By MOISES MENDEZ
When discussing the LGBT+ acronym, it’s always important to include the “+” at the end. This reminds us that our community doesn’t just include lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. The “+” is all inclusive, encompassing intersex, questioning youth, allies, those who identify as asexual, demisexual, polysexual/polyamorous, pansexual; the list seems limitless and is added to constantly. When you’re a part of Rainbow Alliance at Fordham Lincoln Center, you’ll always be included.
At the group’s first meeting, the theme was “Ice Cream and Identities.” Members were served ice cream and talked about all the identities within the LGBT+ alphabet soup. But, before we dove into the fun, we were all asked to introduce ourselves with our name, preferred pronouns, how we identify ourselves, and of course – the most important aspect of who we are – our favorite ice cream flavor. Some used terms that aren’t common but are gaining more attention as people continue to identify themselves as such. One member said that they were pansexual, another member identified as queer. These identities aren’t completely foreign, but are less used than someone identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual. During this first meeting, the group also debunked the misconceptions surrounding the different identities in the LGBT+ acronym.
The members began to uncover some common misunderstandings about sexual identity and gender identity. We talked about the difference between pansexual and bisexual, what being aromantic means as opposed to asexual and various other topics. This meeting consisted of all the members teaching one another and clarifying these misconceptions. For example, one member said, “There’s a common misconception that bisexual and pansexual are the same thing.” This person continued to debunk and clarify why people thought this and educated everyone on the difference between the two.
Lyndsey Auge, FCLC ’19, who just began her first year as President of Rainbow Alliance, talked about what the main objective of the club was. Auge said, “The objective, mainly, is to provide a safe place for students within the LGBT+ community and to have a place that offers an education about different identities, as well as topics within the communities. Aside from being a place to get some education, it also serves as place to build a community and have a family on campus.”
Outside of the general meetings that they hold every Tuesday from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in the Atrium, they have events throughout the school year to expand their safe space to other LGBT+ students and allies on campus. “[One event] we have [is] ‘Cue The Spotlight’ in the fall. It’s an art showcase, in which you can show queer art, if you choose, or you can come and support queer artists. The night can consist of slam poetry, spoken word, music, etc. People have also shown paintings that they’ve done,” Auge said.
Their biggest event of the year is Queer Prom, which, even if you’re not a part of the LGBT+ community, you should be excited for. Auge explained, “At the end of the year, we host Queer Prom, which last year was Rocky Horror-themed. It’s a fun time to listen to music, dance and eat free food. There’s always free food.” Anytime a club mentions free food, everyone knows that students will always attend. Auge also mentioned that the group is looking into a trip to Big Gay Ice Cream downtown in East Village.
In addition to its exciting events planned for the year, Rainbow Alliance is one of the most accepting and inviting groups on campus. You don’t have to be queer to join and if you are queer, they’ll make you feel proud to be queer. If you need a reason to join Rainbow Alliance, here’s what the president of the club had to say: “Rainbow is an accepting place, it’s a safe space for all to come and be who they are. It can also provide a space to learn about themselves and learn about others.” Auge explained that in Rainbow, you build a sense of family “that you really grow to care about.” If you’re still figuring yourself out, Rainbow Alliance is a safe and comfortable community to utilize.
Morton Schapiro is president of Northwestern University.
College presidents have always received a lot of mail. But these days we get more than ever. Much of it relates to student unrest, and most of the messages are unpleasant.
Our usual practice is to thank the sender for writing and leave it at that. The combination of receiving more than 100 emails and letters a day and recognizing that the purpose of many writers is to rebuke, rather than discuss, leaves us little choice about how to respond.
But that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t think long and hard about the issues being raised. Some writers ask why our campus is so focused on how “black lives matter.” Others express a mixture of curiosity and rage about microaggressions and trigger warnings. And finally, what about those oft-criticized “safe spaces”? On this last topic, here are two stories. The first was told to me privately by another institution’s president, and the second takes place at my institution, Northwestern University.
