Confronting Institutional Racism

By Keleher, Terry; Johnson, Tammy | Leadership, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Confronting Institutional Racism


Keleher, Terry, Johnson, Tammy, Leadership


Institutional racism can be difficult to overcome. But if you are committed to change, there is plenty you can do. Here are six strategies for addressing racial inequalities in our schools.

Do the best schools and classes have the fewest black and brown students? Observation seems to confirm that race plays a role in the way our schools and classrooms are organized. You can look inside a school and simply compare the faces of those sitting in the Advanced Placement classes with those in the remedial courses. Or, take a look at any two schools -- one in the inner city and one in the suburbs -- and, chances are, the differences in appearance alone will be striking.

Statistical analysis backs up casual observations of racial differences in education. Last year, the Applied Research Center released a report called "Facing The Consequences" that documents the extensive racial disparities in school districts around the country and in California.

In the Los Angeles and San Francisco Unified School Districts, for example, white students are proportionally over-represented in Advanced Placement and gifted programs and under-represented in expulsions and suspensions, compared to Latino and African American students. In fact, on nearly every key indicator of academic performance -- graduation rates, dropout rates, discipline rates, etc. -- the racial disparities range from significant to stark.

A class-action lawsuit (Williams et. Al. v. State of California), filed by a coalition of civil rights groups last May, documents the deplorable conditions of many of California's schools. The plaintiff's complaint describes more than 100 schools where at least half the teaching staff is not fully credentialed. Many schools have outdated textbooks and lack ample classroom seating, while others lack bathrooms and ventilation.

These problems are concentrated in schools serving mostly students of color in urban areas, exemplifying the fact that students of different races frequently experience very separate and unequal educational opportunities. Regrettably, racial inequality is alive and well in California schools.

What causes these inequities? Some people argue that the disparities are not due to race but are the result of socioeconomic and cultural factors such as family income and parental involvement. But even students from well-off families of color with very active parents frequently lag behind white students from similar income and family backgrounds. Additionally, low-income white students are more likely to excel academically than low-income students of color. Racial disparities are distinct and significant, hardly attributable merely to family income or happenstance.

Indeed, racial inequality in our schools is a product of deeply rooted historical and institutional racism in the United States. The fact that racism permeates our society, however, is not an excuse for school personnel to let themselves off the hook. As an institution, each school must take responsibility for acknowledging and addressing racism. Unless a school takes steps to actively counteract racism, it is likely that it is unintentionally aggravating the existing inequalities.

Most people think of racism as intentional and overt acts between individuals. But the most profound forms of racism are institutional rather than interpersonal. Another common misconception is that racism can only occur between people of different races. But if certain racial groups are systematically disadvantaged or disenfranchised by school policies and practices, even if the school administrators or a majority of the school board members are people of color, there is evidence of institutional racism.

Institutional racism is frequently subtle, unintentional and invisible, but always potent. Often, institutional racism involves complex and cumulative factors; for example, when many students of color, year after year, do not have access to fully credentialed teachers, high quality curriculum materials and advanced courses. …

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