Last summer, I felt that our commitment to ending racism in education was real.
After George Floyd was murdered, school districts across the country began contacting me as they scrambled to build sessions to understand structural racism and its impact on our schools. I was there to help search for solutions to deeply entrenched problems of racial inequities. And I brought critical race theory with me, understanding that the toolkit it provides is necessary for building more just education conditions.
Now, I write this fully aware that our country has historically flirted with racial progress only to retreat into racial-progress penury. I have experienced firsthand as a leader in the education justice movement how the pendulum swings: In one moment, we in education crave courageous conversation about race because race is the most vexing question we face. Yet, in another moment, we disdain the mere suggestion of race and cling to our convenient but deadly illusion that race or racism doesn’t exist to avoid provoking the tender sensitivities of the racially privileged.
Some of the same people who eagerly invited me to help facilitate conversations about race also anxiously waited for me to leave. What was happening?
Education is a case study of progress on racial justice in the United States: That is, as we stride forward we often slide back.
At every turn in U.S. history, education policymakers have embraced a truer commitment to injustice and exclusion for some students while promising educational justice and inclusion for all. That is what the current rise in anti-CRT rhetoric and policy feels like—an abandonment. A step forward accompanied by a step back.
Lawmakers from at least 26 states, as of June 29, have proposed or passed bills or taken other steps seeking to limit or prohibit the teaching of particular concepts about race and racism within public institutions, including schools and the military. These bills are similar to former President Trump’s executive order prohibiting federally funded institutions from teaching “divisive concepts” about race and gender. While it was widely seen as a ploy to end the rise in diversity trainings gaining momentum in the aftermath of George Floyd’s deplorable murder, Trump’s executive order lacked any serious impact with the 2020 election.
These new state-level bills, however, feel different.
After reading legislation from Florida, Iowa, and Idaho, among other states that passed legislation limiting or prohibiting a focus on race and racism, it was clear to me that the laws were not about CRT. This spate of legislation, like the rise in legislation seeking to limit access to the vote, has the potential to limit access to ideas that might be critical of, but also crucial for, providing solutions to American racism and its impact on our schools.
If we cannot talk about how structural racism helps drive racial disparity in almost every meaningful area in education—from attendance to achievement, from special education placement to suspensions, from course access to course completion—then we are fooling ourselves when we say that we are committed to advancing educational equity.
Let me explain.
Equity in education is the recognition that our students are different and come to their education with different needs. It is not about running away from critical conversations about difference but about hastening toward them—not about quelling conversation but about fostering it.
The work of transforming our schools was not meant to be polite or comforting just as systems of inequity are not. This work should not reinforce structural racism by catering to the sensitivities of the racially privileged but make space in the conversation for the racially vulnerable.
Social scientists explain the paradox of racial justice as a divergence of perception: White people genuinely believe that they and most other whites are not racist, while most Black and Latinx people believe that the United States continues to be biased against people of color.
For me, this paradox has played out over and again in real-time in and outside schools.
As an education-justice leader, I can recall the jubilation I felt when Barack Obama was elected president, but I can also remember the sharp pain that cut through my chest when it was Donald Trump’s turn. Likewise, I can remember feeling hopeless at the beginning of the pandemic as COVID-19 ripped through communities of color, while also experiencing a sudden and profound sense of hope seeing communities across the nation rise up for racial justice last spring.
I have been both optimistic about the pursuit of racial justice in our country and in education and let down—a step forward is always accompanied by a step back.
Based on my own acute awareness of the racial paradox, my fear last summer was that the racial reckoning experienced during the height of the pandemic would be temporary. This is not to say that better-intentioned school leaders did not mean what they were saying while also enraptured in a summer of reflection.
In districts across the country, we consumed books about racial equity, recognized Juneteenth, and held safe spaces for tough dialogues about the realities of structural racism and its roots in U.S. education. I believe that we believed in everything we were saying and doing because our sensitivities to human life were heightened.
All Americans were forced to face the reality of our mortality daily, as tickers with ever-increasing death tolls haunted our TV screens. Disproportionately, Black and Latinx people were dying. The country was living through what felt like a made-for-TV saga of the apocalypse. So when we saw the nine-minute unholy prayer of Derrick Chauvin kneeling against the altar of George Floyd’s neck, we wanted change. We demanded it.
But in the life of education justice, one year can feel like a lifetime. So much can change. While we have come a long way, we are now in a social standstill. We have so much further to travel.
We will never achieve education justice by moving in place—stepping forward and then stepping back. We will never get to education justice by passing legislation that blocks us from employing the tools necessary to pave the roads to our success.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as I Had Hope for Racial Justice