Ebony and Ivory: Education’s “Racial Divide” Cannot be Crossed Until We Can “Talk Like Friends”
As we—in our nation’s schools and classrooms—enter a New Year of controversy, concerns, and challenges. . . disconnect, discontent, and disruption. . . confusion, conflict, and even crisis, everyone seems to agree that “something has got to change.”
But what many disagree with is what specifically needs to change. . . and how and where to start.
Not to be naïve, but as a psychologist who has studied bias and prejudice, and cognitive dissonance and social change, it seems that our biases change when we establish strong positive and personal relationships with people who are members of social groups that we do not know, have doubts about, or have negative attitudes (or worse) toward.
For example, as we develop personal relationships with members of different cultures and religions, our initial prejudiced biases (if they existed) change.
When we travel (physically or virtually) and develop personal relationships with those from different geographic or social-economic backgrounds, our initial prejudices or inaccurate perceptions (if they existed) change.
And, when we develop personal relationships with those with different sexual orientations or disabilities, our initial stereotypes or biases (if they existed) change.
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This week, I want to highlight the ongoing “racial divide” in education—focusing largely on the adults in our schools.
The effects of this racial divide is evident (for example) in:
- The racially inequitable funding of education at a state and/or local level;
- The formal (before Brown v. Board of Education) and still informal segregation of our schools;
- The disproportionate academic and behavioral (e.g., office discipline referrals and school suspensions) disproportionality experienced by students of color; and
- The significant (again, dating back at least to the “integration” of our schools following Brown v. The Board of Education) gap in the number of Black educators, related service professionals, and administrators in our nation’s schools and districts.
Along with this Blog, one of the ways that I wanted to highlight the atrocities above was to discuss it on Larry Jacob’s Education Talk Radio with my good friend Dr. Deborah Crockett. Deb was the first African-American President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), and she founded NASP’s Minority Scholarship Program back in 1991.
Deb and I have been colleagues and friends since (before) I was the President of NASP over 30 years ago. More importantly, she (as an African-American woman) and I (as a White male) have worked together and challenged each other through debates, agreements, and periodic disagreements on the difficult issues of race and education over the years.
For me, the underlying reason why I wanted Deb and I together on Education Talk Radio was to reinforce how personal relationships allow us to bridge education’s “racial divide” because we can talk as friends.
Backwards to Go Forward—I
It was a great disappointment to hear that, during her first days as the new Governor of Arkansas last week, Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an Executive Order to Prohibit Indoctrination and Critical Race Theory in Schools.
While couched in language that suggests her concern with “traditional American values of neutrality, equality, and fairness,” this action is remarkable in that, like similar legislation and executive orders in other states, this Executive Order (a) does not define Critical Race Theory (CRT) or its specifically “offensive” components, and (b) does not demonstrate that CRT even exists in Arkansas schools, and yet it (c) does suggest that CRT is discriminatory—even as many of the discriminatory and inequitable atrocities discussed above exist in many Arkansas’ schools and were not addressed during the 18 years that I lived there.
Significantly, at least two of our Blogs discussed the realities of CRT, and the impact of the national debate around its existence well over a year ago.
December 4, 2021 Will the Controversy Over Critical Race Theory Damage Students’ Pursuit to Better Understand Cultural, Racial, and Individual Differences? Is Our Nation At-Risk. . . for Different Reasons than in 1983?
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July 31, 2021 The Critical Common Sense Components Needed to Eliminate Disproportionate School Discipline Referrals and Suspensions for Students of Color: This is NOT About Critical Race Theory (But We Discuss It)
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In the end, it is uncertain why Governor Sanders would sign one of her first Executive Orders about an issue that is largely dated and defunct at this point.
Nonetheless, this Executive Order appears to represent a politically-motivated action that will—intentionally or unintentionally—maintain or exacerbate the racial divide in Arkansas’ schools to the detriment of students and staff.
In short, and consistent with the theme of this piece, this Executive Order will make it more difficult for Black, White, and other educators of color to openly and comfortably discuss issues of race and culture, relating these discussions to the effective and collaborative instruction and support of the multi-racial mix of students who they teach.
Backwards to Go Forward—II
Before returning to the theme of how personal relationships allow us to cross education’s “racial divide” (because we can talk as friends), let’s recognize that challenging problems are solved with both sound strategies and the collaborative interactions that ensure their implementation with integrity.
