Monday, November 23, 2015

Structural Racism in American Public Schools

The March 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) directly wrangles with the fundamental, structural issues with racism in the American school system. It is by Melissa, known to some as Shakes, who has worked with kids forever. She currently works in an as-needed variety of counseling and teaching roles at a public elementary school in San Francisco. Melissa can be contacted directly at futureadults [at]

Allow me to start with an introduction: I’m a semi-retired punker, a Black woman, a Queer, an anti-authoritarian; I’m dedicated to the end of the police and to restorative justice, the abolition of racism, patriarchy and capitalism; I’m an advocate for kids and families and trans folks; an annoyance to white boys who like to refer to me as a “bay area activist” or “left-wing nut-bag” and occasionally a “reverse-racist” (ha-ha!!!). I don’t drink 40’s anymore, I don’t hop trains, I hardly ever make it out to shows (sorry ALL my friends who play in dope bands that I never get to see) and I haven’t been sitting atop a mountain of dirty clothes and equipment trapped in a van rattling across the country in at least five years. I’m getting older. I work 50 hours a week, sometimes more. I’m 16 years deep in the city of San Francisco.


I work in a public elementary school in the South-Eastern part of the city – the part everyone conveniently forgets when they think about San Francisco. 92% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch – that means they’re poor or desperately working-class (re: poor). 61% of our students speak English as a second language. Two percent of our student population is white-identified; otherwise our largest populations are Latino (42%), Chinese (31%), Black (9%), Vietnamese (4%) and Pilipino (6%). I mention these numbers because people with so-called “Western” sensibilities like the quantifiable and numbers help us keep ideas and facts in necessary categories. Though I use the quantifiable from time to time, I know that our students are much more than facts and numbers. Each of them is a unique being made up of loving and complicated families, myriad cultural representations, deep and beautiful languages, humor, resilience, tragedy and history. By entering the institution of public school, each of them is now inextricably connected to a particular piece of institutional racism, the likes of which are rarely acknowledged, let alone ever redressed.

Since I work with elementary aged kids (approximately 5-11), I often think about my own experiences in school. When I was a kid it was the mid-1980’s - lots of focus on colorblindness at that time, lots of talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I went to an urban public school in Denver from kindergarten to third grade. There were white and non-white kids alike, and lots of other Black kids, and a few Black and Brown teachers, many of whom I was fascinated with. They all knew my name. While public school was difficult for me for a variety of reasons, feeling kinship with the people in my environment was easy enough. In 4th grade we moved out of Denver and I went to a suburban school where there were only three Black kids and all of the teachers were white. The shift was noticeable to me, but not one I had the language to extrapolate.

It’s typical for kids to notice and comment on difference, but quite a different thing for kids to experience and talk about racism. This is not to say that it is rare – kids experience racism in school, but each experiences it differently. Some kids simply notice it and move on, but others, like my students, will be affected by it every day on micro and macro levels. For example my step-brother, who is white, never walked into a classroom and to be stared at by his teachers. He was never expected to do anything but succeed by his teachers, which is why when he blew it from time to time, people were SO CONCERNED and surprised. When I did well at school, it was surprising because I was special – not because I’m just naturally inclined toward reading, writing and language. Not because I’m smart. But whenever I fucked up, it was pretty much expected (and not simply because my reputation preceded me). As a little kid I didn’t know what it was called, but I knew it was affecting me, making me angrier, more reactive and thus, tougher than I wanted to be. In the mid-1980’s, people weren’t talking about cultural competence or trauma informed practice or positive behavior interventions. They were trying to figure out why the little Black kid was so complicated.

When I discovered how real and how entrenched racism was in our society, across this great landmass we’re currently calling america, it was not something that I could simply forget (for reasons that should be obvious to the somewhat informed reader). As a result of this unforgetting I’ve done a lot of work attempting to draw nearer to the center or the roots of systemic racism in america. Working in this particular public school for the last five years, I have been able to narrow the circuit and trace the proliferation of racism throughout america directly back to public education.*

More Numbers

About 84% of public school teachers are white, and of those, about 80% are middle-class women. This essentially means that teaching is a profession for white, middle-class women. Though this number has only slightly declined in 25 years (from 91% in the mid-1980’s), the percentage of non-white students in public schools continues to grow – in fact most public schools in america are now over 50% non-white (yes, when it comes to race in this country, us people of color fish do tend to swim together). This is significant information. Mainstream think tanks take a look at this aggregated information and think, “Holy shit! We better educate the savages, lest our country face another dire economic collapse! Here comes China! We need malleable and complicit worker drones for Techmerica! Quick! Grab the Common Core!”

I don’t really give a shit about the future of capitalism nor do I care about america’s certain economic collapse. This country’s prosperity came as a direct result of slavery – an institution which pretty much created racism as we know it. The only history lesson one needs for context here is this: Black people were seen only as property. We were tortured, beaten, murdered and raped and our labor was free. Our free labor created enormous capital gains which are still seen today. Indigenous people on this land mass were seen as savages to eradicate. The point here is that the effects of the institution of racism continues to reverberate throughout our communities and through society.

