Let Them Eat Cake: Racism and Public School Finance

As if public schools throughout the country do not have it bad enough, the economically upper crust have shed their demands to the masses in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, home of Louisiana State University. They effectively want out ! Specifically, the citizens of the upper middle and wealthy neighborhoods within the area are demanding not only their own town, but also a separation from the 42,000-pupil public education school system. This happens to be a system where “4 out of 10 families live in poverty.” If approved, the well to do will form their own public school district that is funded by property taxes collected from their sky-scraping valued homes. This shift would remove money from those economically poor children left to their own isolated devices within schools with already economic challenges. For those remaining, it has been estimated the move would decrease their total per-pupil spending from $9,635 to $ 8,870. The new and mostly all white school system would instead spend approximately $11,686 per-pupil.

Following the end of recent court-ordered desegregation judgments, citizens in states such as Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia have made similar efforts. These efforts were quoted as possibly having demoralizing effects on those occupying space on the outside of the golden circle of privilege. All of which is a result of a current public school apportionment system that relies heavy on local taxes to fund public education efforts.

The initiative to break away from school systems can be explained with oodles of meaningful terms within a contextual and complex landscape. And on the surface, they seem quite innocent and valid. For time sake, their argument can be summed up as, “We have failing schools blah, blah, we want to provide something better for our kids, blah, blah, and it’s not a racial matter, blah, blah.” But with the use of a critical white racial lens, one is able to see a rationale more depressing than that which is openly presented.

William Dean Howells, the great 19th century American social observer argued, “Inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself.” I feel that nowhere is this more evident than in one of the country’s oldest institutions—public education. Albert Memmi stated that all systems in the U.S. had been designed to only benefit the ruling elite, while simultaneously denying those occupying the lower levels of the economic stratus and White constructed racial hierarchy.

In terms of education, many forget, or pretend to forget, our countries founding forefather, as well as those of education, not only viewed it as an intricate component needed to drive the succession and advancement of the U.S., but also a social tool to help maintain a dominant White Protestant culture. In its infancy, education was used to halt the possibilities of the influx of immigrants and newly freed Blacks from acquiring bona fide access to power and privilege. Therefore, the racial and cultural superiority over newly introduced racial groups such as Irish, Blacks, and Native Americans was reinforced within public education. This conscious need to ignore the needs of those seen as nonwhite was evident within their following historic treatment. Within U.S. history, many tactics have been utilized to deny Blacks from an adequate education. They consist of denying slaves opportunities, controlling curriculum and intent of post-antebellum schools (ex. Black colleges), to the means of legal segregation. School finance is simply an issue that many are unaware of as it relates to systemic oppression.

Legislative measures resulting from cases such as Brown v. Board of Education Topeka (1954) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have attempted to eliminate many of the past overt oppressive and discriminatory measures witnessed historically in education. Today in public education, there still exists a divided two raced “world” that is maintained by an inequitable school funding system. The monetary disparity between wealthy and poor school (i.e., Have v. Have Nots) consist racially of mainly people of color and upper middle to wealthy Whites. The Texas Civil Rights Project in 2012 reported that within Austin Independent School District (AISD), inequitable funding was allowed. Further, “AISD was shown to allow and support the private subsidization of higher-income (or “higher-equity”) schools, sometimes by as much as $1,000/student more than the amount of funds that support students in lower-income (or “lower-equity”) schools.”

Thus, funds that should be provided to low SES schools are not happening. In California’s Orange County, Laguna Beach Unified in 2002 spent $7,411 per student in comparisons to Orange Unified, which spent $5, 632 per pupil. In addition to wealthy property and local taxes, many wealthy areas are able to provide private donations that play a significant role in district funding. This difference in available funding can allow for richer districts to pay for specialists, more teachers, and services for students, specifically special education students in need. Many of the schools funded by property and local taxes in poor areas are unable to keep pace.

