“How can I be sexist? I have a mother, a wife and daughters!”
If you’re a woman reading that sentence, you almost certainly won’t have a problem finding the flaw in its all-too-common reasoning.
There are plenty of men in the world who love their mothers, wives and daughters while sexually harassing their work colleagues or offering women lower pay than men. There are even more men in the world who love their mothers, wives and daughters and have no idea their female work colleagues are being harassed by the boss or getting paid much less than they are for similar responsibilities.
Yet, somehow, when someone makes the parallel argument about race, it gets harder for most White people to notice the false logic. “How can I be racist? I have a Black friend, Black co-worker, or Black spouse” does not seem to prompt counter-arguments as quickly.
Just like being anti-sexist, being anti-racist isn’t something you can prove by your own word. Nor can you prove your lack of racism and sexism by citing your relationships with people from other races or genders. In both situations, actions speak louder than words. It’s the data surrounding your actions—both quantitative and qualitative—that prove the truth of your claims. There are White folks who aren’t racist (Tim Wise, Jane Elliot, Dr. Robin D’Angelo, to name a few) but they didn’t become “not-racist” by declaring it so. It took lots and lots of personal, professional, scholarly and uncomfortable work.
The Gap Between Words and Actions
When it comes to equity in schooling, Oak Park, Illinois, offers an example of the gap between words and actions. Like other “liberal utopias,” Oak Parkers are proud to put up their “Dump Trump” and “Black Lives Matter” signs and fly their rainbow flags. But that inclusivity is only surface-level, while examining and eliminating racism, both institutional and individual, is a non-starter.
Racism isn’t something that can be fixed with a #BlackLivesMatter sign in your yard; eliminating racism requires a lot of work that most White liberal people aren’t willing to do. My case in point is the racial achievement gap in Oak Park’s District 97, which serves elementary students.
For many years, Oak Park District 97 has acknowledged that there is a racial achievement gap. However, most of the work towards closing the gap has been focused on “processing” workshops, focus groups and “diversity pods” that allow residents (mostly White liberal people) to express their feelings about racism.
They want a change, and they will say so. Yet, like other White liberals, their words don’t come with mandates to take a hard look at themselves—either individually or institutionally—to change practices that don’t promote equity and provide reparations for Black families that have experienced racism.
Facts Are Still Facts
This year a 40-point gap exists between Black and White students across the district. Though that’s an improvement over the past few years, the gap remains huge.
Oak Parkers tend to explain away the gap by saying it is a gap about differences in income, not race. They offer a simple formula:
race + low-income status = racial achievement gap.
But income does not explain everything. Harvard researcher Ron Ferguson once estimated that only about half of the Black-White achievement gap could be explained by differences in income.
While low-income students do face barriers to educational equity, there are also middle-class Black students who are experiencing barriers to equity in their educational experience. Oak Park is not alone in this. Researchers like Ferguson and John Ogbu have examined racial achievement gaps between middle-class White and Black students since the late 1980s.
While older research tended to focus on cultural and family differences, recent research is finally beginning to examine issues like teachers’ unconscious biases toward students who are different from them by race and gender.
Black students are falling behind in academically, not simply because of their socioeconomic status, but because of a combination of racist institutional policies set in place by district leadership and individual racist actions by teachers, staff and administrators. Racist actions may be overt and deliberate, but they are also much more likely to arise from implicit, unrecognized bias against people of color.
We Need to Call It When We See It and Fix It
It is important to me to use the word racism because that is what it is. In order for us to truly eradicate racism, we need to know it, we need to speak it, we need to call it when we see it, and we need to work on fixing it.
White fragility makes it difficult to discuss solutions to racism because of White people’s inability to name and identify their personal racism.
Factual examples of racism—both individual and institutional—in Oak Park District 97 include:
- On average, Black students are 40 points behind White students in nearly every subject in every grade at every school.
- According to the Illinois School Report Card, Oak Park 97’s teachers are 80 percent White and 76 percent female. Research finds that generally, White teachers are likely to hold implicit biases against Black students, and that low-income Black boys benefit most from exposure to same-race teachers. It closes “the belief gap” in expectations for their futures.
- Data suggest there are inequities in discipline in Oak Park 97 schools. For example, at Julian Middle School, while overall rates of suspension were low, Black students were seven times more likely to be suspended than White students and Latinx students were 13 times more likely to be suspended than their White peers.
- Research shows the established practice of admitting students to gifted programs based on teacher referral discriminates against children of color. Although there is currently discussion about changing the delivery of gifted education in Oak Park 97, changing how students are identified has not become a focus of discussion. Broward County, Florida, pioneered the use of universal screening to identify gifted children, and saw the percentages of Black and Hispanic students accessing services skyrocket. Florida’s Orange County followed suit in 2012. By changing how giftedness is identified, Oak Park 97 could do a much better job of finding and supporting gifted students of color. Eventually that could put an end to high school Advanced Placement classes with only one or two Black students, as is too often the case today in Oak Park River Forest High School.
Instead of asking what Black families and Black students are doing wrong, why aren’t we asking what White teachers and school administrators and district officials are doing wrong?
If we are serious about alleviating the racial achievement gap, we have to be serious about alleviating racism. Racism is not a personal moral failing—it is the consequence of living in a society that has been steeped in racism, and White Supremacy, for the last 300 years.
Being non-racist requires intensive study of institutional, historic, systemic racism and White privilege, and being able to identify personal (implicit and explicit) racial biases. It also entails examining the effect of different kinds of policies—such as teacher recommendations vs. universal screening for admission to gifted programs—and making the commitment to stick with policies that promote equity, even when they are more expensive or time-consuming.
It’s time to get serious about doing the hard work to shift implicit biases within White people’s minds and change racist policies in White institutions, especially public schools that educate children of color. If we don’t acknowledge, understand and work actively to eliminate racism, then we won’t be able to fix the racial achievement gap in schools.