In the “Historical Notes” conclusion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the reader discovers through a darkly biting satire of academia that the world of the novel’s main character, June/Offred, developed in part through the shifting proportion of races in the U.S. and throughout the world. The shift in majority and minority status among races resulted in cataclysmic events, including the creation of a bible-based nation, Gilead, that also sought to preserve the Caucasian race through the subjugation of fertile women as handmaid’s.
Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia” that every event in her dystopian novel has already happened in human history—explaining that speculative fiction serves as warnings about what is as much as what may come to be.
Race and power have a long and complex history in the U.S., from the institution of slavery clouding the first century of the nation to Reconstruction segregation to the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. And that social history has often been reflected as well in the history of U.S. education.
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With the release of Teaching Diversity Matters: A State-by-State Analysis of Teachers of Color, by Ulrich Boser (November 2011, Center for American Progress), the U.S. and our education system appear poised to enter into the next phase of race and power dynamics that will once again challenge our resolve as free people dedicated to democracy, human agency, and social justice.
Confronting Diversity, Equity, and Cultural Assumptions
Boser opens Teaching Diversity Matters with the new reality of public schools:
“At some point over the next 10 to 12 years, the nation’s public school student body will have no one clear racial or ethnic majority. In other words, students of color—students who are not classified as non-Hispanic whites, for purposes of this analysis—will constitute more than half of our primary and secondary students. This demographic trend is already manifest in some of the nation’s most populous states, including California and Texas, where the majority of students are students of color.”
This report forces us to confront two stark realities: (1) the student population is shifting (and has already shifted in some states) toward majority-minority racial characteristics that require a reconsideration of both the terms “diversity” and “minority,” and (2) the racial status of teachers exposes a serious gap between that student population and the teachers in our schools:
“At the national level, students of color make up more than 40 percent of the public school population. In contrast, teachers of color—teachers who are not non-Hispanic white—are only 17 percent of the teaching force.”
Beyond sounding an alarm about the racial shift among students and the failure to attract and support an equal proportion of teachers of color in our schools, the report presents two more key policy problems for educators and leaders concerned with policy and reform:
• Alternative certification avenues to teaching have attracted a greater percentage of teachers of color than traditional certification. If colleges of education and state departments of education charged with certifying teachers genuinely embrace a commitment to diversity, then this report suggests both need to reconsider why traditional certification appears to fail in recruiting and supporting teachers of color.
• Teachers of color are less satisfied with their pay, and
“[t]eachers of color also are far less satisfied than white teachers with the way in which their school is run. Only 70 percent of African-American teachers are satisfied with the way that their school is run, 8 percentage points lower than white teachers. Hispanic teachers as well as Asian and Pacific Islander teachers are also less likely than white teachers to say that they liked how their school was run.”
This finding is a powerful message about the intersection of power and race. In the HBO documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, the high school at the center of the desegregation of schools in the U.S. exposes that a change in laws has failed both the ideals of desegregation and the children and teachers of color now walking the halls of a school-within-a-school; teachers of color express a vividly different Little Rock Central High than the white teachers included in the film.
This report from the Center for American Progress and documentaries such as Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later must serve as hard evidence that current education policy, social programs, and political and public education reform discourse (such as “poverty is not destiny”) are all misguided and hollow.
Boser ends the report with this call:
“Our nation’s student body is rapidly diversifying, but our teaching workforce has not kept up with the trend. This must change. Students of all backgrounds deserve teachers of all backgrounds. Some initiatives are working to tackle this issue. But it’s not enough to match our demographic future. Policymakers at the national, state, and local level must show the necessary leadership and answer the call for an effective and diverse teacher workforce.”
To this, I believe we need to add a call for the U.S. public and its political leaders to confront the masked cultural assumptions driving our social and education policies that refuse to acknowledge inequity in society and schools as well as corrosive systemic forces at the center of our commitment to capitalism and consumerism driving that inequity.
With the statistical facts of gaps between the outcomes of students disaggregated by race and affluence and with the statistical facts of disproportionate numbers of teachers among races and with social realities such as the disproportionate numbers of males of color sitting in our prisons, we must expose those cloaked policies and discourse that blame individuals as well as painting entire races as somehow inferior or simply not willing to work hard enough (policies and discourse coming from those in power, those from privilege who want us to believe that privilege is actually merit) and confront the economic, corporate, and social forces that are in fact at the root of the measurable inequities.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his 1967 Final Words of Advice, confronted the failure of social programs in the U.S.: “In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.”
Our social and education policy remains “indirect”—along with the indirect ways in which the discourse and policies of our leaders reinforce stereotypes and racism as cultural norms. After calling for a guaranteed income for all people in the U.S., King confronts the systemic failure of the American Way:
“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.”
And here is where King presents our need to shift our views of diversity as well as our discourse and policy regarding education:
“We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.”
Those in power, those at the top due to their privilege use discourse such as “poverty is not destiny” and “reclaim America” to keep all eyes on those trapped in poverty, thus away from the exact people with the power, money, and opportunity to create a path toward equity within our society and our schools.
We are entering yet another phase of race and power in the U.S. It seems time now for addressing these realities directly.