Equity in Education: Advancing Racial Equity in Public Schools
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment in the ImpactTulsa multi-part series, Equity in Education. For the previous three installments, please check the bottom of this post.
A Personal Note
When I began writing this series in November, 2019, I certainly had no idea that over the course of the next seven months “life as usual” would be completely disrupted by a global pandemic, causing hundreds of thousands of Americans (over a million global citizens) to lose their lives (CDC, 2020). The pandemic has forced school and work closures, ravaged the American and global economies, and heightened both the fears and political sentiments of citizens across the nation. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks illuminated the fact that another pandemic had already been deeply infecting American systems for hundreds of years: racism.
Up to this point, I (Laura Latta) have avoided taking a personal tone in the writing of the previous posts about equity in education. I’ve engaged in serious reflection and realized that the omission of my voice and acknowledgement of my perspective as a white woman, a former teacher, school administrator, community school coordinator, and current researcher and professor was a privilege I was leaning on. It was far easier for me to call out systemic racism in Education in subtle ways with facts, figures, and histories, but omit the sense of urgency, directness, and emotion that the topic requires. I want to name that I am speaking from my own limited perspective and that I can never assert that I understand the experiences of my Black and Brown colleagues. From that perspective I humbly seek to unapologetically call out the systemic racism present in today’s Education system (Education is capitalized throughout this post when used in reference to the formal system of Education).
Acknowledging That Systemic Racism Exists in the Education System
To effectively advocate for equity in education, one must first recognize that systemic racism exists — and has existed — in the Education system since its formation. The voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) were intentionally omitted from decision-making that has shaped the way that the current system functions. During its 384 year history, people of color have only been able to access public education for 17 percent of the time that schools have existed in America. Even when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954 (just 66 years ago) and ended segregation in schools, that decision did not ensure that families of color could participate in decision-making processes at the school, district, state, and federal levels. In Oklahoma, integration of schools took place well into the 1960s and 70s and “discriminatory practices were voiced by many Black students during the initial stages of integration in Oklahoma,” (Cayton, 1977). Both teachers and students of color expressed that they felt unwelcome in Oklahoma schools at the time. This was the case across the nation. To learn more about the histories of oppressive and racist systems in the U.S., you can access the National People’s Action, Grassroots Policy Project (Hinson et. al, ND), which has developed a detailed history of systemic racism and how it influences policy.
It is important to note that though no person alive today created the public education system. It is everyone’s responsibility to address inequities in the system, question power structures and ensure that every group (especially those who have been historically excluded) is represented and has a voice, making it more equitable for all students and families. It is also critically important to understand that the decisions made today create the public education system that impacts both current and future generations of students. To achieve an equitable system tomorrow, the work has to start today.
Deconstructing Systemic Racism to Reconstruct an Equitable Education System
Here are a handful of ways to start working toward deconstructing an inequitable education system to rebuild a system that provides equitable education for all students. It is by no means and exhaustive list, but provides a starting point for educators, leaders, and policy makers.
- Do the Work: Begin With Self-Reflection and Humility on the Journey to Anti-Racism
Dr. Ibram Kendi (2016) explains that anti-racism does not mean the same thing as “not racist”. Anti-racism means working against racist practices, policies, mindsets, and ideas. It requires action. My friend and colleague, Lauren Thiesse, wrote an exceptional blog post that addresses white leaders on this topic entitled, Beyond Ally to Anti-Racist: Lessons from a White Leader on a Lifelong Journey. Click here to read more suggestions about how white folks can “do the work” and embark on a journey toward anti-racism.
White colleagues, though I don’t know your life experiences, I do know what it is like to be white (which is why I am directing this comment specifically to you). Doing the work and learning about the history of racism forced me to go through a vast spectrum of emotion: sadness, shame, embarrassment, devastation, motivation to act, etc. Those are heavy emotions, but it is normal and important to experience them as you learn. In your learning journey, ensure that you are learning from voices and experiences of people of color. There are dozens of authors out there who are experts and are compensated for their intellectual and emotional investments. Some of these texts include:
- Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race
- Dr. Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist
- Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children
- Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Can We Talk about Race?
- (here are a few reading lists).
All of the individuals listed above are paid to be experts on this work. As I do the work and learn, I keep Ijeoma Oluo’s words at the front of my mind: “Whatever outrage and sadness you are feeling — pouring it all out on social [media] to your Black friends won’t make them feel connected to you, it just places the burden of your feelings on top of their own.” As you are learning, be humble, listen to the experiences of others without interruption, and don’t “pour your emotion” onto your Black and Brown friends. Commit yourself to persisting even when your learning stirs up tough emotions, and recognize that the journey to anti-racism is a lifelong journey.
- Examine the System with Honesty: Ask Questions about Representation, Power, Policy, and Practices
“Racism is fueled by power inequity,” (Kendi, 2019). The terminology used to describe white people as “majority” and people of color as “minority” (which inherently gives more power to the majority) is just one way this is reflected in our society. When I became aware of these power dynamics and subtle slights that have slipped under the radars of so many white folks, I could see them everywhere I went. Now I ask the following questions of every space that I occupy (i.e. district school board meetings, PTA meetings, school staff meetings, etc.):
- Racial Makeup: What is the apparent racial makeup of this space? Who makes up the majority in this group, and why? Is this group representative of the broader population of an organization(i.e. school district, school, classroom)?
- Voice: Whose voice is missing from this space and why? Who feels comfortable sharing their opinion freely? Who is being quiet? Why?
- Policy: What policies advantage white people over people of color? What is the rationale behind this practice/strategy/intervention/approach? Does it promote an equitable educational experience for all students/families or does it advantage one group over another?
