Antiracism in your school: 9 ways to keep the conversation rational and unifying

A few years ago, I noticed that the words diversity, equity, and inclusion were steadily gaining in popularity, especially in K-12 education. At first, I couldn’t see a problem with the concepts. But as I dug deeper I discovered that much of the movement behind these words, although advanced by people with the best of intentions, was contradictory, illogical, and somewhat unethical. Take the defining of every action as either “racist” or “anti-racist, for example. It’s easy to find examples that seem to be neither, but more importantly this framing necessarily divides the staff of a school and narrows the set of ideas discussed, rather than diversifying it. A search for structural barriers to the learning of minority subgroups of students should be taken up by every district, but I’m deeply skeptical that the captivating ideas of the current moment give us the tools to identify and remove those barriers.

Although diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have been issues of focus in higher education for a while, the suite of ideas, which I term “the social justice suite of ideas”, such as antiracism and white fragility, skyrocketed in popularity in K-12 schooling shortly after the killing of George Floyd by the police. As the ideas began to gain traction in K-12 schools and school districts—beyond just living on Twitter—I decided to create guidance for K-12 administrators and school leaders, like has been done for university leadership and administrators, to ensure they can avoid the nearly inevitable pitfalls that come along with the social justice suite of ideas. 

I want to be clear about something at the outset—if there are structures in schools that create a disparity in outcomes between different groups of students then we should make an honest effort to understand them and to have a clear-headed discussion about altering that structure. But I reject the assertion that disparity is only caused by racism and the conclusion that the social justice suit of ideas is the only remedy for the disparity. 

Notably, there is no lite version of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s not as if you can do training for a year and be done with it. Because, according to the social justice suite of ideas, all inequities are structurally caused, the remedy is diversity, equity, and inclusion training, and if inequities persist, then you need to do more of the “work”. But the social justice suite of ideas asserts that inequities will always remain—advocates of these ideas proclaim that the work is never done, which points to one contradiction in these ideas. As Robin DiAngelo, a prominent figure advancing the social justice suite of ideas stated, “I will never be completely free of racism or finished with my learning”.  

There are ways for administrators and school leaders to ensure that this movement brings about positive change. First, understanding the language of this movement is important because many of the words and phrases used seem inherently good. (Who wouldn’t want to be “anti-racist”?) New Discourses has an encyclopedia of the terms used in the social justice suite of ideas. Then, when teachers, staff, and community members propose implementing the suite of social justice ideas in your school, I suggest following these nine steps:

  1. Define all the terms at the outset so everyone is clear as to what is being discussed, and then agree upon the terms. 
  2. Demand specificity in regards to the problem being addressed. If the charge is racism, continue to demand specificity. Do not accept the charge that we are all racist to some degree and the gap can be fixed by all of us interrogating our own racism. 
  3. Demand to see data that demonstrates there’s a problem. Make sure that the data presented is data that everyone agrees is meaningful. For example, someone might claim standardized tests are racist. A reasonable question might be, “if they’re racist then why should we care about disparities in their results?”
  4. Look for proxies that might get at the root of the problem or help more students. For example, if racial or ethnic disparities exist, are there other factors that correlate with the racial disparities, like poverty or childhood trauma? 
  5. When activities or professional development are suggested, demand to see research supporting the efficacy of the activity or training. Be careful here—there is a lot of pseudoscience masquerading as research. Make sure the research actually supports the professional development and is relevant to the data used to demonstrate the problem. Simply because the author has a Ph.D. does not mean the preceding text is high-quality research. 
  6. Do not let the advocates define you. The social justice suite of ideas has created a binary— you are either a racist or you are anti-racist; there is no place to stand in between. This relies on a redefinition of the word that makes the bar for “racism” so low that anyone can and will trip over it. If you resist  suggestions from the social justice suite of ideas in the ways that I mentioned above, you risk being called racist. Do not cede this linguistic territory. Begin compiling a list of all the ways you’ve reached out and supported minority students and communities. This almost certainly won’t be good enough―if there’s any kind of achievement gap across any metric then there must be racism causing it, according to the social justice suite of ideas. But it can be used to demonstrate to the broader community (within and outside of the school) that you are in fact working on supporting students from different backgrounds. 
  7. As a follow-up to number six, you might want to consider beating the advocates to the punch. What disparities might the group be aware of or will find? Point them out to the group and propose research-based ideas for how they might be remedied or how you are attempting to address them currently. 
  8. Be very careful with appeasement. Resist the thought, “well if I give them this then they should be happy”. Staunch advocates for these ideas won’t be happy until all subgroups are achieving at the same levels. As I mentioned above, the solution, in the minds of advocates, is to advance the social justice suite of ideas, even if those same ideas have so far failed to fix the problem. They will contend, there must be more racism amongst the staff and the staff must not be working hard enough to eradicate it—the staff must not be doing enough antiracist work.
  9. Draw lines. As you learn more about what advocates want, make sure that you draw lines that you won’t cross. A reasonable line might be that you won’t approve mandatory implicit bias training. As one of the early researchers on implicit bias stated, “mandatory (implicit bias) training has the potential for backlash”. The Implicit Association Test, on which the training’s justification rests, has plenty of staunch critics. They cite the low test-retest reliability, weak evidence that implicit bias leads to actual discrimination, and questionable methodology in early meta-analyses. When drawing lines, be sure to engage with a diverse set of perspectives. 

If structures in your district hold back certain groups of students then you should work to remedy or eliminate those structures. But you should do this in a rigorous, scientific, and careful way. Book studies of “How to be an Antiracist” or “White Fragility”, diversity training, or implicit bias training will not provide solutions to the problems. 

While listening to Mike Strambler, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, in a roundtable discussion put on by Heterodox Academy’s HxK-12Education Community, he made a point that resonated with me. While discussing the problems with the social justice suite of ideas as they relate to K-12 education, he pointed out that no one in education wants there to be massive disparities between different groups of students, and that rich discussion can come from trying to eliminate structures that lead to those disparities. But the way that happens most effectively, he suggests, is by doing the following: defining the goals at the outset, identifying the metrics that will be used to evaluate those goals, and settling on methods that arise from bringing in a diverse set of viewpoints into the discussion. An effective solution is more likely with this approach (and division amongst staff less likely), than one grounded exclusively in the social justice suite of ideas. (You can see the beginning of that discussion here).

Further Reading:

You’ve been mandated to do ineffective training. Now what?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in K-12 Professional Development: The Mission Versus the Reality

Responding Constructively to Mandated Diversity Trainings

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