Next to employment and police relations, education is of perennial concern for people of color. Conflicts involving educational access and racial equity certainly have affected Lawrence recently. In the fall of 2015, University of Kansas students joined a national wave of activism targeted to the campus climate. This past fall, a reported classroom encounter involving a teacher at South Middle School triggered disruptions at school board meetings that dramatized larger concerns about racial equity in the district. With the teacher’s resignation occurring amid an investigation, the matter of whether he may have made racist remarks to students is an issue that school district officials have shelved as a personnel affair.
In the absence of the teachable moment that this episode potentially offered, we are told that the superintendent and school board members are doing their best, and have been doing so. We are reminded that the district possesses an Educational Equity and Excellence Plan, provides “Beyond Diversity” training, and seeks members for an Equity Advisory Committee. Disgruntled parents of color are advised to check their behavior, recognize the good work that is occurring and get involved in district initiatives. Meanwhile, the public conversation has shifted toward community reconciliation and unity. Promoting better intercultural communication is necessary. However, absent any reckoning with how we have arrived at this particular crossroads in our school district, attempts at building consensus are shaky.
First, the robust community dialogue about equity in Lawrence public schools is a result of the dissidence of parents and their allies. However we may want to judge it normatively, protest is a vital form of politics that compels institutions to deal with grievances that officially sanctioned approaches ignore, deny or suppress. At their best, insurgent movements serve a corrective function by exposing and altering relationships of power. Left to their own prerogatives, majorities do not amend themselves, and certainly not because it is the moral thing to do. That labor falls to minorities willing to jolt people out of inertia by “making a scene.” This is messy and discomforting, especially for those who can afford complacency. Admonishing protesters to be “civil” misrepresents how social reform occurs and excuses the obscenity of persistent inequality. Likewise, appealing to the virtues of Jayhawk pride, or celebrating Lawrencians for an egalitarian “Free State” heritage substitutes mythology for analysis. It frames the community as a finished project rather than a work in constant progress.
Second, strategic plans, reports, training and workshops in diversity, equity and inclusion are fine, but they are only preconditions for pursuing these goals. They are no cause for self-congratulation. Indeed, managing diversity in higher education often is reduced to auditing statements and certifications of completion, with the rhetoric of “tolerance” taking the place of actual transformations in the distribution of resources, access, and opportunity. Leaders in K-12 education face the same dilemma. Courageous conversations are not enough. Neither is it sufficient even to acknowledge “institutionalized racism,” which can be so encompassing as to exist nowhere with no one held accountable.
A bigger challenge is to confront inequalities as they present themselves in the daily, routine policies and practices of system maintenance. That requires not only asking whether the disproportionate disciplinary referrals for students of color are rising or falling, but also probing how schools criminalize students of color in the first place. It means not only improving the diversity in “gifted” programs and advanced placement courses but also questioning what the absence of diversity suggests about who determines “merit” itself and how. It depends not only on emphasizing culturally relevant education or modules on “white privilege,” but also exploring what this means when administrators and teaching staff in the district remain largely white.
A quality education is the key route to self-actualization, social mobility and well-being. The period spent in elementary, middle and high school is brief, but the experiences there shape the direction of entire lives. Parents have every right to express disappointment, even rage, when schools fail their children or applaud themselves for incremental changes already decades delayed. The Lawrence school district calls for accountability at all levels to “identify and correct district and school policies, procedures and practices that perpetuate racial achievement disparities.” This is excellent. School officials also proclaim that “all students can learn and achieve at high levels.” I wholeheartedly agree. Realizing the potential in these statements, though, demands harder conversations and actions, for which I want to hope Lawrence is prepared.
— Clarence Lang is professor and chair of African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas.