The point is so obvious yet it cannot be said enough: We do not give families of color and those in poverty the same range of options and quality of education that White and affluent families often take for granted. It’s why I became a teacher, starting in 2002. I taught full-time for five years in a public school in the South Bronx, and intermittently since at a pair of Harlem charter schools. What drew me to this work and keeps me engaged in it is the manifest unfairness of American education to low-income, Black, and Brown children who comprise, without exception, every student I’ve ever taught.
For most of those twenty years, I’ve held a set of assumptions and ideals about what it means to be an effective teacher of children of color (and frankly, children of any race or background). It means holding every pupil to high standards and expectations for academics and classroom conduct; offering a rich and rigorous curriculum, taught as engagingly as possible; and fostering a school culture and climate that valorizes student achievement. Above all, it means holding firmly to the conviction that children do not fail. Rather adults fail children when schools do not deliver any or all of these ingredients.
The widening chasm between these principles and more recent shifts in ideology among education leaders in the name of “antiracism” is no longer possible to ignore or elide. It’s time to ask: Is a professed commitment to the tenets of antiracism now non-negotiable in our profession? Are those of us who hold different views and ideals about student expectations, pedagogical practice, and school culture no longer welcome to lead classrooms with Black and Brown children?
Here are some specific questions and issues that in my view need to be discussed urgently and honestly:
Is aspiring to “colorblindness” disqualifying?
For many of us, particularly those who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, the desire for a “colorblind” America is neither passivism in the face of bigotry nor a refusal to confront our biases. It’s a deeply held moral commitment. Dr. King’s vision of a nation where his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character resonates as both a calling and a statement of the highest American aspirations. If I define “equity” as working toward an America where race no longer describes or limits us; if I reject the idea expressed by White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo and others that to be White is to be inherently racist and a beneficiary of unearned privileges; if I hold to a definition of racism that is manifested in behavior, not an immutable characteristic of my race over which I have no control, am I no longer fit to teach Black and Brown children?
Is the achievement gap real or is it racist even to refer to such a gap?
“The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in How to Be an An Antiracist. “We degrade Black minds every time we speak of an ‘academic achievement gap’ based on these numbers.”
As long-time readers may know, I'm no testing hawk. I have long described my relationship with standardized tests as complicated. But it’s clear and undeniable that vast amounts of resources and moral authority aimed at improving education outcomes for Black and Brown children over the past three decades are a product of the shame and urgency that we feel over these inexcusable gaps, mostly as measured by standardized tests.
Kendi, by a considerable margin our most influential thinker about antiracist thought and practice, dismisses all of this as the mere imposition of racial hierarchy and therefore as racist even to discuss. He writes that “our faith in standardized tests causes us to believe that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black test takers–and not the tests.”
But this is not so. If the education reform movement has accomplished nothing else, it has made it unacceptable to evince any belief but the opposite one: The achievement gap is evidence of institutional failure, not a failure on the part of Black test-takers. Discrediting any reference to a racial achievement gap is counterproductive to the interests of students of color. The NAACP, the National Urban League, La Raza, and nine other civil right groups have denounced anti-testing efforts to “hide the achievement gap,” noting that test data “are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.” Ian Rowe, a Black intellectual, Fordham trustee, and charter school founder, insists that antiracist policies and practices are becoming “the unintended, modern day version of the soft bigotry of low expectations.” I strongly agree. Does saying so render me unfit to teach Black and Brown children? How about Ian Rowe?
Does antiracism pedagogy demand—or even condone—inflicting emotional distress on children?
The most chilling revelation to emerge earlier this month from a whistleblowing teacher at New York City’s private Grace Church School was the headmaster’s acknowledgement captured in an audio recording that “we’re demonizing kids, we’re demonizing White people for being born.” George Davison admitted to teacher Paul Rossi that “we are using language that makes them feel less than, for nothing that they are personally responsible for.” Davison also conceded that he had “grave doubts about some of the stuff that gets spouted at us, in the name of antiracism.” This is a stunning set of admissions from the head of an institution charged with the education and welfare of children.
A respected colleague, also a veteran educator, suggested to me that what’s happening in schools now “might be the first time White children are being made to feel uncomfortable in school about their identities. But for the rest of our kids, it might be some of the first times they’re not being made to feel uncomfortable.” Another told me even more bluntly “there’s nothing wrong with children in elite private schools being made to feel uncomfortable about race.”
I cannot agree. Yes, a hallmark of a quality education is that it makes us uncomfortable. Attempts to create “safe spaces” where students never encounter upsetting words, images, or ideas strike many of us as misguided. Education inevitably includes confronting students with ideas, views, and information that they may find upsetting, but it never includes upsetting them because of who they are or what they look like. No element of ethical classroom practice should allow inflicting intentional harm or emotional distress on students—rich or poor, Black or White—or seek to make a virtue of it. It is immoral and educational malpractice. Neither should we encourage in children a sense of insurmountable oppression, victimhood, or grievance—the very opposite of the uplifting formation of mind and character that education should aspire to. Any pedagogy or curriculum that ascribes traits, motives, or mindsets to one particular race—oppressors versus oppressed; perfectionism, urgency, and individualism as “hallmarks of white supremacy culture,” etc.—cannot call itself “antiracist.” It is racist and unacceptable.
