The Content of their Character: Race and Judgment in Our Schools
Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, January 22, 2014 – As we reflect on the life and achievements of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is natural to think of the parts of his dream left unfulfilled. Consider what is possibly the most famous line from his most famous speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I think it’s fair to say we haven’t reached that “one day” yet. When working to reduce racial disparities in our schools, we need to be clearer about what that day will look like.
By and large, many schools lack a productive vocabulary for discussing race. There’s a clear need to have that conversation; even if the disparities in test scores and graduation rates don’t convince you, the disparities in punishments should. One key, I think, is differentiating between the “intentional racism” commonly associated with the civil rights era and the structural racism that was present then and continues today.
The intentional racism of the past (and which continues, albeit less frequently, in the present) was ugly and obvious. Structural racism — the way in which the institutions, norms, and patterns of U.S. society tend to perpetuate the advantages of white people — is harder to spot.
This goes beyond what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in his justification for the No Child Left Behind law. It includes the complicated dynamics between white students and instructors of color as well as the various ways race subtly influences grading and disciplinary practices.
Unfortunately, for many people in our society (including, but not limited to, those in our school system), the word “racism” primarily invokes intentional racism. From this perspective, reducing “racism in our schools” means reducing segregation and blatant acts of discrimination. However, it’s structural racism that’s more often going unaddressed and which needs more attention. In fact, one of our goals should be to use the institutional power of schools to fight structural racism in the rest of society.
Those leading and working in schools must recognize the troubled history of schools as tools of hostility and oppression. They need to build awareness of how structural racism still pervades many school climates and intersects with structural racism elsewhere in society. Finally, our schools should take active steps not just to eliminate racism inside their walls, but to become tools of anti-racism in society as a whole.