Finding the courage to be specific about systemic racism in education

Photo by Clay Banks

By Matthew R. Kay

The vicious homicide of George Floyd in Minneapolis opened up wounds that too many of us have downplayed for centuries. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has removed the distractions that tend to push Americans’ attention away from our native racial atrocities, putting #BlackLivesMatter on everything from ESPN to Sesame Street. We cannot escape the issue this time. Every aspect of our lives seems to have conspired to make us sit down and measure, for once, our commitment to racial justice.

It has been fascinating for me to see this reckoning play out in my Twitter feed. Specifically, I have been encouraged to see so many of my fellow educators acknowledge and engage with issues of race and racism in K-12 education. While our professional lives may only have a tangential relationship with police brutality, more of us are apparently beginning to recognize racism’s real impact within our own sphere. I am sure that friends that work in housing, or healthcare, or the business world are going through a similar process—but it has been gratifying and interesting to see it take hold in a field that deals most closely with the development of young people.

Yet I also wonder how deep this reckoning will go. When I scroll through my feed, one phrase continually pops out—one that until fairly recently seemed fringe in casual conversation: Systemic Racism. Tweet after tweet rightfully highlights this issue, yet often in a manner that seems, at least to me, quite proud of itself for adding the adjective. Adding the word “systemic” seems to suggest that the tweet’s author gets something about racism that a cartoonishly ignorant newbie (or venomous racist) does not. And as I increasingly see the term being brandished by otherwise politically tepid brands, government agencies, and pro sports leagues (and even supported by the Washington Redskins!), I’ve realized that the vagueness of the “systemic” adjective has itself become a problem. The term has become a euphemism or cloak that provides shelter until a storm of activism blows over and racist ideas return to their usual prominence.

Another realization flows from this first one—that we educators must resist this comfortable vagueness. To this end, we should follow any mention of “systemic racism” by calling attention to a specific racist system we believe to be sabotaging our students. This is hard work, no doubt. The more specific the conversation gets, the more we move from the comfort of a crowd to the complexity of a commitment to action. We also make ourselves vulnerable to the messiness of change. If we are school board members, we might risk alienating the constituents that voted for us. If we are district-level officials, we risk upending accepted policies and perplexing building administrators. If we are administrators, we risk changing our own directives and frustrating our teachers. If we are teachers, we risk letting go of established practices and confusing students and parents. And on and on. There is, especially in this national moment, negligible risk in trashing “systemic racism” on social media. However, there is a sizable risk in taking the step to throw even one specific racist system in the garbage where it belongs.

There is no shortage of examples of specific racist systems in education. But I’ll highlight perhaps the most controversial: high-stakes standardized testing. I am excited to see so many educators putting Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be an Antiracist (Random House, 2019) on their reading lists. If they do read the book, however, these colleagues will not get far before they encounter a profound challenge from Kendi to the widely accepted practice of standardized testing:

The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies. We degrade Black minds every time we speak of an ‘academic achievement gap’ based on these numbers. (101)

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be an Antiracist

Kendi then forces us to question our closely held assumptions and policy prescriptions around measuring intelligence:

 What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from— and not inferior to — the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we realized the best way to ensure an effective educational system is not by standardizing curricula and tests but by standardizing the opportunities available to all students? (103)

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be an Antiracist

This should be enough for educators to call out the problem, even if we ignore—as we certainly should not—the historical connections between standardized testing and eugenics and other sorting practices that we now collectively consider barbaric. Simply put, true commitment to antiracism does not play nicely with a reliance on high-stakes standardized testing. If we educators lack the moral courage to challenge this specific system’s inherent racism, we will never be up to the challenge of creating genuine equity in education.

There are so many more specific systems to name, some as herculean as district funding, some as simple as rethinking school dress codes and natural hair bans. I was so encouraged to see Jennifer Orr, an admired teaching colleague, write about her own reflections on naming specific systems. If she, and we, have the courage to name distinct racist systems that infect our profession—if we can see the problem with clear eyes—we can finally begin the hard work ahead. We can be worthy of what this historical moment is demanding of us.

Be specific. Be safe out there. I love you all.

About the author

Matthew R. Kay, a regular contributor to ASCD’s Educational Leadership, is a founding English teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018). Follow him on Twitter.