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Diversity and Inclusion

Racism in education

This piece is part of a series on systemic racism that’s a small part of Hive Learning’s Inclusion Works program. Here’s why we encourage you to see this content as a jumping-off point for your learning journey rather than the final word.

📌 We researched and wrote this series to try to make sense of systemic racism, an incredibly broad and complex topic. Our aim was to demystify this type of racism for the everyday person who doesn’t have time to read lots of books on the subject, let alone trawl through hundreds of pieces of academic research to really wrap their arms around it.

📌 We’ve curated 350 sources to give a flavor of how systemic racism emerges through a limited set of areas (housing, education, healthcare, criminal justice, media representation), introducing the barriers and injustices of these institutions using a single example from history and from the present day, and focuses solely on racism directed at Black Americans.

📌 We appreciate that there is much much more to say on this topic and we’d love to do that justice in future content. For now, take a look at the further resources linked to take your next step, start to question how the systems you’re a part of are propping up racism in our society today, and seek out actions you can take to dismantle it.

We’re barely a century and a half past the era of slavery in America — a time when anti-literacy laws outlawed teaching enslaved people how to read and write because knowledge is power. Slaveholders knew that if enslaved people were literate, they could rally others, revolt and jeopardize the institution of slavery.

(It’s worth noting there are exceptions to the above: free Black people in the North had access to education before slavery was outlawed, and enslaved people regularly passed down teachings to their families informally through oral tradition.)

Since then, the Jim Crow era set up a system of segregation that was inherently unequal, as the Supreme Court ruled in its landmark case Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, which outlawed school segregation.

This hailed a period of integration throughout the South, and busing programs across the country to bring Black students across town into white majority schools (and sometimes the reverse, too). Some research indicates de-segregation contributed to the white flight (movement of white people out of cities into suburbs) of this period.

A 2019 study revealed that following de-segregation efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, schools steadily became less segregated up until 1980 — and has flatlined since then. Imagine that: we’ve made no progress in de-segregating schools for four decades.

Education Nuvi by @nuevofoundation.

Today schools remain largely segregated, and schools in the North are actually more segregated than they are in the South.

Lily Eskelsen García, educator and president of the National Education Association, points out that Brown v Board didn’t change racial inequality in education — it just made it less visible:

“Few people will say those words out loud today, but the systems are still in place — the way we fund schools, the way we limit advanced programs, and the arts and sports, the kids who get field trips and AP Calculus and the kids who get test-prep and for-profit charters — are still divided along racial lines. Brown v Board did not disrupt institutional racism. It simply got more creative. It got more invisible. And if we cannot get comfortable talking about it, our students will continue to suffer.”

A 2013 report produced by the Equity and Excellence Commission under then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it plainly: “Our system does not distribute opportunity equitably.”

How did we get here, and why does segregation (thus inequity) persist?

An example from history: exclusion from higher education

Black people (and other people of color) have been systematically excluded from higher education for centuries.

Incredibly, colleges and universities weren’t required to admit Black students until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated it — and indeed most universities in the South didn’t admit Black students until then, and even universities in the North that accepted Black students used quotas to limit their admission.

Before the Civil War, it was virtually impossible for Black Americans to get a college degree — technically three Black colleges existed, but none were in the South.

Following the Civil War, a number of historically Black colleges and universities were set up (mainly in the South) and played the important role of giving Black students access to higher education. At their peak in the 1920s, there were 121 of these institutions, but they were still largely inaccessible.

Brain GIF by @mrjukes.

Data indicates that in the 1920s, about one in 1,000 Black Americans were college educated. In the past century, that number has risen significantly. As of 2016, 30.8% of Black Americans had a college degree. But there’s still a staggering racial gap when you consider 47.1% of white Americans are degree educated.

Centuries-long exclusion cuts deep because higher education is arguably the most significant factor in upward social mobility on a personal level, in creating a better future for yourself and your family. 

