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Backpacks hang from the wall in a New Orleans school.
Backpacks hang from the wall in a New Orleans school. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

I recently heard a fellow from one of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s programs speak about her research on the impact of racial stigma and stereotypes on African Americans’ sense of agency, worth and humanity.

I was startled by a particular statistic: Ninety percent of African Americans fall into a category she frames as “not poor.” Although a great deal of media and policy attention is paid to the 10 percent of African Americans in the lowest socioeconomic strata, the overwhelming majority are working class, middle class, or affluent. Still, society’s dominant narrative is one of poor blacks whom government and other institutions must help to overcome their situation, which is in large part inextricable from the lack of equity and access that still plagues America’s minority communities.

At a moment when we are reminded again and again that our country has yet to come to grips with its deep racial divides, these realities illustrate our continued struggle with one of the most pernicious and least acknowledged forms of bigotry: the assumption that the story of any person of color is necessarily one of urban poverty and dire need. This particular brand of racism is all the more poignant for often having at its core some of the best intentions — a genuine desire to help others, expressed by people who wrongly assume that they know what obstacles any given person of color has faced.

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I have often had this experience of others assuming that I have my own “up from the ghetto” story. Although I have done my share of hard work, I had the good fortune to begin my upward climb in a well-to-do suburb, with two highly educated, well-employed parents. Secure in the knowledge that my origin story is a perfectly normal one for an African American, I still experience the assumption of my disadvantage as painful, as I do the similar assumptions that special access programs and affirmative action explain my achievements.

“Although a great deal of media and policy attention is paid to the 10 percent of African Americans in the lowest socioeconomic strata, the overwhelming majority are working class, middle class, or affluent.”

The story that our culture tells, as a result of such assumptions, is a story of personal lack on the part of all African Americans. It is a small step from here to the much more pernicious and explicitly racist narrative that black people receive a disproportionate, even undeserved, share of public assistance and resources—that “they” took “my” job.

To be sure, as a program that supported the entry of women into the workforce, affirmative action has helped everyone. Decades of civil rights activism have carved out paths down which I now travel confidently, for which I am grateful. I support special access programs in every way possible, because true equity is still in its infancy.

Yet, as I do so, I wonder about the implications of our slow progress and deeply embedded misconceptions for the generations we are educating today. How long will it take us to stop assuming that every student of color in a public school needs or wants a special intervention, or that any such student who excels is somehow miraculous? When do we cease to presume that every black or Latino/a undergraduate or grad student got a special hand up? Until we come to this point, our schools and our society will remain inequitable.

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And these are the subtler, more insidious forms of racism. In the past few weeks the more explicit and hateful kind has been blatantly aired. As schools reopen this fall, educators across the nation are considering the kinds of conversations they want to have with young people about recent events and the historical misunderstandings and mistrust that have led to them.

While educational systems have grappled for many years with the need to understand personal histories, cultural biases and subtle forms of intolerance to better support students — and teachers — from differing socioeconomic backgrounds, dealing with overt racism is as new to these teachers as it is to most children. As agonizing as it is to be confronted with this particular teachable moment, we who see ourselves as educators should not shy away from the opportunity; we must instead try to withstand the pain until we have dug down to the root of it and spoken openly about it, and about the many forms it takes.

We must come to terms with our own deep assumptions that we know anything about another person based on race or ethnicity — even when they are coupled with the best intentions to help.

It’s time for us all to be honest about the damage done when we push our differences politely under the surface and about the terrible burden educators feel when expected to help students confront the chasm created by conflict of this sort. Right now, educators need help making sense of conflicting and sometimes impossible mandates: to help students express their experience of racial conflict, in all forms; to respect all children and families; and, all the while, to remain true to their own principles.

Most importantly, we can begin again to understand and become comfortable with what we don’t know about each other, whether as individuals or as members of races, ethnicities or communities, and this is only possible when we inquire respectfully and listen carefully. We can privilege learning over assuming, and we can model for young people that openness to questions and answers, coupled with the rejection of judgment and preconceptions, is one way — maybe, really, the only way — to finally address an untenable situation that has already lingered far too long.

Stephanie J. Hull is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

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