Magazine article Multicultural Education

Do Black Families Value Education? White Teachers, Institutional Cultural Narratives, & Beliefs about African Americans

Magazine article Multicultural Education

Do Black Families Value Education? White Teachers, Institutional Cultural Narratives, & Beliefs about African Americans

Article excerpt


...the value of education is different in a Black family than in a White family. And I think you gotta be aware of that...

The above quote is from an interview with an effective, caring, seventh grade math teacher in a racially and socio-economically diverse school in the Midwestern U.S. She was one of six White teachers who were participants in our study of the evolution of preservice teacher understandings about race. All six of the inservice and preservice teachers in the study expressed the belief that African American families do not place a high value on education.

The problem of negative beliefs about African American families in schools is not a new idea, and many educators, including Delpit (2012) and Ladson-Billings (2000), have written much about institutionally racist beliefs held by teachers about Black families. However, many people still don't realize it's a problem, and teacher education programs in particular need to continue to figure out how to expose the reality of racism in our schools. Also relatively little recognized is the thesis of this article: racism works via unconscious cultural narratives of which people are mostly unaware, even while those narratives have a major impact on their behavior within institutions.

Speaking recently about police shootings of unarmed Black men, FBI director James Comey (2015) acknowledged that law enfo rcement has a t roubled history when it comes to race. Comey was speaking in relation to recent tragedies involving police officers killing unarmed Black men. In August 2014, not far from the Midwestern schools that provide the setting for this article, a White police officer killed an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. In July 2014 in Staten Island a White police officer put an unarmed Black man in a chokehold and, despite the man's cries that he couldn't breathe, several New York Police Department officers continued to assault him until he died a few moments later. Grand juries failed to indict either of the police officers responsible for these deaths.

These are just two recent high profile cases, and we know the statistics are frightening. Comey attributed some of the trouble to unconscious racial biases that research has shown are held by all people. He also said that cops are no more racist than people in other professions.

Teachers are an obvious example of another profession where unconscious bias can have profound effect on the lives of African Americans, as negative beliefs about Blacks held by school staff have very serious consequences. Schools are primarily in the hands of Whites right now in the U.S. (Boser, 2014). As we train new White teachers, they go out into schools where teachers tend to hold (mostly unconscious) racist beliefs about African American families, and where the preservice teachers themselves are predisposed to hold such beliefs. These beliefs have a negative impact on teacher expectations, school climate, and the quality of the educational experience of students of color, leading to enormous negative consequences for the lives of thousands of children and youth in the U.S.

The dynamics underlying the problems of teacher beliefs about the value of education in Black families and of police mistreatment of Black men and boys are the same, and the question in both cases is one that Michael Gerson of the Washington Post asked, in relation to the Ferguson events, in a recent editorial:

How people who do not regard themselves as biased can be part of a system that inevitably results in bias. How men and women who view themselves as moral can comprise an immoral society. (Gerson, 2015)

Individual beliefs and actions such as those of the teachers in our study and the police officers in Ferguson and Staten Island are individual acts and beliefs that both maintain and are maintained by institutional racism. The negative beliefs are very resistant to change partly because teachers and others in the institution think the beliefs are a rational conclusion based on logic and personal experience. …

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