Whether in education, health care, safe and affordable housing,
or crime and poverty, there is clear evidence of disparities
solely along racial and ethnic lines. The disparities are even
more dramatic in Connecticut, where the gap between the wealthy
and the poor widens daily. Yet we in this state seem unable or
unwilling to confront these issues of race.
Connecticut is one of the top three states in the nation in academic
achievement for white students - and one of the five worst states
in academic achievement for black and Latino children. The 2004
Connecticut Mastery Tests show that in Hartford, white children
performed at least four times better than African American and
Latino children - notwithstanding such factors as family economics,
housing and parenting.
Therefore, if race and ethnicity are major contributors to the
achievement gap, they must be major factors in closing the achievement
gap. This is my concern - not whether white teachers can teach
black children, the question that headlined a controversial news
article last week and caused a firestorm.
In formulating solutions, I begin by asserting that structural
racism exists within the Hartford Board of Education. According
to the Applied Research Center, a California think tank, structural
racism is the normalization and legitimization of dynamics - historical,
cultural, institutional and interpersonal - that routinely advantage
whites while producing adverse outcomes for people of color. Structural
racism is apparent in every major quality-of-life indicator in
the United States.
Hence, I consider it irresponsible for any public policy-maker
or administrator in public education, particularly in an urban
educational system, to deny the existence of structural racism.
It is the responsibility of Hartford's school board leaders to
eliminate the disparity in achievement caused by race and ethnicity.
I believe a comprehensive affirmative
action plan could create a culturally competent educational system.
The majority of organizations that do this work well in Connecticut
would agree that we are not talking about a "quota" system;
those who are fearful of honestly addressing affirmative action
use that word as a distraction. My plan would assess policies,
practices and procedures to identify areas that are not responsive
to the diversity in Hartford. This plan could begin to dismantle
the structural racism within the school district.
Unfortunately, there is no plan guiding the recruitment and retention
of teachers to this end - and measuring the district's performance
with goals, objectives and targets. In addition, there is no person
responsible for managing complex multicultural issues on a day-to-day
basis in the district. Therefore, when such issues surface - as
they did recently at the Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School
- the district's response is inadequate because the capacity is
not there. The district must create such capacity so that all teachers
and staff members from various racial and ethnic backgrounds are
positively supported when racial and cultural conflicts occur.
I am amazed and somewhat offended that the discussion regarding
race and education becomes volatile so quickly - and the opportunity
for honest and open dialogue dissipates because of society's fear
of the race issue. I cannot help but equate my experience as an
African American male who has struggled to have at least dialogue
if not action on this issue with the experiences of other historically
oppressed groups in this country. If the achievement gap that we
see daily was based solely on gender - if girls were woefully outperformed
academically by boys - I am sure the solution would be to create
a gender-based strategy urgently to close the gap. No woman would
accept in that scenario a school system with a teaching staff of
80 percent men and 20 percent women.
I take offense at the cry of reverse racism when I advocate that
the racial achievement gap needs a race-based solution. Is not
race equally important as gender? If we are serious about closing
the achievement gap in Hartford schools, the question is not whether
whites can teach black children. The more serious questions are
why less than half the ninth-graders entering Weaver High School
graduate; why there are so many more black and Latino children
in special education than white children; why there is such a high
suspension and retention rate of black and Latino children starting
as early as kindergarten.
Dialogue must occur - not in The Courant but in the communities
Michael C. Williams is vice chairman of the Hartford Board of
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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