Monday, June 29, 2015

On the need for more educators of color & why affirmative action is not the issue

I have read and written a lot recently about racism and the intersection of racism and public education, and the need for more teachers of color and more diverse curricula in our schools. I have also had conversations with local leaders and decision makers here where I live in Hanover, Virginia, about the lack of educators and educational leaders of color and have participated in deep conversations on this topic in the course of my doctoral studies in Educational Leadership at VCU.

All of this has caused me to feel a need to articulate why it is important for ALL children in this country to be taught by people of color and to articulate responses to the arguments I have heard as to why the problem of a lack of teachers of color can't be helped or even as to why it's not a problem or how it will cause other problems.

So here goes:

Why is this important?
Leaders, decision-makers, educators, and teachers are in positions of influence and power. Due to a legacy of racism in our country, the majority of those positions are held by white people. This is unhealthy, unjust, and bad for our society. We need more people of color in those positions, to right power imbalances but also because those perspectives are sorely lacking in positions of power and influence throughout this country. Those perspectives are important not just to represent people of color but to make our institutions and white people less racist over time.

But many people of color just aren't as qualified for those positions.
Research has shown that many qualified people of color are routinely passed over for positions of influence and power due to institutional racism. Additionally, due to institutional racism, people of color haven't had the same opportunities as white people. I have yet to be convinced that people of color aren't just as qualified as white people for positions of power and influence, but if someone is convinced of this then my answer is: a) experience is a way to get qualifications and b) if it means getting to a proper balance of power and equal opportunity for all people, I am fine with putting people of color who might not seem as qualified on paper into more positions of power and influence. As far as I'm concerned, white supremacy is the greatest problem here. Nothing else even comes close.

But affirmative action isn't fair!
White people routinely get hired for jobs or accepted into more prestigious schools due to their family background, their connections, or wealth and not because any superior qualifications--they have benefited from a system of white supremacy for hundreds of years. Affirmative action is a drop in the bucket next to that. Furthermore, affirmative action happens at the end of things, after opportunities have already been denied. By the time "affirmative action" college admissions and hiring take place, those candidates of color that would benefit from affirmative action are just as well qualified if not better than white candidates, especially when you take legacy admissions and connections and wealthy into account. Furthermore, think of how many people of color have been denied opportunities for every one "affirmative action" hire or acceptance. If you really want to end affirmative action, then work to make it so everyone has the same opportunities starting before and at birth. If you want to end affirmative action, you have to end institutional racism.

How can you change this? Isn't it hopeless?
I don't know the answer to that. There are many different ways to change things. There are also many ways to bang your head against the wall. The best route to change is via groups that are local, organic, and led by the people the most impacted.

For me, it also helps first to consistently be aware of, learn about, and reflect upon my own position in society and upon my own implicit biases. I recognize that there is no escaping racism--it's everywhere in this country, whether you live in the North or South, East or West, and whether the racism is explicit or implicit. Second, it helps me to have hope that people can change, and to try to be non-judgmental (given that we all have work to do). This is going to sound corny, but I try hard to love the sinner and hate the sin. 

Some people probably are hopeless, like the ones who call Obama a socialist or who called for the dogs in Baltimore. I know I can't win with those people. I just don't want those people to win and so that's why I can't give in to hopelessness.

My thinking has been influenced by my upbringing but also by the writers in the #educolor collective, and the writer and blogger Ta-nehisi Coates, all exceptional thinkers that I highly recommend you read.