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Parents should demand anti-racist education

By Winford K. Rice Jr. and Sabrina Haque

Racism is a cancer to the fabric of our country and permeates our school systems through educators’ un-interrogated biases and premeditated assumptions about the “other.” Race is a complex social phenomenon, and how it is presented in classrooms determines our children’s development. Data has shown that schools with higher degrees of integration, on average, have improved graduation rates, test scores and educational attainment. Minorities that deal with less discrimination also have decreased psychological stress linked to lower school achievement. It is our contention that anti-racist learning environments can produce more empathetic individuals who are able to dismantle cycles of intergenerational racism.

Our opinion is not merely grounded in our professional backgrounds, but is informed by our matriculation through a segregation academy, Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. Segregation academies are private schools that were founded in the late 1950s-1960s to resist federal desegregation orders post-Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Although they do not explicitly discriminate by race today, their damaging legacies as white-only schools still linger across communities in our country.

This is true of NSA, where the majority of Black and brown students had two revelatory experiences during their time: the first day of school when we were gazed upon by white students for being non-white, and the second being the day we realized why the school was founded in 1966. Our classmates’ racial biases were left unbridled — many now working hard to unlearn these purviews as adults. These challenges are partially due to unchecked racist incidents — something that Black high school students across the country have been recently highlighting — but also from a lack of representation in the school’s population, as well as in the narratives taught to shape our worldviews.

The Academy’s infrastructure was constructed to privilege whiteness. Consequently, we remember not being able to challenge the notion that the Civil War was about states’ rights and the South’s economy, not slavery. We remember having to re-enact and glamorize a colonial period of history that was detrimental to our ancestors. We remember being reprimanded for sitting with the few classmates who looked like us during lunch. We remember having administrators who could not relate to the particularities of our racial identities, who celebrated the election of George Bush, but lamented Barack Obama’s historic victory.

While our private school education was a privilege, it should not have come at the expense of our racialized identities. We have been fortunate enough to navigate institutions that have given us agency, self-worth and the tools to engage in discourses on race. We know private schools like NSA will not change without external pressure. Thus, we urge all parents to articulate the need for anti-racist learning environments — ones that enable the excellence of their minority students and better prepare children to be more socially conscious, compassionate individuals who are able to eviscerate systemic racism. We recommend the three following actions:

  • First, ask that the school’s leadership reflect on the school’s specific historic and modern-day role in integration post-Brown vs. Board of Education. Countless private and public schools have played some part in resisting integration using “white flight” (e.g. through capturing scarce public funds, fleeing districts, forming their own schools, etc.). NSA does not publicly acknowledge its history as a segregation academy, ultimately prohibiting its ability to identify how its founding influences the way it operates today. By recognizing their unique histories, schools can begin to design and implement context-specific solutions that aim to establish new, positive legacies in their communities.
  • Secondly, encourage schools to rid anti-Black pedagogical practices. Private schools have more flexibility in designing anti-racist curricula. They should begin by including more Black and brown narratives in history and literature and teaching contemporary socio-political issues, many of which at their core revolve around race. Parents should question curriculum choices that itemize feminism over womanism, or that prioritize Shakespeare over James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. Opponents to this action will argue that we are trying to politicize our children’s curriculum. In reality, we are asking schools to provide a breadth of material without censoring marginalized voices.

The recent outpouring of support for Black lives compels us to believe that we can finally build coalitions that demand schools to change their cultural ethos that will allow all children to thrive. Our demands could be met with disguised, segregationist rhetoric such as “if you don’t like it here, leave.” However, parents can, and should, hold their children’s schools accountable to becoming anti-racist; if not for civil rights, for the sake of their children’s development. Does your child’s school have what it takes to become an anti-racist educational institution?

Winford K. Rice Jr. is a professor of religion at Morehouse College whose interdisciplinary scholarship focuses on religion, ethics and politics. Sabrina Haque is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, studying public policy and the environmental determinants of health. The authors’ opinion is shaped by their professional experience and personal experiences as Black and brown students graduating in 2010 and 2008, respectively, from Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.