This mode of financial targeting is nothing new to America. For instance, during post antebellum, many of the Black schools did not receive equal resources and funding. Through the use of historical data, it has been proven that race definitely influenced public school funding. In fact, funds were actually diverted from Black school to their counterparts.

The dynamics of race in conjunction with the current state of school financing will continue to hinder the academic and progress of Black students in public education if allowed uninterrupted. But this hindrance is nothing new to America. Hence, its foundation of governance and citizenship operate in a fashion that empowers Whites while maintaining a social hierarchy that targets people of color. The current financial disparity in school funding will continue until a new approach to the issue is taken within the judicial system. Or until we decide to no longer eat cake.

Ruby Bridges Reflects on Her Experience with Racism: Education Series

You’ve probably seen the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We Live With,” which shows a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day of school as she walks through the doors to desegregate a New Orleans elementary school. Today, Ruby Bridges is all grown up and the painting is on loan to the Obama White House. Recently, Ms. Bridges had a chance to reflect on her experience as she visited the painting, and President Obama, at the White House:

Really powerful!

Microaggressions & Stereotype Threat: Education Series

Our prevailing mythology of meritocracy in the U.S. tells us that education is a path to achievement. To do provide that, we expect schools to be free from racism and provide an equal education to all.  Yet, there’s a significant amount of research that tells a different story.  The story the research tells is that students of color at all levels of education face “micro,” or individual level, racism on a regular basis.  Here, I’m going to take up just two of the myriad forms of individual-level racism documented in the literature: 1) microaggressions and 2) stereotype threat.

(Creative Commons License photo credit: y2bd )

Microaggressions. The term “microaggression” was originally coined by Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s to describe a form of individual-level racism.  Microaggressions are “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”  In Feagin and Sikes’ book, Living with Racism (1995) middle-class black respondents describe “the racial stare” they experience from whites when entering white-dominated areas.  I think of this as the quintessential microaggression.  It’s so small, it’s hard to call out, yet the message is clear: “you’re not welcome here.”

Microaggressions are not a thing of the past, unfortunately, but are oh so current.  There’s an interesting social media (Twitter/Tumblr) effort to document and recognize the pervasiveness of microaggressions across multiple forms of oppression.

What does microaggression in education look like? Here’s a very recent submission to microaggressions that gives you a sense of what this looks like in education:

On Friday morning, as I walked to the cafe between classes at my predominantly white university, the school appointed photographer offered me a free coffee if I agreed to play the role of the cheerful token black woman in a group of strangers, as though the university is not festering with racial tension.  May 2011, at a “liberal” university. Made me feel devalued and furious.

Historically white institutions (HWIs) such as the one described above can be especially difficult, hostile places for students of color.  Morgane Richardson, a 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, has launched an effort to Refuse the Silence about what elite liberal arts colleges are like for women of color.  In an interview with Ileana Jiménez, Richardson explains some of what she experienced in college that led her to become an activist:

“there were a series of events that led me to become a campus activist and a mentor to other women of color at Middlebury. During my first few weeks there, a few students from the Ultimate Frisbee team decided to throw a “Cowboys and Injuns” party. They sent out invitations over the phone to individuals saying, “if you come as an Injun, be prepared to drink fire water and sit in a corner, etc.” I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that my fellow classmates would put this event together, or that the campus allowed it. In the organizers’ defense, they did recognize their mistake and agreed to sit down with us and talk about the significance of their theme party.

About a month later, I came home to a swastika drawn on my door. My only friend on the floor, a man of color, had the word ‘Nigger’ written on his. When I brought it up, the college organized a discussion for students of color, but it was never addressed in a large forum.”

Young men of color also endure microaggressions in educational institutions.  In a recent study (2011) researchers at the University of Utah analyzed data from 661 black men about their experiences in college. Smith, Hung and Franklin found that experiences of racial microaggressions interact with increasing levels of education to heighten stress (Smith, Hung and Franklin, “Racial Battle Fatigue and the MisEducation of Black Men: Racial Microaggressions, Societal Problems, and Environmental Stress,” Journal of Negro Education (80)1, 63-82). Another and related form of individual-level racism in education is stereotype threat.

