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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Dismantling systemic racism in education

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We’re living in a modern-day Civil Rights Movement.

I recently read that statement, and it gave me chills. The “movement” happened well before I was born, and I’ve always thought of it in historical terms: It happened long ago, is done and won’t occur again.

How wrong I was. Just as those who came before us, we are fighting for a better life — right now and for future generations. While we were added into the system, the gains we made in the 1950s and ‘60s didn’t change the system, which was the desired outcome. Systemic racism still persists as does white hate.

Unfortunately, today’s movement is eerily similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the past. Black Lives Matters demonstrators today encounter the same rage and hate as those who marched decades before them. Look at the pictures from now and then. If not for the clothes, you wouldn’t know there’s about a 50-year difference.

It’s amazing to me that people haven’t learned from the past and are happy to be on the wrong side of history. Today’s Civil Rights Movement recognizes entire systems must be dismantled and rebuilt in order for real change to occur. That’s a lofty goal, and there’s no easy way to start since we can’t just stop everything and start anew. But there is recognition from leaders in our community that more has to be done to effect real change.

For this reason, it’s heartening to see the 11 superintendents from Marion County join forces to create the Anti-Racism Initiative. 

The initial efforts include:

• “No Racism Zone” signs at high schools.

• Disseminating information to parents to educate themselves and their children about why racial equality and equity is important.

• Working with the Indiana State Teachers Association to support the efforts of their Minority Affairs Committee.

• Superintendents will make a video emphasizing their commitment to racial equality and equity.

• Superintendents will encourage their boards to adopt policies that address equality and equity.

This is a noble start, and I’m encouraged to see what more will be done in schools, especially since Indianapolis Public Schools’ and many of our township schools’ populations are majority Black and their teaching staff is majority white. Take the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township for example. Black students comprise 60.5% of the population while Black teachers account for 25.3%. White students make up 8% of the population; white teachers are 71.2% of educators in the district.

I knew this anecdotally, but to see the numbers makes one realize how important this initiative is and how it must delve deeper than signage and videos. 

The education system — from teaching colleges to textbooks to hiring to professional development — must ensure schools not only more closely reflect their student population, but teachers in those systems understand systemic racism and their role in dismantling it. We can’t afford to keep teachers who refuse to teach the truth. 

What do I mean by that? We need teachers to take their blinders off and have a long look at what they’re teaching students. Are you teaching students a whitewashed version of historical events, only looking through the lens of white people, or are you looking at the totality of the event. For instance, do you understand why Nat Turner led a revolt, or do you think he was wrong and side with the slave owners? Do you think of Native Americans as savages because they killed white people, but don’t recognize the savage acts of the colonists toward Native Americans?

One of the biggest complaints about our education system is Black people (or any minority group) aren’t taught about their role in American history other than a footnote or a sanitized version of events filtered through a white prism. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say they didn’t know about Juneteenth until recently. Why isn’t that taught? When did you first learn the true story of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation? Some still teach Christopher Columbus found America.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Some teachers will have to come to terms with everything they’ve been taught and everything they are teaching is wrong. But that’s what dismantling a system looks like. No one said this would be easy.

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