Learning While Black: Addressing Racial Inequities in US Education

Robert Parker teaching.Emily Hanford | APM Reports

By Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction- Learning While Black
Throughout my middle and high school career, some of my teachers and counselors told me that I did not have the intellectual capacity to be successful in college. In one instance, I met with my ninth grade guidance counselor to discuss my future and the career I was interested in. She advised me that I would not do well in college and would not be successful. In fact, she seemed shocked that I would choose to go to college. She had already assigned me to all remedial classes, on a non-college prep track. I informed her that I indeed planned to go to college. Further, I asked her to please place me in college preparatory and advanced classes, which I qualified for. There was no reason for her to put me in remedial courses, except for the assumption that African American males were poor students and were more interested in athletics. Furthermore, at the school I attended there were only one or two students of color in all of the honors and college prep courses. It seems that the mental model of the faculty and staff was that black students were not intelligent enough to be successful in college but naturally excelled more in sports and vocational professions.

I persevered
In hindsight, I can do nothing but laugh now, because I went on to college and received a 4.0 in my sophomore year and graduated cum laude in undergraduate and summa cum laude in my graduate programs.  Furthermore, I am now an education and history professor at a public university in Kentucky. Despite what some teachers said, the true hero for me was my mom. All throughout my K-12 schooling experience she advocated for me and recognized that I was a precocious child who loved learning and being challenged academically. She did not let me succumb to the systemic racism that was prevalent in our school district, like many others.

Racial Inequities Continue to Persist
The reason I shared my personal story is to highlight issues of inequity that continue to be present in the United States education system. There has been a long held assumption that African Americans are not as intelligent as their white counterparts. This mindset is not only prevalent among average people but is common among administrators and teachers across America. Dr. Carl L. Robinson in his 2004 doctoral dissertation addressed the over-representation of African Americans in special education classes. He argued that due to the negative view many whites have toward African American students, they end up in remedial courses or are barred from advanced classes, similar to my own experience. These inequities in the education system that I experienced have not gone away in contemporary times. In fact, they seem to be worsening.

The Myth of Meritocracy Blocks Progress
There are entire neighborhoods all throughout the United States where youth have been pushed out of the American dream because of educational inequalities. However, because of the myth of meritocracy, Americans have largely avoided the conversation of educational inequality and inequity as it relates to students of color. Social studies and language arts classrooms are great places to implement a curriculum centered on the study of racial inequities in education. Administrators should evaluate their schools and districts and explore ways to make them more equitable. Here are some resources for educators to examine racial inequalities and implement these discussions in their classrooms.   

Lessons and Resources
Strategies for an Equal Education: Lesson Plan
Visualizing School Equity
Still Separate, Still Unequal: Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality
Education inequalities at the school starting gate
Addressing Educational Inequality
Responding to Educational Inequality

Books that Address Racial Inequity
Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools by Glenn E. Singleton
Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (Multicultural Education Series) 2nd Edition by Özlem Sensoy  and Robin DiAngelo
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum 
An Introduction to Multicultural Education by James A. Banks  

14 Comments

  1. This was an interesting read, and I recommend it to many teachers as well as student teachers to help open their eyes to the systematic racism that still exist in our school systems. I also want to say I am sorry for your grade school experience but thankfully you had the support system from your mother to help you overcome the many obstacles thrown at you solely due to the color of your skin, which is unfair and something many young kids should not go through but unfortunately, as stated, they still are and if not worse.
    As a future educator, my daily goal is to make everyone feel welcome in my classroom no matter their background, gender, or race. We must create inclusive classrooms where learning is fair to everyone and also not hold biases against students who deserve to be in college ready courses as you should have been with no question. Teachers should set their students up for success and not follow the system that has been set for so many years of racial inequities in the classroom.
    Thank you for the lessons and resources, I will be sure to use them.

  2. I was very interested in this article because prior to reading this I had not thought about this phenomenon. It is everyone involved in the education process to help break this stigma and push students of all race and backgrounds to achieve their very best, without making assumptions about students capabilities.

  3. I am just appalled that your counselor would deny you access to college prep or AP classes when you qualified for them. I sit here and wonder how many kids this is happening to in America every day. This has definitely opened my eyes to the injustice children are facing in our school systems.
    I am glad that despite these injustices and obstacles, you were able to go to college and achieve your goals. But I also wonder how many children do not share the same success stories. I think that now, more than ever, educators need to know that this is happening and be advocates for our students. We need to work to ensure that this does not continue to happen.
    Also, I like the lesson plan that Dr. Child’s included. I think it would be a great way to educate students on equality, the history of racial injustice, and really bring some honest conversations into the classroom. It would be a useful tool to teach children that while we are united in this history, we also need to unite and take action for change.

  4. Dr. Childs,

    I can relate to your story of learning while black. All I can think about when reading this is what about the students who do not have the support from parents, like you did from your mom. A teacher can make them feel discouraged and then they may feel like they deserve to be in the placement the teacher out them in. It is unfortunate that teachers, which are the ones who should care about all students can have this mind frame and can still have it today. That is why I think it is important for teachers to have courses to learn about racial inequality. Teachers not having to learn about this can really be a disservice for students of color. I believe that teachers have to have so much training on so many other factors that relate to education, but not so much when it comes racial inequality and learning how to teach your students who have a different background than you. There has to be a change! At NKU I do like that the college of education makes it mandatory for all students to take the racism and sexism class, but that is just a start. We should be incorporating this topic into all subject matters!