- Power: Who holds the power to make decisions in this space? Is their power formal (positional) or informal (relational)? Why do they hold the power?
- Comfort: Who was asked to be a part of this space and did those who were asked show up? If not, why might they feel uncomfortable about joining? (this can apply to teacher recruitment)
These are just a few questions to help chip away at some of the policies and actions that silence voices and create power dynamics that advantage one group (usually white people) over others. They help to detect when power is out of balance and policies and practices need to be changed in favor of equity.
The answers to these questions serve as a call to action to change systems where inequities abound. To change inequitable school systems, policies that drive those systems must first be changed. Educators must take an active role in advocating against racist policies. This requires educators to also be advocates for children, families, and the profession. Roby Chatterji from The Center for American Progress (2020) highlights a few national policies that should be advocated for in favor of equity and anti-racism, including equitable school funding, less policing and surveillance of students, and de-facto segregation through school and district boundaries.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute curates lists and information about Oklahoma policies that affect education. To keep tabs on these pieces of policy and legislation, go to OK Policy’s Education Page. The page is not only a helpful resource list of policies, it includes steps that can be taken to promote or work against the policy.
- Create an Affirming School Culture for Students of Color
Throughout the school day, students are exposed primarily to Euro-, American-centric histories of white people in America. This affirms white students because they are able to see themselves and the contributions of white people in the history of the United States, but is disempowering and non-affirming of students and people of color who have made powerful and significant contributions the building of our nation. On top of that, many history texts omit important events like the Tulsa Race Massacre (Silva, 2020). This is an extremely limited, revisionist, and, frankly, dishonest approach to education. It excludes the major events and contributions of legends of history and culture including people like the late Rep. John Lewis, Ella Baker, Wilma Mankiller, Cesar Chavez, Reies López Tijerina, June Jordan, Junipero Serra, Barry Jenkins, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dr. Shirley Jackson and so many more. Celebrations of and lessons about Black and Brown history should happen all day, every day and in every facet of the curriculum. They should not just be relegated to one month of the year. Additionally, incorporating classroom libraries with books that feature diverse characters and topics is a critical step in creating a classroom environment that embraces and celebrates all cultures and experiences.
- Culturally Responsive and Anti-Racist Professional Development is Critical
When students and teachers return to school, it will be critical to have supports in place for them, post-COVID. Some students may have experienced the trauma of losing family members or close friends to the virus, some may have had struggles at home during distance learning, and others may not have had the coping mechanisms to navigate the emotions of the past few months in healthy ways. On top of that, all students have seen images of racial violence online and on television and have been processing that violence in a variety of ways. Comas-Diaz, Hall, & Neville (2019) explain that exposure to these images causes racial trauma for people of color. For more information on how to support students who have experienced racial trauma, click here to watch ImpactTulsa’s panel event entitled Responding to Racial Trauma in the Classroom (Bennett, White, Benabdallah, & Curtis, 2020).
To effectively support students of color, who have experienced compounding stressors over the past month in addition to racial trauma, it is critical that school districts provide explicit anti-racist and trauma responsive professional development for teachers. For teachers to be able to employ culturally responsive and anti-racist practices in their classroom for their students, they must learn how to teach this way. The onus for this lies not just on teacher preparation programs (colleges and universities) to start that training, but for school districts to support teachers’ ongoing journeys in understanding cultural competence. If the goal is to support students on their journeys toward cultural understanding and anti-racism, teachers must take their own journeys first. After all, you can’t lead someone somewhere that you haven’t been before.
Here are a few culturally responsive and anti-racist professional development resources:
- Racial Equity Tools
- National Equity Project
- Teaching Tolerance
- Anti-Racism Daily
- Anti-Racist Resources and Reads: Lists for All Ages
Previous Installments in the Equity in Education Series:
Bennett, A., White, D., Benabdallah, V., & Curtis, R. (2020). Responding to racial trauma in the classroom: A panel for educators and nonprofits. ImpactTulsa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9rA8LrbHOs
CDC- Center for Disease Control & Prevention. (2020). Cases in the US. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html
Cayton, L.B. (1977). A history of black public education in Oklahoma (Dissertation). https://shareok.org/bitstream/handle/11244/4326/7732851.PDF?sequence=1
Chatterji, R. 2020. Fighting systemic racism in K-12 education: Helping allies move from the keyboard to the school board. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2020/07/08/487386/fighting-systemic-racism-k-12-education-helping-allies-move-keyboard-school-board/
Comas-Díaz, L., Hall, G. N., & Neville, H. A. (2019). Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychologist, 74(1), 1-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000442
Hinson, S., Healey, R., & Weisenberg, N. (n.d.) Race, power, and policy: Dismantling structural racism. National people’s action by the grassroots policy project. https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/race_power_policy_workbook.pdf
Kendi, I. (2016). Stamped from the beginning. Nation Books.
Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an anti-racist. Random House Books.
Thiesse, L. (2020). Beyond ally to anti-racist: Lessons from a white leader on a lifelong journey. https://www.impacttulsa.org/lessons-ive-learned-in-becoming-a-white-ally-at-work/
Silva, D. (2020). From Juneteenth to the Tulsa massacre: What isn’t taught in classrooms has a profound impact. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/juneteenth-tulsa-massacre-what-isn-t-taught-classrooms-has-profound-n1231442?fbclid=IwAR1WvXM5S6x3bz5DRmEkn7h9eMCIAa4rMwNKC8mZF0tQ0IvtGNXbp-OqZsQ
We Need Diverse Books. (2020). Resources for race, equity, anti-racism, and inclusion. https://diversebooks.org/resources-for-race-equity-and-inclusion/