A group of black students were having lunch together in a campus dining hall. There were a couple of empty seats, and two white students asked if they could join them. One of the black students asked why, in light of empty tables nearby. The reply was that these students wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages. The black students politely said no. Is this really so scandalous?
I find two aspects of this story to be of particular interest.
First, the familiar question is “Why do the black students eat together in the cafeteria?” I think I have some insight on this based on 16 years of living on or near a college campus: Many groups eat together in the cafeteria, but people seem to notice only when the students are black. Athletes often eat with athletes; fraternity and sorority members with their Greek brothers and sisters; a cappella group members with fellow singers; actors with actors; marching band members with marching band members; and so on.
And that brings me to the second aspect: We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.
Now for the story from Northwestern. For more than four decades, we have had a building on campus called the Black House, a space specifically meant to be a center for black student life. This summer some well-intentioned staff members suggested that we place one of our multicultural offices there. The pushback from students, and especially alumni, was immediate and powerful. It wasn’t until I attended a listening session that I fully understood why. One black alumna from the 1980s said that she and her peers had fought to keep a house of their own on campus. While the black community should always have an important voice in multicultural activities on campus, she said, we should put that office elsewhere, leaving a small house with a proud history as a safe space exclusively for blacks.
A recent white graduate agreed. She argued that everyone needed a safe space and that for her, as a Jew, it had been the Hillel house. She knew that when she was there, she could relax and not worry about being interrogated by non-Jews about Israeli politics or other concerns. So why is the Black House an issue in the eyes of some alumni who write saying that we should integrate all of our students into a single community rather than isolate them into groups? I have never gotten a single note questioning the presence of Hillel, of our Catholic Center or any of the other safe spaces on campus.
I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.
I suspect this commentary will generate even more mail than usual. Let me just say in advance, thanks for writing.
For black students, having even one black teacher can make a huge difference. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which found that that black boys who had a black teacher during their elementary school years were less likely to drop out of high school. It also linked the presence of black teachers to kids’ expectations of attending college.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this. I’m one of a small fraction of black teachers in my district. I know that, as much as many would like to think that good intentions and talent are the only important qualities for educators, students respond differently to teachers whom they can relate to.
The week before the study was released, I showed my ninth graders a film about Kalief Browder, a black teenager who was arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime and died by suicide after his release. I was moved by the impassioned mini-essays about police brutality and stop-and-frisk my students produced and the honest experiences they shared. I realized it’s not just that my students live these topics every day. It’s also that they are teenagers who have seen me interact with law enforcement during our trips off campus. They trusted me because they knew I lived them as well.
The fact that my skin color matches that of my students doesn’t give me any superpowers as an educator. But it does give me the ability to see them in a way that’s untarnished by the stereotypes, biases and cultural disconnects that fuel inequality and injustice — like the outlook that made Trayvon Martin, carrying Skittles, appear dangerously suspicious to the man who took his life. Like the assumptions that studies show make people see black boys as less innocent than their white peers.
I’m connected to them because of our shared racial identity. But it’s more than that: I’m familiar with the world they inhabit. I can see their charms and challenges, without the filters of “minority” or “urban” or “at risk.” And I show them, through the pizza I order for their birthdays. Through the full days without schoolwork that I offer them from time to time because life is hard and we all need a break. Through teenage comedy that I laugh at with them, before reminding them not to make said jokes in certain settings. Through the pictures of my wife I show them — my wife, who looks like us.
To be clear, many of my nonblack colleagues see our kids’ incredible potential just as I do and are powerful advocates for them. The ability to treat students like people and love the mess out of them doesn’t rely directly on race.
Still, we live in a world of zero-tolerance policies, where students are kicked out of class for the “insubordination” of refusing to move to a different desk or for drinking juice, and where everyday misbehavior can elicit a call to the authorities. I find myself wondering, have the adults responsible never wanted to sit near their friends? Did they not drink juice in high school? Can they not see younger versions of themselves in our kids?
Black students need teachers who understand that they’re capable of the full range of anxieties and insecurities, greatness and success, hilarious moments and generous surprises. The amount of melanin in my skin is neither necessary nor sufficient for this: It’s not a magic formula. But I can remember a time when I looked and sounded like my students. That helps me see myself in them, and all they’re capable of. I hope they can see themselves in me.
