Editor’s Note: Dorothea Williams-Arnold is a senior fellow at The PuLSE Institute, where she focuses on the academic needs of students in poor communities. A 14-year veteran of public education, Williams-Arnold teaches English and Language Arts at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson the editor-in-chief and dean of The PuLSE Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dorothea Williams-Arnold
Over the past year, both the COVID-19 pandemic and the brutal death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a White Minneapolis police officer caught on tape has shaken this country out of its willingness to disbelieve the ways in which its racist past has encouraged unequal, harsh treatment of Black people by law enforcement and in other systems meant to service and protect all our citizens.
The truth is that America and its ideals are on trial now. The citizens and systems of governance are as well. If we are to move forward with any semblance of humanity, civility, and justice, this country must atone for the hardships it continues to inflict on the lives of Black people. Leadership and those who have benefitted must come to terms with their role in our sad state of affairs.
The world is witnessing this exhausting byproduct of America’s worst sin, in a spectacle of race-related police violence against unarmed Black people. Observers or those sitting on the sidelines can no longer willfully disbelieve the reality and horror of the victim’s cries because they have been crystalized on our timelines and reflected in the masses of protesters worldwide.
Such persistence of racial inequality and prejudice toward Black people has also opened a new frontier in our classrooms as technology captures another manifestation of American racism: unequal public school spaces and teacher bias which subjects Black children to a more subtle kind of violence—the diminishing of their spirits and future prospects.
For example, over the past month there have been reports of teachers caught voicing their overt racist attitudes about their Black students and their parents. The Washington Post recently reported an incident where a white teacher was caught on a zoom call that she forgot to end with a Black student. “For more than 30 minutes,” she was caught denigrating not only her student but also the student’s parents for being “the piece[s] of s—” they are.
Such malevolent attitudes are born out of this country’s tumultuous, racist history and should encourage us to boldly confront the truth about how brutal racial bias is on our children, and how it is negatively affecting their academic outcomes. It is also affecting how they view themselves. The pandemic has provided a sharply focused reflection of the contrast between our country’s founding ideals and reality.
Teachers have a tremendous responsibility to provide learning spaces that embody those founding ideals. Our children’s basic right to learn, grow, and prosper on an equal basis and without regard to race cannot be under attack in the classroom. It is our obligation to transcend damaging systems of oppression against our young people. Challenging our biases must be an ongoing, willful act if we wish to make a meaningful difference. School spaces must be free from hierarchical racial attitudes and processes.
Most of those who choose teaching as a profession are motivated by the desire to have a transformative effect on the lives of young people. These altruistic motivations can fuel our children’s desire to do their best, to connect and develop the confidence they need to take on academic challenges that will promote their growth. Many of us are called because a teacher in our past inspired us; they saw in us what we hadn’t yet discovered about ourselves; they recognized our promise; they took us under their wing and helped us love to learn. Aligning one’s ideals with practice is often the biggest challenge when it comes to teaching, yet it is one that many fail at doing when it comes to Black children.
Although explicit racism is a force in its own right, implicit bias can often be more pernicious and destructive especially when directed by a teacher towards her students. Though implicit bias is often difficult to identify, evidence is leading researchers to conclude that “teacher’s unconscious racial beliefs produce biased evaluations of students’ academic performance, which translates into real implications for educational attainment,” according to a Brookings Institute study. Using the White-Black Implicit Association Test (IAT), which assesses “how quickly individuals associate White and Black people with certain favorable/unfavorable attitudes, researchers found that even after accounting for socioeconomic factors, school funding, and “segregation measures,” implicit bias exacerbates the “entrenched disparities” in academic achievement among Black and White students.
When teachers succumb to their learned biases and fears about students of color, they become co-conspirators in helping maintain the polarizing racial status quo. These biases often manifest in low teacher expectation and excessive punitive corrective measures. They induce an inability or lack of desire to connect with students which, in turn, reinforces much of the same racial stratification we are burdened with in society. The classroom cannot be a liberating space when a teacher is unwilling or unable to connect with her students in a way that encourages their desire to learn.
