July 26, 2017

Myth…racism is over so we don’t need an equity initiative

Data in Oregon are clear:

A persistent education opportunity gap exists with regard to race, economics, disability and geography. Unfortunately, efforts over the years to address disparities have offered limited relief as the gap stubbornly continued its decades-long growth. Despite evidence of the need for educational equity for Oregon’s most marginalized communities, ill-informed and damaging myths have penetrated our collective consciousness, excusing us from the systems-impact work necessary to ensure meaningful public education for all.

In partnership with Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens, Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio aims to call out, and debunk, the incessant myths that function as barriers to equitable education in Oregon. This blog is intended to provoke both thought and action, offering an opportunity to look beyond common myths and re-imagine an education system rich in opportunity. It represents the beginning of a “myth-busting” series that will be shared regularly through portfolio newsletters and blog posts.

The idea that racism is over is an insidious myth.

Shockingly, just 16 percent of white Americans believe that there is considerable racial discrimination. Although it’s undeniable that we’ve made significant progress in civil rights, racism shows up in a variety of damaging ways. For example, according to a study, white Americans believe children of color feel less pain than white children. Such thinking isn’t evident among 5-year-olds, whose compassion hasn’t narrowed yet, though racial preference for white friends shows up that early. Additionally, white people judge black children to be older than they are, more dangerous and less innocent and also think lighter skinned people are “more intelligent, competent, trustworthy and reliable than their darker-skinned peers.” In Oregon schools, these realities show up in disproportionate discipline among students of color, increasing barriers to graduation.

Although today’s racism isn’t always easy to spot like in the past (e.g., slavery, anti-miscegenation laws, denial of citizenship, forced movement into residential schools, refusal to grant voting privileges, legal denial of housing, segregation of public services and “separate yet equal” education), it is alive and well. The progress we’ve made as a society has fallen drastically short of equity between people of color and whites. Research shows stark inequality in nearly every social and life indicator: education, income, wealth, home ownership, health, the justice system, the child welfare system, employment systems, higher education and many more. Some believe these inequalities exist as unfortunate historical remnants of a bygone era; the evidence, however, suggests something altogether different. Inequality is substantial and hasn’t budged; in many cases, it’s getting worse.

In education, racism shows up in public policy, too. Early learning opportunities based on who can afford it, do greater harm to children of color who disproportionately experience poverty. Children of color enter kindergarten already behind their white peers. And when public investment in education fails to keep pace with need, resulting in cuts to activities, curriculum and teachers, who manages to maintain a well-rounded education? Those who can afford it. Again, this leaves behind students in poor communities, often students of color. Whose histories are in the curriculum and whose are ignored or given little attention? Does our educator workforce reflect the vibrant diversity of Oregon students? These forms of racism exist not by intention (harm is meant), but by impact (harm is done).

One barrier to progress in equitable education is that advocates must continually make the case that racism exists, that it is pervasive and that it limits the academic progress of students of color. One writer put it this way: “If Americans assume racism is less of a problem [after Obama], then misperception may make it tough to get resources.”

A crucial action in debunking the “post-race” myth is to inform Oregonians about the type and depth of racial disparities that exist in our schools and the education system as a whole. Ask hard questions about patterns that create disparities and be prepared for the uncomfortable realization that the ideas, strategies, programs and institutions that we support, may actually be a part of the problem.

Another crucial action is to understand that as students of color in Oregon face deep, racialized challenges, white students are granted benefits that result from being white, instead of the result of effort or intelligence. This is a result of long-standing and deeply embedded racial hierarchies, with whites benefitting while people of color face barriers to equal progress. For example, which students do the teachers get to know, which names do they learn to pronounce correctly and which students are encouraged more? Research tells us that white teachers (who make up 90 percent of Oregon’s educator workforce) do a better job at teaching white students. For those not deeply engaged in education equity, this may be surprising. However, it also presents an opportunity to better understand the damaging effects of racism and the importance of unpacking privilege.

Racism can best be defeated when we notice it, acknowledge it and get to work on changing it. It’s a long, tough road, but the need is urgent and the future prosperity of our state depends on it. Let’s get to work.

I welcome your thoughts on this series of myths and myth-busting.

— Matt