Angie Thomas started writing her young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” in reaction to a fatal shooting that took place some 2,000 miles away. But to her it felt deeply personal.
Ms. Thomas was a college student in Jackson, Miss., when a white transit police officer shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old African-American man, on a train platform in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. She was shocked when some of her white classmates said he had probably deserved it. She responded with a short story about a teenage girl who is drawn to activism after a white officer shoots her childhood best friend.
That story grew into a 444-page novel, as shootings of unarmed young black men continued.
Ms. Thomas worried that no one would publish a young-adult novel about such a raw and polarizing subject. Instead, 13 publishers bid in a frenzied auction. Balzer & Bray bought it in a two-book deal, and Fox 2000 optioned the film rights.
When “The Hate U Give” came out last month, it became an instant critical and commercial hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print. The novel — one of several new children’s books that use fiction to address police shootings of unarmed black teenagers — debuted at the top of The New York Times’s Young Adult best-seller list, and has drawn ecstatic praise from critics, librarians, book sellers and prominent young-adult novelists. John Green, the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” called the work “a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”
“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial injustice for young readers.
“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.
This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at a traffic light.
In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.
Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.
“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”
The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by African-American authors.
While the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly the same number as a decade ago.
The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.
“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.
Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds said.
The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.
“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not here to give you comfort.’”
As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose lives felt familiar to her were scarce.
“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book.”
In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the parking lot, she cried.
But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could turn it into a novel.
“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished neighborhood.
One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.
“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.
Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they had never met an author who looked like them.
On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.
The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a movie.
One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a contentious topic.
“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. “Writing is a form of activism.”
After the nation’s first black president, we now have a white president with the whitest and malest cabinet since Ronald Reagan’s. His administration immediately made it a priority to deport undocumented immigrants and to deny people from certain Muslim-majority nations entry into the United States, decisions that caused tremendous blowback.
What President Trump doesn’t seem to have considered is that diversity doesn’t just sound nice, it has tangible value. Social scientists find that homogeneous groups like his cabinet can be less creative and insightful than diverse ones. They are more prone to groupthink and less likely to question faulty assumptions.
What’s true of groups is also true for individuals. A small but growing body of research suggests that multiracial people are more open-minded and creative. Here, it’s worth remembering that Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, wasn’t only the nation’s first black president, he was also its first biracial president. His multitudinous self was, I like to think, part of what made him great — part of what inspired him when he proclaimed that there wasn’t a red or blue America, but a United States of America.
As a multiethnic person myself — the son of a Jewish dad of Eastern European descent and a Puerto Rican mom — I can attest that being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent. Your background pushes you to construct a worldview that transcends the tribal.
You’re also accustomed to the idea of having several selves, and of trying to forge them into something whole. That task of self-creation isn’t unique to biracial people; it’s a defining experience of modernity. Once the old stories about God and tribe — the framing that historically gave our lives context — become inadequate, on what do we base our identities? How do we give our lives meaning and purpose?
President Trump has answered this challenge by reaching backward — vowing to wall off America and invoking a whiter, more homogeneous country. This approach is likely to fail for the simple reason that much of the strength and creativity of America, and modernity generally, stems from diversity. And the answers to a host of problems we face may lie in more mixing, not less.
Consider this: By 3 months of age, biracial infants recognize faces more quickly than their monoracial peers, suggesting that their facial perception abilities are more developed. Kristin Pauker, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the researchers who performed this study, likens this flexibility to bilingualism.
Early on, infants who hear only Japanese, say, will lose the ability to distinguish L’s from R’s. But if they also hear English, they’ll continue to hear the sounds as separate. So it is with recognizing faces, Dr. Pauker says. Kids naturally learn to recognize kin from non-kin, in-group from out-group. But because they’re exposed to more human variation, the in-group for multiracial children seems to be larger.
This may pay off in important ways later. In a 2015 study, Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor at Duke, found that when she reminded multiracial participants of their mixed heritage, they scored higher in a series of word association games and other tests that measure creative problem solving. When she reminded monoracial people about their heritage, however, their performance didn’t improve. Somehow, having multiple selves enhanced mental flexibility.
