These educators aren’t tolerating racism in the classroom

Seattle teachers aim to make a difference in the age of Trump.

Teachers wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts join with students at a rally Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 at Garfield High School in Seattle. CREDIT: AP/ Ted S. Warren
Teachers wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts join with students at a rally Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 at Garfield High School in Seattle. CREDIT: AP/ Ted S. Warren

Since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States last week, schools across the country have been wrestling with a spike in racist incidents on campus. In numerous cases, white students have invoked Trump’s name while engaging in racist behavior, such as telling black students to “go back to Africa” or threatening Muslim teachers.

But while these attacks may be on the rise, the underlying issues aren’t new. Educators have long struggled with the effects of persistent racism on students of color. Rather than facing a series of isolated incidents, these teachers have been pushing back against a network of broader institutional forces.

Nationally, more than 80 percent of teachers are white. Black K-12 students are also 1.9 times likelier than white students to be expelled, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. The country’s schools are resegregating. And although opportunity gaps — gaps in achievement on standardized tests between students of color and white students — have been closing, progress has been slow.

And then came Trump, and a wave of Trump-inspired racist invective in public schools. Even before he was elected president, some teachers had been looking for ways to mitigate the effect of his candidacy on their students.


Take Seattle, Washington. Three weeks before the election, on October 19, almost 2,000 Seattle teachers came to work wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, to send the message that they support black students and oppose institutional racism. This was in response to the postponement of an annual event, “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative,” where 100 black men were scheduled to greet children at the school door and speak to them at an assembly. Organizers put the event on hold after one or more white supremacists made threats online, teachers said.

After Election Day, teachers donned their Black Lives Matter shirts once again.

Sarah Arvey, a Hamilton International Middle School teacher, said the Black Lives Matter solidarity day set the tone for her students’ post-election class discussion and spurred a conversation about the advantages that some students bring to the classroom.

“Multiple students shared that the Black Lives Matter day of solidarity was eye opening,” Arvey said.

Moses Rifkin, a physics teacher at a private high school, had planned a test for the Thursday after the election. But instead of administering it to all the students, he told them they could wait if they didn’t feel ready. In his classroom, he wrote on the chalkboard that he respects and values students of all political beliefs and that he does not accept misogyny, racism, transphobia, homophobia, elitism or classism in his classroom.


“Their confusion and fear is so sharp and raw that it’s left me gutted, but also inspired and even thankful that I am in a position where I can do something concrete and immediate,” said Rifkin of his students.

Seattle schools face the same racial disparities that plague American education writ large. Of the district’s students, 45 percent are white, as of the 2015–2016 school year. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating whether harsher and more frequent use of suspensions is evidence of discrimination against black students in 2012. The investigation is still open.

Now they’re dealing with issues like racially disparate student discipline rates, school segregation, cultural competence, and Eurocentric curricula in a newly hostile environment. But their work continues.

Reducing racially disparate suspensions

Arvey said teachers and administrators need to make sure that there is a clear student discipline system in place and that students understand why they were suspended.

“I was just talking to a student today who said he felt like he was really targeted, and he felt like it was because of his race,” said Arvey. “That is his perspective…but even if he is feeling that way, we need to recognize something is not happening correctly.”


Too often, Arvey said, students say they feel stuck in a cycle, where the discipline process takes them out of the classroom and their academic success suffers as a result, adding to their anger and frustration. She said restorative justice — a focus on rehabilitation and harmony over punitive measures — would ensure that students don’t feel shut out of their school community and stay invested in their academic success.

“We need to restore relationships that have been broken in the process, whether that has been [between] teacher and student, student and student, or administrator and student; to make sure we are building community instead of taking someone out of the community, which is what suspensions do,” Arvey said.

Culturally relevant curricula helps students succeed

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden — the first black woman to hold the position —once said in a September PBS interview that students of color should have the same opportunities to see themselves in books as white students do.

Donte Felder, head teacher at Orca K-8, an alternative public school, agrees. He is teaching students in grades 6, 7, and 8. Felder had his students read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and discussed the ways in which pop culture reinforces stereotypes about people of color. If those stereotypes aren’t shattered, he said, it can have devastating consequences.

