Systems of Race and Education

Yesterday I wrote an article about the current Norfolk school board election and a local online newspaper picked it up and published it on their site!  You can check out the article on AltDaily here

What I found most interesting about the responses on their Facebook page to the article was the knee jerk reactions against the deep problems that our city, specifically our school system, has with race. Several people voiced their disbelief about the disparity of racialized AP and honors classes and zoning practices. That shouldn’t necessarily surprise me.  When it comes to race, something that I am deeply passionate about, study and research, I find that people become defensive when racialized problems are pointed out mainly because they then become implicated in the system of oppression. And that includes me. When white students are systematically encouraged and pushed towards college prep courses more than black, hispanic or native students, then we are all implicated. And this isn’t something that I have just noticed happening at one particular school, nor is it localized to Norfolk. It is a practice that has been occurring for years across our country and is a cog in the great big wheel of systematic racism in America. (You can find an excellent article here that exposes some of these covert practices and attempts to find solutions.)

What is most important in understanding systematic racism is that it is not localized to any one person’s actions or speech. We must look at it as a large system or a machine that has many complex moving parts. In this machine is me and you, our children, our neighbors, our friends, our teachers, our schools, etc, etc. Most of these people are very smart and enlightened and kind and claim to hate oppression and racism. So, this complex system does not look like a mean old teacher pointing her finger at a black kid and telling her that she isn’t allowed into the honors class and gently escorting all of the white children in. It’s much more subtle and quiet than that. And that’s what makes it all the more sinister. This system starts well before kindergarten. It probably starts in the womb, generations before the child is even born. Black, hispanic and native children systematically have less access to the same resources that white children do. Even the poorest of our white children are more likely to have better access to specific resources than minority students. So, from the start, the wheels and cogs of racism have been turning. By the time these children are in high school, they have experienced years, decades, of biases and oppression that all add up. They’re more likely to have poor grades and behavioral problems and are typically viewed as having less potential, talent and ability to perform on school work or creative projects.

When a teacher or administrator is looking at the grades and performance of the children in their classes and school, they aren’t just looking at one individual child. They are looking at the product of a system that has worked to oppress and suppress  some, while assisting and lifting up others. And because of that, they must realize their place in that system and consider very carefully how they are making decisions on who they encourage and mentor. They must realize their own biases that are also products of this system. They must not become defensive when the system is pointed out, but instead look it square in the eye and reject it. We all have these biases engrained into our  subconscious. It’s how the system works. Black teachers, white teachers, native teachers, hispanic teachers, they all have been exposed to and are instilled with these subtle biases of race and ability and it informs the daily decisions that they make with our children.

In order to fix this problem, well, it’s much more difficult than offering honors classes to all students, which is what our school board proposed to do in 2009. That just sets many, many students up for failure. The work to fix systematic racism requires us to look it in the face for what it is, how it informs our biases, prejudices, and decisions and tell it NO. It’s pointing it out whenever we see it, as subtle as it may be. And it’s often us, meaning white people, giving up our own privileges and voices for those who are not being heard and who are being held down. It isn’t as simple as pulling up your own bootstraps. That has worked for a few, but it isn’t enough to work for the many. The system is far too strong and pervasive and protected by people who refuse to acknowledge it.



13 thoughts on “Systems of Race and Education

  1. What an incredibly thoughtful post. Being from Canada, I’m not as familiar with the American public education system but it certainly didn’t make reading this any less relevant for me! Systems of oppression are, unfortunately, everywhere. Nice to meet you on the blogosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Even further, regardless of race, teachers see behavior first and intelligence or potential second. I have watched that with my own child and that means it may be a double whammy for the minority child who’s environment may create more possibility of behavior issues.

    This is so well thought out and written. It’s hard to imagine a country, whose half its citizens are excited about a man wanting to build a wall at the Mexican border, is going to accept these truths, but I’m glad you are speaking it. Hopefully it hits someone in the gut and opens their eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Faultless reasoning, professionally written. “B” says, Systems of oppression are, unfortunately, everywhere. Let’s pay attention right here: your local problem is a global problem. It’s systematic. It’s everywhere. I came to Canada as a 6 year old, from France. I went to a French, Catholic Canadian school and my parents spoke French, of course, and were Catholic, oh, and they were even white. But did that prevent blatant, open racism against me at school, a racism that, apart from the kids, included parents, teachers and the local priest? Not at all. I saw this “racism” among the cows on the farm. We’d buy a new cow to add to the number of milkers and immediately the others ganged up on her and beat her up. For several weeks she had to be sequestered or they might have killed her. The problem of racism, and of course, misogyny is rooted in the predator-prey system, whether people like to hear that or not. As long as it is acceptable to prey on others, these problems will not only manifest, but increase in violence in proportion to increase in population and resultant higher density. Just imagine setting predators free to roam in a zoo… and not feeding them. That’s earth’s situation right now.
    There is only one solution, and it isn’t “system” based, as in, it won’t be political, or religious, or economical change that will stop racism. Only an individual can choose to change, never a collective. When dealing with systems, one should automatically assume the game is rigged in favour of those who operate the machine and one should live accordingly. As you say, racism is at its ugliest when it is hidden. To unmask it is to “know” that “it” is always there and never fall for the pie in the sky attitude that “it’s all good.” It never is. Anyone who wants to know more about systems and why they are essentially “evil” should read about the concept called ponerology. There is more on that available now on the Internet. See

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The line where you said people are afraid to acknowledge race because they don’t wanted to implicated really rung true to me. This is an issue everywhere, even in places like Lawrence, were MA white students are the minority.

    Half the battle is forcing people in privileged positions to acknowledge the privileges they have and their students don’t. As long as we are in denial, we can’t hope to “fix” the problem.

    A few weeks ago, I read a student write a paper on a similar article and it really was like a slap in the face in the sense that it made me aware of just how much I wasn’t seeing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just listened to a Tim Keller Sermon that was very similar. He said that you can’t do justice or be for the downtrodden if those who are not downtrodden don’t give something up. For the system to change, those with privilege will have to lose it and that is very hard for most people (let alone Christians) to come to terms with.

    Liked by 1 person

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