How is white supremacy integrated into school systems today? A scholar explains

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What is the true legacy of Brown v. Board of Education? How do schools perpetuate white supremacy? How can public education become equitable?

John Diamond, professor of sociology and education policy at Brown University, will address these topics at the 19th annual Brown Lecture on Education. His remarks will be broadcast online free tonight at 6 p.m. EST by the American Educational Research Association, which sponsors the Brown Lecture.

In his talk, Diamond will discuss how white supremacy works in the context of education. Critically, it is not just defined by violent white supremacist groups or white nationalist organizations, he said.

“It is one element of a larger set of political, economic and cultural structures in which white people and white racial actors control power in material resources,” he said. It is also the ideas and belief systems that support and justify this control.

Education Week spoke with Diamond ahead of his talk about how these structures play out in education and how all educators can play a part in dismantling them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In what concrete ways is white supremacy integrated into educational structures today?

The power to define the goals of education, the power to define the content of curricula and the discourse around education, all tend to be under the control, to a large extent, of white racial actors, but probably also importantly, tend to be steeped in a history in which whiteness, as a sort of structural position and identity, has been structured and thought of as superior to all racialized groups.

And so, the ability to somehow control decision-making, power over the curriculum and day-to-day activities in these contexts, tends to lead to the integration of white supremacy into school contexts.

The very specific way I talk about integrating white supremacy into everyday school life is in school routines and organizational practices. We think of the day-to-day life of schools that unfolds through organizational routines…the start of school, or decisions about discipline, or grading processes or follow-up processes, where these ideas about white superiority are somehow embedded in people’s consciousness and self-conscious thinking in a way that replicates those kinds of racial hierarchies. And part of that has to do with the practice of engaging with people.

People carry those ideas into those engagements, both that kind of white superiority, but also the kind of [stereotype that] people of color aren’t as smart, that we’re more likely to misbehave in school, that we’re more likely to be criminals, that we’re more likely to have all these kinds of negative characteristics. And that kind of stuff fits into the day-to-day practices of schools in ways that reproduce white supremacy and also racial inequality.

What happens when race is not explicitly discussed, studied and taken into account both in educational policies and in classroom teaching?

It is not lost on me, and probably not on others, that much of the anti-critical race theory activism has come in the wake of massive protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd. And so a lot of the anti-critical race theory laws were, in some ways, a response to that in an attempt to silence that. Part of what happens when we don’t allow conversations to happen in schools or other spaces is that you are able to silence dissent.

For example, when young people raise their voices in protest, they are often silenced in schools, they are often told that their behavior is not appropriate, they are often told to shut up. These are efforts to somehow silence dissent so that there is a structural consolidation of white supremacy that can continue.
The other way I think it hurts people in the context of schools is that it replicates the type of white racial ignorance, and a kind of racial ignorance more broadly, that allows people to obscure, misrepresent understand and misunderstand the racial hierarchy and structure that exists in society. It allows people to look at the detrimental impact of white supremacy as it functions – in terms of infant mortality, in terms of life expectancy, in terms of the inability to move freely, in terms of policies” stop and frisk” – all of these things being justified and rationalized by this racial ignorance and a racial ideology that says, “Well, these things are fine”. Because these people don’t deserve certain protections, or these things just happen because they happen. You lose the ability to see reality, or you gain the ability to obscure what you see.

The only way to fix problems is to be able to call out what’s causing them. So I draw a lot of inspiration from continuous improvement work, I draw a lot of inspiration from work that tries to discipline our thinking about how to change schools. And a big part of that is being able to identify the root causes of problems and understanding how to work in a different way, so those problems don’t reoccur.

How do you look inside organizational routines and determine where breakdowns lie? Where issues of race, sexuality, gender, patriarchy, all of those things play out in the context of those routines and disrupt that. But the inability to identify the root causes of these issues by not talking about race, sexuality, trans justice, patriarchy, means you don’t understand the problem. And hence, the solutions you provide will never fix the problem.

How can district leaders and school administrators play a role in dismantling white supremacy in schools?

One way to do this is to focus on the things they are already doing and start diagnosing where the breakdowns are, and trying to rethink what they are doing to make those things less harmful. For example, all the districts hire new people, they integrate them into jobs. They evaluate their work, they engage in professional learning opportunities with their educators, they implement coaching processes in their schools. All of these things can be turned to and bring forward racial justice and other forms of justice in these processes.

And it also goes back to how people are prepared to take on those roles. It goes back to the schools of education. How do we prepare people to educate or lead schools with an increasingly diverse student population, what tools do we give people in their preparation? So in some ways I see this as kind of a pipeline issue, on top of what’s happening in the context of schools.

The other thing I would say is that as a field we need to create the context in which people can have these kinds of conversations. And part of that is fighting against some of these efforts to silence that discourse. This means that deans of education schools need to be outspoken in challenging things like the banning of books about LGBTQ+ people and race and racial justice, to speak out against the silence and censorship of people who try to have a legitimate conversation about race and history, and all those other issues that are glossed over.

I think we need as a ground for people to speak openly about the dangers of not having these conversations for the future of our democracy, for the functioning of our society, for our discourse on how we live together.

What role can teachers play in dismantling white supremacy in schools?

They can play a vital role. I mean, we can all think of those teachers who had a major impact on us through little things they did in class, conversations we had in class, or just educators who are deeply invested in the humanity of all their students. and move these things forward.

I think the things that can really be done are for teachers to think deeply about their own role, their own subjectivity when it comes to race and other forms of inequality. Part of it is thinking deeply about these things and studying both what has been said about these issues, but also how we relate to them ourselves.

Then, it is also about reflecting on our own practices and questioning what we do in our classrooms so as to pay particular attention to who we are and to reinforce this type of inequality. It’s about looking at our own classroom routines, deconstructing them, and reconstructing them in ways that lead to more of what we think is justice.

Across education, I think there is a power to listen to the voices of young people and to listen to the communities where our schools are embedded, and to connect to justice-focused movements outside of schools, as these tend to provide energy and ideas that have the potential to help transform what happens at school.

And one thing I will say, just to be clear: when I talk about justice across these dimensions on some level, I’m talking about things that sound radical and revolutionary, but we’re talking about the ability to vote. We’re talking about being able to walk down the street and not be harassed by police when you go to school as a black, brown, or Muslim child. We are talking about the ability to go to school and not be sexually harassed. We talk about the possibility of going to school and having one’s gender identity respected.

We’re talking about the ability to say, “I’ve been a victim of racism, sexism, homophobia” and not being told, “You can’t say that”. So we’re not talking about things that aren’t core to what the company says it stands for. It’s much more about the humanity of people and their ability to live.

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