Downplaying the realities of racism leads to misunderstanding school problems.

  • Originally published in Education Weekly by John B. Diamond & Jennifer Cheatham — March 31, 2021
  • Updated: This article was published prematurely. The final version was published on April 13, 2021.
  • This is the first of three essays by Diamond and Cheatham about leading for racial justice.

John B. Diamond & Jennifer Cheatham

John B. Diamond is the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education and a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s education school. A sociologist, he studies the relationship between social inequality and educational opportunity. Jennifer Cheatham is a senior lecturer on education and the co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a former superintendent of the Madison school district in Wisconsin.

Educational leaders need to be courageous in challenging white supremacy in our schools and vigilant in eliminating its toxic impact if we are to lead for racial justice. The urgency of acting now was laid bare as we watched a violent mob, carrying white-supremacist symbols and encouraged by then-President Donald Trump, invade the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. But hate groups are just one facet of a much broader white-supremacist system in which, as law professor Francis Ansley argues, “whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources,” and ideas about white superiority permeate society and its institutions.

Too often, we educators soft-peddle this reality as if avoiding the racial elephant in the room would persuade certain powerful white people to listen to our messages. The best way forward is for educational leaders to challenge racial oppression boldly and directly.

The nation’s schools have a history of supporting and reinforcing racial hierarchies, along with other forms of domination, through their policies and practices. From Native American boarding schools to Jim Crow segregation, U.S. schools have been fundamentally shaped by race. These historical roots show up in our current systems through school segregation in practice if not in law, enrollment policies, and school discipline practices in which students of color are systematically provided with limited resources, less rigorous learning environments, and fewer chances to make mistakes. We cannot lead for racial justice without confronting this history and its contemporary manifestations. As writer and activist James Baldwin reminded us, “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

We recall a meeting we had in 2018. The two of us—John, a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jen, then the Madison school district superintendent—sat with another superintendent, talking about our collective work on race and education. It was a moment of reflection for all of us. John thought about how his work on distributed leadership and education policy had evolved to foreground race and power. Jen recognized that her own approach to leading change in school districts had become increasingly more explicit about systemic racism over time. Both superintendents had just completed their second strategic plans.

During the conversation, we discussed those initial plans, which downplayed race. Instead of foregrounding racial justice, the plans couched their strong racial-equity concerns in the more palatable (to white people) language of diversity, achievement gaps, and equity. As we talked, it became clear that not calling out race more directly from the start was as much a response to anticipated resistance from white parents, community members, and even educators as it was about building the trust and credibility to make change. Looking back, we realized that it took too much time for racial justice to become an explicit part of the districts’ agendas, valuable time given most superintendents’ relatively short tenure.

To those who worry that taking a bold stand for racial justice will result in resistance or even hostility to change, we point out that the most recent wave of white-supremacist backlash has already come. For instance, the Trump administration rescinded almost all the Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letters that guide school districts regarding their responsibilities for protecting students from discrimination. Trump also used his office to issue executive orders designed to silence those who work to raise awareness of systemic racism and released the propaganda-laced 1776 report, which included a whitewashed version of U.S. slavery, prior to leaving office. While the Biden administration is working to reverse these decisions, the actions demonstrate the broader challenge we face.

In order to provide a countervailing force and disrupt deeply ingrained systemic racism in schools, education leaders need to fundamentally redesign how their schools and school districts function. Every practice needs to have antiracism at the core. For instance, how educators are hired, inducted, and mentored needs to counter the unfair burdens often placed on educators of color. How educational resources are allocated across schools and students needs to eliminate unfair racial advantages. The taken-for-granted mechanisms of opportunity hoarding built into our schools such as gifted programs, tracking, and overreliance on testing need to be challenged. As we do this work, school leaders can center and help amplify the voices of Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students, parents, and staff rather than placating certain white people who seek to monopolize advantages.

This failure to directly confront white supremacy undermines a basic practice of education leadership. In their book Diagnosis and Design for School Improvement, James P. Spillane and Amy Franz Coldren argue that school leadership is about carefully diagnosing problems, clearly articulating solutions, and purposefully designing organizational routines to solve the problems. The issues that we have found hardest to budge—among them, improved school climate, unequal educational opportunity, and disparities in school discipline—are ones in which school and district leaders did not accurately diagnose the problem from the start. For example, discipline issues are too often understood by educators as simple. The problem is with our students, so the solutions focus on modifying student behavior. In Jen’s experience in Madison, district leaders recognized that the problems were more complicated—policy issues that disproportionately and unfairly affected Black students. And so the solutions were to modify policies and related practices, yet the issues largely remained because the modifications didn’t remedy the fundamental problem.

Still another diagnosis emerged from the views of Black students and their parents, however. They pointed to lack of trusting relationships between students and adults, limited access to deep and relevant learning, and inability to influence decisionmaking in their own schools. These problems, more complex and rooted in racism and white supremacy, require a different set of solutions. When we fail to acknowledge how deeply embedded white supremacy is in our education organizations, we risk misdiagnosing the cause of educational problems and develop interventions that miss the mark.

As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, the author of Racism Without Racists, has argued quite convincingly, in the post-civil rights era, many people believe that not talking about race makes them (and their institutions) nonracist, as if we can wish away centuries of accumulated racial oppression by closing our mouths and eyes. We argue that silence is not an option. Education leaders have the power and the responsibility to move our education system toward racial justice.

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as Ed. Leaders: Discuss Race, Call Out White Supremacy