In the Midst of CRT Controversy, Don't Ignore the Impacts of Many Teachers' RacismRoundup
tags: racism, education, teaching history, critical race theory
Ranita Ray is the associate Baca Zinn professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. Her most recent book is The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City. She is currently writing a book on racial, gender, and other forms of violence inside American public schools.
“Ms. Connell! Ms. Connell!” Makani was doing all he could to get his teacher’s attention. “Is this the same like what Colin Kaepernick is doing?”
Ms. Connell, a middle-aged white teacher, was teaching her fifth grade public school students all about Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement in the fall of 2017. Her classroom, like the rest of the school, served predominately poor Black, Latino, Asian, and immigrant students.
Ms. Connell was visibly annoyed by Makani’s question.
“Rosa Parks … ” she answered while turning down her lips and furrowing her eyebrows, “ … didn’t disrespect our country.” Makani shrugged his shoulders, and the lesson continued on, with Ms. Connell turning to a discussion of the Ku Klux Klan, completely dismissing Makani’s astute observation about the parallels between historical and contemporary acts of resistance.
Teachers like Ms. Connell have recently been the targets of right-wing attacks for teaching a curriculum on America’s history of racial oppression, colloquially referred to as critical race theory. Many have come to these teachers’ defense, pointing out the necessity of including basic American history in school curricula. In these debates, people across the political spectrum tend to assume that white teachers—who make up 79 percent of the public school teaching force—are comfortably, and truthfully, teaching about America’s history and the present realities of racial oppression. However, my research reveals something different: a disturbing picture of what is actually happening.
I spent three years, from 2017–20, observing classrooms and talking with teachers and administrators in one of the largest metropolitan public school districts in our country. Like most of the other large U.S. public school districts, the schools within this one served primarily racially minority students. As an ethnographer, I set out with no specific research questions when I embarked on my project, other than an interest in following a cohort of students as they moved from fourth to sixth grade. Building on my earlier work that focused on high school students as they transitioned to college, I was interested in learning about the experiences of marginalized students early in their academic trajectory. (I should note that I have changed the names of all the students and teachers in this piece.)
What I discovered was rampant racism, cruelty, and indifference from teachers working inside public schools. Most of the teachers I observed were not, in fact, teaching about America’s racist history but instead were perpetuating everyday racial violence against their students inside the classroom. While the idea is not prominent in public discourse, I am not alone in finding teacher racism to be an everyday presence in the American classroom. One recent study, for example, found that teachers hold as much implicit and explicit pro-white racial bias as nonteachers do. Education scholar Michael Dumas has written about teacher racism and Black suffering inside the classroom, showing that these attitudes have concrete outcomes. And students themselves know this. Social media is replete with students talking about teacher racism, and they have often taken to the streets to protest it.
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