Since the world watched Minneapolis resident George Floyd die at the hands of a police officer named Derek Chauvin and learned police in Louisville, Ky., shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her own home, an outpouring of attention has focused on anti-racism and equity. Countless anti-racism book clubs were formed; books addressing America’s racism shot up The New York Times bestsellers list; big-name corporations with feeble track records on diversity and inclusion made public statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And the field of education saw a resurgence of calls for anti-racism and equity.
School districts and colleges around the country formed task forces, committees, and working groups to address what they already know: that despite good intentions for racial justice, the work is at best elusive without substantive commitment from the institutions and is dead on arrival without significant structural changes that address systemic racism.
Much of what goes by the name “equity work” is a collective hoping for racial justice. This hope too often hinges on the idea that before we change policies, we must change hearts and minds. So equity work becomes trying to help white people learn to be less racist. The work is dependent on the level of commitment of white people—especially white people in power—and their awareness of racism.
In education, too often change happens when white people are ready for change, and until then, directors of diversity, equity, and inclusion wait, teach, and create reports that tell the story of racism at the very place they work. Under these conditions, the promise of equity is ultimately empty.
We have to actually trust the people we say we want to empower to make structural changes.
Real equity work is attempting to undo and heal generations of violence, trauma, and racial and economic inequities. In the current environment, it relies heavily on the ingenuity and brilliance of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people to fix problems people of color did not create. Equity workers of color are the backbone of equity work.
We are asked to chair diversity committees with little to no compensation, as if we should be honored to help fix the problems of racism. Our voices are now valuable but only in conversations surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are asked to speak at conferences and gatherings because organizers see diversity as a conference theme—not necessarily an institutional value. As feminist writer and scholar Sara Ahmed reminds us, “The diversity worker has a job precisely because diversity and equality are not daily practice.” Even in the midst of all this talk focused on equity work, we must remember Ahmed’s words.
In his brilliant speech “A Talk to Teachers,” the American essayist and novelist James Baldwin told educators that we are trying to undo “many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society.” This type of truth telling is needed in equity work because yet another task force or another report is hollow without taking direct aim at the generational harm done by whiteness.
Anti-racism work is all too often done as a performance—to be popular and look “woke.” It can be painstakingly ornamental. It needs instead to embed community efforts, organizers, and the actual people who live with America’s oppression. It needs to make structural changes that dismantle centuries-old, racist institutions from the ground up in order to rebuild with a commitment to community, safety (without police), justice, diversity, and actual equity. For equity work to work, it must be handed to the community. We have to actually trust the people we say we want to empower to make structural changes, not just tinker at the edges of injustice.
The contemporary abolitionist movement I am part of does not focus on the edges; abolitionists want to create communities free of systemic oppression. We are watching reform that will not address racism, as school districts widely are implementing anti-racist curriculum with no structural changes to how racism functions in their districts. According to a 2019 report by EdBuild, a nonprofit organization that focused on school funding issues, predominately white school districts get $23 billion a year more in state and local funding than predominately nonwhite districts despite serving the same number of students. What good is anti-racist curriculum that does not address racism right under its nose?
Abolitionist and anthropologist Savannah Shange rightly tells us we have to work “within, against, and beyond” for collective liberation. In the current push for anti-racism and equity, some long-fought battles in education have recently been won. The Boston school committee voted unanimously to suspend admissions tests to the city’s three most prestigious schools in favor of an analysis of grades and test scores along with affording priority to students who live in the city’s poorest ZIP codes. The San Diego school district unanimously approved a grading system that will assess students on mastery of a subject, a change intended to make grades more equitable. Additionally, ethnic-studies courses will be a graduation requirement in the district. After backlash against these structural changes and the move toward anti-racism, the district doubled down on its commitment to equity, a bold move that takes leadership and community support. These systemwide wins are due to years of parents, community members, teachers, and equity workers fighting for and demanding justice.
While the wins are important, we cannot stop here. There will inevitably be white pushback and resistance that will undoubtedly find a way to continue to allow white parents to hoard resources so they are not available to Black and Brown students. (See, for example, Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond’s book Despite the Best Intentions.) This cycle is why we must fight for equity and move toward abolition of all oppressions because reform is not liberation. Nonetheless, the shifting of ground by equity leaders and communities does give me hope.
A version of this essay appeared in the Jan. 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as “Empty Promises of Equity.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Empty Promises of Equity