Racial inequity: An everyday issue for educators across the country

January 12, 2015

By Ama Nyamekye and Madaline Edison.

Ama Nyamekye and Madaline Edison

Ama Nyamekye (left) and Madaline Edison (right).

 

In an ever-changing news cycle, the stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice fall to the background of a public debate about racial equity. But for teachers, parents and education advocates, the injustices children experience as a result of racial inequity is a reality that must be faced every day.

As former educators, we reflect on the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice with the realization that they could have been our students. They could have been one of our sophomores learning to write poetry in a South Bronx classroom or our kindergartners learning to read in Saint Paul. Perhaps this is why their deaths leave us with the persistent and disturbing question: “Could this happen to my student?”

The truth is, yes. Tragedies in various forms will continue to happen to people of color until racial inequity is remedied in our criminal justice and public school systems.

Tragedies in various forms will continue to happen to people of color until racial inequity is remedied in our criminal justice and public school systems.

In Minneapolis, for example, only 36 percent of black students graduate on time. Additionally, black students enrolled in Minneapolis Public Schools in 2013-14 accounted for about 40 percent of all students, yet they received nearly 80 percent of all suspensions. In California, 17 percent of Latino males and 22 percent of African-American males dropped out of high school in 2013, compared with nine percent of white males. And, black students make up six percent of enrollment, but 20 percent of total suspensions across the state.

Every state bears its own shameful list of disparate educational outcomes.

Trends of inequity provoke a public school to prison pipeline too often crowded with black and brown boys. But when we talk about inequity in large systems that operate beyond any individual’s control, adults and children alike can feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. We may retreat to anger, frustration, or even feel-good conversations about being colorblind.

Despite the daunting nature of this problem and any political discomfort this conversation may cause, we choose to advocate for change because we recognize that inequity is the very reason we chose to teach in the first place. We have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that the anger and sadness of Michael, Eric, and Tamir’s deaths do not fade into complacency. We must individually and collectively disrupt systems that serve and protect some, but not all, children. We must dismantle systems and policies that result in racial inequity and create new ones that live up our values.

We must individually and collectively disrupt systems that serve and protect some, but not all, children. 

Thankfully, organizers across the country are calling for racial equity through the rising #BlackLivesMatter movement, even as media attention wanes. It is important to recognize that this is the heart of real change - organizers and advocates gathering in communities across the nation, doing their part to confront inequity.

While we no longer teach in the classroom, we have the honor of supporting teachers who also advocate for equity on behalf of their students. In Los Angeles, more than a dozen teachers produced recommendations for reforming school climate policies in a paper entitled “The Equity Movement,” which they later presented to district and legislative leaders. E4E-Los Angeles is drawing greater attention to disproportionate rates of suspension, expulsion and graduation among boys of color. By raising their voices at school board meetings and in media outlets, our teachers are standing alongside civil rights groups and students pushing for policy, funding and staffing changes that will improve school climate for all students. 

In Minnesota, teachers are preparing to release recommendations to the state and local districts on how to diversify the state’s teacher workforce, which is currently 97 percent white. They are leading conversations with their colleagues, policymakers, and within their unions about how to ensure that every child benefits from seeing people of color leading our classrooms. E4E-Minnesota members are working alongside community organizations fighting to ensure that racial equity is squarely at the center of conversations about recruiting and retaining our teachers. 

Teachers everywhere challenge narratives that say the system is too large to fix. By advocating for their students in small and large ways, these teachers are part of a national movement to address educational and racial disparities. In the coming days, Educators 4 Excellence will feature letters from teachers advocating to alleviate racial inequities in their schools and communities. We invite you to listen, learn, and share their stories.

Ama Nyamekye is the executive director of E4E-Los Angeles. Madaline Edison is the executive director of E4E-Minnesota.

 

More on racial inequity from our blog series:

A letter to my teaching colleagues on Eric Garner and Ferguson In Class: Why we need critical thinkers now

A letter to my teacher colleagues: Why being silent on race doesn't make us neutral

A letter to our legislators: Avoiding discussions of race and culture in schools isn't an option

Addressing racial inequity is a responsibility we all have to our students 

It's time for restorative, not punitive, justice in our schools and society 

 

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