Graphing Calculator
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Scintt )

Stereotype Threat. The term “stereotype threat” was developed by Steele and Aronson (1995) .  Their research, mostly through a series of experiments with college students, found that when race was emphasized in pre-test instructions, black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. However, when race was not emphasized, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. Steele and Aronson’s research provide powerful evidence that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. They speculate that the mechanisms behind stereotype threat for students include distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even over effort might all be dynamics at play. Still, there remain some critiques of the research on stereotype threat (e.g., over reliance on college student samples, the distinction between “threat” and real discrimination) as well as some unresolved issues (e.g., mostly to do with measurement and operatlonalization of the term).

What’s interesting here is that researchers Steele and Aronson have launched a new site devoted to helping educators reduce stereotype threat. Just as performance on tasks can be hindered by stereotype, there are ways to reduce the threat.
Stereotype threat based on gender, for example, can be reduced either by ensuring women students that a test is gender-fair (e.g., Quinn & Spencer, 2001; Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, 1999).  It’s also been suggested that explicitly “nullifying the assumed diagnosticity of the test,” in other words, telling students that a given test “doesn’t show test innate ability” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Overall, the evidence seems to suggest that simply addressing the racial fairness of a test can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation.

Meritocracy Myth. We want to believe that education is a mechanism for leveling the playing field for all children. The whole idea of the U.S. as an “open” society relies on an educational system that prepares all students to succeed with adequate skills.  Yet, while education is marred by racism – whether institutional or individual level – the notion of meritocracy is a myth.

Documentary “Brick by Brick” : Education Series

The documentary “Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story,” (2008), directed by Bill Kavanagh, highlights a struggle around race and education in Yonkers, New York. The film tells the story of federal US v. Yonkers, a less widely known story of integration than the storied Brown v. Board of Education case. The case challenged neighborhood and educational discrimination in important ways. This short clip (2:17) give you a sense of the film:

You can find more information about the film here.

Racism in K-12 Public Schools: Education Series

Racism starts early in education and it pervades K-12 public schools in the U.S.  Not surprisingly, this has a negative impact on children’s educational success. While some people think that racism in U.S. schools ended nearly 60 years ago with Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which held that “separate” schools for black and white children were inherently unequal, there’s a large body of research that demonstrates that racism persists in K-12 schools.  The primary mechanisms of racism in public grade schools are institutional and interpersonal.  Below, I’m taking up the issue of institutional racism in K-12 education.

Project365/Day 180
(Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

Institutional Racism. The clever, sinister thing about institutional racism in education is that it operates relentlessly on its own, like a machine, even when people of good will want it to operate differently. Today, it has morphed from the old forms we’re used to seeing in civil rights documentaries and taken on many new forms that are no less pernicious. These are just a few of those new forms.

“No Child Left Behind” (NCLB): The Racism Built into High-Stakes Testing. When President Geo. W. Bush signed the legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) into law, supporter said that  would improve the educational system by building in “accountability” through mandatory testing, especially for low-income students and students of color. The research suggests otherwise.

Walter Haney and his colleagues have demonstrated that high-stakes testing increases the number of dropouts. Since the early 1990s, when high-stakes testing started to become commonplace, graduation rates have steadily fallen (Haney, W., Madaus, G., Abrams, L., Wheelock, A., Miao, J., & Gruia, I., “The education pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000.” Chestnut Hill, MA: Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, Boston College, 2004).

In 1990-91, graduation rates were 77%; ten years later, in 2000-01, they had fallen to 67%.  Needless to say, in our increasingly credentialed society those without the basic credential of a high school diploma are at a severe disadvantage in the job market.  For some, not finishing high school the first step along a pathway to the carceral system, what some have called the “school to prison pipeline.”

