Recently, there has been heightened attention paid to issues of equity in education, and closing what is commonly referred to as the “achievement gap.” Most recently Susan Du wrote an article for the City Pages which illustrates the fundamental failure of this discourse. The article examines the current tensions and conflicts arising from Saint Paul Public School’s attempt at achieving racial equity, specifically the new suspension policy. The article relies on racist norms, while centering the feelings and intentions of white educators, blaming a culture of dysfunction for the problems plaguing the school district.
How Do You Know It’s About Race?
Let’s get the most basic element out of the way: this is entirely about race. As is the modus operandi of racism in the 21st century, explicitly racist language is avoided, substituted for language that pathologizes culture. So, while the article never says “Black boys are the problem,” Du makes it clear that they are the subject of this particular examination. In fact, the very first lines of the article primes the racial imagination of readers: “A student walks down a Harding High hallway wearing headphones, chanting along to violent rap lyrics… The kid stares at [the teacher] with chilling intensity. He points at the older man, fingers bent in the shape of a gun, and shoots. Then moves on.” The reference to “violent rap lyrics” quite clearly invokes a Black male body. Even if the reader doesn’t picture a Black male walking down the hallway, Black men are still responsible given they are the overwhelming practioners of Hip-Hop music. Add to this problematic anecdote the insinuation of natural violence, and the atmosphere is perfectly set for Black bodies to be the main culprit in their own oppression.
Later on in the article, Du abandons the racial ambiguity all together and directly names the source of tension: “The district also shifted its thinking on discipline, influenced by data that showed black kids being suspended at alarming rates.” These suspension rates, and resulting education debt were the impetus for SPPS hiring Pacific Education Group to conduct racial equity training in the district. It is these trainings, more specifically the perceived failure of the trainings along with the suspension policy, that has lead to the tension in SPPS.
While Du is attempting to give voice to teachers, and express valid frustrations, she falls into the trap of thinking in binaries: “this or that” type of problem-solving. We are supposed to decide if the teachers are right in (largely) opposing the policies, or if the district is right in implementing these policies. Du also positions education in a vacuum free from the influences of the larger society. She attempts to fight for teachers by painting them as the victims of random acts of violence, “intrusions,” of students “barging in,” and even of death threats. The reader is supposed to feel sympathy for the teachers and contempt for the students causing this chaos. The language invokes the historical stereotypes of Black males as violent, lazy, and animalistic, in need of being trained and controlled. All the while the real concern that whiteness has an objective, tangible, and damaging effect on schools is trivialized.
Whose Culture is the Problem?
A reasonable response to Du’s article would be horror at the working conditions of teachers. These poor people, these award winning, kind-hearted people are being taken advantage of by the race-baiting superintendent, and victimized by students who need to be “tamed.” I have no doubt that these teachers are indeed kind, that they love their students, that they are “good” teachers, and that their intentions are well-meaning. Those things, though, don’t matter; they certainly don’t matter as much as what impact they are having on the life chances of their students. It is here that Du, and many, many others have missed the ball. Instead of suggesting that society and structures are the issue they have placed blame on the students, and by extension their families.
The articles states: “Harding isn’t much different than most big city schools. It squats in St. Paul’s most economically depressed zip code, where 83 percent of kids receive free or reduced-price lunch.” But this fact isn’t mentioned again throughout the article. Nowhere are the consequences of poverty, or of being a person of color in this society, discussed. In favor of discussing these issues Du relies on the default: cultural pathology. She leaves in place the overly simple equation that poor students, especially students of color, are inherently broken, in need of fixing, which is the job of the school. This analysis perpetuates the white savior mentality that pervades too many schools, and encourages defensiveness at the idea that whites may have some cultural work to do themselves before being effective in the classroom.
That is not to say there is no validity in the frustration of the teachers.
Too often in this discourse we are left choosing: teachers or students of color. As a teacher, for nearly a decade, I categorically reject this binary. In the article, a teacher, Becky McQueen, stated: “There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are…I think we’re telling these kids you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.” There is truth in the idea that school is a place to teach social norms, and that there should be accountability; however, the question that needs to be asked is, whose norms are being taught?
Too often the dominant society escapes examination, especially when we talk about schools. In a racist, classist, and sexist society it is more than understandable that marginalized students are not eager to buy in to their social training. Eric Brandt, another teacher cited in the article, begins to approach the necessary analysis, yet still defers to the idea that the job of students is to learn how to behave: “There is a sizable chunk of students that — for a variety of very complex reasons — don’t know how to behave in a decent, sociable way with other people in a school setting.” It would be better if Brandt focused more on those complex reasons and less on how students respond to those reasons.
So What Now?
It is foolhardy to believe that one year of racial equity training is going to result in significant gains, or that there would not be pushback to an attempt at creating equity. This work is hard, and painful, and takes a long time, but it is work that must be done. This can only happen with a strong critique of society, and an understanding of the structural causes of inequality. It will not happen by instituting harsher, more severe, more militant discipline. However, it’s a win-win situation, this approach actually builds the necessary foundation for real accountability. It is actually counterproductive to fight efforts for racial equity.
As a classroom teacher, who has been in some of the most difficult environments Minneapolis has to offer, I can tell you that the students are not the problem, nor are their families. They all come with a context, they are all products of our society. When you acknowledge this point you create the space for a respectful and healthy culture to develop in your classroom. This culture allows for true learning, dialogical learning, that values the wealth of knowledge and experiences the students bring with them everyday. If we are to take racial equity seriously we must take this cultural exchange seriously. This starts systemically, by districts requiring cultural study for their teachers, especially the Euro-American teachers. How to best facilitate the cultural evolution necessary should have been the focus of Susan Du’s article, not pitting teachers vs. students with the district as proxy.