But here’s where it gets interesting: When Dr. Gaither reminded participants of a single racial background that they, too, had multiple selves, by asking about their various identities in life, their scores also improved. “For biracial people, these racial identities are very salient,” she told me. “That said, we all have multiple social identities.” And focusing on these identities seems to impart mental flexibility irrespective of race.
It may be possible to deliberately cultivate this kind of limber mind-set by, for example, living abroad. Various studies find that business people who live in other countries are more successful than those who stay put; that artists who’ve lived abroad create more valuable art; that scientists working abroad produce studies that are more highly cited. Living in another culture exercises the mind, researchers reason, forcing one to think more deeply about the world.
Another path to intellectual rigor is to gather a diverse group of people together and have them attack problems, which is arguably exactly what the American experiment is. In mock trials, the Tufts University researcher Samuel Sommers has found, racially diverse juries appraise evidence more accurately than all-white juries, which translates to more lenient treatment of minority defendants. That’s not because minority jurors are biased in favor of minority defendants, but because whites on mixed juries more carefully consider the evidence.
The point is that diversity — of one’s own makeup, one’s experience, of groups of people solving problems, of cities and nations — is linked to economic prosperity, greater scientific prowess and a fairer judicial process. If human groups represent a series of brains networked together, the more dissimilar these brains are in terms of life experience, the better the “hivemind” may be at thinking around any given problem.
The opposite is true of those who employ essentialist thinking — in particular, it seems, people who espouse stereotypes about racial groups. Harvard and Tel Aviv University scientists ran experiments on white Americans, Israelis and Asian-Americans in which they had some subjects read essays that made an essentialist argument about race, and then asked them to solve word-association games and other puzzles. Those who were primed with racial stereotypes performed worse than those who weren’t. “An essentialist mind-set is indeed hazardous for creativity,” the authors note.
None of which bodes well for Mr. Trump’s mostly white, mostly male, extremely wealthy cabinet. Indeed, it’s tempting to speculate that the administration’s problems so far, including its clumsy rollout of a travel ban that was mostly blocked by the courts, stem in part from its homogeneity and insularity. Better decisions might emerge from a more diverse set of minds.
And yet, if multiculturalism is so grand, why was Mr. Trump so successful in running on a platform that rejected it? What explains the current “whitelash,” as the commentator Van Jones called it? Sure, many Trump supporters have legitimate economic concerns separate from worries about race or immigration. But what of the white nationalism that his campaign seems to have unleashed? Eight years of a black president didn’t assuage those minds, but instead inflamed them. Diversity didn’t make its own case very well.
One answer to this conundrum comes from Dr. Sommers and his Tufts colleague Michael Norton. In a 2011 survey, they found that as whites reported decreases in perceived anti-black bias, they also reported increasing anti-white bias, which they described as a bigger problem. Dr. Sommers and Dr. Norton concluded that whites saw race relations as a zero-sum game. Minorities’ gain was their loss.
In reality, cities and countries that are more diverse are more prosperous than homogeneous ones, and that often means higher wages for native-born citizens. Yet the perception that out-groups gain at in-groups’ expense persists. And that view seems to be reflexive. Merely reminding whites that the Census Bureau has said the United States will be a “majority minority” country by 2042, as one Northwestern University experiment showed, increased their anti-minority bias and their preference for being around other whites. In another experiment, the reminder made whites more politically conservative as well.
It’s hard to know what to do about this except to acknowledge that diversity isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable. It can make people feel threatened. “We promote diversity. We believe in diversity. But diversity is hard,” Sophie Trawalter, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, told me.
That very difficulty, though, may be why diversity is so good for us. “The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise,” Katherine Phillips, a senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, writes. “You have to push yourself to grow your muscles.”