Haney and his colleagues also found that three times as many students “disappear” between grades nine and ten as they did 30 years ago, due to retention policies. A study by Sharon Nichols and colleagues takes this a step further. She demonstrates that the more pressure a state exerts on accountability, the less likely it is that students will progress to 12th grade (Nichols, S.L., Glass, G.V., & Berliner, D.C.  “High-stakes testing and student achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act”. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Research Unit, 2005).

A disproportionate number of students leaving school are African-American, Latina/o and Native American. Gary Orfield and colleagues’ analysis finds that only around 50% of the nation’s black, Native American, and Latina students graduate, and for males the numbers are even lower (Orfield, et al., 2004, “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis” Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Contributors: Advocates for Children of New York, The Civil Society Institute).

Orfield makes a convincing case that NCLB give states an incentive to push out disproportionately African American, Latina/o and Native American students in order to increase average test scores for schools. For example, Steve Orel in Birmingham, Alabama, was fired for reporting that the Birmingham schools had “administratively withdrawn” 522 students in an effort to boost overall test scores.  The students were overwhelmingly African-American. None of them dropped out of school voluntarily.

Tracking. One result of high-stakes testing is to “track” (or, group) students into “ability groups.” In other words, once a student does poorly on a high-stakes, standardized test, those test scores are then used to determine which groups they’ll be placed in for future classes.  Tracking students into lower-level classes inevitably influences teacher expectations about those students, which in turn, affects how students perform.  Many researchers have documented the over-representation of African-Americans and Latinas/os in lower-level classes, such as special education, and their under-representation in the higher-level classes, such as those which are college prep courses.

A growing number of scholars are pointing to the relevance of white privilege and racism for understanding, and dismantling, the tracking system.  (Blanchett, Wanda J. “Disproportionate Representation of African American Students in Special Education:Acknowledging the Role of White Privilege and Racism,” Educational Researcher, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 24–28, 2006; Solomon, R. P., et al., “The discourse of denial: how white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege,’” [pdf] Race, Ethnicity and Education, Vol.8, No. 2, July 2005, 147-169).

Underfunding Majority Black and Brown Schools. One of the key forms of racism in K-12 schools has to do with the funding scheme for education in the U.S.  In most areas of the country, public schools are funded through property taxes. What that means is that in richer neighborhoods, where property values – and taxes – are higher, the schools in that area get more resources. It sets up a self-perpetuating cycle where those with means move into wealthier areas to escape the bad schools in the poorer neighborhoods. In cities like New York and Chicago, it means that when people have children, lots and lots of them move out of the cities – and the poorly funded public school system – to wealthier suburban neighborhoods so that they can send their kids to better public schools in the suburbs. This sort of pattern doesn’t map precisely onto race – some whites stay behind and send their kids to underfunded, urban schools; and, an increasing number of African American and Latino families find a way out to the suburbs.  But the overall pattern of educational funding in the U.S. is driven by white flight to predominantly whiter-and-whiter suburbs, so that those parents can send their kids to better (and whiter) schools.

The net result of this pattern is that we have a de facto racially segregated K-12 school system that is more segregated today than it was forty years ago. And, this racial segregation is a strongly implicated in the low educational outcomes for African American, Latina/o and Native American students.

What That Looks Like. So, what does it look like when a school is “under resourced” ?  Here’s a glimpse from one school in California:

