Column

It’s easier to remove a Confederate flag than a racist teacher

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Burning of the Confederate flag - May 25 at Robert E. Lee Circle, New Orleans.

Burning of the Confederate flag – May 25 at Robert E. Lee Circle, New Orleans.

Every day, students travel on streets that memorialize Confederate war “heroes,” to go learn in schools named for these leaders.

Worse, our children learn from curricula that adjust students to the absurdity of these realities.

Educators have to take their hats off to the images of Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol taking down the Confederate flag. Changing the names of schools and removing other symbols in which bigots find refuge are analogous next steps.

Taking down the vestiges of a segregated past also means weeding out racist teachers from the profession and supplanting them with people who can produce more Bree Newsomes. Climbing the education flagpole also means that we must bring down curricula that ostensibly adjust students to injustice.

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In his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine church goers slain in the Charleston church shooting, President Barak Obama said, “Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty or attend dilapidated schools or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.”

Hate is certainly learned, and states’ curricula have something to do with it. The lessons stemming from these curricula may not outright teach students to discriminate, but students aren’t getting the kind of history and civic lessons that would have them snatch down flags and knock down racist monuments en masse. Still, removing symbols is important, but the Confederate flag’s staying power is a testament to the people and institutions that undergird the symbol’s longevity.

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Symbols can’t exist without communities actively maintaining their power. That maintenance isn’t powered just by historically racist organizations. People in mundane positions of power literally keep monuments from falling down dilapidated. In New Orleans, the grounds of Robert E. Lee Circle are maintained with tax dollars and city government.

The proactive protection and silent acceptance of racist symbols reinforces the very attitudes people are quick to dismiss as relics with the election of the first black President.

Obama is correct when he said, “…the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.” Consequently, our institutions are complicit in keeping flags from becoming tattered rags barely worth washing cars with. Still, getting rid of symbols won’t necessarily get rid of the mindsets that maintain them. But instilling the value that we’re all in this together certainly renders symbols of bigotry meaningless and vulnerable to a Bree Newsome takedown.

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If we rigorously examine the root causes of hate, let’s rethink Common Core as an anti-racist, -sexist, -homophobic system of instruction. We do need a common core of history, civics and other subjects that lead to a more inclusive brand of patriotism than our curriculums currently generate. This is a Common Core debate worth having. Last year, Texas and Oklahoma among other states denied the acceptance of the national advanced placement (AP) history curriculum because of its “anti-American” leanings. In 2013, the Arizona Department of Education banned Ethnic Studies and the multicultural course offerings on similar grounds. The fight for American History plays out periodically around the country, but we should have this debate in terms of developing national standards based on inclusion, engagement and civic participation.

In addition, if we’re serious about using schools to reduce hate, we have to look at who teaches.

I’ve argued against policies that have a disparate impact on black teachers. However when it comes to teacher-tenure reform, I’ve also said, “schools need faster ways to remove ineffective, racist, sexist and uncommitted teachers.” Remember the Staten Island teachers who inappropriately wore T-shirts supporting the New York City Police Department just days after protests surrounding the controversial killing of Eric Garner. Talk about a lack of focus on the children.

Thank goodness the process allowed for the fast firing of Karen Fitzgibbons, a fourth- grade teacher in the same district as the McKinney, Texas pool party fiasco. Reacting in a Facebook post to the resignation of the officer who overused physical force, Fitzgibbons wrote, “This officer should not have to resign. I’m going to just go ahead and say it…the blacks are the ones causing the problems and this ‘racial tension.’ I guess that’s what happens when you flunk out of school and have no education.”

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Isn’t this the education Fitzgibbons was supposed to provide? Unfortunately, racism is learned, and it’s taught informally and formally by teachers like Fitzgibbons. However, it’s not the highflying racism from teachers that I most worry about. It’s the insidious bias that President Obama pointed to in his eulogy.

Obama said, “Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”

Educators are finally owning up to the racial biases in their disciplinary practices. However, school leaders still don’t acknowledge the low expectations that poison students’ chances everyday. Parents and teachers feel the impact of these biased educators, but we need better ways to alert districts and states when a teacher’s bias robs children of the education they deserve.

Just like phone cameras have exposed racist policing, in schools we need technology, student evaluations and other feedback loops that detect bias in teaching. Moreover, our metrics should catch up to Obama’s eulogy. A successful school is one that actively minimizes bias. Let’s hold ourselves accountable for how students feel they are treated. Academic growth might best be tracked by reducing racism and bias.

(And by the way, remove all “Rebel” mascots.”)

Princeton University professor Cornel West often says that we’ve become “adjusted to injustice and adapted to indifference.” Educators have to believe our schooling has contributed to numbing the bigotry that’s flagrantly waving in our faces. Let’s hope that teachers inspire a movement of students who climb proverbial flagpoles.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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