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School Leaders Play a Huge Role in Race Relations

In the 2016 "Disrupting Inequity" edition of Educational Leadership, teacher, consultant and author Rick Wormeli wrote, "Vitriol and violence connected to race are running high. K-12 classrooms are where we must start to build an equitable, nonracist society." Despite the hope of equality for all created during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the destructive nature of racism still disrupts and poisons our classrooms.

What Keeps Racism Alive and Active?

Jason Marsh, founding editor-in-chief of Greater Good, says that we are not necessarily born racist. He does, however, believe we are predisposed to being afraid of something different. Because of this fear, people create barriers, isolate themselves and fail to pursue understanding of those who are different.

This isolation in our communities leads to heightened racial tension which continues the cycle of isolation. According to psychologist Dr. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, if the system in which you live promotes feelings of superiority or hate for those living in communities that are different, you will most likely adopt those feelings.

The theories and beliefs about differences that cause racist feelings and behavior are not stagnant. Social media provides a wide audience for spreading agendas about race relations and keeps those with similar views on race connected, even if they aren't close geographically. This virtual community gives people with strong negative feelings about racial differences a feeling of belonging and empowerment.

With increased numbers of those spreading racial hatred comes the opportunity for political leaders with the same agenda to succeed. Even one racist voice at the local, state or federal level can weaken the strides made in the battle for racial equality and justice.

In addition to the rising spread of racial tension is the ongoing discussion and controversy over individual rights of speech and expression. From schools all the way to the federal court systems, the distinction between accusations of racial inequity and claims of personal rights has become blurred and difficult to identify.

Counteracting Racism in Schools

The position that "we are all the same" has been adopted by schools and organizations as an attempt to bring equality in education and services to every student. Although the concept of being color-blind to race seems to be a worthy approach to bringing up non-racist children, we cannot ignore differences. In fact, we should celebrate them.

As a school leader or administrator, you will be the one primarily responsible for leading the charge for equality and peaceful race relations. There are several steps you can take to begin reversing the affects of racism in your schools and classrooms.

Conversations - Whether at the district or building level, encourage your leaders, faculty and students to approach interactions with each other in a positive way:

  • Assume that everyone is doing the best they can.
  • Forgive each other, and yourself, when you make mistakes or misspeak.
  • Do not preach your own agenda.
  • When you disagree, do not walk away. Make an attempt to understand the other person's viewpoint.
  • Do not make generalizations or blame a whole group for the actions of one or two.
  • Admit your mistakes.

Policies, Procedures and Expectations - Administrators must create policies for the district and schools that reflect an intolerance for racist behavior.

  • Academic expectations may be modified only because of individual student needs or requirements and never because of assumptions based on race.
  • Response to behavior must be even-handed. Director of New York YWCA Danielle Moss Lee reported these findings from a U. S. Department of Education study: "In one school district, there were 149 suspensions and expulsions for every 100 black students compared with 32 for every 100 white students."
  • Take the time to listen to complaints and determine the correct response with respect to both expected civility and individual rights. In the recent NPR article, Fighting Hate in Schools, Superintendent Marguerite Rizzi explains that her district takes both misconduct and student privacy very seriously.

    "It is a complicated balance," Rizzi says. "But I do have to step in and make sure that everyone's rights are protected, even a person who has engaged in behavior for which they are punished. There are still rights that they have."

Leadership - Whether leading a district or school with a diverse population or relatively few minority students, it is the school leaders' responsibility to create a safe and equitable environment for all students. There are several ways in which you can make a difference for your school and community.

  • Seek out and hire building administrators and teachers of color.
  • Model acceptance and interest, and address unacceptable behavior by adults and children.
  • Provide time and finances for training. According to Gary Orfield, Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, "Teachers must have the tools to understand and relate to students and parents from all backgrounds and to help children understand the very diverse and changing society they will live in."
  • Be vigilant about self-reflection. Ask yourself the hard questions about prejudices and your own behaviors and choices.

Many politicians, organizations and schools strive to build a society without racial prejudice. At times, the issue of race is compounded by issues of poverty, family crisis and community climate.

Many educators and leaders have formed clear and compassionate messages, sometimes met with applause and sometimes falling on deaf ears. But administrators, charged with the education of students of all races and backgrounds, cannot give up on this important mission. The stakes are high and the opposition is strong.

Learn more about the Mississippi College online Master of Education in Educational Leadership program.


Sources:

Educational Leadership: Let's Talk About Racism in Schools

ParentMap: Are We Born Racist? The Talk You Must Have With Your Children

HuffPost: A Psychologist's Explanation of Why Racism Persists in America

National Education Association: Race and Schools: The Need for Action

Edutopia: Creating an Anti-Racist Classroom

nprEd: Fighting Hate in Schools

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