Yesterday I mentioned that the Seattle School Board has committed itself to "eradicating institutional racism" in the School District. Unfortunately, details about the existence of institutional racism in the Seattle schools or how the Board plans to eradicate it have been scarce. So I e-mailed each of the members of the School Board and asked them to answer the following questions:
1) What is your definition of the term "institutional racism"?I thank School Board Member Brita Butler-Wall for sending a prompt and substantive reply to my questions. Her complete reply follows (indented) along with my inline commentary.
2) What are some specific examples of institutional racism in the Seattle schools?
3) What specific steps will be taken to eradicate institutional racism?
4) How will the School District measure its progress toward this goal?
I agree that there can be many different views of racism. The board and senior staff recently went through the training offered by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond and you may be interested in taking a look at their website to learn about their analysis.Done. The People's Institute principles include "Undoing Militarism : Militarism must be recognized as applied racism. It is the force that maintains the current imbalance of power. " and "Racism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change. Racism has been consciously and systematically erected, and it can be undone only if people understand what it is, where it comes from, how it functions, and why it is perpetuated." The website does not explain "what it is", let alone "where it comes from, how it functions, and why it is perpetuated". I guess you have to attend the entire expensive seminar before they even tell you why you're there.
These trainers come to Seattle every few months--I think they may be doing a training at the end of June, if you are interested in participating.I can only wonder how much of the School District's budget was spent sending the board members and senior staff to the People's Institute workshop and how much money and staff time they expect to spend sending teachers and administrators in the future.
Basically, I define institutional racism as the combination of race privilege plus power, meaning that the system is set up (inadvertently or not) to favor people of one race over another, and the mechanisms of the institution then reinforce with institutional power these discrepancies. We should bear in mind that 'race' is, according to many social scientists, a social construct which was created for a specific purpose. Racism and prejudice are thus two separate things. For example, a person could have very little prejudice toward people of a certain race, but still benefit from the unequal treatment provided by institutional racism. Even relatively poor white people enjoy some privileges they may be unaware of just because of their race.Two observations I've made elsewhere leave me skeptical about the claim that white people have special "race privilege" and "power" in Seattle schools. First, the highest performing ethnic groups in Seattle schools are not white, but East Asian. Second, only half of Seattle's white children attend Seattle public schools, the other half go to private schools. If the Seattle schools were a bastion of white privilege, why do so few white parents send their kids there?
Gary Howard has written extensively about 'white privilege' and you may find his work interesting.Here is one thing that Gary Howard has written: "our goal is neither to deify nor denigrate Whiteness, but to defuse its destructive power.”. Yes, I do find that interesting.
Director Butler-Wall gave two examples of "institutional racism".
In Seattle, we expect children to learn to read standard written English as part of their education. However, we do not always acknowledge or support the extra work it takes to learn to read standard written English when the child comes from a home where another language or dialect is spoken, unless they actually come from a different country.Berkeley linguist John McWhorter, one of the leading academic experts on African American dialects, dismisses this notion as "Throwing Money at an Illusion".
most of our teachers are white and many of our students are not. Children of color are much less likely to have a role model from their own 'race' or ethnic group in the classroom. This does not mean that our principals are racist, but that our system is set up to attract white teachers.First of all, most of our teachers are white because most of the people who live here are white. So are most trained teachers and education school graduates. The only way to get around these statistics is to hire unqualified teachers or to engage in zero-sum competition with other school districts for the limited supply of non-white teachers. Second, why should one assume that a child's role model needs to be of the same skin color as the child? Does this mean that a black teacher cannot be a good role model for an Asian child? And if the assumption is that a white teacher cannot be a good role model for an Asian child, why are Asian children outperforming everybody else in the schools?
We will be looking at institutional racism as part of the 5-year plan and I'm sure that there will be many steps we can take to dismantle it over the next few years, or at least get a good start on the process. Some of the areas may involve teacher training, curriculum review, student assignment, or whatever.An unconvincing paucity of specifics. And isn't it illegal in the state of Washington to assign students on the basis of race?
The Superintendent is adding a position of Director of Equity and Race Relations so that there will be a senior administrator making sure we don't lose momentum on this. I assume this person will be able to be a 'go-to' for all of us in getting information and ideas. Part of our work will be to develop assessment measures. For one, we certainly hope that in the future, race will not be a good predictor of how well a child does in school on our traditional measures such as tests, grades, graduation rates, etc. (In other words, how a kid does in school will continue to vary by individual, but will not be correlated with their 'race'.)I'm pleased that the School Board recognizes that assessment measures are needed to quantify the status of "institutional racism" and to measure any progress toward its eradication. But on what basis has the Board already determined that "institutional racism" is a problem that needs to be solved before any of those assessment measures have even been created?
This is a sensitive topic and there are many controversies surrounding racism. I appreciate your thoughtful questions and comments on this. We have increasing numbers of mixed race students in our district and the issue of institutional racism is increasingly important.If the district has an increasing number of mixed race students it's a sign of increasingly integrated families, which suggests that race is becoming less important in the community at large. Why should the school district need to spend more of its time dealing with racism at a time when society as a whole is becoming integrated to the point that the old concepts of race are beginning to fade away?
I do appreciate that Brita Butler-Wall took the time to reply to my questions. But she hasn't yet convinced me that the School Board is taking the most productive path towards helping the thousands of underperforming Seattle public schoolchildren to achieve their potential.
Board members Irene Stewart and Darlene Flynn also replied to my e-mail, although their remarks did disappointingly little to advance their arguments. I include their complete replies in the second part of the post.
Mr. Sharkansky,Darlene Flynn
Your Web site would indicate that you are not particularly interested in understanding my perspective on this issue. I have to wonder why you would call the school board "a bunch of racists" because a resolution commemorating Brown v. Board of Education calls for the eradication of institutionalized racism and refers to students of color (SharkBlog, 6/20/04). You wrote to me after that was published.
The school board resolution calls for the elimination of "processes, attitudes, and behaviors, whether intentional or unintentional, which prevent students of color from receiving consistently appropriate and high-quality services in our schools." In no way does that goal deny the same treatment for any other racially- or culturally-defined group of students.
I do not care to contribute to intentionally inflammatory publications. I already run the risk that you will publish this message, or parts thereof, out of context. However, in response to your specific questions:
* Institutionalized racism is defined in the resolution and in the paragraph above.
* You can get more information about institutionalized racism by doing a Google search.
* You can find Seattle Public Schools reports on academic performance and other measures, disaggregated by race, as well as strategies and outcomes, at http://www.seattleschools.org/area/eag/reports.xml on the Web.
* The school board will play a key role in the years to come by examining policy and budget implications with an eye to access, equity, and success for all students.
I believe Director Stewart did a thorough job responding to your questions. Thank you for contacting us for clarification.I replied to Directors Stewart and Flynn and assured them that I am interested in learning their position; promised not to quote them out of context; reiterated my request for specific examples of institutional racism in Seattle Schools; and observed that:
I think you'll have a greater chance of winning community support for the direction you're taking if you engage the skeptics head on and present a compelling case for what you're attempting to do.UPDATE: Irene Stewart e-mailed back promising to write more later. In the meantime, she notes that her definition of institutionalized racism is
"processes, attitudes, and behaviors, whether intentional or unintentional, which prevent students of color from receiving consistently appropriate and high-quality services in our schools."I'm troubled by the apparent distinction between white students and students of color. When a non-white student receives poor service it is called "racism". But what is it called when a white student receives poor service? I'll withhold other questions about this definition until the board members send me more documented examples of what they consider to be institutional racism. Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at June 22, 2004 07:00 AM