As Colleen Campbell reported for ProPublica (using U.S. Census data), the financial rewards of a college degree today are clear-cut:

Adults with just a high school diploma are three times more likely to live in poverty as are those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Median annual earnings increase with additional postsecondary attainment, and in spite of the proliferation of student loan debt, graduates experience an improved ability to generate wealth, build healthy lives and families, and contribute to the tax base and their communities in comparison to those with only a high school diploma.

..did you notice that Campbell alludes to contributing to the tax base at the end of this quote? This is a key determinant for K-12 school funding, as we’ll explore next.

🤔 An unexpected twist

Besides excluding Black students, universities in the North and South alike regularly benefitted from slave labor in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This was either directly from slaves building and running campuses or indirectly through income generated by slave-run plantations. In the past decade, some institutions like Georgetown University and the University of Virginia have started exploring their past ties to slavery and making amends.

An example from today: wealth gap ➡️ fewer resources & worse outcomes ➡️ further segregation

In most of America, public schools are funded by local property taxes, meaning that wealthy areas get more funding for their schools than poorer areas.

Because of the wealth gap, minority-majority schools (where a large proportion of students are non-white) often have fewer resources — even though research shows these schools need more resources to achieve. (And today 2/3 of non-white students attend minority-majority schools in America.)

This inequality of funding and resources has led to a racial achievement gap that’s

Beyond the wealth gap, there are a number of other systemic factors that negatively impact Black students’ achievement:

🍎 “The discipline gap” — it’s well-documented that Black students are disproportionately disciplined compared to white students, which is directly correlated to the achievement gap.

🍎 Teacher bias may lead to differences in the opportunities Black students are given, like whether they’re offered advanced coursework.

🍎 Mass incarceration (covered later in this series) means that one in nine Black children grow up with a parent in prison, putting a strain on the family.

GIF by @georgieellen.

All of this means it’s harder to access and retain talent — high-performing teachers and administrators to bridge the achievement gap in high-poverty schools. Research shows that there’s high teacher turnover in low-income schools serving students of color, with most who leave transferring to wealthier, whiter schools — and that’s frustratingly down to working conditions (e.g. the principal’s leadership, relationships with colleagues, and the school’s culture), not because teachers are unhappy working with low-income students.

White parents who can manage it regularly choose to send their children to better-funded, white-majority schools with better test scores (or even private schools), reinforcing entrenched segregation. As the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has writtenindividual choices that well-meaning people make in trying to give their kids the best possible education continue to perpetuate an inequitable, segregated educational system.

School quality of course also has an effect on the property market. Neighborhoods with better-performing schools attract wealthy residents, driving up property prices and increasingly excluding poorer students of color.

…and the segregation cycle continues…

☝️ What about extra funding?

Title 1 is a federal program that allows for special extra funding for schools with a large proportion of low-income students. These funds can be used for extra tech, counselors, improved curriculum — and more. States can also provide extra funding to low-performing schools.

But sadly research shows these programs are largely unsuccessful, mainly because the extra funding isn’t sufficient, and isn’t spent on the right things to improve achievement.

Power Read GIF by @percolategalactic.

📚 Further resources

Getting fired up about systemic racism by this point? You’ll enjoy this powerful, passionate and engaging speech on systemic racism in education by Lily Eskelsen García, educator and president of the National Education Association recorded at SXSW 2019.

🗝️ Your key takeaway

Black Americans don’t have access to the same quality of education as white Americans because of a number of systemic factors, particularly housing segregation, school funding and the wealth gap, resulting in an achievement gap that continues to reinforce segregation and other systemic factors in a vicious cycle.

Racism in education

Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings.

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Inclusion Works

This resource was taken from our Inclusion Works programme, which was created with a network of more than +100 diverse contributors and advisers. We learn from, amplify and cite creators of different races, ethnicities, genders and cognitive styles and continually work to represent all dimensions of diversity.