  • Students cannot take textbooks home for homework in any core subject because their teachers have enough textbooks for use in class only. For example, a social studies teacher who teaches five separate social studies classes during one day has only one class set of social studies textbooks, so all five classes must share the same set of books. 
  • The school is infested with vermin and roaches and students routinely see mice in their classrooms. One dead rodent has remained, decomposing, in a corner in the gymnasium since the beginning of the school year.
  • The school library is rarely open, has no librarian, and has not recently been updated. The latest version of the encyclopedia in the library was published in approximately 1988.
  • Classrooms do not have computers. Computer instruction and research skills are not, therefore, part of Luther Burbank students’ regular instruction in their core courses.
  • The school no longer offers any art classes for budgetary reasons. Without the art instruction, children have limited opportunities to learn space, volume, and linear logic concepts.
  • Two of the three bathrooms at the school are locked all day, every day. The third bathroom is locked during lunch and other periods during the school day, so there are times during school when no bathroom at all is available for students to use. Students have urinated or defecated on themselves at school because they could not get into an unlocked bathroom. Other students have left school altogether to go home to use the restroom. When the bathrooms are not locked, they often lack toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, and the toilets frequently are clogged and overflowing.
  • Paint peels off walls in many classrooms and there is graffiti on classroom and other school walls. Ceiling tiles are missing and cracked in the school gym, and school children are afraid to play basketball and other games in the gym because they worry that more ceiling tiles will fall on them during their games.
  • The school has no air conditioning. On hot days classroom temperatures climb into the 90s. The school heating system does not work well. In winter, children often wear coats, hats, and gloves during class to keep warm.
  • Eleven of the 35 teachers at the school have not yet obtained full, non-emergency teaching credentials, and 17 of the 35 teachers only began teaching in the last year.

Legal Remedies. Just as in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, today lawyers committed to civil rights and social justice are doing good work to stop this kind of institutional racism. One of the most noteworthy cases in recent years is The Williams Case in California (the examples listed above are based on this case). In 2000, nearly 100 plaintiffs filed as a class action lawsuit in  Eliezer Williams, et al., vs. State of California, et al. (Williams) in San Francisco County Superior Court. The plaintiffs were San Francisco County students, who sued the State of California and state education agencies, including the California Department of Education (CDE), claiming that the agencies failed to provide then – and all K-12 public school students -  with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers.  The case was settled in 2004.  The result was that the state of California allocated $138 million in additional funding in order to bring these schools up to the standards of their wealthier (and whiter) counter parts.

There is good news and bad news here.  The good news is that solutions are possible.  The bad news is that these are hard to achieve and can take years to realize.   Further good news is that there’s plenty of work to be done on this issue for enterprising social activists that want to make real change happen.  For aspiring young scholars and activists, I can’t think of a more important area than tackling the persistent institutional racism that plagues our K-12 educational system.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue the series with more about the interpersonal (micro-level” as we sociologists like to say) racism in K-12 education.

Race, Racism & Education: A Week-Long Series

This week, we begin a series of posts about race, racism and education. We’ll be taking a look at some of the latest research and news about these issues at all levels of education, primarily focused on the U.S.

Access to a good quality educational can make a real, material difference between success and just barely surviving, that’s why education has long been at the forefront of civil rights struggles in this country. Jumping off the discussion is Prof. Anita Tijerina Rivella, from 2009, deftly weaving her own experience into the broader issues of Latinas/os and the educational pipeline (9:30):

Rivella does a terrific job here of unpacking some of the myths and stereotypes that black and brown people are somehow less interested in, or motivated in, education than white (or Asian) people.

In fact, research by Behnke, Piercy, and Diversi (“Educational and Occupational Aspirations of Latino Youth and their Parents,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences[pdf], (February, 2004), Vol. 26, No.4, 16-35) suggests that Latino families do have high educational aspirations. Yet, youth are often pushed out of the pipeline to achieving those goals by barriers including language barriers, a lack of understanding about how pathways through educational systems work and racism.

* * *
~ Through the rest of the week, we’ll explore other aspects of race, racism and education. Do send me any references, citations or video clips of your own work or someone else’s and I’ll do my best to include it.

Response to University Race Quotas Row in Brazil

The BBC news has a report about pressure to end redressive racial quotas in Brazil.   To understand this controversy, it is important to know something about the context of skin color in Brazil.

The color hierarchy in Brazilian society is obvious. With few exceptions, the Brazilian middle class and above is white. Go to any nice restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, for example, where about half of that city’s population is black or mixed-race, and you will be hard-pressed to find a nonwhite person that is not on the staff.

