School board studies ‘critical race theory’ in work on equity issues

“Whiteness as property,” Luis Versalles called out to the Lawrence school board and a handful of administrators during a recent workshop. “What do you think that means?”

The hired consultant who works on racial equity issues waited patiently while his audience struggled to come up with an answer. Having already been through a number of workshops designed to raise their awareness about racial disparities in education, however, most were starting to get the idea.

It means, Versalles explained, that the things white people enjoy — the social status and privileges that come just from being white — represent a kind of property right. Further, he said, much of the American legal and education systems, as well as all other facets of society, are designed to protect that status and privilege.

The phrase comes from the title of a 1993 Harvard Law Review article by Cheryl I. Harris, and it sums up one of the key concepts behind what’s called critical race theory, which was the focus of the workshop.

That theory states that to fully understand racial disparities in the United States, one first has to understand that racism is woven throughout the fabric of American society and all of its institutions, often in ways that white people barely perceive, but which people of color experience every day.

Versalles works for the San Francisco-based consulting firm Pacific Educational Group. For the last four years, the Lawrence school board has contracted with PEG to lead workshops and other programs designed to help board members, teachers and principals, students and parents in the district better understand race issues so they can develop strategies to address achievement gaps.

And while critical race theory is only one element of the program PEG uses in its program, it’s an important element, and one that some critics have decried because they believe its writers view all racial disparities as intentional forms of “white supremacy.”

One 1995 article often cited by critical race theorists concludes that racial oppression is so widespread that plans for “emancipation” should be based on the black separatist notion of “race first.”

“That’s not the foundation of what PEG has worked with our district on,” said school board president Vanessa Sanburn. “What they’ve worked with us on is acknowledging that huge inequities have existed since the founding of the country, especially within education.”

Since 2009, the board has approved annual contracts with the firm totaling $217,511, district records show.

Officials say the program is part of the board’s “equity” goal of improving the achievement of all students while closing achievement gaps.

The workshops teach participants a structured way to talk about race by having them focus on their own personal experience.

“As educators, or really any member of society, one of the things you have to do is just recognize the fact that it is embedded,” said Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll. “From my perspective, as a person growing up, I didn’t have to deal with that, I didn’t have to think about it, I didn’t have to navigate it. It impacted me, but only in a positive way.”

In her article, “Whiteness as Property,” Harris said that’s true of most white people, but not for people of color. Even after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education struck down legal segregation in schools, she said racism merely “evolved into a more modern form through the law’s ratification of the settled expectations of relative white privilege.”

Doll said that shows up in Lawrence schools today, not only in the form of racial achievement gaps, but also in graduation, enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, and in school discipline policies.

Over the last five years, Doll said the Lawrence district has made great strides in narrowing the achievement gap between white and African-American students, but he concedes those gains have not been uniform across all grade levels and all subjects.

“As an example, in mathematics, across the five-year period (2008 – 2012), our white students went from 84.5 percent proficient to 93 percent proficient, an increase of 8.5 percent,” Doll said. “Meanwhile, our African-American students went from 59.8 percent proficient to 73.3 percent proficient, an increase of 13.5 percent. Because we are committed to the achievement of all students and we recognize that the achievement gap for our students of color is larger, our continued focus in addressing racial and ethnic achievement gaps has been instrumental in producing better results.”

Through the workshops, Doll said, the district is building “leadership teams” of teachers, administrators, parents and students to help develop policies and strategies for improving equity in each school.

“There are no technical solutions to the challenges we have about achievement,” Doll said. “It’s sometimes frustrating to people who want to say, ‘let’s just fix it.’ Well, the way you fix this is to really change people’s attitudes and knowledge base, and that takes time.”