Relative to the former, previous Blogs have discussed, for example, both the unsound and sound strategies used to address disproportionate disciplinary practices in our schools—a core manifestation of inequity for students of color and with disabilities.
Addressing the unsound (largely, policy-driven) “strategies” that many states and districts have tried (but that have not decreased this inequity), we point to the following Blog.
September 25, 2021 How Have Districts Tried and Failed to Eliminate Disproportionate Discipline Rates for Students of Color and With Disabilities?
It’s Not About the Plan, It’s About What’s IN the Plan. . . and the Most Frequently Recommended Strategies Do Not Work
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Relative to the latter, we have shared a number of evidence-based research-to-practice student, staff, and classroom strategies that do significantly decrease disproportionate disciplinary actions with students of color and with disabilities.
August 14, 2021 The Components Needed to Eliminate Disproportionate School Discipline Referrals and Suspensions for Students of Color Do Not Require Anti-Bias Training: Behind Every Iron Chef is an Iron-Clad Recipe (Part II)
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July 9, 2022 Reviewing Three New Studies on Student Discipline, Disproportionate Office Referrals, and Racial Inequity. It’s Not about School Shootings! It’s about Recognizing What Needs to Change in our Classrooms
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But critically, even the best strategies can be undermined by half-hearted implementation due to insufficient staff commitment and collaboration.
Indeed, when effective and proven practices to improve schools’ racial disproportionality and inequity are implemented by staff who are racially separated on personal and professional levels, they have a limited chance of long-term and sustained success.
Establishing Connections between Racially Different Staff in Schools
While they may be a start, there is now enough evidence that formal professional development, in-service, or “self-awareness” workshops or programs—focused on multi-cultural history, awareness, sensitivity, or “culturally-competent” interactions—in and of themselves—do not successfully impact issues related to implicit bias and high-quality, day-to-day interactions between Black and White (and other) educators.
For a summary validating this statement, please see our past Blog:
December 5, 2020 Training Racial Bias Out of Teachers: Who Ever Said that We Could? Will the Fact that In-Service Programs Cannot Eliminate Implicit Bias Create a Bias Toward Inaction?
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At the same time, White educators do need to know and understand the historical events related to and that impact implicit and explicit bias, and the challenges of “growing up Black in America.”
Included here is the reality of White Privilege, and—as but one example only—the fear felt in Black families even when their children and adolescents simply walk out of their front doors to do an errand.
[SEE our Past Blog—with two Videos that EVERYONE should watch}:
September 5, 2020 Celebrating Our Labors on Labor Day . . . While Recognizing the Contribution of White Privilege
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Conversely, Black educators should also understand the power and impact of others’ implicit biases. . . and that, by their very nature, these biases are largely hidden to those who express or enact them.
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A September 6, 2022 Education Week article, “Why Can’t We Talk to Each Other Anymore? How Binary Thinking Is Dividing the K-12 World,” discussed some of the psychological processes affecting difficult discussions in today’s schools.
The article began (with minor edits):
"Watching all this binary, dichotomous, either-or thinking play out in K-12 education over the past few years has been frustrating. . . It has been one of the ugliest periods of factionalism in the United States I have witnessed in my 59 years.
And it got me thinking: Why do we do this? Why is it so bad now? And, most importantly, how do we move past this rigid way of thinking and behaving so it doesn’t get in the way of meaningful and effective teaching and learning?
Turns out, the answer to the first question begins with how our brains work. For most of us, our tendency is to jump to conclusions with limited evidence. In other words, the first mistake our minds make is to move too quickly. This, in turn, denies us the opportunity to consider the nuances of a problem or issue. Some of us engage in this kind of thinking more than others—but we all do it.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book by Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, offers a fascinating look into what drives this way of thinking.
'The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little,” Kahneman writes in the book. “We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing—what we see is all there is.'”
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The article continues, eventually introducing the social psychological concept of “fundamental attribution error.”
"That leads us to a concept in social psychology called “fundamental attribution error.” It is why people mistakenly assign the root cause of an observed behavior to the person’s character or personality, rather than something about their circumstances or a mix of their personality and circumstances. That explains the widespread use of personal attacks by extremists on social media or why people of opposing viewpoints can’t debate an issue without flinging personal insults at each other. . .
Herein lies the problem: When we engage in fundamental attribution error that focuses too heavily on a person’s character or personality—without engaging in “slow” thinking to consider their situations or circumstances—it is much easier to get frustrated and angry with that person. And that’s when the pointless name-calling starts at school board meetings and on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media."