When “antiracism” conflicts with effective literacy practices, what should schools do?
There can be no question that every child in an American K–12 school should have the opportunity to see their history, heritage, and culture reflected in their education. No part of me is interested in imposing a “Eurocentric” curriculum on children, venerating “dead White males,” or presenting anything less than a clear-eyed view of American history. But efforts to “decolonize” curriculum, “disrupt texts,” or other efforts to de-emphasize “Whiteness” in curriculum seems less likely to liberate Black and Brown students than to hold them further back. This is not parochialism, but a reflection of how language proficiency works. It rests on a large body of common background knowledge shared between readers, writers, speakers, and listeners. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge—yet we must—the degree to which this both reflects and grows organically from the knowledge, allusions, and idioms of the culture that dominates it. In a diverse and plural society, language is a vernacular engine, borrowing words and allusions at a dizzying pace, but that is not a process that can be dictated or controlled. A clear-eyed view of language proficiency obligates us to expose children to the full range of taken-for-granted knowledge that their fellow citizens possess. At present, that requires familiarity with a substantial (if perhaps declining) amount of Western thought, literature, history, science, and art. To pretend otherwise is to risk cementing disadvantage in place, or to embrace a separatist impulse, neither of which can be countenanced.
In a review of his book in Education Next, another Black intellectual, John McWhorter, observed that Kendi’s antiracism philosophy “founders especially on education” and “subscribes to the notion getting around these days, from the contingent fascinated with White privilege, that things like close reasoning, the written word, and objectivity are ‘White’ practices, the imposition upon Black people of which is ‘racist.’” To adopt these views and put them into practice in schools serving Black and Brown children in the name of social justice is misguided at best, disastrous at worst.
Are White teachers still welcome in non-White charter schools?
“Are we really going to turn away people who want to do good work?” asks a teacher I spoke with recently who has reluctantly decided that this year will be her last. She is a successful, experienced teacher at a well-known network of high performing charter schools, not a naive young recruit with a savior complex. But her school’s embrace of critical race theory and its determination to be an antiracist institution has driven a change in the weather she can no longer ignore. Candid feedback, once a hallmark of this network’s professional practice, has become a racially-charged minefield among its diverse staff. Nothing about her teaching or relationships with students has changed, but she has gone from being a valued colleague to a figure of suspicion merely because of her race. Crucially, she was not openly critical of the shift in culture and its aggressive diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda. “I really want to do the right thing. I really want to be a good ally,” she insists, “but I don’t feel included.” She will not be back next year. “They will say I walked away, but I was pushed.”
There is good evidence to suggest that children benefit from having Black teachers, and the move to recruit and support more men and women of color into classrooms is an unambiguous benefit. Can not committed teachers of all races work together to advance educational opportunity? If the answer is no, something has gone very wrong.
Paul Rossi, the Grace Church math teacher whose whistleblowing letter lifted the lid on abusive practices in his school, wrote that the antiracist training he received “sounds righteous, but it is the opposite of truth in advertising. It requires teachers like myself to treat students differently on the basis of race.” This is not an accident or misapplication. It’s a manifestation of Kendi’s now-familiar aphorism “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.” But this is anathema in a publicly-funded system of public schools that must strive to prepare all children equally. Rossi speaks for many of us in the profession who share his concern that what is being done in the name of equity “reinforces the worst impulses we have as human beings: our tendency toward tribalism and sectarianism that a truly liberal education is meant to transcend.”
Committed ideologues have exhibited an unhelpful tendency to dismiss criticism of antiracist pedagogies and practices, even from would-be allies, as discomfort with “de-centering Whiteness,” fear of displacement, an unwillingness to “do the work,” or simply a manifestation of unrepentant racism. But these simple tropes elide far more challenging issues that we need to grapple with forthrightly, in our (hopefully) shared mission to advance the interests of Black and Brown children: Does standard practice in this field now insist that we view students exclusively or even primarily through the lens of their race? What if I believe that fixing institutions that routinely fail Black and Brown children is just as important as changing racial attitudes? If I do not believe that white supremacy is the primary stumbling block to educational progress, if I think that literacy—not antiracism—is the last word in educational equity, if I’m unwilling to accept uncritically the new antiracism orthodoxy, am I still welcome in classrooms where all or most of the students are not White?
I cannot be made comfortable with the idea that teachers should conceive of ourselves primarily as social engineers whose responsibility is to dismantle “systemic racism” in the name of “equity.” When I took on this work, no part of me signed up to disrupt, dismantle, or overthrow anything. We are teachers, not revolutionaries. Does saying so render me unfit to teach?
It’s time for districts, charter school networks, and school leaders to grapple with these issues candidly and unflinchingly. What are the non-negotiable beliefs that a teacher must have to stand in front of a classroom where all or most of the students are Black or Brown? What beliefs are disqualifying? Let’s also ask parents of color. In the view of many teachers, effective education for all children means high standards and expectations, both academically and behaviorally. That meets my test for antiracist education. But does it meet yours? Would you feel comfortable with me as your child’s teacher? Yes or no?