Teaching Opinion

Can Schools Act as a Force Against Racism?

By Deborah Meier — December 09, 2014 4 min read
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Deborah Meier writes again today to Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute.

Dear Leo,

Your letter last Thursday was very moving. Thank you for telling the story through your own special eyes. I think we each need to do so, and to listen well to those most intimately responding.

There’s a danger in the common phrase, “I understand.” It’s beyond us in most cases to truly step into the shoes of others. That’s not a sin, but a fact. Sometimes we try to imagine something “like it” that we’ve experienced. That’s good, but always inadequate. It’s usually the best we can do.

Because, in many ways we truly “don’t understand” ... The hatred involved may remind me of my own hatred, but on a scale I can’t truly fathom. I remember my mother punching someone at a movie theater for an anti-Semitic remark. I was embarrassed. This was probably in the mid-1940s. But the context is entirely different.

Can you imagine the fear that racists live in given the hatred they feel and imagining what might happen if those they despise ever got the upper hand? It’s hard to do, but I think I can imagine it—because I, too, would be the object of the reversed power. Sympathy wouldn’t save me. Being oppressed doesn’t necessarily make one more discriminating about who is and is not doing the oppressing.

Can schools act as a force against racism? Truly, I don’t know for sure. But if they could, it wouldn’t primarily be because of the official curriculum offered. Of course, knowing the truth might help. But we ignore most of what we “learn” in school if it doesn’t lead us into a different path of living, experiencing, knowing in an everyday sense. That’s why we can learn science without it penetrating our daily observations. The old truth will do for the moment. The Sun does appear to rise each morning.

So, too, for racism.

But relationships are harder to wipe out. And where we have inter-racial relationships—the more daily, the better—the more careful we whites are about our daily racism, our casual remarks, our semi-conscious language of supremacy. Eventually, perhaps, having to be careful with our language makes us actually more careful in our thoughts as well.

Relationship-rich schools—where one confronts blacks and whites and others—on and off, minute by minute, and some of which are intimate enough to never forget. Such school settings are easier to create if the school is small enough so that we cannot easily rebuild safety zones of only like-minded and like-looking peers. And it only works if the power structure is also interracial, sometimes even harder to achieve. I remember—I think the Fred Wiseman film “High School II” includes it—when co-director Paul Schwarz asked a family whether they saw the school as a white place, even though half the staff was black or Hispanic and at least three-quarters of the students were. The conversation doesn’t go far because the parent quickly assures Paul that neither she nor her son think in such terms. Good intentions, like Paul’s effort to open the conversation, can backfire or just fall flat.

There’s the double importance of democracy within the school—above all when the authorities are white and the “staff” are black. What goes on between them, who holds power over whom? That’s why the relationships between the adults, and above all between the professional adults and the other adults, matter so much. Indeed, the kids are watching. Not to mention the relationships of power between the teaching adults and the families of our students. As I write I realize the degree to which I’m assuming that equality of power and democracy are synonyms. Equality of power requires democracy, and democracy requires such equality or it’s merely hypocrisy, rhetoric, non-sense to the young.

We’ve put up with it for so long that we have a hard time distinguishing our rhetoric from reality. Maybe this current outburst of rage—note how many of the protesters are young white people (odd?)—will expand and rebuild a movement of conscience that will tackle the inevitability of police violence if we don’t tackle the underlying inequities, and relationships.

I’m still amazed at how unthinkable it is for so many principals of a left bent to imagine a school in which there is equality among all the adults, or even the professional staff and the “administration.” Here we have institutions in which we have well-educated adults who are still expected to be compliant, obedient to orders, and yet teach kids about the power of adulthood in a democratic society. Humbug.

If there are no ways to create democracy within schools, how dare we claim there’s a way to create it society-wide? What are the lessons in equality that young people absorb through the structuring of schools, and how do they match the “civics” lessons they may be receiving formally?

So, too, with what now seems the “utopian” idea of integration—or its watered-down idea of a few token minorities. How dare we still celebrate Brown v. the Board of Education?

I could go on and on. But you and I as defenders of labor unions need to see how even these vital institutions act, operate, and motivate their members to deeper democratic relationships in their school lives, in ways that the students can observe. They read us well, alas. We took a first step toward greater democracy when we created teachers’ unions, but it was a baby step compared to what’s needed, and one that may soon disappear unless we take a leap forward. Sometimes the cure for democracy is by imagining more and more of it.

Thanks again, Leo, for the powerful words. What comes next?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.