The commentary "Racism in schools is overstated" (Nov. 8) reflects one decidedly dominant way of thinking in society. I've not been in the world of education nearly as long as Mitch Pearlstein, and I certainly express the vigor that many in my generation have. Therefore, with respect, I want to share the different viewpoint of a young, enthusiastic teacher who is embracing the journey of understanding my "whiteness."
I applaud Pearlstein for recognizing that he cannot dismiss the experience people of color have about racism or unfair treatment. But he quickly contradicts himself by stating that their arguments are faulty and that race is not a "deep" issue in our society. The reason parents and families are raging against the Reading Horizons curriculum and calling into question the high suspension rates of black boys is because racism actually is still deep in Minnesota. It is deep in the way that we, white people, still have unconscious biases. Unless confronted, we will continue to widen the gaps in our society and institutions.
There is clear evidence that the schools are not adequately serving our nonwhite students, which Pearlstein also mentions. We have all heard the facts: I work at a school that is low-performing, and I experience the daily rigor of teaching with pressure on me to not fail these students. I am also engaging in learning more about (legitimate) culturally responsive teaching to address my learners' needs, part of which means I have to recognize racism, and institutionalized racism, as a deep factor impacting my students.
The biggest issue I have with Pearlstein's argument is that he seemingly assumes children will be successful when they adapt to mainstream, white educational styles — that students can only learn one way and only show proficiency in one way. This, in my opinion, is the root of why so many interest groups and politicians "fight like children," because no one is actually addressing the root issues. We are too afraid to really talk about race.
Yes, groups like the Pacific Educational Group have been present in school districts because obsessing over whiteness is important. If a student arrived at your school with half a leg and required a wheelchair, would you call eight different companies to design an elevator, try one for a week, reinstall another for a few more weeks and continue to blame the child's family members for their inability to get him a full leg?
Of course, many students can work harder. But that is the weakest excuse we have for the disproportionate gaps in student achievement. There is too much history. We cannot continue to have the dominant perspective — the reason why our students of color are low-performing is because of this, that there is no room for other perspectives and other stories.
We can integrate our schools, but what divisions will we create if the educators and staff members still treat black, brown and other nonwhite students differently? If they still stigmatize "nonwhite" behavior, or punish differently, or refer too quickly to special education or to a doctor for an ADHD diagnosis? We will have to uncover our biases, especially if we integrate schools, because those biases, unconscious or not, cause certain behaviors in adults that dangerously risk widening the social-academic gap.
Asking our students of color to conform to our standards — to "act white" — is potentially detrimental to their young, developing minds.
Pearlstein discusses hot topics, such as the "fragmentation of families" and unbalanced test scores, but there is a lot more below the tip of the iceberg. The election of a black president does not indicate less racism in our country. Until we discuss race and its major impact, I fail to see how we will actually support the many cultures, languages and lives that we serve everyday.
I work with many dedicated, caring teachers, none of whom is overtly racist. This issue is not about being called racist (in fact, we need to move away from that narrative); it's about understanding an experience that we cannot have shared.
Call me an idealist, but I think the "revamping of society" is not just a prerequisite, but a necessity for educational growth. We owe it to all our children.
Shauna Hennessy is a teacher in Minneapolis.