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Colorblindness breeds inequities.
Over the past several months, though, the Trump administration has proposed or put in place a series of education policies rooted in colorblindness, policies that reverse previous guidelines that many school districts have used to help them determine how they examine and address the racial disparities plaguing our schools.
To start, the administration called for repealing a federal guidance document on how K-12 schools can follow federal civil rights laws and “administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.” Then it proposed, as part of a plan to merge the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, to fold the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights into an office that also oversees a variety of labor violations, diminishing the importance of safeguarding students’ rights. Finally, the Department of Education rescinded guidelines that had advised districts on how, for the sake of diversifying schools, they could account for race when making non-individualized decisions like selecting school sites, drawing attendance zones and targeting the recruitment of students and teachers.
It’s inevitable that this blanket approach of turning a blind eye to racial bias will force yet another generation of children of color to fight an uphill battle for access to the education they need to excel.
To undo racial inequities in schools, we must see race, name race and talk about race. Racism lives in individuals, but it also lives and breathes in educational structures and systems that have been in place — and unquestioned — for generations. It takes strong policies to challenge those structures, to hold us all accountable for righting years of wrongs.
Consider America’s current reality: A recent study found that boys of color born into poverty have only an 8 percent chance of becoming affluent or upper-middle-class adults, compared to 26 percent of white boys born poor. In fact, the research found, 21 percent of boys of color born into poverty are incarcerated by the time they are adults.
Affluent boys of color don’t fare much better: 41 percent of black boys born into wealth are living close to or below the poverty line 30 years later, compared to 20 percent of white boys born to wealthy families. (To look at it another way, 30 percent of white boys remain wealthy, while only 17 percent of black boys do).
This same study also found that when black men grow up in communities where white people have less implicit racial bias and explicit racial animus, they have higher incomes and are less likely to be incarcerated.
These stark economic discrepancies are about racism, pure and simple. That certainly seemed clear to the researchers, as they recommended that policymakers implement efforts to reduce racial bias and facilitate greater interaction across racial groups.
In terms of education policy, that means integrating schools, which, research has found, can help narrow achievement gaps between white students and students of color. It means supporting educators in identifying, talking about and addressing racial bias. The racial disparities in our schools are extreme: Black students are 12 percentage points, and Hispanic students 9 percentage points, less likely than their white peers to graduate from high school in four years. Black students are nearly four times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension — and that’s not because black boys are inherently worse-behaved than white boys, research shows.
To close these gaps, we must do the hard work of reflecting on and sharing our own stories and experiences with race and culture, examining a range of data in our school systems across all subgroups, and asking one another what might be at the root of the racial discrepancies in graduation rates, student achievement and school discipline incidents. And then we must develop policies and practices that explicitly address these inequities.
The education system has a critical role to play in addressing systemic racism. Some school systems create cultures of fear and insurmountable hurdles that, under the guise of zero tolerance, promote environments of punishment and retribution that breed contempt, boredom and withdrawal. These schools, devoid of nurturing adults who reflect on and talk about racial bias, become places that students run from. I was almost one of those students, if not for a teacher who believed in me, saw me for who I am and encouraged me.
We need policies that paint clear pictures of the challenges we face and offer guidance for tackling those challenges. The Obama administration’s guidance on school discipline, for example, called educators to action. It held up the mirror for all to see the failures that school systems were experiencing with young black men and how racial bias was contributing to this cycle of failure. It called for public transparency and acknowledgment of the stark data, and it required that every school system address the existing inequities. And districts began to respond.
The progress that some courageous district leaders have made to address racial inequities in their schools and systems is at great risk with colorblind policies. We must urge Congress and the president to strengthen policies that guide educators in how to create welcoming school environments that foster a sense of pride and self-worth for every student, regardless of race, color or national origin.
The future of too many young people, and of our own country, is at stake.
Nancy Gutiérrez is the president and CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy.