My son was suspended from school last month for getting into an argument with another child. Not a fight, an argument. I asked his assistant principal why his punishment was so severe. "Well, he just seemed really aggressive," she said. Secretly I knew that would be her answer.
As the mother of a biracial son, I am highly aware school policies can be inadvertently biased. My son behaves no worse than his white stepbrother, who preceded him at the school, but his punishments for the same offenses are oftentimes more excessive. When they are, I am told it's because he was "aggressive" or "intimidating." Sometimes he is punished for being "too loud."
I recognize these phrases as dog whistles for racial stereotyping. I don't think his teacher and administrators are overtly racist, but could their preconceived notions about how another race stereotypically acts, and whether or not they generally find that race threatening, cause them to be unfair in their assessment of a black student's behavior?
The results of recent scientific studies say yes. What's worse is they've shown when students are aware they are being negatively stereotyped, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they know their teachers thinks their race scores lower on tests, they score lower on the tests. If they know their race is thought of as more aggressive, they show more aggressive tendencies. This phenomenon even has a name: It is called "stereotype threat," and it's proven that teachers may not be aware of how their implicit prejudices are affecting the grades and behavior of their students.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' new superintendent Heath Morrison is not afraid to explore this problem. The Charlotte Observer reports he's nearing a decision on whether or not to hire Glenn Singleton, a "race-bias expert," as a consultant.
Singleton's organization, Pacific Educational Group, has worked with many school districts across the country, helping to raise their awareness of institutional racism and develop strategies for closing the achievement gap in their schools. Singleton leads workshops about cultural differences that help teachers become conscious of their own biases.
Such practices are controversial, of course. Anytime you open an official discussion about systemic racism, there is no shortage of rabid individuals and groups ready to shut it down at all costs and burn the leader at the stake.
Although a string of attempted lawsuits have followed Singleton's organization's path, the general consensus among educators who have undergone the program is that it's tremendously eye-opening.
Singleton has won numerous awards for his program and accompanying book, Courageous Conversations, including one from the National School Public Relations Association for outstanding service in the fields of human rights and human relations.
Morrison completed Singleton's program twice prior to his career in Charlotte and said it changed the way he looks at his life as a white man.
I applaud Morrison's effort to implement a program exploring the potential causes of racial disparity in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Given that African-American students make up 43 percent of CMS' student body yet account for 77 percent of all suspensions and trail all other races in terms of reading and math proficiency, it's definitely worth a dialogue.
But how much is that dialogue worth? Reports from other school districts that have employed Singleton list his fee in the six-figure range. That may be a hard pill to swallow for a school district that has been ravaged by layoffs in recent years and still expects parents to provide reams of copy paper and boxes of tissue for classrooms at the beginning of every school year.
It would probably help if Pacific Educational Group had anything besides enthusiastic testimonials to point to as an example of its program's success. There is no data showing increased test scores or better attendance rates for African-American students in districts that have employed Singleton.
Still, it obviously made a believer out of Morrison if he's willing to wade through the rivers of crazy that will surely rise the second he opens the floodgates of racial dialogue. One needs to look no further than the comments section of the Observer article to see there are already calls for "us white people" to rise up against this "oppression."
While I absolutely believe there is a need for the awareness PEG's program will potentially bring, I am a bit skeptical it will yield any tangible results. I'm not sure how much of a difference training teachers to recognize and rethink their racial predispositions can make when they are still teaching a curriculum of American and world history that's wildly skewed to favor those of European ancestry and devalue the contributions of all other cultures.
But hey, we have to start somewhere.