Everyone from politicians to corporate big wigs to media personalities and pundits has weighed in on public education. With some blaming teachers and teachers’ unions and some blaming the government and the government’s role in public education, there are others who seek to privatize public education and those who huff and puff about the need to burn the whole system down. Those battles aside, the one discussion that is missing in reforming public education is nearly universal: race.
Normally the discussion of race centers on poverty and the lack of choice for kids of color. After which the conversation moves towards the parental guidance the students have or don’t have and the kinds of communities kids of color come from. Not only is this conversation short-sighted, but it fails to address the real problems with race in public education.
Go to any major city and you will see that the teachers as well as the state and school leadership are mostly White. Not that that is inherently wrong or some sort of a conspiracy, but it is a major problem for students of all colors. And, one we need to seriously talk about. Believe it or not, there is a color to learning.
I have been on the train in the morning with my students. I have been in their neighborhoods. Hell, I have lived in their neighborhoods. I have seen what they see: the absence of LIFE MODELS. They almost never see a professional who looks like them in their neighborhoods. So, when they go to school, they need to see teachers and administrators who have their hair, their eyes, their noses and who share a common history/culture. Strong teachers and admins of color send a message of empowerment, which in the long run is more important than the ABC’s of teaching and learning or running a school.
You see professionals of color teach students to love themselves, to know that they come from a people who are more than side-notes, side-kicks, and stereotypes. They instill in their students a sense of pride and confidence, empowering them to take ownership over the course of their own lives. Now that may seem irrelevant or something out of a James Brown song. But when you come from the communities those students come from in which the only people they see get out of the neighborhood are rappers or ballplayers, being in an environment where you are nourished and your sense of self is nurtured and your intellect cultivated is life-changing. There aren’t any words for what that means to your future success. Addressing race, racial relationships, and the soft bigotry of “colorblindness” will help bring about such change.
It is important that we have this discussion. We debate the many other ills facing public education, but there is no denying the power of race and why race has to be an integral part of education reform. We will never be until we know what we can become. I am because I had teachers who looked like me.