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  


  1. This story was quite informative, and it truly pains me that your guidance counselor would have already cut you off as unfit for college. Putting myself in that situation as someone who is easily persuaded by others, I worry that I might not have been as courageous as you, and would have succumbed to the guidance counselor’s suggestion and pursued a track other than a college degree.

  2. Meritocracy is a slippery slope and wholly useless when comparing any two individuals or groups of individuals. It fails to take into consideration the lack of resources, or the over-abundance of resources that one group or individual may experience. We know that, systemically, prevalently African American school systems/districts receive less funding. This affects the quality of education they can receive, which affects their future. This is only one of the things that continues to contribute to the bias, stereotypes, and overall general misconception that African Americans have inferior intelligence when compared to their White counterparts.

  3. Thanks for sharing your personal story about how discrimination has played a role in your life. The sins of the past certainly bleed into the present with a majority of people not recognizing or addressing it. It’s shameful how your teachers acted, but you’ve shown truths and inspired with your perseverance. We can only hope that we are in the beginning of dismantling the racial inequities in our societal institutions, especially our educational systems. You’re certainly demonstrating that the best way to change this system is from within, bringing about major reform and awareness in how our society reacts and treats racial identities.
    I’m curious about how implementing a curriculum centered on racial inequities would be best incorporated into our schools. I definitely agree that Social Studies and Language Arts are natural places to start, but I think it would be more beneficial if it came from all areas. Only now are black scientists and mathematicians from the moon-race era are beginning to receive recognition for their achievements, so I think there is a long way to go yet. I am hopeful that with the development of African American studies departments in universities and colleges across the country, this gaping hole in our educations have been noted.
    It’s terrible to think about the unknown percentage of men and women of the black community who have been pushed out of higher education due to racism and discrimination. But all of these resources you’ve gathered, and many others, are a good way of describing how often this happens, and the consequences that come from being pushed out of higher education. As a white man of priviledge, I can say that your process of entering college does not at all resemble mine. These are hard truths to think about, but thank you for the opportunity to reflect, and the possibilities presented of how I can help others by being that teacher figure that supports not despite of racial identity, but because of it.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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