Teaching Opinion

Beyond Profiling: Deepening Classroom Discussions About Race

By Marilyn Rhames — February 04, 2015 5 min read
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February is Black History Month, and in honor of this occasion I am presenting a series of blog posts about how race issues still impact teaching and learning in America. Here is Part One.

By Guest Blogger: Mark Anderson

Last year, many educators facilitated discussions of racial issues and prejudice with their students, spurred by recent tragedies such as the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Hosting these conversations is critical, yet if our discussions of race with our children don’t go beyond racial profiling or an examination of the racial bias of specific individuals, we may fail to dig deeper into the structures of our society which have led to—and perpetuated—segregated and unequal communities.

When it comes to conversations on race, it’s important that we provide students with multiple perspectives, rather than jump immediately to the convenient, “safe,” or conventional narratives so often conveyed by media headlines or by superficial references to history. The tension between white and black communities is not only a matter of individual prejudice, nor is it an issue relegated to a distant past. We won’t move forward in improving race relations unless we are able to critically examine and study those relations more deeply, so that we can understand our own and others’ prejudices and ideals.

The conventional narrative on segregation, for example, is that racial segregation is bad, and racial integration is good. Right? Except it’s not quite that simple, as my 8th grade students and I discovered when we studied the issue more deeply last spring.

My co-teacher Richard Dirksen and I planned our unit of study around the essential question “Are NYC public schools fully integrated?” But then, a study came along shortly thereafter which answered that one firmly in the negative. Turns out, NYC schools are the most segregated in our nation. So we revised our question to: “How does segregation continue to impact NYC schools today, and what can I do to take a stand on this issue?”

This was a better question, but as we learned more over the course of our unit, I came to understand that this question contained the seed of my own prejudice: it implies that segregation is “bad” and thus requires taking a stand against it. Our final essential question read thus: “NYC schools are largely segregated by race and class. Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?” (This question came thanks to the support of one of our interviewees).

Last year happened to be the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Ed. of Topeka decision. In that decision, Justice Warren declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Unexamined, this sentence would seem the height of progressive sentiment. Yet upon deeper consideration, some have argued that there’s an underlying prejudice revealed by these words: “Inherently unequal.” Is a school that is entirely African American inherently unequal? Or is it that schools in African American communities have been systematically denied equitable access to resources?

Some have even suggested that a possible implication of “inherently unequal” is that predominantly black institutions are somehow inferior, and must therefore be integrated with white institutions (for a more thorough analysis of this connotation, read my friend Peter Meyer’s exposition). Given the context of when Brown v. Board of Ed was decided, I don’t think this is a just interpretation of Justice Warren’s meaning, but I found it jarring to my assumptions, to say the least.

To assist students in analyzing this undercurrent, we asked them, “Can a school that is all black or all white (or all boy, or all Asian, or all low income, or all Muslim, etc.) provide a beneficial educational experience? Why or why not?” We then connected their responses to the seminal cases of Plessy v. Ferguson (separate but equal) and Brown v. Board of Ed, some students were surprised to discover that their thoughts aligned more with the argument for the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case than the landmark 1954 case against school segregation.

Such cognitive dissonance was felt not only by our students, but also by myself as my own assumptions became more evident. When we first began our study, I had assumed that students in a Bronx public middle school with a predominantly Latino and black population would identify with the experience of segregation. But most of our students viewed their school community as already diverse (some sample responses can be viewed here), making evident the problem with lumping all people together under labels like “black” or “Hispanic.”

I had also assumed that students would perceive the trend of a timeline of Supreme Court cases moving from progressive federal mandates for desegregation to a more conservative focus on local control as a disturbing and negative trend. However, as students explored the concepts of de jure and de facto segregation, some also identified with the human instinct to congregate with others who are similar to them (examine any middle school lunch room for further confirmation of this). And some of them reacted strongly against the notion of the federal government “forcing” communities to integrate against their choice and will.

Integration and desegregation are critically important values for me, as they were for many of my students at the close of our unit of study (for more on my students’ thoughts, you can see sample responses under Work Products on our unit overview). But studying the issue allowed me to understand how integration might not always be an ideal for every person or community in every situation, and to appreciate other perspectives, especially those that might not fit neatly into more conventional narratives.

I hope that more educators plan entire units around race, rather than conduct one-off conversations. Allow students to dig deep into the controversies and multiple perspectives that envelope the issue of race in our nation. Allow your students to dialogue with and interview thought leaders, experts, and other professionals who engage in these issues every day. Most of all, prepare to uncover your own biases and misconceptions.

MARK ANDERSON is a special education teacher and coordinator at a district middle school in the Bronx. His writing has also been published on The Core Knowledge Blog, Chalkbeat NY, ASCD Express, Albany Times Union, and The Education Gadfly. Follow his blog “Schools & Ecosystems” and follow him on Twitter at @mandercorn.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.