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Racism-white supremacy and the education crisis

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What is the key to education reform in IPS and around the country? Contrary to some educational reform advocates’ claims, it is not school choice. Hold on, though, before you draw conclusions about where this column is going. Leaving room in an educational system for some variety and giving flexibility to some school administrators and parents to create a distinct identity for their school can be a healthy part of a school system. Charter schools, theme schools, magnet schools are neither the problem nor the solution to America’s long-running educational challenges. However, if you study the history of education in Indianapolis and across America, you will find that debates about these educational approaches have dominated education conversations for the past five decades — probably because they are more comfortable to talk about than the real issue: racism-white supremacy.  

IPS, townships and the surrounding public school systems, like most urban and suburban schools across the country, reflect white America’s large-scale rejection of school integration. The decision came about because most white parents feared that the close relations that schools created between their children and African-Americans would harm their children. Although in the east, the Midwest and the South, segregated schools primarily excluded African-American children, white officials in the Southwest and on the West Coast segregated Latino and Asian children, as well. The racial fears during that era necessitated almost total exclusion of non-whites to provide the comfort that white parents sought. Many worried that social relationships would develop that could lead to cross-racial dating and intimacy — an unacceptable outcome in the white American psyche of the time, because of the commonly held view that these other groups were inferior. Today, while fears of cross-racial romance and the need for complete racial exclusion are less pronounced, parental fears and beliefs of racial inferiority remain.

White parents are not alone in these views. Some middle-class African-Americans, Latinos and Asians hold similar views. They, likewise, believe that predominantly white schools are superior learning environments. They, too, reject schools with too many African-American and Latino children as unsuitable. Racism-white supremacy represents the psychological and structural force that not only produces these prejudices, but also necessitates new educational approaches every 10 to 20 years to appease them. In the years before and after the Brown v. the Board of Education decision, schools were judged on graduation rates, college attendance, post-graduation employment, school spirit, athletics, music, performance art, science and a range of programs and criteria, as well as the race and class of the students. As a result, predominantly African-American and Latino schools often had high reputations within those communities and even with some whites, but they were rarely viewed as equal in quality or as desirable spaces by most whites.

Suburban relocation and the private school movement vastly expanded following the Browndecision in order to satisfy white parents’ tastes for racial discrimination. Although the parents have changed, sadly the taste for racial discrimination remains. Educational reform efforts over the past five decades have all been efforts to overcome white parents’ taste for discrimination. These plans were routinely intended to lure white children into urban schools. Busing, magnet schools, theme schools, home schooling and now vouchers and charter schools have largely been embraced because so many white parents find educational environments with too many African-American and Latino students unsuitable for their children. This unspoken belief that African-American and Latino children threaten the moral and intellectual development of other children has a strong emotional power that drives public education in America.

These racial judgements rest at the core of the “educational crisis,” yet they remain unspoken and unacknowledged in most conversations about education. While we talk about choice and educational outcomes, the central issue in public education is the deeply held belief in the inferiority of Black and brown spaces and people. This is a sickness that has to be dealt with.  

White parents’ continued segregation of their children and families into suburbs, private schools and newly gentrified neighborhoods reflects a commitment to ongoing racial segregation and racial discrimination, whether they recognize it or not. If we want to improve public education, we need to recognize the role of racism-white supremacy at the heart of the education crisis and reject it.


Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and dean’s fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

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