A recent study, reported on in the New York Times under the headline “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys,” and facilitated by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau, found that while white boys who grow up rich are likely to stay rich, black boys are more likely to become poor regardless of how rich their families are.
Anyone who is surprised by this is choosing to ignore the systems and structures — law enforcement, housing, and health-related services — that were created to maintain the supremacy of one group and the subservience of another. It would be a colossal failure to not look at schools as another system that works to maintain the American nightmare for black people.
In order for black boys to survive and thrive in America, our schools need to value and uplift them. Here’s how educators can better serve black boys:
Hire teachers who really want to teach in urban environments
Too often, the person who is charged to lead and motivate students to reach their highest potential doesn’t really want to be there and doesn’t really believe the black boy should be in his or her class or school. Those implicit biases can manifest through instruction, disciplinary referrals, access to rigorous courses, and more. If teachers have low expectations for a student, they often won’t challenge this student to work harder, will accept low-quality work, and won’t feel the need to invest further in the child’s academic and personal development.
Highly effective teachers not only know content deeply but are engaging, motivating, and choose to be there — not because they couldn’t initially land a job in the suburbs.
Provide ongoing professional development for everyone in the school
Ensure everyone — teachers, administration, and central office staff — has the professional development to recognize the telltale signs of racism in schools. This professional development should not just be for teachers and it should not be crammed into one or two sessions, but be ongoing and pervasive. Professional development should include ongoing analysis of white privilege, white supremacy, identity, community, and biases. Professional development that deals with race, class, and gender should be uncomfortable and challenging. When educators choose to be reflective (and not defensive) they can see how implicit bias can negatively impact black boys.
Employ trauma-informed practices
At my school, we recently went through a professional development that helped us to recognize various trigger-inducing habits. Singling students out, hovering over a student while demanding compliance, aggressive behaviors in the name of strict obedience are all actions that educators must consciously commit to calling out and eradicating. A student who experienced some type of violence may have fight, flight, or freeze behaviors that manifest in school. A trauma-informed staff will recognize this and not exacerbate it through harsh discipline or ignoring of the real need and cry for help.
While we know that traumatic experiences like violence and death exist in the lives of many of our black boys, we should not forget that being marginalized within schools is traumatic as well. Almost every black man I know can speak to some racially traumatic experience in school.
Share demographic data and set goals
When a professor of psychology at Berkeley wanted to test how perceptions about black students impact teachers’ disciplinary actions, he gave two groups of teachers discipline infraction records of a student. The two groups had the exact same records, but one group had the name assigned to what might be a stereotypical name of a black boy (Darnell or Deshaw), and the other group of teachers was given a stereotypical white name. Guess which of the students was labeled a troublemaker and recommended for a much harsher punishment.
While black boys can thrive in an authoritative environment, they typically get a much harsher, less nurturing authoritarian approach from educators. Educators must acknowledge that black students — boys and girls — are overpoliced and often suspended, which leads to black students being pushed out of school. This disparity starts as early as pre-K, where black pupils represent 19 percent of the students but account for almost half of the suspensions.
Schools should adopt transparency in not only the data but in the concrete steps they are taking to combat these race-based disciplinary actions. Equity audits should be conducted yearly and goals developed based off the findings.
Additionally, administrators should set goals around teacher proficiency when it comes to building relationships with students, combating personal biases, and building community.
Hire more black male teachers
More black teachers need to be hired — especially black men. Black teachers are keenly aware of the impact of racism that black students endure, because they have experienced it. Research has shown the positive short-term impact of black teachers for black students. When students have black teachers, their self-esteem, test scores, and engagement increase, according to numerous studies. Recently, more long-term impact has been proven in research by Johns Hopkins University involving thousands of black students in North Carolina and Tennessee. When black children — boys and girls — have at least one black teacher in grades 3-5, the dropout rate decreases significantly, and students envision themselves in college.
Lean on community mentors
When black boys struggle — as all children and teenagers do — too many educators and those who work adjacent to schools attribute black boy struggles to the myth of uncaring black parents and students. However, those same black boys can point to people in their homes and communities who relate to them quite well. There are mentors and role models who believe in these youths and can have a tremendous impact on them. School staff should find opportunities to engage the advocates of our black youth and be humble enough to lean on them for help. The experts in the communities that these black boys come from might not have degrees from universities, but they have an ability to relate to students in ways that no teacher can.
Be positive about black identity and show examples
The “windows vs. mirrors” theory can lead to a more inclusive environment. Typically, white students spend their pre-K-through-12 experience with all mirrors and few windows in their classrooms and schools: The walls are adorned with quotations attributed to white people, pictures of white geniuses are hanging on walls, and the reading materials are typically written by and about whiteness. The black boy in this same classroom gets all windows. He doesn’t see himself reflected in the classroom’s mirror. It is also damaging to the white student to have a mirror-based experience — that is, all the heroes are white — because it reinforces false senses of entitlement and superiority that lead to the continued oppression of other students of color.
Sharif el-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter-Shoemaker. He blogs at Philly’s 7th Ward.