Correspondingly, when teachers internalize widespread data on academic achievement gaps between White and Black children without taking into consideration policies that have facilitated these outcomes, this encourages low teacher expectation. It encourages racist notions of “Black intellectual inferiority,” as noted by Ibram X. Kendi in his book How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi argues: “There is a more sinister implication in achievement-gap talk—that disparities in academic achievement accurately reflect disparities in intelligence among racial groups.” We must not, no matter what the data suggests, allow racist policies that produce these trends in performance to lower our expectation and dumb down our curriculums.
Teachers whoexhibit racist ideas, even if unconsciously, may also have internalized the notion that Black children have a tendency towards violence, which is reinforced by the constant images of violence against Black people replayed over and over again in recent news headlines. Kendi goes on to note, “violence for White people has too often had a Black face—and the consequences have landed on the Black body across the span of American history.”
We must resist the predominant racist narrative—that the bodies of our young Black children are potentially dangerous. Those with little exposure to Black people often allow these violent images to shape their view of them. The result is less tolerance for benign, reactive behaviors of Black children than those of White children and overlooking restorative remedies for more punitive ones.
As we engage in the process of mitigating both the explicit and implicit biases in public education, brought into greater focus by the pandemic and the numerous murders of Black men by law enforcement, we should use these tragedies to rethink how our public school spaces should look.
We can begin by making a concerted effort to hire more Black teachers. Michigan’s student population is 18% African American, but only 6% of the teaching force is black, according to a Detroit Free Press article. And the gap is far from narrowing. The overwhelming majority of children of color will graduate from school not having been taught by even one Black teacher. This is especially true for suburban districts surrounding Detroit, according to the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information.
Detroit is at an advantage when it comes to the ratio of Black teachers to students. About 67% of its teaching force and 87% of the student body is Black. Moreover, districts like Detroit have “developed a strategic outreach and teacher recruitment plan” which among other things include targeting Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Suburban White communities, several of which maintain school districts that are composed of primarily Black students, such as Oak Park, Harper Woods, even West Bloomfield, may want to take note.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the issues of racial bias and low representation of Black teachers with Lorien Tompkins, a Special Education student at Eastern Michigan University, and one of the last students of color remaining in her class after losing the others through attrition.
When asked to elaborate on her student teaching experience, Ms. Tompkins, replied: “My biggest challenge in education has been being the only Black woman at my school. I try to embrace and teach about [our] history, but my co-workers see it as me being anti-White. I feel it is more beneficial for [Black students]to learn about people like them.”
When asked what needs to be done by educational institutions to attract more Black people to the field, she responded that schools which serve a predominantly Black population must adjust to the interests and needs of Black students, instead of Black students being made to conform to White standards in curriculum and behavior. She concluded by stating that without “teachers that look like and can relate to them, our youth will continue to be at a disadvantage.” They will not want to become teachers either.
It is also important to note that if Ms. Tompkins had not earned a full academic scholarship, she would not have made it through her education program. In order to recruit more Black teachers, districts must help young, Black prospective teachers mitigate the financial hardships they disproportionately face, through increased financial assistance, particularly during their year-long internships.
Public schools, no matter the demographics they serve, must commit to adopting anti-racist policies and practices. Since implicit biases are difficult to eradicate, school administrators must put in place policies that encourage teachers to confront their biases in constructive ways. This means that restorative instead of punitive measures should be the primary method of conflict resolution—we must resist criminalizing the behavior of students of color. It also means that advanced courses should not be limited to only students who meet academic benchmarks but be accessible to all students who are motivated to take on the challenge to aid in closing the achievement gap. It also means adopting curricula that reflect the demographics of the districts.
We are at a crossroads. The turn we take must not be in the direction of the status quo, but towards the creation of a new paradigm in education which will serve to eradicate to the greatest extent possible the racist underpinnings that permeate our present education system.
Thank you for addressing this critical problem in our public school system. I have long believed that much of the problem with our children’s learning in public schools is the lack of quality teaching – which is not simply a man or woman with the desired degrees, but a teacher who is there to teach and positively impact children’s lives. What is worse, a teacher of color who may not have all of the required credentials, but is committed to the children she teaches, or a non-person of color who teaches our children with much less commitment, empathy or hope for their future?
I am not and do not advocate for an all-black teaching staff at all public schools. I am grateful to some excellent, quality teachers who helped pave the way for me, and were not of color. What I am very concerned about is what our children of color are missing out on without committed, empathetic teachers of color who advocate for them and their futures. #Ourchildrencanlearn.