Why Schools Are Still Struggling to Make Black Lives Matter

Inspired by activism in Seattle, educators nationwide are challenging racial inequality in public schools.
Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School, in Seattle. (Photo: Jesse Hagopian/Facebook)
Nov 2, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

The event raised eyebrows nationwide: Reacting to threats and vandalism at one local school after it announced educators would wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts, some 2,000 Seattle teachers and administrators across the city put on the shirts in a show of solidarity.

Now, the Emerald City’s policy makers are being challenged to prove that black lives matter in the classroom as much as they do on the street.

“The rally is just the beginning of a much broader struggle to make Black Lives Matter in school,” Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at the city’s Garfield High School, who helped organize the protest, told EdJustice in an interview Monday.

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“The nature of the system is deeply segregated in Seattle: Black students are suspended at four times the rate as white students for the same infractions. The advanced classes are overwhelmingly white,” he said. “It’s going to take concerted effort by parents, students, and educators together to challenge those systems.”

Seattle isn’t the only district that has stark racial inequities in its public education system. Some six decades after the Supreme Court officially ended school segregation, study after study has shown that across the country, there’s a wide gap between what poor, minority students have access to and what their more affluent white peers receive—from access to resources like up-to-date computers to the quality of the educators who are teaching them.

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That’s why the broader Movement for Black Lives, which has addressed racism on college campuses and demanded a more inclusive curriculum, included educational parity at the K–12 level in the national agenda it announced this summer.

“We know not all children’s needs are being met,” José Luis Vilson, a New York City–based math educator, writer, and activist, told TakePart. Despite “strong messages” about education reform at the national level and assurances that every child deserves a good education, he said, inequities like a shortage of guidance counselors and Advanced Placement classes in majority-minority schools undercut that message.

“That’s the critical piece about this work—we’re not doing enough ‘naming’ in education,” Vilson said, referring to specific problems that minority students face that tend to fall outside broad education policies.

“We have to talk about what it means to be a black child in this situation, what it means to be a Latino child in this situation,” Vilson said. “That’s what I mean by naming. We aren’t naming enough.”

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There’s little doubt that when it comes to providing a quality education for every child, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction, and minority children are at risk of being left behind.

In recent years, a series of studies has revealed that, propelled by housing trends and income inequality, an alarming number of schools are more likely to be separate and unequal. Compared with white students, black and Latino children are more likely to attend schools with crumbling, outdated buildings, and they typically encounter a strong police presence and unequal disciplinary rates—key components in the school-to-prison pipeline.

At the same time, studies show that balanced integration in a school with quality facilities and adequate funding can help raise students’ awareness of racial and economic inequality. Meanwhile, integrated schools benefit white students too, helping them acquire the skills they’ll need to navigate an increasingly diverse world.

Kimberly Quick, an education specialist at the think tank The Century Foundation, says the Black Lives Matter protest at the Seattle school is a good place to start but needs to be part of a “sustained” effort to level the playing field among white and minority students.

“It is increasingly difficult to ignore the reality of racial animus, discrimination, and implicit bias in our school systems and beyond,” Quick wrote in an email to TakePart. Given the social climate, she wrote, the push for parity must happen with all deliberate speed.

“The events of the past year—from thinly veiled racism in political rhetoric, to the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police—compel us to contend with the ways in which people of color are often less safe and less valued than white people,” wrote Quick.

Russell Skiba, an Indiana University professor of education who specializes in racial inequity, agrees. He said Hagopian, the Seattle teacher who organized the rally, has recognized that the issue “goes well beyond sincerity to dedication” and must involve actual change, which usually doesn’t happen without a fight.

“Only time can tell whether any effort is sustained—but the fact that this involves the entire teaching staff of a school suggests that it will be institutionalized,” Skiba said. “Any systemic change is difficult and fraught with obstacles both within and without—but the fact that you see [unified protests] on the part of an entire teaching staff increases the chances of overcoming those obstacles.”

Vilson, Quick, and Skiba all say that only time will tell whether the Black Lives Matter–inspired movement to ensure black and Latino kids get the same education as their white peers will succeed, but it has to start somewhere. Vilson said it’s an uphill battle, but “this movement is only in its infancy.”

“At least we have a lot of thoughtful people who’ve said, ‘Hey, this is what it should look like,’ ” Vilson said, “and that’s a very important part of this work.”