Equity & Diversity Opinion

No, Love Won’t Fix Institutional Racism in Education

To oppose attacks on racial justice in classrooms, we must understand what motivates them
By Altheria Caldera — November 18, 2021 4 min read
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The school board in the Carroll Independent school district in Southlake, Texas, formally reprimanded a teacher last month after a parent complained about her having the adolescent book This Book Is Antiracist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action and Do the Work in her classroom library. Further demonstrating a lack of respect for teachers as skilled professionals who are equipped to make informed decisions about their work, the district circulated a formula for teachers to use in selecting books for their classroom library.

This current iteration of “book banning” is not unique to Southlake. Recently, Pennsylvania’s Central York school district reinstated a list of previously “frozen” books related to diversity and racial equity only after student activists protested.

These actions are reflections of a larger attack on schools’ efforts to make education more representative of the cultures and histories of students of color, who are the majority of public school students in the United States. The conservatives behind these attacks aim to ensure that schools do not offer education that encourages critique and interrogation of historical and present-day events.

At my current institution, I teach literacy courses to elementary education majors who read academic texts but also read the world. In other words, they pay attention to what’s going on in the world, analyze current events, and discuss how education policy can shape their teaching. In this climate, they understandably express concern about their ability to create a diverse classroom library and to teach critical literacy. After hearing about the book-banning issue in Pennsylvania, one 20-year-old student asked, “Why do they hate us so much?”

I listen and validate their concerns, but I also caution them about assigning hate as a justification for racist policies and encourage them to look beyond basic human emotions toward an examination of the use of power.

It is important that those of us who want to build just education systems recognize that racism is built into the structure of our institutions can’t be eradicated solely through promoting love and friendship with differently raced others. When I was a professor at my former institution in rural east Texas, my students would say that it’s impossible for them to be racist because their religion teaches them to love everyone. I’ve heard many well-meaning educators claim that we need to “erase the hate,” “love our neighbor,” or offer other cliches that reduce the complexity of racism to simplistic, individual actions.

These naïve responses show a lack of awareness of how institutional racism operates. Despite what we’ve been led to believe, “love” is not enough. We don’t need another “kumbayah” moment. We need to confront institutional racism, and to do so, educators must better understand its nefarious roots and how they grow.

This assault on diversity and equity in education has a singular purpose—to preserve white supremacy and white dominance.

Institutional racism isn’t sustained because of a lack of emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills. It is upheld through political power granted to officials who establish policies that dictate our practices. The teacher in Southlake was punished because of the power held by the elected school board members. Similarly, the racist education policies filed in state legislatures throughout the United States in 2020 that limit teachers’ freedom to teach the truth and that whitewash curricula aren’t enacted out of hate. This assault on diversity and equity in education has a singular purpose—to preserve white supremacy and white dominance.

As Ibram X. Kendi wrote in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, “Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America.”

Racist policies like the ones in Southlake and other cities are being enacted because of fear of the liberatory potential inherent in schooling that is racially just. Racially just schooling is characterized by, among other things, the teaching of authentic, inclusive histories; promotion of civic engagement that equips students to be politically engaged citizens; and the inclusion of ethnic studies that enable all young people to develop multicultural competency.

When students are exposed to books that are anti-racist, they learn how to disrupt oppressive racist ideologies. When they are taught accurate history, they are equipped with power that comes from truth. When their cultures are validated and centered, they form strong cultural identities.

Educators who are committed to the success of all students must demand this kind of education and must make their demands known. I urge my students to become civically engaged teachers who know how to impact education policy instead of just being impacted by education policy. Educators must not be dissuaded by the messiness of our political processes and by the burden of politics.

Anti-racist work is political activism. If one aims to be an anti-racist educator, getting involved in education policy is crucial to this work. Specifically, educators can work to elect anti-racist representatives, advocate legislation that reflects equity, and even run for public office. The road to racial justice in education might begin in hearts and minds, but it runs through local, state, and federal government and ends with practices that are dictated by policies.

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