Closer, more meaningful contact with those of other races may help assuage the underlying anxiety. Some years back, Dr. Gaither of Duke ran an intriguing study in which incoming white college students were paired with either same-race or different-race roommates. After four months, roommates who lived with different races had a more diverse group of friends and considered diversity more important, compared with those with same-race roommates. After six months, they were less anxious and more pleasant in interracial interactions. (It was the Republican-Democrat pairings that proved problematic, Dr. Gaither told me. Apparently they couldn’t stand each other.)
Some corners of the world seem to naturally foster this mellower view of race — particularly Hawaii, Mr. Obama’s home state. Dr. Pauker has found that by age 7, children in Massachusetts begin to stereotype about racial out-groups, whereas children in Hawaii do not. She’s not sure why, but she suspects that the state’s unique racial makeup is important. Whites are a minority in Hawaii, and the state has the largest share of multiracial people in the country, at almost a quarter of its population.
Constant exposure to people who see race as a fluid concept — who define themselves as Asian, Hawaiian, black or white interchangeably — makes rigid thinking about race harder to maintain, she speculates. And that flexibility rubs off. In a forthcoming study, Dr. Pauker finds that white college students who move from the mainland to Hawaii begin to think differently about race. Faced daily with evidence of a complex reality, their ideas about who’s in and who’s out, and what belonging to any group really means, relax.
Clearly, people can cling to racist views even when exposed to mountains of evidence contradicting those views. But an optimistic interpretation of Dr. Pauker’s research is that when a society’s racial makeup moves beyond a certain threshold — when whites stop being the majority, for example, and a large percentage of the population is mixed — racial stereotyping becomes harder to do.
Whitelash notwithstanding, we’re moving in that direction. More nonwhite babies are already born than white. And if multiracial people work like a vaccine against the tribalist tendencies roused by Mr. Trump, the country may be gaining immunity. Multiracials make up an estimated 7 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, and they’re predicted to grow to 20 percent by 2050.
President Trump campaigned on a narrow vision of America as a nation-state, not as a state of people from many nations. His response to the modern question — How do we form our identities? — is to grasp for a semi-mythical past that excludes large segments of modern America. If we believe the science on diversity, his approach to problem solving is likely suboptimal.
Many see his election as apocalyptic. And sure, President Trump could break our democracy, wreck the country and ruin the planet. But his presidency also has the feel of a last stand — grim, fearful and obsessed with imminent decline. In retrospect, we may view Mr. Trump as part of the agony of metamorphosis.
And we’ll see Mr. Obama as the first president of the thriving multiracial nation that’s emerging.
Recent studies show lack of racial diversity among educators in America.
By Robert Bittner
Principal, January/February 2017
Several recent studies have explored the issue of racial diversity in American education. “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” (2016), developed by the U.S. Department of Education, uses cold numerical data to underscore the fact that, despite some very modest gains, today’s education workforce is nowhere near as diverse as today’s students. The report cites a handful of programs across the country that are working to correct that deficiency. Yet, like most studies, the focus is on reporting current conditions, with questions of why and what can be done left unanswered.
A study by The Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” (2016), by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, puts a human face on the data, at least where black educators are concerned. (A separate report on Hispanic teachers is forthcoming.) While acknowledging that “building a diverse teacher workforce is complex,” the authors’ interviews with black teachers across the country emphasize the need to do just that and to help point the way to solutions.
During the 2012-2013 school year, 51 percent of all elementary and secondary public school students were white, 16 percent were black, and 24 percent were Hispanic. Among teachers, 82 percent were white, 7 percent were black, and 8 percent were Hispanic. As for principals, 80 percent were white, 10 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic.
The “Racial Diversity” Study Summarizes The Key Findings In Three Main Points:
- Racially speaking, elementary- and secondary-school educators in the United States are relatively homogenous and not as racially diverse as their students or the population in general.
- Diversity decreases at multiple points across the teacher pipeline through which teachers progress in postsecondary education, teacher preparation programs, and retention. (See infographic on page 17.)
- Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and alternative routes to teacher certification—including online institutions—tend to enroll a more racially diverse population of teacher candidates than other colleges and universities. For example, the study notes that 16 percent of all black teacher candidates attend an HBCU; however, that number represents a mere 2 percent of all of those preparing to teach.
