Educational Reform is Our Greatest Weapon in Dismantling Systemic Racism and Institutional Bias

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Like many of you, I continue to be saddened and horrified by the murders of Black and brown people whose lives were taken with impunity by police. George Floyd. Daunte Wright. Adam Toledo. Ma’Khia Bryant. Anthony Brown. Mario Arenales González. These are only a few of the more recent names. It’s hard not to fall into helplessness and hopelessness. But antiracist scholar Dr. Derald Wing Sue reminds us that these can’t be excuses for inaction. Action can take many forms, but as an educator I believe educational reform continues to be one of our greatest weapons to dismantle systemic racism toward a more equitable world.

Let’s start by defining systemic racism. Cornelius Minor, author of We Got This. Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, says that racism consists of the “rules, policies, procedures, practices, and customs that govern a place and lead to consistently unequal outcomes for specific subsets of people.” If you were raised in this country, then you have been racially and socially conditioned into the belief, practices, and norms of the dominant culture. And unless you have been continually working on becoming self-aware and unlearning these practices and beliefs, then the ways whiteness seeps into every facet of society’s structures, systems, and institutions remain imperceptible to you.

For years I used to take a preferred path on my drive home from the school where I worked, choosing to turn at one of the feeder streets of a Y-intersection. One day, as I was making the same old turn, my friend who was in the car with me shouted for me to stop. When I looked at her quizzically, she pointed to a No Left Turn sign. I was stunned: How was it possible I had never seen that sign? I later realized that my driving schema included the erroneous belief that, if given a choice, drivers must always choose the right street (versus left) regardless of any truths (or signs!) to the contrary; the choice I had been making fit with my conditioning as a driver.

Though on a much larger scale, systemic racism operates in a similar way in that it remains hidden unless one is actively working to recognize it. However, unlike the above analogy, systemic racism has tragic consequences for Black and brown communities. For example, recent statistics tell us that “Black and Latinx people make up only 13 and 18 percent of the U.S. population respectively, but represented more than 50% of the country’s Covid-19 hospitalizations at its peak.Please reread that fact and let it sink in. And PNAS research shows the disproportionate effects police violence has on Black communities: “Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police.” Also, the authors state that “Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men,” yet Black men only make up approximately 6.5% of the population.

As we know, systemic racism, as unequal and unjust outcomes for a specific subset of people, extends beyond healthcare and law enforcement, penetrating all institutions in society. Because of this, we must not leave the teaching and learning of implicit bias, structural racialization, and institutional racism to chance. Unfortunately, understanding and untangling American racism and the application of critical race theory in schools has engendered strong resistance. For example, Republicans in Tennessee want to withhold funding from schools that teach systemic racism. They call those who teach critical race theory “hucksters, charlatans and useful idiots peddling identity politics.” But Tennessee is not alone. Arkansas, Iowa and Mississippi are deciding how (read: if) race and enslavement are taught. “In Oklahoma, one bill would allow teachers to be fired for teaching that the U.S. is fundamentally racist, or other topics deemed divisive.” Like salmon swimming upstream, equity-minded teachers are working against currents that are unsustainable and impossible to shoulder alone. It shouldn’t be so.

Though states contain standards on culturally responsive teaching competencies, we need to ensure that these include recognizing and redressing systemic and institutional bias. In this way all teachers would engage collaboratively in equity work free from resistance and intimidation. Some states are leading the way in this work: Alabama, Washington, and Minnesota contain standards that expect teachers to counter institutional biases that impact their practices in the classroom; however, Alabama is one of the few states whose standards specifically call on teachers to empower learners to analyze and critique institutional bias. Ironically, most states’ culturally responsive teaching competencies, as a powerful tool toward disrupting inequitable systems, policies, and practices through education, omit teaching this very thing.

We are all part of the solution as there is no such thing as neutrality: We are either working actively against societal injustice, or we are complicit with the systems, practices, and beliefs that keep it in place. Cornelius Minor states, “The hard part of knowing that oppression lives in systems too is understanding that systems don’t change just because we identify them; they change because we disrupt them.” One way to start is by becoming knowledgeable of the expectations for culturally responsive teaching competencies in your respective state, noting strengths and weaknesses, and then advocating for change as a collective. If you are a leader in your school district, prioritize this work with your staff and colleagues. As concerned parents and community members, demand multicultural curricula that center the voices and perspectives of BIPOC. It’s critical that we all work toward educational reform, particularly those of us who have long enjoyed unearned cross-generational advantage and privilege from deeply rooted structural and systemic inequities and institutional biases.

Teacher, Staff Developer, Parent. "What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want it?" Toni Morrison