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Change the Conversation: What Educators Need to Be Talking About

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This post is by Gia Truong, CEO of Envision Education.

 

By "white supremacy" I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.

- David Gillborn

When I was nine years old, I lived in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, a predominantly African-American, poor community. My family and I, refugees from Vietnam, were among the few Asian people in the neighborhood. My first school in the United States was depressing: the buildings were in a state of disrepair and the teachers were overworked and under-resourced. The students, rather than being inspired and encouraged, were mostly being housed from one day to the next. This was my first school experience, and I didn't know it could be different.

A few years later, we moved to San Francisco's Richmond district, and I saw what a difference a zip code makes. My new school, full of white and Asian children, was clean and well-resourced. My teachers were optimistic, engaged and inspirational. The students were learning and growing. This was my second experience of school, and it showed me, at a young age, the real impact poverty and racism have on schools and students.

These two experiences illustrate a basic truth about our education system: it advantages some populations while disadvantaging others. Put more plainly: it is unjust. And it is harming those who most need schools that will help them thrive.

This basic truth begs the question: What do we want for low-income kids of color? It may seem like a nonsense question; of course, we--as educators--want all students to succeed. But the clear message to many children in our nation's classrooms is that we do not. Even at nine years old, I knew what the system expected of and for the students in my two schools. And we all know it too: where you live, dictated primarily by income level, determines what kind of school you are in. And what kind of school you are in too often shapes your future. 

Thirty plus years later, I am the CEO of Envision Education, a charter network in the San Francisco Bay Area that helps students, mostly low-income and most from communities of color, get to and succeed in college, career, and life. I think every day about the issues my nine-year old self confronted, about how to give low-income students of color access to a transformative education that will change the trajectory of their lives. I wrestle with how systems need to change, for both students and teachers, in order to tear down the structures that perpetuate injustice.

The central problem is that the current system continues to disadvantage students who are low income and from communities of color. It is a problem, first and foremost, of white supremacy, and the ways in which white supremacy has shaped the education system we are living and working within.

I can hear the counter arguments: white supremacy is about violence and hate, it is inherently evil, and certainly educators and schools across the country overwhelmingly stand in opposition to those things. They do. We do. 

But I believe that white supremacy is about more than violence and hate. It's about, as David Gillborn says, "the political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings." Gillborn is talking about systemic oppression, where the history, practices, policies, assumptions, and expectations of a system conspire to nurture and support the dominant group while keeping others subordinate. 

We see the systemic oppression Gillborn describes play out repeatedly in school systems, in the disproportionate discipline rates for white and black students for comparable infractions, or in the inequitable and entrenched funding models that reward higher income communities while punishing lower income ones. 

These systemic injustices are producing predictable results along race and class lines. A recent study on race and income by the New York Times highlights the devastating impact of racism on poor, black males. The study finds that:

  • 76 percent of black boys who grow up in poor families will stay poor or lower middle class as adults, while 54 percent of white boys from poor families will. Conversely, 8 percent of black boys who grew up poor will end up rich or upper-middle class; the comparable rate for white boys is 26 percent.
  • The sons of black families from the top 1 percent have about the same chance of being incarcerated on a given day as the sons of white families earning $36,000. 

In this environment, it doesn't matter what individual actors within a system think or do, and it's not enough for us to believe in equality and justice for all. We cannot build a culture of equity for all students because we have not yet dismantled the culture of white supremacy that is holding them back. If we truly want all students to succeed, then we must rigorously examine the daily reenactments of white supremacy that we are surrounded by and--unwittingly or not--participating in.

This is what we need to be talking about when we talk about how to improve schools. It is our job, as leaders, to be aware of how white supremacy and white assumptions are shaping the systems we lead. It's our job to call out that kind of domination when we find it. It's our job to look for the daily reenactments of these systems across diverse communities so that we can interrogate them and, ultimately, stop them. (See White Supremacy Culture, from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.)

At Envision Education, we are striving to talk about white supremacy and how it is impacting our schools, teachers, and students: we are looking for the daily reenactments. In my next post, I share the journey my network has been on to increase equity for our staff, in service of increasing educational equity for our students. I hope you'll check this space in a few days to hear more.

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