Despite decades of reform efforts, Black students’ educational experiences continue to be shaped by anti-blackness, the general or specific contempt for blackness, resulting in Black people not being seen as fully human and worthy of having their civil rights and humanity observed and protected.
Data on the more than 350,000 Black students in California schools suggests that we must do something different, as many are not being served well in the Golden State. Schools oftentimes are harbors for the production and maintenance of anti-blackness, consequently positioning Black students as uneducable and justifying policies and practices that are detrimental to their well-being.
Institutionally, anti-blackness manifests in how school segregation limits Black students’ access to academic opportunities that would enable them to succeed academically. Moreover, even when Black students attend integrated and resource-rich schools, their schooling experiences continue to be tainted by anti-blackness, as they are frequently the targets of lowered expectations from teachers such as being seen as lacking intellectual gifts and talents, consequently, not being recommended for gifted programs, Advance Placement and honors courses. Another area is academic tracking where Black students are overrepresented in special education and low-level classes.
Furthermore, schools’ dress code policies often criminalize their cultural dress such as their wearing of hoodies, durags, bonnets and hair scarves and deem such dress as threatening or inappropriate. Many times, Black students are called into offices or asked to remove these elements of their dress, which takes students away from class time and other important school-related activities. Anti-blackness further manifests in schools in their exclusionary disciplinary practices with infractions such as disrespect, willful defiance and insubordination, all highly subjective, which then results in schools suspending or expelling Black students as opposed to repairing harm through restorative language and practices. Educators should practice building relationships and supporting Black students before quickly suspending and punishing them.
Another frequent manifestation of anti-blackness is microaggressions from non-Black students’ peers and school staff. For example, Black and Afro-Latino students are not considered language learners and as a result, are negatively impacted by the lack of funding and language support that other English learner students benefit from. Also, their peers may ignore their multiple identities (intersectionality), ignoring their duality in culture and language.
Despite the endemic nature of anti-blackness in society, educators have a duty to work toward disrupting anti-blackness in schools. We suggest three ways for educational practitioners to do so and carve out possibilities for Black students to thrive in spite of anti-blackness.
- Radical care through caseloads. Schools need a systematic way of supporting Black students and staying abreast of their day-to-day experiences. We recommend establishing caseloads where two or more teachers, administrators and out-of-classroom staff, are entrusted with checking in with, mentoring and counseling Black students. Consistent check-ins can positively impact Black students’ academic experience. One of the authors of this article (Keara Williams), arranged for one administrator and one teacher to support every Black student at her school. She led bi-monthly meetings, where case managers shared students’ current experiences and discussed data, attendance, academic progress and next steps to ensure that students did not slip through the cracks and fail to graduate. The creation of systems that make room to learn about Black students’ lives and provide holistic support is a mechanism schools can use to build relationships, provide radical care and increase Black student academic outcomes.
- Professional development centering Black students’ experiences. One of the more pivotal steps that school leaders can take to disrupt anti-blackness is to increase staff knowledge about Black students. Many school staff have not received professional learning on the nuances of Black culture, how to help Black students succeed, how to incorporate content by and about Black people, life, culture and history into the curriculum. Professional learning that addresses the unique experiences of Black students could be transformative. Such learning can be led by teachers or staff at the school who have been effective in teaching or supporting Black students as well as individuals with expertise in Black students. School leaders need to ensure that data on Black students is frequently analyzed and discussed through an asset-based lens, including looking at examples of anti-black microaggressions that are often commonplace in schools and classrooms. Professional learning on teachers misperceiving students’ body language and tone would be valuable as well.
- Black third spaces. A valuable step for disrupting anti-blackness is the creation of all-Black or third spaces for Black students. Third spaces that center Black students’ races and other identities, can disrupt anti-blackness on campuses by empowering Black students to develop a collective voice (and space) to address anti-blackness. Schools should create spaces for Black students, such as Black student unions, to feel safe while pushing back against anti-blackness and celebrate Black culture to develop and express a sense of pride as Black students. Safe third spaces can have elected student officers, community norms, student-created agendas, fundraisers, critical dialogue and cultural events.
The challenges that Black students face in schools are not new, but in many ways, they have become more pernicious and unrelenting. Schools must be explicit and unapologetic in their efforts to support Black students. Perhaps now, more than ever, with the pandemic highlighting gross schooling inequities experienced by Black students and their families during that period, it is necessary to be explicit about acknowledging, understanding and dismantling anti-blackness.
Keara Williams is a doctoral student in UCLA’s urban schooling division and a former high-school English teacher.
Gene McAdoo is a first-year doctoral student in the urban schooling division at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
Tyrone C. Howard is a professor at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. He is also the Pritzker Family endowed chair in Education to Strengthen Children & Families and director of the UCLA Black Male Institute.
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