African Americans in Schools: Tiptoeing around Racism

Article excerpt

Introduction

"If you look for African American students achieving low, you may see that. But maybe you're expecting them to achieve low, too. It's like writing a detention or referral beforehand. You're just assuming that kid is going to be bad that period or day. You can't do that." (Middle school math teacher)

An African American high school student explained that when her cousin received an A on a test, the teacher accused her of cheating. "The teacher was kind of racist." (S-10-07-F)

These are quotes from informants participating in a funded project designed to increase the achievement of African American students in mathematics and science and reduce the significant achievement gap between them and all other groups of students. Though there were positive changes over the duration of the project, these changes were small and did not seem to permeate the entire district. Informal conversations with participants suggested that tensions related to the project's goals existed.

Theoretical Perspective

When particular groups of students are disenfranchised by a school system, integrating them into an existing system is inadequate (Lloyd, 2003). Likewise, merely applying teaching methods emanating from "scientifically based research" as outlined in No Child Left Behind (U.S. Department of Education, N.D.) is a naive solution to the economic and educational disparities present in this and other school districts across the United States. Freire (1993) explains, "The solution is not to 'integrate' them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become 'beings for themselves'" (p. 55). First, however, we must know what that structure is. "To exist humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming" (p. 69).

In this paper, I name educational attitudes, beliefs, and practices that have contributed to the disenfranchisement of African American children in a Midwestern school district. The name that identifies these attitudes, beliefs and practices is educational racism.

The focus of this paper is on some of the obstacles to the success of African American students by exploring this educational racism. Specifically, I examine teachers' beliefs related to African American students' mathematics and science achievement through their descriptions of themselves and colleagues, through their students' eyes, and through the perspectives of others involved in the project. This is essential because teachers' beliefs about the subject matter, about teaching, and about student learning have a profound effect on their instructional practices and thus their students' achievement (Thompson, 1992; Tobin, 2001).

Beliefs about struggling students and related educational practices that result in such gaps in opportunities and therefore achievement are indicative of a deficit ideology, the notion that when students do not demonstrate the same types of achievement as the "norm," they must have some deficiency which requires remediation (Ladson-Billings, 1995). It ignores inner-city African American children's "learning in order to survive the cruel and stark reality of their community" (Macedo, 1994, p. 141) and the rich and abundant funds of knowledge in their families and communities (Moll, 1993).

An aside ...

Macedo and Bartolome (1999) make the point that identifying gender, race or ethnicity as "monolithic identities" obfuscates the dominant white ideology that results in "asymmetrical distributions of power and privilege among different ethnic and racial" (p. 5) and socioeconomic groups. My focus on African Americans as an entity reflects the focus of the project. However, the project administrators believed and tried to convey the message that if educators altered their beliefs about children and teaching in the ways the project was designed to accomplish, then all children, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, would be positively affected. …