How a ‘national contagion of low-level racism’ plays out in our classrooms

Low-level racism is a national contagion, no matter how politely expressed these attitudes and behaviors may be. However, even the mildly afflicted are capable of causing catastrophes when they are police, school teachers, and public officials. Although it is likely true that only a very small faction of Americans are virulent racists, when those in power act on bland impulses rooted in ignorance or unfamiliarity, situations can rapidly metastasize into life-threatening or life-changing disasters.

We see this damage all around—mostly notably in a seemingly endless series of fatal confrontations between unarmed African-Americans and heavily armed police; racism leads to a great many problems, but these problems are obviously magnified when a gun and a badge are added to the equation.

A similarly destructive dynamic plays itself out daily in our nation’s classrooms because of the fears, insecurities, and sometimes plain ignorance of teachers and administrators who simply cannot seem to understand that students of color require exactly the same levels of respect, patience, and academic challenge as every other student.

Have you ever heard teachers speak brusquely to an African-American student because they felt it was necessary to demonstrate their authority—by being rude?

Rebellion and remediation

Are minor episodes of adolescent rebellion by black students ever escalated because a teacher provokes an unnecessary confrontation rather than demonstrating the least bit of understanding?

Why are African-American students disproportionately represented in remedial writing, reading, and math classes where they are babysat with worksheets and television instead of being taught what they need in order to return to grade-level classes with their peers?

How many African-American students get stuck in the flypaper of special education classes because of “behavior” issues—and never catch up with their classmates academically and socially?

So what is the most visible recent reaction to the race relation problems of our nation? It is, sadly enough, yet more separation based on race.

Whether this new segregation is voluntary or involuntary, it is eating away at the fabric of our nation and creating more political and social volatility than we have seen since the 1960s because it produces individuals who are less and less able to thrive in a heterogeneous nation such as ours.

Voluntary segregation, often done in the hopes it will produce either pride or protection, is a disastrously retrograde practice in all its variations. Whether we are talking about the creation of black-only dormitories on college campuses, public schools pushing the recruitment of black teachers to teach their black students, or any of the many other educational initiatives now washing through our progressive schools and colleges—all of which are predicated on the belief that exclusionary racial policies are somehow a benefit because they provide a less stressful or more supportive environment for students of color—I shudder when I consider the long-term implications of these practices for our educational systems and our nation.

The premise of one of the most important Supreme Court decisions of the past century, Brown v. Board of Education, was that separate cannot—by its very nature—ever be equal, and our nation has a clear obligation to strike down any policy that promotes separation based on race. The results have obviously not been all that we hoped they could—or should—be, but I challenge anyone to argue that they would willingly trade the world of 1954 for what we have today.

Involuntary segregation is yet another problem bedeviling both our schools and our country. The residential re-segregation that has taken place over the past couple of decades due to the stunning growth of income inequality in our nation is a slap in the face to the spirit of the Brown decision, leading to the creation of more and more predominately minority neighborhoods that make many of our public schools now look like throwbacks to a Jim Crow era that we thought had been left behind a long time ago.

We need to do everything in our power to push back against this pernicious segregation of our nation—and not just shrug our shoulders because it seems a natural outcome of the benign realities of the real estate market. Housing segregation should be front and center of every discussion about providing a high-quality public education to every child in America—and improving the quality of our daily lives.


This is an excerpt of a post that originally ran on Andrew Wilk’s blog.

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Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk

Andrew teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Andrew has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He is the dad of two grown children, who attended public schools in Urbana.

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