Navigating Race and Class in Our Public Schools
By Dr. Adam Jordan and Dr. Todd Hawley
Every time we talk about the South and its public schools, there is always an elephant in the room.
We might repeat this phrase all day long — “the South has a rich and diverse cultural history, but also has some tough historical truths to deal with” — but too seldom do we speak directly about those tough truths. So, let’s dispatch the elephant right away: When you hear folks talking about “failing schools,” what they are really talking about is race and class. They might not say it outright, but schools typically labeled as “failing” are most often found in communities of color and in communities with lower household incomes.
So, if we are going to fight back against the attacks on our public schools, we absolutely must talk about how race and class play out in our public schools.
If you are entrenched in the education world, you are already well aware of a few other “tough truths.” Let’s lay a few facts on the table real quick:
If you are an African-American student in this country, you are almost twice as likely to be identified as having a learning disability or an emotional/behavioral disability than your white counterparts.
Both of these variables are factors in understanding the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the notion that many of our schooling policies criminalize children.
Being black outside school isn’t so safe either, as African-Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated as compared to their white counterparts.
When we talk about race and racism, we are talking about systematic oppression. While volumes are written on both of these topics, we have decided to take a different route. We are betting that the majority of our readers are not dazzled by these staggering statistics, because most of you are aware of them already.
Instead, we want to take an action-oriented perspective. Let’s assume you are aware of the facts but are left asking yourself, “I know all this, and I hate it, but what can I do about it?”
This column will provide you with an exemplar — someone who sets the bar pretty high. But we hope this column will inspire and motivate you, and perhaps give you a road map for your own actions in combatting racial inequity in our schooling policies.
In 2010, I (Adam) was hit with several life-changing events in a matter of months.
First, I left a job I cherished as a public alternative school teacher. It was an exhausting job, but also rewarding and fulfilling. I spent my days teaching social studies and mathematics, also working alongside our devoted social worker, Doug Carr, and our scrappy science teacher, Mike McMillan, in helping find ways to better the lives of brilliant students who hadn’t always received a fair deal.
The students I taught were typically those labeled in education jargon as “at risk.” I hate that term: My students never seemed risky to me. Instead, they seemed to be full of previously unnoticed promise and potential. I left that job due to a second life-changing event: my decision to begin work on a doctorate in Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Then, shortly after entering UNC, one of the most-life changing events I’ve ever experienced occurred. I lost a daughter. Annabelle Grace Jordan was born with a neural tube defect known as anencephaly. She lived just over 40 minutes before passing away in the arms of her mother and me.
Anyone who has undergone a tragedy of this caliber knows that, in such moments, you find out who your friends are. Let me introduce you to one of them: my friend and my brother, Will Jackson.
Will and I began our Ph.D. studies at UNC together. Though both Georgia boys, we didn’t know one another before graduate school. Still, when my daughter passed in October of 2010, Will showed up. When the going gets tough, Will always shows up. He didn’t show up with any brilliant words of wisdom or a freshly baked casserole. He didn’t show up to be polite. He didn’t show up to talk me off the ledge or to distract us. He simply showed up. He came into my home, he sat on my couch, and he was present. It was a gesture of compassion I will never forget.
It didn’t take me long to learn that other people who knew Will were not surprised by his actions. They already knew Will Jackson always shows up.
Today, seven years later, Will and his brilliant team show up every day to fight racism in school and to stand up for black families in Durham, North Carolina.
In 2014, Will founded Village of Wisdom, a nonprofit dedicated to “protecting Black Genius by organizing and mobilizing a community of families committed to the healthy development and reflection of black youth.” VOW has actually trademarked the term “Black Genius,” which captures the organization’s commitment to the idea that genius, beauty, and brilliance are as common in the black community as in any other community on the planet. Black Genius simply became VOW’s shorthand for spreading that message. According to Will, “Black Genius creates new systems of equity that render ideas of racial superiority impotent and dismantles oppressive systems.”
You see, black youth too often hear the message that they are “failing.” But VOW works to send different, more positive messages to black youth. VOW is committed to increasing the number of positive messages black children hear and working with black parents to shift personal advocacy for their children to school-level advocacy that leads to different instructional realities for all kids of color in the school.
Much in the same way we at The Bitter Southerner work to combat stereotypes of the American South, VOW works to obliterate the stereotypes attached to black youth. Todd and I had a chance to sit down with my old friend Will — the “chief dreamer” of Village of Wisdom — and pick his brain a bit. We are happy to share that interview with you, in the hope it will help provide some direction and inspiration to those who want to fight racial stereotyping in our schools.
Adam and Todd: Tell us about Village of Wisdom and why it exists?
Will: Village of Wisdom is an organization that assists black parents in developing and sharing resources that push schools to become more equitable spaces for all children. VOW exists because of the unfortunate history of racism, oppression, and exploitation in this country. These histories, because they are under-investigated and under-explored in schools, linger in the shadows of classrooms and the minds of those in the classroom, invisibly harming children of color throughout the day. These realities manifest themselves in data points such as 93 percent of black children reporting experiencing some form of discrimination in a three-month period while in school. The reality is that most teachers and others do not mean any ill will toward black children. However, just like when someone hits another car while driving, due to the driver’s blind spot, the car that has been hit is [still] hurt. The purpose of VOW is not only to make black Children more aware that folks have blind spots around race, so that they can better navigate those drivers, but also to make those drivers with blind spots more aware that blind spots are dangerous.
