Voices in Education

Can Educators Really Be Anti-Racist Without Racial Literacy?
Since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, there has been an increased focus to promote anti-racist pedagogy, curriculum, and professional development for K–12 teachers. In retaliation to this growing analysis of racism in schools, there has also been an active countermovement to suppress discourse about race and racism, including the recent attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT) across the US and UK. Despite the investment and growth in how to be anti-racist, however, many teachers and school administrators have still felt thoroughly unprepared to confront this racially charged backlash. But why?

Harvard law professor Lani Guinier 5 argues there are serious flaws in the general public’s understanding of racism in the US, which she describes as racial liberalism—where the race problem is viewed as “a psychological and interpersonal challenge rather than a structural problem rooted in our economic and political system” (p. 100). When we define racism as rooted in people, interactions, and moments, as we often do within schools, despite any amount of remediation, the problem will persist because we are in affect addressing the symptoms not the disease 5. Guinier instead points us to racial literacy, calling for our collective capacity to “decipher the durable racial grammar that structures racialized hierarchies and frames the narrative of our republic” (p. 100) meaning, we need an understanding how racism lives institutionally and that our actions to address it must be substantive, structural, and sustained.

As we see with the suppression of CRT in schools in states such as South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Iowa, Idaho, and others, there are many government leaders, parents, and educators who fear an analysis of structural racism, who have called it “propaganda,” “indoctrination,” and even “child abuse.” This opposition to understanding US history and the legacies of racism in our system, as well as an ineffectiveness to predict and prevent this resistance, is evidence of the gaping hole in our collective racial literacy. But to serve our increasingly diverse public school students, educational stakeholders need racial literacy. They must be trained and supported to identify, discuss, and disrupt structural racism. Here, I offer three suggestions that can help us move from racial liberalism to racial literacy:

1. Discussions of racism in schools must be historicized.
At its inception, school was designed to forcibly assimilate minoritized students to the history, language, and ways of being of dominant communities. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, boarding schools and Americanization schools were created to strip Indigenous and Mexican American children of their language and culture 4. Segregation imposed limited resources, unsanitary conditions, and Eurocentric curriculum on Black 2, Native Hawaiian 3, and Asian American children 8. And although these structures have served as the foundation for many of the biases and inequities we see in schools today, including curriculum, tracking, district boundaries, and school funding, much of our analysis explores the current context without exploring its roots. We must begin to historicize racial and educational inequity by always asking the question, “how did we get here?”

2. Racism should be addressed through sustained and systemic approaches.
Racism has been defined as the creation or maintenance of a racial hierarchy, supported through institutionalized power 9, and it is embedded in US institutions, including the education system. If racism is systemic, the work of disrupting racism in schools must extend beyond reacting to instances of racism to thoughtful, vigilant, and sustained practices. This can only be achieved through deep study of how structures, policies, and practices replicate racial inequity and harm. Additionally, there must be room in this movement for people of Color to exist beyond being anti-racist, where they do not just live in opposition, but rather  thrive, dream, experience joy, and feel whole.

3. We must disrupt complacency with a predominantly white teaching and administrator workforce.
While more than half of students enrolled in US public schools today are students of Color, a rate that is rapidly growing, almost 80% of the teaching force remains white, a growth of just 5% over the last decade 7. In addition to the current teaching force, 70% of students enrolled in teacher education programs are white 1, and 84% of deans, 87% of adjunct instructors, and 91% of tenured/tenure track instructors in teacher education programs are also white 6. Despite a well-established body of research on the benefits of a diverse teaching force: a) for the academic growth and engagement of students of Color, and b) for their potential in culturally sustaining education, teacher education programs and schools continue to produce an overwhelmingly white teaching and administrative workforce. Schools, districts, and teacher education programs must look at carefully at their hiring practices that replicate current patterns. And they must also consider not just the demographics of educators, but their ideological commitments to an asset framing of communities of Color, and their racial literacies.

It’s doubtful that we will end racism in our lifetime but as we move to a place of racial literacy, we must continue to interrogate: how well do we have the skills to identify, historicize, and address racism as it comes up? Are we creating policies and practices that mitigate its impact in lasting ways? What is blocking our growth and responsiveness? And equally important to challenging racism, are we striving for and creating spaces where teachers of Color, students of Color, and their families can thrive?


1 AACTE (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education). (2019). Education Students and Diversity: A National Portrait.

2 Bell, D. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. Oxford University Press.

3 Benham, M. K., & Heck, R. H. (1994). Political Culture and Policy in a State-Controlled Educational System: The Case of Educational Politics in Hawaii. Educational Administration Quarterly, 30(4), 419-50.

4 Spring, J. (2004). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States. (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

5 Guinier, L. (2004). From racial liberalism to racial literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the interest-divergence dilemma. Journal of American History, 91(1), 92-118.

6 King & Hampel (2018). Colleges of education: A national portrait. AACTE.

7 National Center for Education Statistics (2018). Characteristics of public school teachers.
Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/clr

8 Wollenberg, C. M. (2014). “Yellow Peril” in the schools (I and II). In The Asian American Educational Experience (pp. 23-49). Routledge.

9 Solórzano, D., Allen, W. R., & Carroll, G. (2002). Keeping race in place: Racial microaggressions and campus racial climate at the University of California, Berkeley. Chicano-Latino L. Rev., 23, 15.

About the Author: Rita Kohli is an associate professor of teaching and teacher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). She is the author of Teachers of Color: Resisting Racism and Reclaiming Education (Harvard Education Press, 2021).