The Saratoga Springs Board of Education has adopted something called the “Equity, Inclusivity, and Diversity in Education Administrative Regulation.” It was passed unanimously by the currently serving Board members. The newly elected board members will not be seated until July.
According to the document (identified as 0105-R)
The following outlines the ongoing processes for achieving educational equity, the elimination of barriers and biases, particularly institutionalized racism and cultural biases, and the obstacles that limit a student’s chance to graduate high school prepared for college, for a career, and for life.0105-R
While the document’s overarching goal is to identify and mitigate barriers that undermine success for all marginalized groups of students in the school district, the most pronounced barrier focused on is racism.
I respect and admire the commitment of the authors of this piece who care deeply about the pernicious problem of discrimination against people of color. Regrettably, I am concerned, though, that this regulation has major flaws that if not addressed will, in all likelihood, undermine its success.
The Thorny Issue Of What Constitutes Racism
Most people, particularly people in as heterogeneous and affluent a community as Saratoga Springs, will agree that racism is to be condemned. The extension of this is that they would want the public institutions they support to oppose policies that discriminate against people of color.
The problem is that agreeing on what terms such as “racism” mean is the subject of considerable controversy. For example, this country is deeply divided over whether our past President, Donald Trump, along with his policies are racist.
So the first problem facing the implementation of an equity plan is whether it is possible to find a definition of racism that constitutes a consensus in our community.
The adopted school district regulation begins with a glossary of terms. The following is the definition they give of the term “antiracist”.
A conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do.A. Definitions
The assumption in the excerpt above is that white people are, by default, racists and only through individuals consciously assessing decisions they make daily can we ferret out our racism as whites.
I am not sure whether the authors of this regulation appreciate the gravity of this presumption and its implications.
It means that in effect, teachers would be responsible, as a first stage, to convince their students that they are racists. According to this pedagogy, only after one is aware of their racist prejudices, can one navigate the thorny road to anti-racism.
Generally speaking, the role of teachers is not to shape the thinking of their students but to promote the ability of students to think critically and independently about the world around them. The teachers I know personally are careful to avoid anything that appears to be proselytizing.
However laudatory the goal of reshaping the consciousness of white students so that they master their racism may be, it represents a fundamental break with the traditional role of a teacher.
As someone who believes that racism is real and who believes that its ongoing existence has been and is a curse on America, I believe that the approach being advocated here is not the way forward.
Fear and Loathing in a Fractured Nation
I recently posted an analysis of a book, Letting Go of Literary Whiteness, referenced by the authors of this regulation in a presentation at a School Board meeting in May. Much of the content of this book appears to have been foundational in the crafting of the regulation.
It seems to me quite apparent that many white parents in the school district will not share the assumption that they and/or their children are inherently racists. The authors of this regulation seem not to have seen the need to address this potential response nor thought about how to respond to the conclusion that some will draw that this approach can easily be construed to be a form of indoctrination.
It would have been helpful if the authors of the regulation had considered this kind of response and seen the need to preemptively address it in order to maximize community support.
I am thinking also how hard it will be for a teacher to try to thread their way through what I see as a minefield. The authors of Letting Go of Literary Whiteness concede the potential for problems when engaging students in examining their internal racism.
It is important to note that many students have even more dramatic emotional responses than Miranda to antiracism work. Although these are expected reactions to developing racial consciousness, it is also important that White students not remain in a state of guilt or shame, but stay engaged despite discomfort to develop a healthier, more productive identity as an ally or accomplice.Letting Go Literary Whiteness
Let’s face it, middle school and high school students already often suffer from anxiety as they try to discover who they are. Some of these students will experience great stress at the idea that they are racists who share responsibility for the oppression of people of color.
It has to be assumed that many will return home from school and share their anxieties with their parents. I do not think it an exaggeration to think that some of these moments will be highly emotional.
While some parents may see this an an opportunity to explore further with their children the issues of racism, many will be outraged that their children are suffering and will turn that anger on the schools.
It seems to this blogger that rather than moving us forward in the struggle against racism, this will simply bring the culture wars to our school system. Rather than creating a community environment that will foster constructive dialogue about racism and how to address it we will be burdened by more ugliness as factions form that challenge the each other’s morality .
Teachers Are Not Therapists
Changing consciousness is therapy and not teaching. Students will be asked to individually consider their self awareness of their racism. They will be asked to modify their behavior in order to address their racism. I discuss at length in an earlier post that teachers do not have the skill set for doing this and that the structure of the school day and its activities are not suitable for this even if one considers this approach to be conceptually valid.
There is of course the issue also that therapy only works when people are committed to change. Political re-education, which in effect this is, has a long and dubious history of failure. I expect that there will be students who will resist participating in the self analysis of their racism.
The other unclear question is who is going to teach this? Are social studies teachers going to do this? How about the sciences? Will any other disciplines take this on? Will there be special classes for this? None of this is discernable from this regulation.
In fact, it remains unclear whether in fact this will even be done. Teachers are already pressed to prepare their students for the Regents exams. How would the school implement this program? What would keep some teachers from ignoring this either because they don’t believe in the program or because they do not want to suffer the anger that some parents will invariably direct at them?
What are the measurable goals that would be used to determine the level of success for this endeavor?
There Is A Role For Schools In The Pursuit of Equity
Time limits do not allow me in this blog to explore alternative ways for schools to combat racism. There most certainly is a need for school systems to think carefully about what role they can play in fostering equity. I applaud the dedication our school board has demonstrated in their work, but I encourage them to rethink how best to achieve this goal.