Adam and Todd: In what ways do you see race still playing a role in education — not only in the South, but also across the country?
Will: We live in a world where race is a predictor for every major social outcome — health, education, wealth retention, and incarceration. That means race not only impacts education, but it [also] impacts every sector of human life that impacts a child's ability to learn in school. However, I think perhaps the most under-discussed area that race and racism impact education is through cognition. What I mean by racism impacting cognition is that it literally interrupts how children process information in at least two ways.
One, racism pretty much mandates, in a plethora of unwritten ways, that the culture replicated in schools is white, middle-class culture. Culture operates through the language we use in classrooms, but also in all of the references and analogies we use to help children understand. [The imminent psychologist Lev] Vygotsky calls these the “cultural tools of learning.” That is, kids learn through experience and so much of our experience is determined by our culture. If you are a white person, just think about if you had to learn science through the various traditions of black barbecues and family reunions? You likely wouldn’t be able to make the cognitive connections necessary to be successful if the lesson was based on references to the song “Before I Let Go” and its relationship to black barbecues. If you find that connection confusing, that’s the point. Cultural norms play a part in knowledge construction. And, that’s not to say all White folks would be tripped up by that and that all black folks would learn in that type of context but I do believe it would lead to disproportionate outcomes.
Two, racism impacts cognition through emotional stress. Black families are more likely to live in low-income conditions due to historic inequities in the housing market and generational wealth transfer. Families that live in low-income conditions experience more trauma due to a lack of access to resources like healthy food, affordable healthcare, and other conveniences and supports of middle-class living. In addition, all black families have to deal with constant encounters with racism. That may mean hearing about another unarmed black child or adult being shot by the police, or being treated like you don’t belong or aren’t worthy. In a schooling context, it may mean having to deal with a teacher who seems surprised that you are articulate as a black student. All of this causes the human mind, which only processes one idea at a time, to divert attention to the emotional trauma being experienced and not on what needs to be learned in school. Ninety-three percent of black students report experiencing discrimination in school. That means the majority of black students have to deal with a reality their non-black peers don’t. And that puts them at a cognitive disadvantage, due to how people treat them because of judgments made about skin color.
Adam and Todd: What has VOW taught you?
Will: VOW taught me Black Genius. When I started this organization there was no Black Genius as it is now. However, after listening to the parents and children that have come through VOW, I’ve uncovered some of the most powerful insights. I’ve heard 13 year olds ask profoundly, “Who came up with the idea that black people are less than?” I’ve listened to parents as they explained how they teach children through discipline — loving them while also holding them accountable for mistakes. I’ve seen parents share with each other powerful words that uplift each other, which hones my own ability to give appreciation and recognition to those I must love. I’ve learned how parents show up and maintain their cool during difficult conversations with schools as they push for the best possible learning environment for their child. I learned just how hard it is to raise a black child and lead them through our schools with all of the hidden traps that are set for our children in these schools. The hidden traps of over-suspension, under-identification for the gifted and talented, and misrepresented history.
I’ve also learned that children gain confidence when they know that they have a deep source of love coming from their home. As I watch the parents that engage with us, I’ve seen them pour this love into their children. These parents have taught me creativity, cool, and strength as they explain how they approach tough conversations. I think it’s also important that I point out [that] our parents are not special. They aren’t ‘exceptional negroes’ or black people who are somehow different. They are just like every black parent we have ever met. They are incredibly brave and thoughtful. They want the best for their children, and they are hungry for more information, tools, skills, and resources to enhance their parenting practice. These parents are Black Genius because they are raising children who will give us the gift of liberation by creating new systems that will ensure justice and equity — eradicating racism and other forms of oppression.
Adam and Todd: What advice would you have for folks with good intentions, but who do not know how to support the cause?
Will: There are a lot of great orgs to financially contribute to, including Village of Wisdom. Seriously, whatever dollars you can spare, we will put to good use. And if you don’t trust VOW, trust WE ARE, trust Discriminology, trust Brothers Empowered to Teach, trust Profound Gentlemen, or trust Rooted School. Good work is being done every day. Help fund it.
Adam and Todd: What can teachers do to support the broader village of wisdom?
Will: We push teachers to talk about justice and fairness. This includes all teachers, from math to art. We must begin to make justice and fairness essential values we teach children. We find ways to talk about these themes during all of our lessons. I recently had the privilege to meet Jeff Duncan-Andrade who runs a dope school named Roses in Concrete out in Oakland, and he said we should investigate the schools that produced the folks who caused the housing collapse and close them. My argument is that if those schools would have focused on teaching justice and fairness, those individuals would have made better choices, and black people wouldn’t have lost more than $72 billion during the recession, according to United for a Fair Economy.
Teachers can ask more questions about the who the children of color are in their classrooms. Ask them what they are interested in, and use this information to create lessons that black children can relate to. Finally, challenge black children and all children to imagine a new world where equity reigns supreme — and not whiteness. In this world, everyone wins, because the dirty little secret is that black folks were only placed on the bottom rung of society's ladder to control poor whites and to keep rich White folks rich. If we focus on hating each other, we’ll miss the man behind the glass who profits off the ignorance our hate breeds.
Will does what he does best: He’s showing up and doing solid work alongside his team of dreamers. VOW is doing what good teachers do: transforming the world into a more equitable place. It’s time to let you all pick up the conversation. As we continue to work together to dismantle racial injustice — not only in the South, but all over the globe — we hope this has inspired you to show up and work on the problem.
And if you have a dollar, support Village of Wisdom.