Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Sharla Horton-Williams, Ed.D.
School Leadership for Social Justice | SLSJ.us | December 2020
Schools are racist. There, I said it.
“Show me your data and I will show you your racism.”
Wow. Just sit with that for just a minute. This incredibly powerful statement was shared by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings as she addressed doctoral students at Texas A&M University recently.
The fact is, schools are notorious for being “-ist.” Classist. Ableist. Sexist. And most of all….Racist. I didn’t say it. She didn’t even say it. The data says it. And data don’t lie.
Hopefully, you don’t need convincing of this fact. Hopefully, as a school leader, you’ve reviewed and analyzed all the data available to you that confirms the reality of racism in our schools. But just in case you haven’t, here are some national statistics that elucidate the rampant racism in our education system:
Black preschoolers are four times more likely to be suspended than white students in preschool (US Department of Education, 2014)
Black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys (US Department of Education, 2012)
Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls (US Department of Education, 2012)
Black students performed 26 points below white students in 3rd-grade reading (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Black students performed 27 points below white students in 8th-grade reading (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Black students performed 25 points below white students in 4th-grade math (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Black students performed 32 points below white students in 8th-grade math (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Only 73% of Black students complete high school in four years compared to 87% of white students (US Department of Education, 2018)
Black and Hispanic students are three to ten times more likely to have unqualified teachers than students in predominantly white schools (Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy, 2011)
To quote Dr. Ladson-Billings again, “your data reveals your racism.”
Okay. Now that we all know this, what now? The opportunity-performance gap is not new. It has been documented for at least 50 years. So, for 50 years we have known that schools were racist. And guess what? Schools are still racist. And what does it mean if your school is racist, and you are the school leader?
Whoa there, buddy. Who are you calling racist? I LOVE my students and families, AND I AM NOT A RACIST. Right? But if you’re not racist and neither is your school, then why, exactly, are Black kids failing? They are failing because of racist schools in racist systems. Period.
You may not be a card-carrying member of the KKK. You may believe Black Lives Matter. You may even have a shirt and flag. You may not have developed the oppressive and racist curriculum, policies, and procedures that perpetuate racism. You may love your Black and brown students and work really, really hard for them. And, yes-- you may still be a racist school leader who is unknowingly and unintentionally perpetuating racism in your school.
What do you mean? How could I possibly be a racist school leader? Remember the disaggregated data we examined above? What was the common factor? Race. When race is the only separating factor, racism is the issue. Racist school leaders perpetuate racism in their schools by allowing these trends to continue. Racist school leaders perpetuate racism in their schools by letting this data live and thrive. Whether you are a classroom leader, a campus leader, or a district leader, if you are not actively, intentionally, and unapologetically working against these trends, you are perpetuating oppression, inequity, and racism. That makes you complicit in your school’s racism.
Ouch. Hard to hear, huh? Trust me, I know. When I looked at my own classroom and campus data, I had to take a long hard look in the mirror. You can see my shock in this video blog as I recently reflected on my own practices. I was a racist teacher. I was a racist leader. But, how was this even possible? I was a Black female - twice marginalized! Please allow me to side-step the conversation about Blacks being or not being racist this time. For the sake of this conversation, I’m calling out my own racism and complicity in inequity and racism in my school. So, how could I be racist? Because I was looking at the data, but I was not doing enough about it.
You’d hear me say things like, “Well, they came with so many gaps.” Or, “The test and curriculum biases are the problem.” Both were true. And both were things I could never really control, but I was missing sight of what I could control.
I could control how I hired and trained teachers.
I could control how I responded to discipline infractions.
I could control how students felt in my classroom or in my school.
I could control whether or not I created an environment that reflected my students’ values and cultures.
I could control whether or not I went to my state’s capitol to advocate for equitable funding and elimination of biased tests.
I could control how I responded when teachers or other staff members displayed racist behavior.
I could create a culture of high academic expectations and ensure culturally relevant materials and resources were available to teachers and students.
I could control what academic programs and opportunities I created in my classroom and on my campus to provide access to high-quality and rigorous instruction.
I could argue against codes of conduct that were unfairly biased against Black boys and girls and led to their disproportionate suspensions and expulsions.
I could control how to empower parents to actively lead in their child’s education.
There was a lot that I couldn’t do, but there was an awful lot that I could do. And there’s a lot that you can do, too.
So how do I become an anti-racist school leader?
Becoming an anti-racist school leader means going all in for Black kids. That requires first isolating race as the primary issue. The fact is, we are too afraid to talk about race. We are afraid to own our racism. Until we can call out the racism that exists in our schools, though, we aren’t ready to become anti-racist. Once you can say the words “my school is racist,” you are ready to actually begin the journey to becoming an anti-racist leader.
Becoming an anti-racist school leader means naming and accepting the fact that our schools are failing Black kids. It means not making excuses for, but rather calling out and the whiteness that pervades the curriculum and culture in schools that dismisses the needs of and ignores the genius of Black students. It means owning the racism that has persisted for decades and conversely committing to practices that harness the strength of the Black community. It means listening to Black parents and grandparents and Black students. Becoming an anti-racist school leader means identifying and fighting against dominant-culture expectations and norms throughout the education system that solely benefit white students. It means accepting that this deeply-held whiteness in schools harms Black kids - and has for decades. It means refusing mediocrity and oppression, and demanding excellence and equity in every area of the education space. It means doing better for and by Black students. Now.
REFLECT AND RESPOND:
How have you perpetuated racism in your school or district?
What current practices or policies are causing harm to Black students in your school or district?
What are three practical actions toward anti-racist school leadership can you take right now to reverse the trends?
You're invited to join the SLSJ facebook group to connect and learn from other school leaders in the fight for social justice in our schools.
THE SLSJ DOMAIN TRIANGLE:
What new knowledge did you acquire?
What beliefs did this information challenge? How were your beliefs shifted?
What leadership behaviors will change as a result of this shift in beliefs and new knowledge?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black and Hispanic students who have historically been underserved in education. She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leadership in closing the opportunity-achievement gap. www.slsj.us
Citation: Horton-Williams, S. (2020, December). Racist schools. Racist leaders. Become an anti-racist leader. Now. School Leadership for Social Justice.
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