Racial discrimination accounts for much of this inequality. The scholarly evidence is very clear. On average, blacks and people of mixed-racial background earn less than half of what whites earn and poverty or class simply cannot explain the difference. There is lots of evidence by economists and sociologists showing that race differences in income persist even when class origins, levels of education, region, and several other variables are held constant. And that does not even consider the fact that racism affects educational level and class origins in the first place!

Most of the Brazilian population now supports racial quotas though there is strong opposition from sectors of the middle class. Opponents to quotas contend that they are an extreme policy for redressing Brazil’s huge racial inequalities. However, they do not offer viable alternatives. At best, they call for class-based policies, particularly improvements in public education. Waiting for better public schools to overcome these gross inequalities in Brazilian society might help but real change is likely to take generations even if sufficient political will could be mustered. Educational spending exemplifies the gross distortions that would need to be overcome. The Brazilian government spends about 20 times per student in the public university, which is dominated by whites, compared to public K-12, where nonwhites are disproportionately represented.

Finally, the argument about uncertainty in racial classification is overblown in Brazil. A small percentage of the Brazilian population might straddle the white/nonwhite distinction since race is based strictly on appearance in Brazil but for the vast majority, there is no doubt. The presence of some ambiguity shouldn’t be used to invalidate these policies, which are finally putting a dent in Brazil’s severe racial pyramid. Interestingly, Brazil’s anti-quota media has dug very deeply to find a handful of these cases.

~ Edward Telles is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. He is the author of the award-winning book, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil.

[NB from the admin: We're delighted to welcome a new guest blogger to Racism Review.]

Global Racial Inequality Keeps Children Away From School

Around the world, children from ethnic, racial and linguistic minorities are being left behind in the quest for universal education, according to Lauren Feeney, multimedia producer for PBS’s documentary television series, Wide Angle.   Feeney explains that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for international development agreed to at the turn of the millennium, call for universal primary education by 2015.  While some progress has been made towards that goal in the last decade — today, nearly 90 percent of children are enrolled in primary school, compared to 85 percent in 2000.

Even as that is a victory to celebrate, there remain 75 million children are still out of school; and of those, the majority are children from racial and ethnic minority groups.  Although the U.N. doesn’t track progress based on racial or ethnic criteria, but a new report from Minority Rights Group International estimates that between 50 and 70 percent of out of school children are from minority and indigenous populations.

This kind of racial inequality exists around the globe, in Latin America, in Australia, in Africa, in India and in Europe.  As Joe wrote here recently, the treatment of Roma in Europe is one that is steeped in racism that few are willing to face.  Indeed, speaking out about their treatment prompted crowds to boo pop-icon Madonna for speaking out in support of them.  When it comes to the treatment of the Roma, and how Roma children are doing meeting the Millennium Development Goals, it’s difficult to tell.   Fenney writes that most reports on the Millennium Development Goals don’t bother to track progress in highly developed countries such as those in the European Union, which Romania joined in 2007. But Snjezana Bokulic, the Minority Rights Group International program officer for Europe, says that conditions for the Roma minority are “comparable to sub-Saharan Africa,” so, while European countries are likely to surpass most of the goals, “a segment of the population will be left out.” As for the goal of universal primary education, only 31 percent of Roma in Romania complete primary school, and Roma comprise between 2 and 10 percent of the population (depending on who’s counting), so the goal is unlikely to be met. “It’s an issue of mathematics,” says Bokulic.

Extrapolating from the non-data-collection on Roma in Europe, I assume that these reports are not being collected on indigenous and racial/ethnic minority groups here in the U.S. either.  That would be a worthy research project for someone to do is find out what percentage of indigenous and migrant workers children are enrolled in school.

