By Rema Reynolds
Even before Senator Obama became our President Elect, I would hear all of the time that racism is dead. Racism is over. Differential treatment can no longer be attributed to race. Someone should tell educators about the fatality. It’s still alive and well within our current school system.
I was stressed. I had to take a leave of absence from my counseling position. It was either the leave or jail. I was about to erupt. During the first weeks of school, three different colleagues (including the principal of the school) approached me at three different times to inform me of the nickname given to a new teacher on staff. The nickname had the “N word” within it. Before and after the actual word “nigger” was used, I told them not to say it. They proceeded anyway and laughed it off afterward. I protested. They responded with ‘lighten up’ comments as they walked away.
A month later these same three educators came into my office and waited with baited breath for me to finish my call with a parent. Mischief danced in their eyes and their lips curled at the sides in one united menacing smirk. Once I hung up, the shorter teacher said, “Hey Rema, why don’t you ask your boss why your name came up as when we were talking about bananas.” I was stumped. I told them that I didn’t want to participate. They urged me to guess. I immediately became worried as I sat there trying to discover what ill-conceived joke they were attempting to pull off. It finally dawned on me after much prompting from them, and I asked incredulously, “Are you calling me a monkey or an ape?” They all exploded with laughter. They were pointing at each other saying it wasn’t them, it was the other person.
I closed my eyes and said, “Racist bastards. Get out. Get out of my office.” They tried to laugh this off as well, but I wasn’t smiling and continued to point to the door. They said, “Come on, we’re just kidding,” as they left.
The principal stayed behind. He said that people say stupid things and that I shouldn’t be upset. I commented about the staff and the lack of diversity and the improbability of hiring anyone who would put up with this type of behavior. He agreed and said that they can’t have people going to the District to complain every time someone said something stupid. My response was that he would rather not hire people of color rather than change the behavior.
We don’t want to acknowledge racism in this country, much less in our schools. It’s easier to point to socio-economic factors to explain persistent inequities we see in our schools. This is a compelling argument. As a society, I think most of us (some people of color included) find class disparities a much more palatable explanation for our inhumane treatment of people in this country. To blame the gross neglect and mistreatment of people, especially innocent children, in this country on something as arbitrary as race is unconscionable for many.
Society is afraid to face the ugly truth—racist tactics are employed systemically to assign people to a certain lot in life based on characteristics beyond their control—a caste system of sorts. Schools are primarily responsible for this assignment.
Now, you may think that what I experienced is an isolated incident that has nothing to do with children even though the three men involved in these racist exchanges were educators. Well the fact that they are educators (one in charge of the entire school) is critical in understanding how schools promote racism.
Consider the context of this school. The culture permits the disregard of certain students.
At the beginning of the year, the whole staff gathered to go over the most recent state standards and student scores. This school, like other schools across the country, is struggling to fulfill the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that calls for prescribed testing goals for specific subgroups on campus. We went over brightly colored bar graphs representing school-wide testing results for Asian, White, Hispanic, Black, and English Language Learners (ELL).
The same principal from the above account went over the scores and pointed out the fact that Black students fared the worst. He went on to say that though they performed poorest, teachers were to target a different subgroup with a larger population that could boost overall scores. The other subgroup represented a ‘cohort’ of over 100 students while the Black students were less than 4% of the enrollment. Time, resources, and instructional strategies were to be used for those students with numbers significant enough to tip the needle toward coveted Proficiency, the ultimate goal for all schools.
Teachers went over their roll sheets, highlighted the names of “target students” and went home for the day. Within an hour, a whole group of students had been summarily dismissed. The school decided that their Black students didn’t deserve necessary intervention other students were receiving to ensure academic success.
I seemed to be the only one outraged by the meeting’s conclusion. It seemed that this federal policy was used to push a blatantly racist agenda. At this school and many others I have worked with for school improvement, the people, the children behind the numbers were of no consequence.
Schools are under pressure. I understand. A fiscally responsible school leader is forced to play the numbers game in order to retain funding for all students. However, when examining the events that took place at the start of the school, I can’t help but wonder two things:
1. How can educators, supposedly dedicated to the learning and development of all students, so easily choose not to secure resources for children that they see everyday, children trusting them with their futures? Am I the only one who sees this type of behavior reprehensible and inhumane?
2. In light of the awful remarks I endured, how can this not be about race? Say White middle class students made up that 4%. Would this predominantly White staff have so readily accepted the assumption that there were not enough resources to service them properly, to improve their educational journeys that year?
Students are people, humans—not numbers. Thanks to NCLB, when considered numerically, some students are worth more than others. How do we propose to right the wrongs of society if we do not start in schools? How do we realize an educated America if we do not value all of her citizens equally and make a concerted effort to ensure equal access to learning for all?
The federal government has tried to legislate educational success for all students. However, until racism is acknowledged and dealt with in real, tangible, soul-searching ways, we will not realize these goals. With fundamental, foundational racism still intact, the best-intentioned legislation will be undermined, reinterpreted, and arbitrarily implemented at the local level to benefit some and marginalize others. We will continue to leave some children, children of color particularly, behind.
Rema Reynolds is a former teacher, counselor, administrator, and currently organizes parents for the improvement of Black student achievement in various schools. She is an Assistant Professor at Azusa Pacific University teaching aspiring school counselors and school psychologists and offers support and instruction to pre-service Secondary teachers at UCLA’s teacher education program, Center X.