In our recent co-edited book we argued that our nation’s schools are not created equal and do not receive equal protection from the policies, practices, and directives that differentially affect or disadvantage students based on race. We find it helpful to apply the concept of environmental racism to educational contexts to explain how our nation’s schools remain contaminated with pollutants which prevent numerous black and brown students from fulfilling the promise of racial equity. Sadly, we believe that this nation has not come very far in education in realizing the dream that Dr. King envisioned 50 years ago.
Dorinda Carter Andrews
Consider that in our current legal and policy environment a clear message has been sent that race no longer matters and should not be considered as a compelling interest, essentially moving schools away from many affirmative interventions for equity which might positively impact the educational success of students of color. Alternatively, deficit-based practices and race-neutral policies have successfully thwarted our efforts for true integration where currently our nation’s urban schools are more segregated today than they were 50 years ago.
While fences or signs may no longer designate which students have access to equity, socioeconomic status, teacher quality, high-stakes testing, and differential implementation of accountability measures have, in essence, re-zoned curriculum and schools, negatively impacting student of color. Thus, structural racism continues to manifest itself as a toxin in the school environment by disproportionally impacting black and brown students’ exposure to special education, zero-tolerance discipline policies, and racial tracking.
Unfortunately, our nation’s schools have become so complacent with referring to black and brown youths as “at risk” that we forget this framing often perpetuates the deficit thinking that they are broken and need to be fixed. Instead of a preoccupation with the at-risk nature of students, administrators and teachers should focus on high-impact asset-based best practices that promote affirming school cultures and climates, and curriculums that can prevent numerous students of color from falling through the cracks.
Ironically, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that for many of our nation’s schools today racial equity in achievement and opportunity is still a dream deferred. Regrettably, environmental racism in education has legitimated black and brown students’ exposure to harmful toxins in school, exploited the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities of color, created an industry around risk assessment and risk management, and failed to develop pollution prevention in education as an overarching and dominant strategy.
As advocates for educational equity, we argue for racial justice in our nation’s schools and demand focus on fair treatment and meaningful involvement in the educational process for all people regardless of race with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of educational laws and policies that promote racial equity in achievement and opportunity. It is when no racial group bears a disproportionate share of negative consequences resulting from such laws and policies that we will be realizing Dr. King’s dream.
Dorinda J. Carter Andrews is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. Franklin A. Tuitt is an associate professor of higher education and associate provost of inclusive excellence at the University of Denver. The two co-edited Contesting the Myth of a ‘Post Racial’ Era: The Continued Significance of Race in U.S. Education (2013, Peter Lang).
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