Education Advocates Need to Look in the Mirror When It Comes to Equity and Racial Justice

As protests give way to policy debates in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, while a true and full reckoning with our country’s original sin still feels far off, it seems like more people than ever are striving to understand the root of the violence that keeps happening to Americans like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others.  

That means coming to terms with the ways each of us, individually, is still working (consciously or not) to preserve a social hierarchy that places whiteness on top and blackness on the bottom. Just as many are taking our justice system to task over its role in perpetuating that hierarchy, we education advocates must acknowledge how the system, and our approach to reforming it, has contributed.

For more than 20 years, I’ve thought of my life’s work as fighting for equal opportunity for all children. But in my fervor to make an impact, I and others have at times prioritized select wins at the cost of blurring our understanding of what true equal opportunity looks like. We’ve been willing to distill “success” to improving academic results or advancing particular policies as proxies for equal opportunity. They are not. 

It’s not that I believe my work over the years hasn’t pushed against racist systems and unjust outcomes; I do and am proud of that. And, I continue to believe in giving parents more agency, in critiques of neighborhood-based catchment areas and policies that allow teachers with more experience to select “easier” placements, and more. 

But I, and many like me, have not reckoned fully with the ways in which our approach, too, has stood in the way of equal opportunity.

First, we largely have not acknowledged the perpetuation of systemic racism inherent in mostly white leaders imposing “solutions” on communities of color. Too many of our favorite policies have not been grounded fully in the experiences of Black or Latino children, but rather the technocratic ideas and values of white thinkers. This has created blind spots that perpetuate inequality. Many of our Black and brown colleagues have been telling us this for years. We haven’t listened. 

Second, we’ve tried to isolate academic achievement from a host of other social problems because we didn’t want those issues to serve as an excuse for giving up on improving schools. But in attempting to work in a vacuum, we’ve sidestepped the complexity of the challenges facing communities of color, limiting the effectiveness of our solutions. 

Perhaps most damning, in our drive to improve education by any means, we’ve tolerated allies unwilling to recognize the systemic racism at play in their own words, minds and approach to the work. I believe our tent ought to be big; but, there’s a limit. We will never succeed in creating equal opportunity if we allow those who fail to understand or deny the true nature of the problem to be the leaders of the effort to solve it.

Equal opportunity isn’t achieved by passing our most favored policies or improving academics alone. The only way to achieve equal opportunity is to root out and dismantle racist practices at every level of the work.

White leaders like me must put anti-racism at the center of our work, both substantively and in how we engage. We have to be willing to hold a critical lens to the consequences of discipline practices we’ve promoted, the schools we’ve opened and closed, the alliances we’ve struck, the unintended damage we’ve done to Black educators and to our continuing blind spots. We cannot let the fear of what longtime critics of our work might say prevent us from having the courage to examine what we’ve gotten wrong. 

We must pause, listen, and follow leaders of color, even when doing so casts doubt on our long-held beliefs. We must never tokenize the people we claim to fight for and instead use our privilege to empower them by ceding control, resources and seats at the proverbial table. We shouldn’t use worthy ends to justify means that are not steeped in equity.

For too long, our work—my work—has been hamstrung by our failure to look hard enough at how and where our efforts have perpetuated systemic racism, even if unintentionally. Let’s confront where we’ve come up short and then commit to changing how we do the work.

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