In a rather striking example of what happens when you fail to take into account intersections of race, class and gender, the Millennium Development Goals include a specific provision calling for an end to gender disparity at all levels of education, but there is no similar targeting of disparity based on racial or ethnic difference. One observer from the Minority Rights Group calls this a “glaring omission.”  Maurice Bryan, who contributed the chapter on Latin America to the Minority Rights Group International report, says that no one realized it at the time, and goes on to say this:

“People didn’t used to think that you should pay special attention to women but once they realized that it was necessary, there has been progress on the gender gap. Now the racial gap is the new kid on the block.”

I found that a remarkable quote.  While it’s pointless to try and say which is “more” or “less” necessary – it’s both and – I was just found it interesting that at least according to Millennium Goals the idea of addressing of gender is more established than the idea of addressing racism and inequality.  If it’s still the case that 50-70 percent of the world’s children who are not in school are from ethnic or indigenous populations, then it seems long overdue to start addressing this form of inequality.

Black Girls in White Schools: School Settings and Racist Actors

School Daze

The relatively new journal, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Perspectives, has a very interesting article by Tiffany A. Eggleston of the Columbus City Schools and Antoinette Halsell Miranda of Ohio State University on interviews with eleven black adolescent girls in a predominantly white suburban school (Creative Commons License photo credit: Burnt Pixel).

The researchers present interesting data-comments from the students on gendered racism in everyday environments, and conclude with suggestions for teachers/principals concerned with the gendered-racial impacts and isolation faced by such isolated black students in historically white institutions:

1. Teachers should partake in cultural diversity training to help understand the normative behavior of African Americans and other racial minority groups. By learning to understand the nuances of various cultures, teachers will be better able to relate to the students and offer support, thereby helping to lessen the feeling of isolation described by many of the participants. In understanding the different cultural behaviors, teachers may be more apt to discourage the continuation of stereotypes about African Americans and other racial minorities within and outside of the classroom. 2. According to the findings of this study, many of the participants did not feel close to any of their teachers, which was reported to be a disappointment to some of the participants. … Thus, teachers should work to improve student–teacher relationships to help increase the likelihood that the students will turn to school personnel for help or support.

1. Principals should offer and ensure that teachers participate in professional development courses on cultural, racial, and gender diversity to help increase their understanding of African American females. 2. According to the participants, one source of discomfort came from being the only one, or one of just a few African Americans in class. This occurrence was specifically mentioned in relation to advanced (Honors and Advanced Placement) courses and was cited as a possible reason why more African American students choose not to enroll in those courses. Principals should closely monitor African American enrollment in such courses to ensure that students participate. If it is noticed that African American students do not participate, steps should be taken to actively recruit them. 3. Many of the participants were discouraged by the apparent lack of interest in African Americans, even during Black History Month. Thus, principals should develop cultural activities and school presentations that address African American culture. … principals should make efforts to offer courses on African American culture (i.e., African American History, African American Literature, African American Studies). Due to the prominence of racial slurs, racist behaviors, and stereotypical views, students of all races would benefit from learning about African American culture. 4. Principals should make a sincere effort to hire a diverse staff.

There is much that is important and useful in this analysis of the pressures of white images of female-ness in society and in these predominantly white settings, and these young women are quite pointed and detailed in the gendered racism they describe in this school. These is much here to learn from them.

However, the researchers seem unwilling to examine directly and analytically the role of white teachers, white principals, and white students in such educational settings. These white actors certainly appear in the student accounts.

Yet, the words “white teachers” and “white principals” are terms that never appear even once in the article. And “white students” appears but once in a critical comment from a black female student. At no point do the authors examine, substantially and specifically, the white racial framing of the many white actors who are critical to the problems of such oppressive school environments–other than to note, as above, that “students of all races” would benefit from some of the proposed reforms.

