What we need to do even when the kids are getting along

28 Oct

In their coverage responding to the video of an arrest in a South Carolina high school classroom, in which a white male police officer flips a black female high school student and her desk over (http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/27/us/south-carolina-school-arrest-video/index.html),

The incident, which the Justice Department said Tuesday that it would investigate, follows national studies showing that black students were far more likely than whites to be disciplined in public schools, even for comparable offenses.

That issue was receiving intense scrutiny here long before the videos of Monday’s incident were released, prompting the district to form a task force last year to examine its practices.

Last year, the racial divide in the Richland School District Two, encompassing parts of this city and its suburbs, led to the formation of the Black Parents Association, and contributed to a bitter campaign for control of the district’s board.

Yet this community fits no neat stereotype of racial tension. It has at times been seen as a model of amicable integration, where students of divergent backgrounds socialize together [emphasis added](http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/28/us/spring-valley-high-school-sc-officer-arrest.html?_r=0).

I found the last paragraph of this excerpt to be problematic. And yet not surprising. “Students of divergent backgrounds socializing together” constitutes “a model of amicable integration”?

Let’s break this down:

Integration is a systemic process within an institution, organization or community that provides the framework (intentional policy, structures, programs and scaffolding like community education) for individuals–children, youth and adults alike–to act for equity and inclusion. Integration is not just kids hanging out together. I say that not to diminish that aspect of the Richland School District community, but to recognize it for what it is: kids doing what they can do (or maybe just what they consider doing), while adults and the educational system–not to mention the legal system, local community, government and other agencies–are still wondering whether overwhelming racial trends in education (of over-representation of black and brown boys in disciplinary situations and their underrepresentation in advanced and gifted programs, as well as STEM) merit a concerted response–even as those trends are backlit by study after study demonstrating racial bias against black versus white drivers (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/10/27/police-are-searching-black-drivers-more-often-but-finding-more-illegal-stuff-with-white-drivers-2/), black versus white job applicants with equivalent credentials (http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html), and even black versus white pedestrians (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369847815000923). What integration will require in the Richland School District includes:

  • an articulated vision of what inclusive, equitable education in the district means and looks like (and why it matters, not just to currently disenfrancished students and families, but to all of us);
  • a thorough examination of what currently constitutes “good teaching” and what groups that teaching tends to benefit most;
  • a rigorous analysis of data including student thriving and outcomes in the district;
  • education about unconscious bias;
  • recognition of systemic unearned privileges and disadvantages;
  • education and accountability for culturally competent educational practices;
  • systems for the district to periodically check itself–for example: clear goals, a diversity and inclusion dashboard to assess progress and proactive feedback structures that everyone can access;
  • cultural competency education of community partners (like law enforcement, child and family services, parent/guardian volunteers, etc.) …

We’re talking about a district-wide, all-inclusive effort. Not just an elective for those who have to or happen to care. And this work must address how race matters, how other identities matter (because, for starters, gender, socioeconomics and sexuality also correlate with educational and/or disciplinary inequities), as well as how race matters intersectionally with these and other identities. And yes, it would help if the kids keep hanging out with each other, within and across identity groups.

At heart, what I take issue with is adults riding on the coattails of children and youth who are “advancing the conversation” about identity and diversity. All too often, I hear adults remark with appreciation about the kids are “ahead of the adults” in the community when it comes to cultural competency awareness and skills. Or schools proudly point to their student-founded and student-run identity groups (like the Black Student Union, the multicultural club or the Gay-Straight Alliance/Gender Spectrum Alliance) as examples of the school “doing the work.” Of course, the school should recognize what the students are doing. And, I feel, they should ask: how are we helping them? How are we benefiting them, as we benefit from them? Even when children and youth lead us, we should still be helping them to grow.

Schools should also recognize that it’s not true that the kids are ahead of the adults–at least not all of the kids, nor all of the adults. Typically, it’s some of the kids–the kids who identify or get identified as minorities, outliers, or as members of historically disadvantaged and under-represented groups; the kids with tremendous empathy or social justice orientation; the kids who sometimes choose to speak up and sometimes don’t have a choice about having to speak up–who are leading the conversations. And typically, some of the adults are trying, too. It’s just that we’re not listening to them. It seems to be easier to hear and applaud a student’s voice, perhaps because we can (dis)regard theirs as a  nice “youth” perspective, whereas when a colleague or parent/guardian raises the same observation or issue, we question their motives, their evidence and their agitation of the status quo.

I was recently at a conference of educators in attendance from several states. A student of color who was also at the conference got up to make a comment and ask a question of the speaker (M.K. Asante, author of Buck). She told him, told all of us, that she was tired. Tired of having to be the one to educate her peers, to speak up on social justice issues, to have to provide another (read: black) perspective. She asked what she could do. In short,M.K. told her she needed to keep on. I believe that’s true: each of us needs to keep speaking truth to power. And in the moment after he ended his response, I wanted to ask the crowded gymnasium: Is it enough for this one student, and others like her, to keep on? What’s the responsibility of each and every adult in this room? What do we need to do and to build? What do schools needs to change while she keeps on doing her part?

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