Voices in Education

Chasing Ghosts: Racism and US Education
This blog post is part of the 2019 University Press Week #ReadThinkAct Blog Tour. In it, Tracey Benson, co-author of the new book Unconscious Bias in Schools, responds to the prompt, "How to speak up and speak out." To view other contributions to the blog tour, visit the Association of University Presses website here.

“I am not sure we can publish this,” said the white male statistician on our research team. I tried to hide my disdain for his sentiments by taking a long sip of my mocha lite, almond milk cappuccino, while peering back at him through the screen of our Google Hangout. The “this” that he so easily dismissed was an article we had been working on about the cumulative negative effect of teacher assignment choices in K–8 schools for black and brown students. The third member of our team, a first-year international graduate student from Turkey, sat still, peering back at us through her laptop, seemingly immune from understanding the gravity of his statement. I tried unsuccessfully to intervene before he continued, as he asked what so many white educators ask when chasing ghosts about race in the United States: “Can we be sure this is even happening?”

Twelve hours before his words bespoke a silence lived by white America, an African American friend of mine, a New York City corporate lawyer, had been ambushed by her daughter’s private middle school. Just days before her parent-teacher conference, she had run into one of her daughter’s teacher’s in the car line after school. With a smile and a kind gesture, the teacher invited my friend in for a parent-teacher conference, just to “check in.” However, when she showed up for the friendly meeting—not aware in the slightest that this meeting would be better suited for two parents—not one, but three members of the school staff were waiting to tell her all about the mountain of evidence they had collected about how her African American daughter was “spacey” and needed to be tested for a learning disability.

As an African American parent of an African American high school boy, and as a former teacher and high school principal, I’ve borne witness to how unyielding and relentless racism steals the souls of black and brown students in US schools. These experiences, these ghosts—so often unresearched, unrecognized, unvalidated—rob students’ will to persevere and sap their very humanity and dignity. Passing ghosts like a high school assistant principal threatening my son with arrest for horseplay in the hallway, or his seventh grade teacher intimidating him into reporting a racist incident even though he just wanted to let it go, or my friend being confronted by a team of teachers deciding for her that her black daughter should be tested for a learning disability. “Can we be sure this is happening at all?”

Yes, this is happening, not only today, but tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. The barrage of racism absorbed by our vulnerable black and brown students at the hands of our educational system is astounding. However, research focusing on validating their daily, monthly, and yearly lived experiences in schools is abysmal. Researchers are more interested in building strawmen about the “achievement gap” that blame students, families, and communities for school failures and preserve the sainthood of racist educators at the expense of the very lives of “those kids.” Trauma Informed Practices, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, and Restorative Justice are the bricks-and-mortar of the necropolis that hold the souls of black and brown students. These popular practices are the gargoyles that attempt to blind us from seeing the racism embedded in the foundations of American education.

What if these ghosts were real, studied, and revealed? How do we bring W.E.B. Dubois’s “double-consciousness” of living as both an American and an American of color into one consciousness that all Americans benefit from understanding? The ghosts we chase in research are the daily experiences of black and brown students throughout the United States. So, the question is not “How can we be sure this is happening at all?” but “How do we study what is happening?”; burning strawmen, catching ghosts, and excising our demons.

My recently released co-authored book, Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism, pulls the curtain back and sheds light on our demons who hide in the dark. Centuries of legalized racism and oppression of people of color in our society continue to permeate every institution in the United States. People of color—specifically African Americans, Latinos, and Southeast Asians—have less access to quality healthcare, sustainable employment, and, yes, high-quality schooling. And even when students from these populations attend “high-quality” (which is a proxy for predominantly white, middle- to upper-class) schools, the racism in the curriculum, procedures, and the very people we’ve entrusted as educators scratch and claw at our children’s very humanity.

Unconscious Bias in Schools does not provide all of the answers to our deep, dark history of racism in the US. What it does do is trouble the waters and challenge narratives that claim pervasive racism in our schools can be solved with school choice, extended school days, and high-stakes testing. Without addressing the racism embedded in everything we know to be schooling, we are doomed to continue to mis-educate our students of color.

About the Author: Tracey A. Benson is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and a former public school teacher, middle school assistant principal, and high school principal. He is co-author with Sarah E. Fiarman of Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism (Harvard Education Press, 2019).