“My theory is that sometimes the archetypes we see lead to fear-based incentives, so a police officer watches these archetypes — they’re scary — and they see that all their lives,” Felder said. “So in a situation where they see them as a threat, and it may be a benign situation, that person may pull that gun out and shoot.”

Fostering an inclusive classroom environment requires making sure students see themselves in all subjects, said Felder. Simply talking about the accomplishments of black people and the struggle for civil rights during Black History Month doesn’t cut it. But highlighting positive representation in pop culture can help; Felder cited Finn from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” played by the black actor John Boyega, as an example.

“It’s shifting the narrative of how African American men are seen with this characterization of Finn,” Felder said. “He’s a stormtrooper, but he was a layered stormtrooper, and he was a hero and he had flaws, compared to a film where you see the black character get killed before the opening credits start rolling or he’s the jackass obnoxious dude who can’t control himself.”

Inclusivity and representation aren’t just the responsibility of English and history teachers, said Rifkin, the private school physics teacher. In his class, he’s had students look at the demographics of physicists — a field dominated by white and Asian men —in order to open up conversations about implicit bias, racial privilege, and stereotypes. Both white students and students of color have responded well, he said.

“There was a big spike in the number of white students who say, ‘This makes me more comfortable talking about race, and this makes me recognize that I have advantages in America, and that I can do something with these advantages,’” Rifkin said.

“I saw a big spike in students of color in terms of how comfortable they felt in physics class, and how they identified as a physics students. And that is a slam dunk for me.”

Extending benefits of gifted programs to all students

When teachers examine the issue of segregation, they also need to think about how students are separated within supposedly diverse schools, said Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School. Advanced classes are often overwhelmingly white, while students of color fill the general education classes, he said.

Research shows that black and Latino students face barriers in access to gifted education. The odds of a black student getting into a gifted and talented program are 66 percent lower than they are for a white student student, according to a study published earlier this year in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Educational Research Association. Latino students’ odds were 47 percent lower than those of white students. For Asian students, however, the odds of assignment into a gifted and talented program were 44 percent higher than for white students. Studies have shown that barriers to these programs include teachers who fail to recommend students of color, and lack of training to identify gifted students.

“I think its beautiful that you think your kid deserves that, but don’t you think all kids deserve that?”

Arvey, the Hamilton International Middle School teacher, advocates for students to be “de-tracked,” or taking out of strictly separated advanced and non-advanced education tracks. But she said getting parents to sign onto de-tracking can be tough. Parents who supported her other Black Lives Matter efforts were “no longer in agreement with [her] goals” when it came to de-tracking, she said.

“They were seeing it as a threat and [saying] ‘You’re going to take something away from our kids,’” said Arvey. “And what I always tried to present back is, ‘I think its beautiful that you think your kid deserves that, but don’t you think all kids deserve that?’ What we’re going to do is offer more opportunities.”

Black students are fighting against racial bias from teachers who don’t believe they can be successful at school, Orca K-8’s Felder said. This bias can lead to lowered expectations for black students and may explain why more students of color aren’t getting access to advanced classes.

“There was one white teacher who said, ‘You guys aren’t here to learn. You guys can’t learn. I don’t know why I’m giving you the tests, because you’re not going to do it anyway,” Felder said. “The majority of the students in the middle school were African American, so for a white teacher to say that, that destroys them.”

When you tell students you have high expectations for them, it can influence their academic success, Lauren Mims, the assistant director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, said at a Center for American Progress roundtable discussion about access to gifted education held last September. When she wrote her thesis at Tufts University, Mims created an eight-week program for 10th and 11th grade girls, called Girls Rising Above Circumstances to Excel, that put children with a 1.5 GPA in a program that is labeled “gifted.”

“All of a sudden students started coming to school more often, they started doing their homework, and they started telling me that they would go to the classroom, and they would know that they had somebody on their side,” Mims said.

There is still a way to go for Seattle schools, but educators say they believe their efforts have made a difference. Many local teachers feel that they have the ability to individually push back against broader forces of racism, and several of them told ThinkProgress they take that responsibility seriously.

“The fact that, year after year, kids are saying this is eye-opening makes me feel like it is not just important to do but that it worked pretty well,” Rifkin said.