On My Mind: Addressing Systemic Racism in Our Schools and Communities

Winter 2021

By Donna Orem

shutterstock_370480586.jpgIn the mid-1960s, Anne Forsyth, an heiress from North Carolina, sought to integrate Southern independent schools by exposing young, wealthy white students to Black scholarship students in the hope that such exposure would encourage future leaders of the South to be more inclusive in thought. She established the Stouffer Foundation, which went on to fund 142 Black male students’ attendance at Southern independent schools. The effort to integrate schools in this way “would test, in very real terms, how much a Black child could achieve in a white environment and the price he would have to pay,” writes Mosi Secret, in “The Way to Survive It Was to Make A’s,” a September 2017 New York Times Magazine article. “Her aim, using a few token Blacks to mend the South’s racial divide from the top down, was utopian to say the least. It was also novel, a systematic effort by whites to help rid other whites of their prejudices. Providing a better life for Black students was secondary.”
This quote from the article captures the contrasts of the Stouffer students’ experience:
I recall one conversation I had with a very successful Stouffer alum, who told me that he goes back and forth between being incredibly thankful for his educational experience and wanting to ‘burn the whole system down.’ Some of the scholars value how easily they can move in and out of white social circles; they appreciate the exposure to wealth in America. Others felt that the project, and their role in it, was an assault on their Blackness.
Although schools have become more diverse and inclusive since the days of the Stouffer scholars, the experiences of independent school students and alumni of color still share heartbreakingly similar traits. The stories they have been sharing on social media as part of the Black@ movement speak of past and current pain—and are a cry for change. Data from NAIS’s Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM) climate survey, drawn from a sample of more than 100 schools, confirms that Black students, in particular, don’t feel as strong a sense of belonging as other independent school students. For example, when asked how much they agreed with the statement that “it is easy for people like me to be accepted here,” white students averaged a score of 4.2, while Black students averaged 3.8, the lowest of any racial group. Black students also gave the lowest ratings to a school’s approach to multiculturalism, inclusivity, and curriculum. On the positive side, when asked “if people at this school care for me,” the average agreement score for Black and white students alike was 4.3.
Although data is important to help surface issues and chart progress, the stories of pain and trauma should focus our attention on how much work still needs to be done.

Generative Questions to Drive Action

School leaders can and must act now to identify the places where racism exists within their schools. Mica Pollock, editor of Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School, calls on educators “to develop an ‘everyday consciousness’ about the relevance of race in schools. Be aware, ask questions and keep inquiring.” Pollock, who is the director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that school leaders ask themselves four questions:
  • Am I seeing, understanding, and addressing the ways the world treats me and my students as members of racial groups? 
  • Am I seeing, understanding, and addressing communities and
  • individuals in their full complexity? 
  • Am I seeing, understanding, and addressing the ways and opportunities to learn or thrive are unequally distributed to racial groups? 
  • What actions offer necessary opportunities to students in such a world?
  • And then, when considering such actions, Pollock urges educators to ask, “Is this action moving students closer to educational opportunity or farther away from it? Why? What is our evidence?”

Leading by Example

Although we can and must take a leadership role in building inclusive school communities, we also are part of larger education communities, and our efforts can be multiplied if we partner across the community to eliminate systemic racism. We must first step back and understand the three different types of racism and act on each front:
  • Individual racism occurs on a personal level and can show up as internalized or interpersonal racism. 
  • Institutional racism occurs within and between institutions. 
  • Systemic racism is the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of societal factors, including the history, culture, ideology, and interactions of institutions and policies that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color.
Currently some emerging city-based efforts are attempting to shine a spotlight on and mitigate institutional and systemic racism. Education Lab is an initiative launched by The Seattle Times to uncover promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It recently took on the issue of systemic racism and, as a first step, identified research-based inequities for Black and brown students that are compounded over the years. Although their issues may vary, no school is without some element of systemic racism. For example, the research elicited the following drivers of racism in public schools:
  • Discrimination and racial bias against Black students begins early and continues through all levels of education. One study identified that when teachers were asked to rate student abilities, they “scored Black children far below white peers with identical scores.” The compounding effect can have far-reaching consequences over time, affecting entrance to certain programs, eligibility for scholarships, and college matriculation.
  • Zero-tolerance policies that have become popular over the past few decades can fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately affecting the outcomes for Black and brown students, according to research.
  • Black and brown students also face more barriers to enrolling in college; many attend less well-resourced schools than their white peers and don’t have access to other support systems that help students persist in their education, such as test preparation, tutors, and access to study groups.
A more expansive effort is taking root in Milwaukee. By Every Measure, launched by Radio Milwaukee, “is seizing the moment to explore how systemic racism contributes to the disparate outcomes that persist in Milwaukee and Wisconsin as a whole, using data to illustrate how racism impacts different systems such as education, health, and policing.” The effort launched by educating city residents about how redlining and racially restrictive covenants have influenced inequality in the city today. The power of their approach is that “without historical context, it is easy to assume that segregation occurred as an individual choice instead of institutionalized inequality. … Redlining reduced opportunities for generational wealth accumulation among minority populationscreating decades of momentum in discrimination. Even if racism completely stopped in policy and interpersonal terms, continued disparities in outcomes would persist because of the deep imprint of this historical policy.”

A Call to Action

This is a moment for independent schools to take action, within their school communities and their surrounding communities. I believe that begins with truly listening to and understanding the stories that Black and brown students, parents, and alums are sharing. They are allowing themselves to be vulnerable in telling their stories and exposing their pain. White members of school communities must be vulnerable, too. We must drop our defenses and really listen.
School leaders of all types must develop their ability to become “weaver leaders.” As described in Leading After a Racial Crisis, produced by the American Council on Education, weavers encourage the participation of many individuals in the rebuilding process. It is not an easy task though. “It means being able to stand apart from the many perspectives in order to connect them with a vision for the whole tapestry. Creating a tapestry is an inclusive process and requires the contribution of many elements to achieve a successful rendering. Weavers see beyond the fractured views and envision a time when there is more common ground.”
If we work to weave a different tapestry, perhaps we can fulfill the challenge given by one of the Stouffer students in his valedictorian speech:
My hope is for this school to accept the challenge of developing a new lifestyle, a new atmosphere, a new microcosm in which life is given more perspective besides the one-sided affluent one. The challenge is to create a new spirit, to perforate the buildings of this campus. I hope that movement continues.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.