lean on the research and my academic training to talk about these issues, but clinical language seems insufficient to the moment. This crisis is about the very soul of our nation and requires a more spiritual and emotional response. Consider this my testimony.

As I have written before, I recognized little racism in the way my schools treated the black students in my classrooms as a child at the time. That does not mean it was not happening. Indeed, I am sure it was. Even as a white child I know in retrospect that we were not treated equally and on our own merits. For example, when I changed schools they asked my parents why I had opted not to be in the district-wide enrichment program. We hadn’t. School leadership at Westwood jumped several students over me when my scores should have entitled me to that spot. Those students had parents who were more active at the school and more well known in the community. It strains credibility to assume much more serious injustices were taking place that I simply had no visibility or frame of reference for.

My middle school education at South was quite simply the best learning environment I was ever in. The Arts Magnet program in Lima not only exposed me to the sorts of cultural information few students outside of major metropolitan areas get, but it also leveraged a team-teaching approach that made connections between disparate disciplines and modeled the sort of complex thinking skills that are essential to educational success. We had some of the best teachers in the district and they created a curious, engaging, and supportive environment for us to gestate in. I learned more in those three years than I did in the entirety of my high school and college life.

Our cohorts were small and in retrospect, not very representative of the Lima community. My class had more black students than the grades directly before and after us and I was close with many of them. We shared an affinity for basketball, Madden football on the SEGA, fresh sneakers, and jerseys of all sorts. Again, I wasn’t totally aware of the racial disparities in our educational access or experience though I assume they were happening. This was the time of my life when I became aware of how real and ugly racism still was. I will never forget the barrage of racial epithets from students and parents at a rival suburban middle school that rained down on our baseball team’s one black player. I never suspected that my schools harbored similarly ugly thoughts about my friends.

The shift from middle school to high school made plain how deeply racism was embedded in our schools. Upper-middle-class white students in our program, no matter how pedestrian their scores or intellect were, were signed up for the advanced math, science, and English classes in high school. They were targeted for the college prep path by birthright. My black classmates, who I KNEW were just as capable, inquisitive, cooperative (Note: I was far and away the most obstinate, disobedient, and difficult student in that program and have little doubt that my white privilege largely insulated me from the consequences of this behavior), and intelligent were encouraged to sign up for “basic” courses. In retrospect, the goal seemed to be to check the boxes in order to “get them to graduate” rather than an expectation that they had gifts to nurture and support. At the time, I was simply sad I wouldn’t get to spend my days with my best friends.

Our lives went in drastically different directions in high school. As a historian, I know that much of life is contingent. Choices and decisions– some of them imposed rather than chosen– limit and refocus our range of possibilities. My access to college prep made me future-oriented. Very little about my plans included the here and now. Countless teachers tried to push me to “work harder” and to develop the sort of study habits they were sure I would need to be successful at college. I could not have been more dismissive of this advice, yet people kept encouraging me (I’d note that it wasn’t an effort factor– I was just straight-up bored with most of my high school education. I wasn’t really learning much in most of those classes).

Educational access and opportunity have a compounding effect. The more you get early the larger the dividends are later. My skin bought me a ticket to basic educational expectations. Teachers and administrators expected me to succeed because they were willing to recognize my talents. I was going to go to college, get a degree, and have a career, even if I seemed disinterested, lazy, and difficult. Other students, many of whom were better behaved than I was and exhibited the kind of intelligence and studious comportment that my schools favored in their white students (compliance and diligence) had lowered expectations which limited their access and opportunity. The black students who seemed supported by the school were exceptional while simply being average was good enough for white students. This access matters. Not being signed up for advanced courses doesn’t just result in stunting students’ knowledge base– it literally locks them out of requirements for entry to the next level of the game.

Fixing hundreds of years of anti-black racism in this country will not be undone by shrinking police budgets and reforming their policies. These are necessary steps, but we have to go further. Every institution needs to reckon with its role in systemic oppression. Education, the great gateway to success in our “merit-based” society is a great place to start. I echo every word of McKamey’s closing:

To fight against systemic racism means to buck norms. Educators at every level must be willing to be uncomfortable in their struggle for black students, recognizing students’ power and feeding it by honoring their many contributions to our schools. Teachers need to insist on using their own power to consistently reveal and examine their practice, and seek input from black stakeholders; they must invite black parents to the table, listen to their concerns and ideas, and act on them. Principals must clearly and consistently communicate the anti-racist vision for their school, create professional-development opportunities for staff, recognize teachers who successfully teach all of their students, and intervene when they see problems. District-level administrators must more firmly root their anti-racist messaging in black students’ school experiences, making expectations for educators clear. And school-board members need to listen to educators who have shown efficacy in educating black students. They must enact policies that hold us all accountable to our black families. We must make demands of ourselves and work together in our communities.

The only measure of our anti-racist teaching will be the academic success of all of our students, including our black students.

Our black students deserve the same access and opportunity I had. Schools should be fostering their dreams and supporting their development not acting as obstacles to them. It shouldn’t require Herculean efforts or extraordinary gifts on the part of black children to get schools to recognize and support their journey. It should be their expectation not an exception. It will not change simply by wishing it into existence. And policy alone won’t do it either. Each of us plays a role. As voters. As educators. As employers. As friends. We must see the possibilities of black success and work towards supporting it. This is the bare minimum the American Dream requires of us. It is time to get to work.

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