  5. I was interested in this article because I used to hear a lot the assumption that black students aren’t as smart. In high school, I was mostly enrolled in advanced courses which were mostly white. The few remedial courses I took were where I saw minority students. I used to just accept it but it’s upsetting to learn that it’s indicative of a larger social issue. Being a future teacher, I want to increase more awareness of these issues and do my part to fix them. I will definitely be using the provided resources during my teaching career to do my part to combat racial inequity.

  6. Yes.. Thanks for sharing such testimony and encouragement to others.. Glad you p.u.s.h.e.d through and continued to let God lead your path. Continue to let God be the light asyou teach others about their history!

  7. In recent years, I have become more aware of systematic racism. Before I graduated high school I thought racism had slowed down because I never noticed it, my friends never talked about it, and I was not racist. But since graduating I have had my eyes opened to see that our country is still divided on race. As teachers, we need to be a push for change. Its sad to hear your story of how people who are supposed to make you strive to be better actually hold you back.

  8. The story that Dr. Child’s opens up with really blows my mind. I cannot believe that that many people in your education career said those things to you because of their preconceived thoughts on African Americans, specifically male. It is so crucial to not make assumptions based on racial bias. There needs to be more diversity training and educating on systematic racism within education and how to stop it. I know that as a teacher, I would never make these remarks or believe these things. If you are not trying to uplift your students, ALL students, then what are you doing being a teacher?

  9. Having grown up in a predominantly white school, I would agree that many white teachers have bizarre prejudices about the black community, but I think it also is amplified because of neighborhoods that are still segregated. When students of color do struggle, I feel it is usually because of their home or neighborhood environment being too much of a burden or distraction. I have drug dealers playing loud music outside all the time, and I can’t concentrate on my school work when that occurs. People understand each other when they engage with them outside of work/school.
    I also feel because of these prejudices that teachers have, elementary and middle school students are behind in their education. Because of paternalism or behavioral issues, these otherwise receptive kids are given the path of least resistance. Teachers living in the suburbs do not understand that most issues when they arise are environmental and not intellectual.

  10. I enjoyed this article it showed the hardships that he went through. Also, how no matter how many people doubted him he still persevered and I liked that.

  11. This article was so insightful, and it genuinely hurts me that your guidance counselor had basically already written you off as incapable of attending college. As someone who can be easily swayed by others, putting myself in that position, I fear that I would not have been as strong as you, and possibly would’ve given into the guidance counselor’s advice and chosen a path other than a college education. This just makes me think about the number of African Americans who live through these terrible acts each day. I also like that you included books and lesson plans to go along with this article because this is a great way to open the eyes of our students to racial inequality and segregation.

  12. This story surprises me since it is a circumstance that is hard for me to imagine being in. From my experience counselors always seem to be pushing students into the highest possible classes. As long as you qualified for these classes, there should be nothing keeping you from being eligible for the honors program. In fact, they should have been pushing you to sign up for these courses. The opinion that people of color aren’t academically capable is ridiculous and it is unfortunate that anyone still has that mindset. However, nowadays, I feel that more people have the opinion that people of color simply aren’t as interested in the core subjects as they are in athletics or other things. This does need to change because as a future educator, I know that I want each of my students to get every possible opportunity. In my opinion, if anyone has a different opinion they shouldn’t have entered the education field.

  13. I am absolutely astounded that you were written off by the very people who were supposed to help guide you. It is something that I will never truly understand due to my privilege, and I just can’t imagine how much that can wear on people as they deal with it their entire lives. I can only wonder how many people were held back by people like your guidance counselor. Luckily you had someone like your mother on your side to support you and your education, but what about those children who don’t have that type of support at home? One would hope they could find that at school, but we really can’t be sure with the inequalities found in our education systems.
    The lessons found in this article were targeted to middle schoolers and high schoolers, but I do think this type of lesson could be implemented in elementary as well. For another class, we learned about Jane Elliot and her brown eyes/blue eyes experimental lesson she gave to students and how impactful it was to her class decades later. Now this was an anti-racism lesson and did not specify in inequality in school, but my point is that these types of lessons are possible in school and can hold weight to students. As educators we want to nurture students’ academics, but we also want to help create good people that can bring out positive change to the world. These types of topic, while may be hard and emotional to both teachers and students, are not something we can just do without.

  14. What you experienced in high school is absolutely appalling and disgusting. Was the counselor not even looking at your grades to know that you definitely did not need to be put in remedial? Obviously, that was her first step for any white student that she looked over. That is so unbelievably unfortunate, because as a counselor you are there to help guide and mentor every student, not degrade them. As someone who hopes to educate young students on the basis of everyone should be treated alike no matter what they look like, this angers me. I love how even though all of this occured you persevered and proved anyone who thought you couldn’t do it wrong. You chose to educate everyone on the inequality of skin color! Students hear whatever their parents tell them, and it is our job as educators to help educate them on what’s wrong and what’s right, and everyone should be treated equally.

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