Equity & Diversity Opinion

School Leaders, Racial Bias, and Hope

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 26, 2017 4 min read
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We now have daily national examples of the dangers of allowing the gap between peoples’ understanding to grow larger. During the months leading up to a presidential election, we expect candidates from the two parties to distinguish themselves by sharing their plans and describing their policy agenda. But, in this past election, something else happened. Ugly name calling and accusations were a daily part of the process. It seemed that more personal than policy issues drove voters. Policy differences could be characterized as “undo what he did” or “more of the same”. And, for vision, there was mighty little of it unless we can call looking backward vision.

An Underground River of Bigotry

Buried not far beneath the surface ran a strong underground river of bigotry, even hatred. It isn’t new; it has long been a part of our social fabric. Even though many can’t see it, there are many who can tell us what it feels like. Some people, usually those with less privilege, live closer to it. Historically, leaders have tried to bring us together, to navigate tough stuff without breaking into it and allowing it to erupt. Every community has something that unites it. Every nation has symbol that represent it...a flag, an anthem. We remember earlier days when the flag became an object of dissent yet it is also what calls us together as a people. Now, after this past weekend, even those symbols have been washed into the river of the divide. It makes us reflect on what “divide and conquer” means and whether there is an intention, a new meaning in our political and social lives.

No Support for a School Leader

Of course, there would be no rallies to support a school leader if he or she ranted in a public meeting referring to constituents as “son-of-a-xxxx’s.” Yet here we are, reflecting on these past days in which the POTUS has done that, calling upon NFL owners to fire those players who dissent. His defenders argue the president can say anything he wants and it’s common language that really doesn’t refer to real life mothers of these men. And, they contend there is no racial overtone even though most owners are white and the players are predominately black.

What Makes a Successful Leader?

Successful leadership has been watched, studied, and noted by all who want to be successful. Leaders, typically, have been expected to be moral and ethical models, to unite and to lift up, to build, not destroy, to inspire, not to mock. But, it is a new day. The lessons to be learned, and those that will be analyzed by historians, are in the news now. It is live for us and we will have to figure it out. No professional development is available.

Racism is Present

Setting aside whether using this language is acceptable or not, there is another powerful message being heard by those with an ear to that river. Those with the wisdom to understand hidden racial messages are sounding the alarm. This is a challenge when the majority of our leaders are white. It is a challenge because as a country, and within education itself, although Brown v The Board of Education was decided in 1954, segregation has continued in different ways. According to the last census those living in the highest levels of poverty are those who are black or African American, Hispanic, and Native American. So, no matter the law that demanded integration of schools, neighborhoods still are segregated, hiding racism in poverty.

In her book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts American And What We Can Do About It, Professor Mindy Fullilove, M.D. explains,

Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem. It has important parallels to the physiological shock experienced by a person who, as a result of injury, suddenly loses massive amounts of fluids. Such a blow threatens the whole body’s ability to function (p.11).

The urban renewal of process that took place between 1949 and 1973 destroyed poor neighborhoods across the country and displaced the poor who had found homes and community, replacing them with higher priced homes they could not afford. On the surface, these programs were viewed as progress. Underneath, and felt by those displaced and disregarded, it was a move that failed to care for the poor and those of color.

Is the president speaking out against football players actions because he feels free to express his true, latent racially biased feelings or could it be he is, like so many of us, revealing unconscious bias? Or as a leader, does he hold that chaos and dividing us is, for a reason not yet clear, more strategically valuable than using his role and influence to unite us? We don’t know, but we will have more years and many more moments in which to draw our own conclusions.

School Leaders Held to a Higher Standard

There are two major differences between the school leader and the POTUS on this stage. We will not be given the latitude he is given and our actions will directly, and immediately impact children and families. So, we cannot be complacent. If we wish to drain this subterrain river of racism and hatred, we must be catalytic. We are experienced and local leaders. We have connections throughout our communities. Most of us have remained apolitical. Our role is to serve and lift up every child. But, we do, now and then, need to flush and refresh our own eyes and ears. Now might be just the right time to ask...

  • When will I seek out the minority within my community to listen to the stories they bring about school life, about hopes and dreams?
  • Are my words and actions revealing my intention?
  • How aware am I of the unintended consequences of my well-intended decisions?
  • Who will tell me the truth I do not want to hear?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into becoming 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.