The reality of the “racial slurs, racist behaviors, and stereotypical views” is noted, but not attended to analytically much beyond these typical diversity proposals. No terms like systemic racism, institutionalized racism, or structural racism appear in the article, nor is there such a systemic racism analysis. The white racism environment is discussed in terms of the gender ideas imposed on black girls in this environment, but the white imposers are only implicitly considered, as in most social science research of this type. And the solutions are mostly considered and useful but, once again, seem too much like putting band-aids on cancers? Where are the proposals for dealing with the racist white students, teachers, and principals who cause these girls problems, and their white racial framing (their racist mindsets) and their racist everyday actions?

[Note: The journal, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Perspectives, is a joint publication of The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Office of Minority Affairs at Ohio State University, together with the Indiana University Press. A good journal to know about.]

Poverty, Stress, and Achievement: What Role Does Racism Play?

Day 58 _ a reveiling day
Two weeks ago, the results of an important study –
“Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” – were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg, examined the relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement, which they note has been studied extensively for many years (Creative Commons License photo credit: frerieke). What makes their research unique is that they measured the mediating effects that chronic stress, resulting from living in poverty during childhood, have on later achievement. They found that the chronic and intensive stressors caused by poverty leads to “working memory deficits” in young adulthood.

Because working memory is critical for language comprehension, reading, problem solving, and long-term retention of information learned, weakened working memory from poverty-induced stress may be central to explaining why young adults who lived in poverty as children have poorer educational outcomes than young adults who lived above the poverty line as children. The longer the child was poor, from birth to age 13, the weaker her or his working memory was as a young adult.

I read Evans and Schamberg’s study with great interest because of its important implications. Poor parents have long been exhorted to spend more time reading to their children and taking them to museums and other educational venues where admission may be free on certain days of the week, with the expectation that these activities, routinely provided by more affluent parents to their children, would improve poor children’s academic achievement.

However, while undoubtedly enriching, the Evans and Schamberg study indicates that these activities are not sufficient to compensate for the negative impact of the daily stressors inflicted by a life of economic deprivation.

Those stressors must be alleviated as well. As important as the findings are, though, the Evans and Schamberg study may not be generalizable to children of color. That’s because their sample was composed of 195 white male and female young adults. This surprises me given that, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, while 12.1% of white families live below the poverty line, 29.1% of black families and 24.3% of Hispanic families live in poverty. And the further impoverished a family is, the more likely they are to be black or Hispanic.

Certainly, poor black and Hispanic families experience the same kinds of stressors that poor white families experience: e.g., housing problems, the dangers posed by living in high-crime neighborhoods, stretching the limited income available to buy food and pay for other necessities. But poor families of color experience a stressor that poor white families do not experience: racism.

There is a substantial body of research that shows that racism is a chronic stressor throughout the life course for people of color, and that the stress caused by racism has serious negative effects on both psychological and physical health. For instance, Nancy Krieger and Stephen Sidney found that stress induced by racial discrimination has as much or more of an impact on blood pressure as smoking, lack of exercise, and a high-fat, high-sodium diet (“Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure: The CARDIA Study of Young Black and White Adults,” American Journal of Public Health, 86(1996):1370-1378). Ruth Thompson-Miller and Joe Feagin found in their interviews with elderly blacks that memories of racist interactions with whites produced a number of negative physical and psychological reactions indicative of what they call “race-based traumatic stress,” the impact of which lasts a lifetime (“Continuing Injuries of Racism: Counseling in a Racist Context,” The Counseling Psychologist, 35(2007):106-115).

Importantly, Thompson-Miller and Feagin show that men and women of color experience race-based traumatic stress regardless of their social class. But when we consider the additional stressors of poverty and the fact that people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, the need to examine racism as a stressor in research such as Evans and Schamberg’s seems essential.

Although they do not mention examining racial differences or the potential role of racism on working memory or other indicators of academic achievement in future studies, I hope Evans and Schamberg, as well as other scientists, will undertake this challenging but important research.

For an extensive review of research on the physical and especially psychological impacts of racism on people of color, see a special issue of The Counseling Psychologist. I’m grateful to Ruth Thompson-Miller at Texas A&M University for bringing this special issue to my attention.