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.