Rather than point the finger at them, we ought to look at the reason why they "underperform" – and the racist ideas that justify it.


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By Rann Miller

Black educators can also perpetuate anti-Black policies and ideas in what they say and what they believe

Years ago, I served as an assistant principal for school discipline at a high school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I upheld a discipline procedure that was ripe with anti-Blackness. I believed that it was up to Black students to modify their behavior to accommodate white educators in our building. I believed that poor behavior by Black students would justify the racist thoughts of White teachers. I was reinforcing anti-Black racism in my school and it was actively harming the young people I said that I cared about.

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It was one particular classroom observation that helped me turn the corner. One white teacher was developing a habit of requesting that I remove students from his class, so I decided to observe it. Afterwards, I told him that a number of incidents were preventable and what became a conflict may have been defused with culturally competent classroom management and compassion. After giving him examples, I asked if he could modify his techniques to alleviate his frustrations. 

I responded to his look of bewilderment with saying that I couldn’t continue removing Black students from classrooms based on his perceived disrespect without his prior implementation of classroom management techniques that respond to student behavior in a way that accounts for their culture and background. “So you’re not gonna punish them?” he replied. I shook my head and instructed him to email me some engaging strategies to cut down on disruptive behavior, and we could collaborate on making sure those strategies were culturally responsive.

According to Dr. Ibram Kendi, a racist idea is any that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Anyone can hold a racist idea. Often times, it is educators whose embrace of these ideas hold the most serious consequences – including Black educators.

For example, when Black young men struggle to pass their classes we ask what’s wrong with Black boys? instead of what’s wrong with their classes? Teachers and administrators immediately assume that Black children who “underperform” academically are at risk for dropout. But there is nothing wrong with Black boys.

Rather than point the finger at them, we ought to look at the reason why they “underperform” – and the racist ideas that justify it.

In the district where I worked prior to my current one, we ran a report after the 2nd marking period that informed us that 88% of all students who were failing for the year, in both the middle and high school grades, were Black students. However, Black students only made up about 40% of the student population. Administration chose the default response – seek out ways to assist Blacks students with their study skills and work ethic. Unfortunately, administration never questioned the way the district educated Black children.

According to Dr. Kendi, a racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. Policies include laws, rules, procedures and regulations that govern people within any given setting. Schools set policies at various levels: (1) the national & state level – departments of education (2) governance – boards of education or boards of trustees, (3) district administration – superintendent, asst. superintendent, curriculum directors and directors of special education, (4) school administration – principal, vice principals, and (5) teachers. 

When any of these subgroups create a policy or policies that produce or sustain racial inequity between groups, they are creating racist policies. For example, discipline policies, regardless of how they are labeled or expressed, that produce or sustain racial inequity between Black students and other students, particularly white students, are racist policies. Zero-tolerance policies in schools are racist policies because Black and Latino students are more likely to be punished and less resilient to the social consequences of suspension and expulsion, as the U.S. Civil Rights Division of the Department of Education can attest. 

Another example is standardized testing. IQ tests, developed by eugenicists, were administered in the early 20th century to show racial differences in intelligence; that Blacks were intellectually inferior. Later, Carl Brigham, a eugenicist, developed the SAT to do the same thing as a means to measure aptitude. Numerous colleges and universities no longer require standardized tests i.e. SAT, ACT and GRE as a requirement for entry. They recognize that eliminating these tests do not compromise the quality of accepted applicants. They also recognize that racist policies only furthers racist ideas. We must not be afraid call these policies what they really are and work to create antiracist alternatives while we help students navigate such policies. 

I always believed that Black people could not be racist. My rationale was that racism is a system in which white people benefit in the oppression of other according to skin color prejudice. But that’s only part of the truth. Racism can also be found in the series of racist policies that create racial injustice, and Black people are not without the power to perpetuate those policies—or work to eradicate them. 

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Black teachers can and should teach, assess learning and discipline students with an antiracist mindset. During the summer months, they can work with the administration to craft curriculum, strategize and collaborate with each other on teaching techniques that are culturally responsive. Black administrators can implement antiracist policies within their schools and present them to district administration to influence their adoption districtwide so that district administration can report these best practices to the district governance. No matter your function or position, you have the power to work to maintain or work to remove racism. 

I had a conversation last week with a colleague where I told her that I wanted to have a basketball tournament for the students this year to serve as a fundraiser. The entrance fee would be a toy and/or book that we would collect to give to underprivileged children for Christmas. Even if the kids couldn’t afford to bring in a toy or book, a teacher could sponsor them. The colleague then said to me, “Do you see the [expensive] sneakers they wear to school? They can afford to bring in a toy or a book.” 

Years ago, I probably would have agreed with this colleague – but not this day. That colleague disagreed with me saying her statement was a racist idea, but she could not argue against the truth of what and simply switched the subject. I cannot recall all of the times I have heard similar statements; that if Black parents can afford to put Jordans on the feet of their children, they can afford to purchase school supplies or uniforms or whatever else. Unfortunately, comments like these are recycled amongst educators – both white and Black. The effect is that racism remains strong both within policies and people.

Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent 6 years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in SalonAlterNet, and the Progressive, where I’m an education fellow. Follow him on Twitter:@UrbanEdDJ