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In the end, one of the ways to traverse the Black-White staff divide in schools today (if it exists) is to have the conversations and experiences that help everyone to set the norms that reinforce an ongoing “consideration of each other’s situations or circumstances” during professional and personal interactions. . . so that relationships built on trust and understanding can evolve.
While this is easy to say and more challenging to do, School Leadership Teams need to continuously discuss, survey, assess, and plan formal and informal activities so that all staff “get to know each other” on multiple—including racial, religious, cultural, and generational—levels.
Grade-level (or departmental) teams, cross-grade level (or trans-disciplinary) teams, and individual staff members need to similarly take the steps necessary to “cross both professional and personal bridges”. . . getting to know each other as colleagues, community-members, and as just plain “folk.”
This is yet another challenge for most educators during their already-overloaded days and weeks. But these personal relationships can make these days and weeks easier—especially when racially uncomfortable, inequitable, inappropriate, or biased interactions or events (inside or outside the school) occur.
A Personal Finale
As referenced earlier in this Blog, my good friend Dr. Deborah Crockett, the first African-American President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the Founder of NASP’s Minority Scholarship Program back in 1991, and I were together on Larry Jacob’s Education Talk Radio this past week.
While the topic was Recruiting Minorities to Education and Mental Health Professions, I wanted to use the program to emphasize three things:
- As states continue to politicize racial differences in ways that are insensitive to Black history, culture, and lived experiences, the recruitment and retention of Black educators and mental health service providers—even into professional training programs—will suffer.
Said a different way: Why would you go somewhere where you are not wanted, respected, valued, and comfortable?
- That the recruitment and, especially, retention process of Black educators and mental health professionals will succeed on the strength of Black and White educators' ability to talk with each other. . . especially when—as above—racially inequitable, biased, inappropriate, or uncomfortable interactions or events (inside or outside the school) occur.
- Without putting either of us on a pedestal, I wanted the way that Deb and I communicated and interacted on the radio program to provide a model of Black-White respect and collegiality.
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To be sure, Deb and my mutual respect and collegiality is anchored by a personal relationship that is grounded in:
- Our shared personal and professional experiences
- Our willingness to recognize our racial (and gender) differences, and to question and learn from each other when we “know that we don’t know”
- Our ability to discuss the underlying reasons for the success of our cross-racial relationship, and to sensitively “call each other out” when our implicit biases cause interactions that are inadvertently inappropriate
- Our trust in each other—recognizing that neither of us would do anything to consciously or willingly hurt each other, and that many of our interactions are not race-related, they now are “Howie and Deb”-related
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I believe that these characteristics come across in our interview (see the YouTube version below).
In addition, note that Deb, Larry, and I talk discuss some ideas on how to recruit and keep minorities in education—both in the classroom and as mental health support professionals. . . especially school psychologists.
Clearly, there are many layers and strategies needed to bridge the professional and personal gaps between Black and White educators. While some schools have few or no gaps in this area, given the political climate of the past few years, the ongoing existence of academic gaps for students of color, and their disproportionate treatment relative to school discipline, any existing successes require critical and ongoing attention.
As noted, a great deal of research has concluded that formal professional development, in-service, or “self-awareness” workshops or programs—focused on multi-cultural history, awareness, sensitivity, or “culturally-competent” interactions—in and of themselves—have not successfully eliminated implicit bias and its effects on the day-to-day interactions between Black and White (and other) educators.
This Blog has emphasized that, ultimately, any effective approaches or strategies need to be complemented and driven by the personal relationships between Black and White educators.
While needing both formal and informal sustained interactions, until Black and White educators can talk “as friends,” racially inequitable, biased, uncomfortable, or inappropriate interactions or events (inside or outside the school) will likely be unresolved, increasing the potential to negatively impact school climate, building and grade-level staff interactions, and the quality of instruction and student support.
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As always, I appreciate everyone who reads this bi-monthly Blog and thinks about the issues or recommendations that we share.
I again wish all of you a “Happy New Year” on both a personal and professional level.
We have five to six more months to positively impact our students, staff and colleagues, schools, and other educational settings. While many districts are already planning for the future (i.e., the 2023 – 2024 school year), we still need to understand that the “future is now.”
If I can help you map out your future—for example, in the areas of (a) school improvement, (b) social-emotional learning/positive behavioral discipline and classroom management systems, and (c) multi-tiered (special education) services and supports—feel free to contact me to begin this process.