School & District Management Commentary

Education Scholars: Challenging Racial Injustice Begins With Us

By Nicole Nguyen — June 17, 2015 6 min read

Every day, I ride public transportation to my university job as an education researcher and teacher-educator. As I watch people board the train, I’m continually reminded of the talent, creativity, and experiences pulsing beneath Chicago’s infrastructure. On my June 8 commute, I plugged my ears with my headphones to listen to reports of the humiliation and brutalization of young Black teens attending a neighborhood pool party in McKinney, Texas. Aghast but unsurprised, I wondered what role universities, and colleges of education more specifically, play in dismantling these state-sanctioned systems of violence that expose non-dominant youths to narrowed life chances, brutality, and premature death.


While McKinney Police Cpl. David Eric Casebolt’s resignation moves in the direction of police accountability, this decision mistakes constant police harassment, brutalization, and killings as a consequence of a few bad cops. These brutalizing acts are a violent product and constitutive element of institutional racism. Police brutality functions as one node in a larger system—racism, classism, heteropatriarchy, and ableism—that dehumanizes and criminalizes non-dominant youths. Rather than punish a few bad apples, we must tear down the entire tree.

As public transit riders shuffled on and off the train, I began to understand that we cannot solve complex social problems like institutional racism within the prototypical ivory tower as armchair critics. Our scholarship cannot merely inform our own ideas and advance our own careers. If we are to train future teachers, principals, and education researchers, we must recognize how schools perpetuate and disrupt systems of inequality, nourish the critical consciousness of our students, model antiracist and decolonizing pedagogies, and build the tool kits necessary for creating more-democratic schools.

Institutions of education possess the power to disrupt the cultural contexts that authorize the criminalization of Black youths, most evident in Casebolt’s violent actions.”

If we are to counter the oppressive systems of inequality that brutalize youths, we cannot do it alone. We must marshal the intellect of all those who board the train, young people in particular. We do not need university solutions to public problems.

To think, then, about the implications of ongoing police violence for colleges of education, we must first ask: What is the role of the university? Where do our responsibilities, as university scholars, lie? To whom are we accountable?

For me, the university is a public good with a public mission. That is, the intellectual society we fund and nurture extends beyond university borders and reaches into communities to solve social problems. Producing knowledge, teaching, and researching, subsequently, we must all work toward the common good of our multiple publics, enact democratic practices, and advance social justice. We must build reciprocal partnerships between communities and universities, using all of our resources for a common anti-racist, anti-imperialist future we collectively define.

See Also

In response to this essay, the Commentary editors asked five educators to weigh in on the the K-12 community’s responsibility for dismantling racial violence. Read their full responses on the OpEducation blog series, “Confronting Racial Injustice in Schools.”

Although current institutional arrangements, reward structures, and accountability metrics discourage publicly engaged scholarship, the ongoing police killings of Black youths demand a university whose resources partner with those in the community. Pressing social problems require collective solutions. To do so, we must fundamentally reconfigure whom we imagine as a scholar and what counts as scholarship. Our work as faculty members begins with the community.

The ongoing police killings of Black adolescents are a clarion call to academics to remake universities around this public mission. Our privilege as academics charges us with confronting and resisting the cultural, political, economic, and ideological work that makes these killings not only possible but justified. As the media obfuscate the racialized and gendered logics that rendered a congregation of Black teens dangerous, school staff members must build classrooms to empower children to name, interpret, and stand up to these daily confrontations with systems of oppression. We must train future teachers and school leaders to create politically charged classrooms where youths across difference describe, analyze, and address power inequities through collaborative and deliberative coalitions. Classroom learning can sharpen our analytic lens and develop the skills for organizing for social change. Those who can name their world, after all, gain the power to act in it.

Schools often impose the same racialized and gendered regimes of humiliations, punishments, and brutalizations we witnessed in McKinney. Institutions of education, however, also possess the power to disrupt the cultural contexts that authorize the criminalization of Black youths, most evident in Casebolt’s violent actions. Young people’s classroom learning, life experiences, and encounters with other social institutions define how they accept or reject dominant narratives about Black adolescents and their analyses of these events. Schools can empower young people by nourishing their capacity to create other alternative forms of security, respect, and dignity. Public schools, then, operate as critical sites of struggle to define what kind of education young people receive and for what ends.

We must build reciprocal partnerships between communities and universities, using all of our resources for a common anti-racist, anti-imperialist future we collectively define.”

Schools also serve as community hubs where families, children, community members, and educators gather to use the school’s resources and discuss their children’s progress. For some, this means adult researchers consult with youths by placing them at the center of conversations school adults have about teaching in and improving the schools. These collaborations seek to democratize research by carving out a vibrant public sphere in which young people act as agents of social change in ongoing struggles for a more just future. Yet, as adult researchers, we must tread lightly: Too often, we shift our own responsibility onto students, calling upon them to resist structural oppression without supporting them or taking these risks ourselves.

Improving the quality of and access to public education for non-dominant youths also demands we collectively address ongoing issues of poverty, unemployment, and disinvestment. These abject social problems necessitate we build reciprocal partnerships to utilize the talents and expertise of all in the face of racism, classism, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, and ableism. Although collaborators cannot fully eschew relations of power that structure these coalitions, we must widen political spaces to address the injustices present in our communities with the community itself.

Schools also provide a congregating space to resist school privatization, the unequal funding of public education, and constant criminalization of non-dominant youths. Researchers, activists, and community members can pool their resources to map the deleterious effects of gentrification, poverty, and school closures. To center the experiences, knowledges, and resources of the community fosters the collective creativity needed to solve the pressing social problems of today.

Arresting cycles of systemic violence requires we build these inclusive two-way partnerships with humility. To acknowledge the expertise of those typically denied full civic participation, we must confront our own racist, gendered, classed, and ableist assumptions that shape what we think non-dominant youths know, what behaviors and bodies we seek to control, and our definition of the purposes of education. Although these suggestions point to the power and possibility of colleges of education, schools, and teachers, we cannot overstate our impact as academics. Given the tenacity of these systems of inequality, our efforts may not immediately produce the change we seek.

This is the public mission of colleges of education: to serve as political allies of the young people in our communities to dismantle systems of violence. This mission charges us with building reciprocal community-university partnerships to redress the patterns of injustice we confront daily. Our work begins and ends with this social compact.

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Education Scholars: Challenging Racial Injustice Begins With Us


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