See, I’m still focused on how racist this shit is, and I’d like to see it ended sooner rather than never. The main way (aside from audio/visual media) that social norms are passed on is through our experiences in school. Sometimes kids do or say fucked up things, hurtful things, racist things, but how we address these things - or don’t - in school informs how students will move through the rest of the world in the future. It has been established that public school has traditionally been taught by white women, but this one fact alone does not explain how racism is allowed to proliferate. One must think a little deeper. White and middle class women teach our kids. Their experiences, their lives inform how they do so. Aside from churning out good workers, public school also churns out people with a desire to attain middle-class status which is of course, the status quo in america. Middle-class status is largely an invention designed to promote consumerism. I don’t mean to go too far off the mark here. What this means is that aside from Reading, Writing and Math, public schools have been steadily teaching white social standards, white ways of being, white expectations. White standards have not changed all that much, even with great advances in technology. This means that when white teachers step into classrooms full of non-white students, those students are already at a serious disadvantage because these teachers don’t have an understanding of where their students are coming from or where they’re going. More to the point, if their students don’t share their teachers same cultural norms, goals and expectations, the kids are fucked. (And before you get all “It’s not my fault I’m white/I was born this way,” let me point out that it is your responsibility to help rectify this shit. Absolutely.) This is very significant because when white people are bringing white standards and white expectations into the classroom, they’re bringing along (usually) unpacked and unchecked racism - what we in the trades call Implicit Bias. This essentially means that even though these teachers were told to be colorblind and may even believe that they’re not racist, white teachers –or more explicitly non-Black and Brown teachers – are color-coding each body they see and often sending the darkest bodies to the scrap pile, whether they know it or not.

Anecdotes and Evidence

One of my titles at the school I work at is “Behavior Coach”. I fucking hate that title, but it’s attached to me forever at this point. What people who used to have my job did was ask Teacher A what they wanted Kid X to do. Then they would attempt to get Kid X to conform to Teacher A’s standard, often leveraging something like recess, calls home or their interpersonal relationships. I’m far less concerned with standards than I am with seeing that kids are getting their needs met, so my approach is different. For the most part, I check in with kids and teachers, and help kids and teachers come to agreements about what they each need to work on in the classroom so that needs can be met. I work with tons of kids in a school of almost five hundred, however the majority of kids I work with around comprehensive behavior issues (what we call “Tier 2”) are Black kids referred to me by their teachers. One teacher just kinda hands them off to me at the beginning of every school year. This year I started compiling stats so that when I talk about this shit y’all can stop looking at me like I’ve been scarred by years of micro-aggressive racism (which I have been, but that’s no reason to discount the evidence).

One of my co-workers on the district’s Restorative Practices team (with whom I work very closely to help dismantle the dominant paradigm of discipline=punishment/ everything is racist) shared yesterday that at her daughter’s school, she is perceived as a stereotype of sorts – she’s loud, she’s often angry (because the school is incompetent when it comes to her daughter), she’s poor (because she works for the fucking school district); thus she is treated like a caricature of a big Black woman instead of as a concerned mother, and her daughter, instead of being treated like a kid at school, is treated like a Black kid from the ghetto, which is to say, she is treated as less than human. As she shared this story, another co-worker/homey for life in that meeting was crying. She’s fifty, Black, gorgeous from the inside out and tends to find silver linings everywhere she looks. She was just like, “Is this shit every going to change?” It’s a sobering question.

I mentioned before that most of our students are English Language Learners. Our kids speak various dialects of Spanish, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Black English (which amazingly is still not considered a language, even though y’all can’t even understand it.) Our students are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Their lives and experiences cannot begin to be understood or taught to unless teachers (and support staff) are ready to address what I recently heard someone call “the cultural gap”. Merely saying it exists doesn’t automatically start to repair it. Teachers (and really everyone) need to start being braver than they have ever been (yes punx, you too). Folks need to start acknowledging that racism is alive and well and resides in all of us in various forms. ** We need to stop being afraid of being a “bummer” or “alienating people” by talking about race and class in america, and we need to do it all the time. We who work with kids need to encourage each other to talk openly about our mistakes so that they can stop being made. Of similar importance, I think that when folks start agitating against or for public education, the arguments need to be framed in a way that makes known that the root of the evil in public schools isn’t the newest curriculum or the lack of arts funding; it’s racism. Institutional, structural, fundamental racism.

Good luck. --Melissa (or Shakes)

* [I’m not claiming to have pioneered this field; I’m merely expressing how I’ve experienced it.]

** [I want to be clear that what I’m saying is that while racism lives in me, it’s because it’s internalized bullshit, not because I have the institutional power to oppress non-Black people which is different from racism living in white people – y’all have a lot of work to do. Racism is a system of oppression that white people in this country have exclusive access to.]

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