Equity & Diversity Commentary

Race and Class: Separate and Not Equal

By Tierney T. Fairchild — September 12, 2006 7 min read

I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately: Does race still matter in education? We hear so much these days about the effects of poverty on a student’s experience in school. External factors like parents’ education, family income, and, as the authors of the best-seller Freakonomics argue, even books in the home have come to the forefront of equity concerns. Race, it would seem, has taken a back seat to class in the nation’s education agenda.


Yet I can’t help wondering whether this concentration on poverty—a very real concern, to be sure—is not our politically correct way of convincing ourselves that we’re helping all kids. Before we focus resources entirely on the effects of class, allow me to suggest that we need to address the elephant still in the room: racial discrimination.

There is, of course, a relationship between race and class. As a percentage of population, a larger portion of African-Americans live in poverty—nearly 25 percent—than do whites (about 9 percent). But in sheer numbers, there are far more whites living in poverty (17 million) than blacks (9 million).

I don’t want to discount the impact poverty has on a student’s ability to come to school “ready to learn” and to stay in school. Of the 37 million people in the United States living in poverty, 35 percent, or 13 million, are under the age of 18. The effects on children of such conditions as poor prenatal care, lack of proper nutrition, and exposure to drug abuse and violence can be devastating. Many poor children clearly start the race to success carrying extra burdens.

But the question I have been pondering so much lately is the one that attempts to “unstick” what seems now to be cemented together: race and class. What role does race—a critical social factor throughout our nation’s history—still play in the education of our children?

My thoughts come from two worlds colliding—my professional life and my personal life. I am a white educator, deeply committed to equal educational opportunity in a state that was once a bastion of segregation. I am also a wife and mother of school-age children in a biracial family.

Poverty adds another dimension; it doesn’t displace the experiences a student faces by being black.

For the last few years, my work has focused on developing Virginia’s “school-turnaround-specialist program,” which works to turn around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. I recently spoke with a turnaround-specialist principal who is dealing with the effects of long-standing racial segregation in his community.

As this principal engaged schoolpeople, church leaders, parents, and other community members, he wanted them, he said, to transcend the debilitating consequences of their shared racial history. Part of his plan was requiring his staff to read about Massive Resistance, a piece of Southern history whose legacy still affects his community, 50 years later.

To those unfamiliar, “massive resistance” refers to a time, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, when public schools in the state closed their doors rather than integrate. White parents chose to school their children in local churches; black children had few options beyond public schooling.

This piece of my professional life hit home when I learned that my church is undergoing a “racial reconciliation” process with a neighboring church not a mile away. At issue is one church’s support decades ago of massive resistance. What may seem a vestige of another era to some is still very real in the community. The turnaround specialist knew this, and knew, too, that he had to tackle questions of race head-on in his school, just as the two churches are working to create a dialogue that will help people acknowledge the past and move toward the future.

For some of us, it’s hard to believe that the bitter legacy of opposition to Brown still affects our communities. Surely, we have transcended the days of “separate but equal.” Yet the black-white achievement gap is a clear indication that inequality between racial groups continues. For a number of years, the gap was shrinking. Between 1970 and 1988, the black-white achievement gaps in reading and math declined by 50 percent and 30 percent, respectively. In recent decades, however, those gaps have been expanding.

My daughter’s school is a good example. If you were to ask people in my university community about the caliber of this elementary school, they would call it one of our most prized. Yet, as my daughter started kindergarten, we learned a disturbing fact: While nearly 90 percent of its white students passed the state’s test in 3rd grade reading, only a quarter of the black students did. So now when I hear people talk about how good the school is, I ask myself—good for whom?

Not that this school is atypical in our or neighboring districts—90 percent of white students regularly pass the state-mandated tests, while usually only half of black students do. These results, while staggering, are typical in many communities, including those beyond our urban centers.

Moreover, the black-white achievement gap nationwide is testament to the fact that the problem extends beyond my daughter’s school and the weighty baggage of the South. Many researchers, foundations, and schools are trying to determine the causes of and solutions to this gap. Certainly, poverty plays a role. But if it were just about poverty, the achievement of minority students from other socioeconomic backgrounds would equal their white counterparts’. And we know that’s not the case. Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele’s work on “stereotype threat,” for example, shows the effects of discrimination and stereotyping on students of color. Essentially, these students so fear confirming negative stereotypes that they, in fact, fail. Other research has revealed that teachers almost always expect more from white students than from their African-American peers.

Imagine being a student of color facing those types of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures—low teacher expectations, negative peer pressure, lowered self-concept. Poverty adds another dimension; it doesn’t displace the experiences a student faces by being black. If achievement issues were just about class, the correlations would not gain strength with minority status, and we know they do.

Through my own interracial marriage, I’ve come to appreciate that growing up African-American means you must deal with the color of your skin and its effects on your self-concept as early as preschool—no matter what class you are.

When our children reach elementary school, they are faced with the history lessons of both slavery and the civil rights movement. While I expect that teachers handle such lessons with great care, I wonder how learning that your people were brought to this country against their will and not given equal rights until recent decades affects your self-concept. White parents can help their children understand that those times were not fair and don’t exist today. So can black parents. Yet one major difference exists: Black parents must also teach their children how to maintain a sense of identity and self-esteem when confronted with racism. And racism is something every black person in America must live with every day, no matter their class.

My son, who is 5 years old, recently “learned” that his skin color, which he can do nothing about, will forever influence his life experiences. A child at his school told him he could not play because his skin was too dark. Somehow, that child knew the power of those words. My daughter, a 1st grader who has Down syndrome, is trying to make sense of color, too. She talks about “brown people” and “white people.” For months, we have heard comments about liking or not liking people of one skin tone or another. Rather than take it personally, I have come to understand just how intensely my children experience what those in the majority do not.

Why do black students in more-segregated environments do better than their peers in more-integrated schools? What is it about the mixing of children that exacerbates the achievement gap? Could it be about expectations? Or is the broader problem one of social engagement?

Mercifully, the days of overt racial affronts—cross burnings, epithets in schools and the workplace, instant enmity—are mostly gone. Instead, people of color today are subject to a host of implicit biases and stereotypes that, collectively, may add up to a residual plague of cultural and institutional racism. Class privileges allow you to opt out of some forms of discrimination, but no one seems able to replicate the privilege of being white in this country.

As the nation continues to lose many of its most influential civil rights leaders, I’m becoming more convinced of the danger of separating race from class. If we fail to consider the continuing importance of race—to schooling, to education leaders, and to all children—we will never close the most pernicious of our achievement gaps, never figure out why so many of our 9th graders drop out, and never create a healthy dialogue that allows us to embrace those who are unlike ourselves.

When we co-mingle race and poverty, not only do we miss a set of issues that are present regardless of class, but we also dismiss the importance of handling the racial issues that could make the poverty issues easier to address.

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Race and Class: Separate and Not Equal


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