We were disgusted but not surprised when we saw a photo of four elementary school teachers in Palmdale, Calif., smiling while posing with a noose last week. Televised news coverage also showed the noose hanging on the wall in Summerwind Elementary School. The only thing that surprised us was that it was the school’s principal who reportedly photographed her colleagues as they posed with one of America’s most hateful symbols of racial terrorism. We were definitely not surprised that they allegedly never intended for the photo to be shared publicly.
Many people likely will find this incident shocking. Maybe less so had it been a group of educators in a Mississippi elementary school—but in California, the state that is often presumed to be the nation’s most liberal and diverse? And at a school located just 64 miles north of Los Angeles?
Seventy-one percent of Palmdale citizens are black or Latino. White students make up just 8.6 percent of Summerwind Elementary and 17 percent of the Palmdale school district. In a context with so many students of color, it is perhaps to be expected that white educators may make some occasional cultural mistakes and misunderstand aspects of a particular group’s racial history. But a noose?
In the televised news segment, Summerwind parent James Florence said, “When you know the meaning behind it, behind our history, then you know you are going to get backlash for it if it gets out.”
On the one hand, we feel Florence’s assumption is completely reasonable. But on the other, it presupposes that teachers learned much, if anything at all, about lynching in their own educational and professional upbringings. Most textbooks either erase, misrepresent, or insufficiently cover topics pertaining to slavery and other acts of violence against indigenous and African peoples in the United States. It could be that these four women did not think that posing with a noose was a big deal because they never learned much about what it really means. Subsequent news coverage of this incident suggests the teachers may have been celebrating the death sentence of a man who tortured and murdered a student one of them previously taught. Even if this is true, smiling and posing in school with a noose is inexcusable. So too are other educators’ acts of racial violence at other schools across the country.
When a white teacher at Hoover High School in Alabama heard students listening to Tupac’s song “Dear Mama” last year, she ordered them to “turn the nigger tunes off.” Twenty-three are black. The teacher later apologized to the class, and the school board expressed its appreciation for diversity and its commitment to treat all students with respect and professionalism.
Situations like these might be misunderstood as characteristically southern because of the region’s deep histories of racial violence. But in October 2018, news broke about a white Cincinnati principal using the n-word in a staff meeting and saying it three additional times in conversations with black students.
That same month, a white elementary school teacher in Iowa reportedly wore blackface to a party. Staff at Middleton Heights Elementary School in Idaho wore sombreros last Halloween and posed with a cardboard border wall with “Make America Great Again” pasted onto it.
And this past January, a white teacher in Carmichael, Calif., dressed in blackface for a lesson at school. The superintendent deemed this “poor judgment.” We deem it racially violent.
Situations like these no longer surprise us because they are so commonplace and widespread. More of them undoubtedly occur beyond those that get posted to social media and covered in news stories. Rather than characterizing such incidents as premeditated acts of racial violence, school district officials often claim that the teachers and staff members involved meant no harm. Regardless of the intention behind them, these racist acts inflict harm on students, colleagues, and families of color. Some black parents pulled their children out of Summerwind Elementary, and explained to them what nooses represent in America’s history. “My child will not walk onto this plantation, absolutely not,” one parent told a reporter.
Some schools and districts have offered professional development on implicit bias and racial microaggressions (seemingly subtle, not-so-obvious manifestations of everyday racism). These workshops ought to pay much more attention to macroaggressions, explicit bias, and the harmful effects of racial mockery.
Furthermore, schools of education must do a better job of preparing aspiring teachers and school leaders to understand racial violence and ensure it is eradicated from our schools. Principals and superintendents must be taught how to respond more effectively to racism when it occurs in the schools and districts they lead.
Yes, educators should know better. But we should not assume they do, as evidenced by recent incidents and pathetic administrative responses to them. Teachers, school staff, and leaders at every level need curricular and professional learning experiences that awaken their consciousness and explicitly teach them about racism.
Additionally, flimsy district office statements that seek to minimize the effects of racist actions in schools must be replaced with stronger condemnations of racism in all its forms.
Although racial diversity in the education workforce has grown in recent years, more than 80 percent of public school teachers in the United States are white. Despite students of color comprising 77 percent of the state’s public schools, 63 percent of California teachers are white. It is mostly white teachers who participate in racist incidents that range from subtle to extremely ridiculous. Few of the extreme incidents are innocent, and they definitely are not isolated to the South. Posing with a noose or putting on blackface is incontestably premeditated. Educators who engage in activities like these, including professionals of color, have to be held accountable.
Seventy-eight percent of public school principals across the nation are white. And as the popular Twitter hashtag #SuperintendentsSoWhite has highlighted, there is a lack of racial diversity in chief executive roles in K-12 school districts. In California, only 2.6 percent of superintendents are black. Here and everywhere else across the nation, it is going to have to be white administrators who hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for blackface, nooses, and hurtful uses of the n-word.
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2019 edition of Education Week as Racial Violence in Schools Comes as No Surprise