Equity & Diversity Q&A

How Is White Supremacy Embedded in School Systems Today? A Scholar Explains

By Ileana Najarro — November 03, 2022 8 min read
Members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., on Sept. 26, 1957. A plan to only grant Little Rock partial control of its schools is drawing complaints that the district may further segregate 62 years after nine black students were escorted into an all-white high school, and a push to end the local teachers union's bargaining power is stirring fears of even more instability.
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What is the true legacy of Brown v. Board of Education? How do schools perpetuate white supremacy? How can public education become equitable?

John Diamond, professor of sociology and education policy at Brown University, will address those topics as part of the 19th Annual Brown Lecture in Education. His remarks will be broadcast online for free tonight at 6 p.m. EST by the American Educational Research Association, which sponsors the Brown Lecture.

In his lecture, Diamond will discuss how white supremacy operates in the context of education. Critically, it is defined not just by violent white supremacist groups or white nationalist organizations, he said.

“That’s one element of a broader set of political, economic, and cultural structures in which whites and white racial actors control power in material resources,” he said. It’s also the ideas and belief systems that support and justify that control.

Education Week spoke with Diamond ahead of his lecture on how these structures play out in education and how all educators can play a role in dismantling them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are concrete ways in which white supremacy is embedded in education structures today?

The power to define the purposes of education, the power to define the curricular content and the discourse around education, all tend to be in control of, to a large extent, white racial actors, but probably as importantly, tend to be steeped in a history in which whiteness, as a sort of structural position and an identity, has been structured as and thought of as superior to all of the racialized groups.

And so the ability to sort of control the decisionmaking, the power over curriculum and the day-to-day activities in these contexts, tends to lead to white supremacy being embedded in school contexts.

The very specific way that I talk about white supremacy being embedded in the daily life of schools, is in the organizational routines and practices of schools. We think about the daily life of schools being carried out through organizational routines … the starting of school, or decisions about discipline, or grading processes or tracking processes, where these ideas about white superiority are sort of embedded in people’s consciousness and self-conscious thinking in ways that reproduce these kinds of racial hierarchies. And part of that is tied to the practice of engaging with people.

People carry these ideas into those engagements, both this sort of white superiority, but also the sort of [stereotype that] folks of color aren’t quite as smart, that we’re more likely to misbehave in school, are more likely to be criminal, are more likely to have all these sorts of negative characteristics. And that sort of embeds itself in the daily practices of schools in ways that reproduce white supremacy and also racial inequity.

What happens when race is not explicitly discussed, studied, and taken into account both in education policies and classroom instruction?

It’s not lost on me, and probably not on other people, that a lot of the anti-critical race theory sort of activism came on the heels of massive racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd. And so a lot of anti-critical race theory legislation was, in some ways, a response to that in an attempt to silence that. Part of what happens when we don’t allow conversations to happen in schools or in other spaces is you are able to silence dissent.

One example is when young people raise their voices in protest, they’re often silenced in schools, they’re often told that their demeanor is not appropriate, they’re often told to be quiet. These are efforts to sort of silence dissent so that there’s a consolidation of white supremacy structurally that can continue.
The other way that I think it harms people in the context of schools is it reproduces the kind of white racial ignorance, and a kind of racial ignorance more broadly, that allows people to obscure, misunderstand, and misrecognize the racial hierarchy and structure that exists in the society. It allows people to look at the detrimental impact of white supremacy as it functions—in terms of child mortality, in terms of life expectancy, in terms of the inability to move freely, in terms of “stop and frisk” policies—all those things become justified and rationalized by this racial ignorance and a racial ideology that says, “Well, these things are okay.” Because those people don’t deserve certain protections, or those things just happen because they happen. You lose the ability to see reality, or you gain the ability to obscure what you’re seeing.

The only way to fix problems is to be able to call out what’s causing them. So I draw a lot on continuous improvement work, I draw a lot on work that tries to discipline our thinking about how to change schools. And a big part of that is being able to identify the root causes of problems, and figure out how to work in ways that are different, so that those problems don’t get reproduced.

How do you look inside organizational routines and figure out where the breakdowns are? Where issues of race, and sexuality, and gender, patriarchy, all those things are playing out in the context of those routines and disrupt that. But the inability to identify the root causes of these problems by not talking about race, not talking about sexuality, not talking about trans justice, not talking about patriarchy, means that you’re not understanding the problem. And therefore, the solutions you come up with will never resolve the problem.

John Diamond

How can district leaders and school administrators play a role in dismantling white supremacy in schools?

One way to do this is focusing on the things that they’re already doing and beginning to diagnose where the breakdowns are, and trying to redesign what they’re doing to make those things less harmful. For example, all districts are hiring new people, they’re inducting them into jobs. They’re evaluating their work, they’re engaging in professional learning opportunities with their educators, they’re setting up coaching processes in their schools. All those things can be turned toward and foreground racial justice and other forms of justice in those processes.

And that also connects back to how people are being prepared to take on those roles. That goes back to schools of education. How are we preparing people to educate or lead schools with an increasingly diverse student population, what tools are we giving people in their preparation? So in some ways I think of this as sort of a pipeline issue, in addition to what happens in the context of schools.

The other thing I would say is that, as a field, we need to create the context in which people are able to have these kinds of conversations. And part of that is to fight back against some of these efforts to silence this discourse. That means the deans of schools of education need to be outspoken in challenging things like banning books on LGBTQ+ folks and race and racial justice, of speaking out against the silencing and censorship of people who are trying to have a legitimate conversation about race and history, and all of these other issues that are being silenced.

I think we need as a field for people to be outspoken about the dangers of not having these conversations for the future of our democracy, for the functioning of our society, for our discourse around how we live together.

What role can classroom teachers play in dismantling white supremacy in schools?

They can play a vital role. I mean, all of us can think of those teachers who had a major impact on us by small things that they did in the classroom, conversations that we had in the classroom, or just educators who are deeply invested in the humanity of all their students and pushing those things forward.

I think the things that can be done really are teachers thinking deeply about their own role, their own subjectivity around race and other forms of inequality. Part of it has to do with thinking deeply about those things, and being a student of both what has been said about these issues but also how we sort of relate to them ourselves.

Then it’s also about thinking about our own practices, and interrogating what we’re doing in our classrooms in ways that pay close attention to how we are and may be reinforcing these kinds of inequalities. It’s looking at our own classroom routines, deconstructing those and reconstructing them in ways that lead to more what we think might be justice.

Across education I think there’s a power of listening to young people’s voices and listening to the communities where our schools are embedded, and connecting to justice-oriented movements outside of schools, because those tend to provide energy and ideas that have the potential to help transform what’s happening in school.

And one thing I’ll say, just to be clear: When I’m talking about justice across these dimensions on one level I’m talking about things that feel radical and revolutionary, but we’re talking about the ability to vote. We’re talking about the ability to walk down the street and not be harassed by police officers when you’re going to school as a Black, brown, or Muslim kid. We’re talking about the ability to go to school and not be sexually harassed. We’re talking about the ability to go to school and have your gender identity respected.

We’re talking about the ability to say “I experienced racism, sexism, homophobia,” and not have people tell you, “You can’t say that.” So we’re not talking about things that are not at the core of what the society says it stands for. It becomes much more about the humanity of people and their ability to live.

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