There are signs of very modest improvement. For example, the survey points out that, although a large racial imbalance between educators and students remains, educator diversity has increased over time. In the 1987-1988 school year, 13 percent of public school teachers were teachers of color compared with 18 percent in 2011-2012, a 5 percent increase over more than 20 years. (During the same period, the proportion of black teachers actually decreased slightly.)
In 2011-2012, the percentages of new black and Hispanic principals were higher than the percentages of experienced black and Hispanic principals, suggesting growth here as well. But, again, gains were modest: 11 percent of black principals were new versus 8 percent with prior experience; similarly, 8 percent of Hispanic principals were new versus 5 percent with prior experience.
Of course, students of any race and background can be taught well by teachers of any race and background. But “The Importance of Minority Teachers,” a study by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, published in the October 2016 issue of Educational Researcher, suggests that teachers of color may have an edge in the classroom—at least in urban schools, the focus of the study. “There is consistent evidence that students have more favorable perceptions of minority teachers than white teachers,” the authors write. “[Hispanic] teachers are more positively perceived by students … Students perceive black teachers more than their white peers to hold students to high academic standards and support their efforts, to help them organize content, and to explain clearly ideas and concepts and provide useful feedback.”
Although Hispanic students didn’t have particularly favorable perceptions of Hispanic teachers, black and Asian students had particularly positive perceptions of black teachers. In addition, “students in the ‘Other’ racial category also report that black teachers are particularly caring.” These perceptions are critical: “Students’ perceptions of teachers are associated with motivation and achievement,” the study notes.
Cherng and Halpin touch briefly on why teachers of color may make such a positive impression in the classroom. They found, among other conclusions, that Hispanic and black teachers simply are “more multi-culturally aware than their white peers,” significant because “higher levels of multicultural awareness are linked to better classroom environments.” As a result, these teachers are uniquely equipped to “help empower youth of all racial/ethnic identities.”
Such findings echo those of Griffin and Tackie, authors of the “Through Our Eyes” report. “Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy,” they report. “As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students. Acting as ‘warm demanders,’ they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students.”
Whether they are driven by personal concern for students and community or a perceived need to go the extra mile simply to prove themselves (as both educators and role models), black teachers, in particular, are likely to experience workday pressures beyond those faced by their white colleagues. In fact, “Through Our Eyes” focus group respondents acknowledged a sense of overarching obligation toward their students that extends far beyond academics, leading them to act as “parent, hairdresser, chauffeur, advocate, counselor, and cheerleader.” And because they are more likely to teach in high-need environments, those added pressures take an even greater toll. Neither the “Racial Diversity” nor the “Through Our Eyes” study pinpoints direct causes for teachers’ decisions to leave the profession. But the fact that black teachers leave at a higher rate than white teachers suggests that there is a personal price to pay for striving to be an educator, role model, spokesperson, disciplinarian, mentor, and parent all rolled into one.
Teacher Diversity Diminishes At Each Point.
All states require a bachelor’s degree as the first step toward teacher certification. Yet even at this early point the demographics have shifted: the racial composition of college graduates is already less diverse than it is among public high school graduates. In 2012, for example, 62 percent of all bachelor’s degree students were white, whereas only 57 percent of those graduating from high school were white.
Enrollment in Education Programs
In 2012, 73 percent of students majoring in education at colleges and universities were white. The study acknowledges that this is not the only path for potential teachers. Teacher preparation programs—which may or may not be provided in association with an established college or university—deliver state-approved curricula that give enrollees an initial teaching credential. Even in teacher preparation programs associated with a college or university, the study found that enrollees were less diverse than the larger student body.
The “Racial Diversity” study notes that bachelor’s degree completion is lower for black and Hispanic students than it is for white students. For students beginning college in 2008-2009, 42 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years, compared with 73 percent of white students. Graduates have become more diverse over time, but it is happening very slowly. In 2000, 77 percent were white, 11 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were other. By 2012, 73 percent were white, 12 percent were black, and 11 percent were Hispanic.
Entering the Workforce
Among those beginning postsecondary study in 2007-2008, 82 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients certiﬁed to teach K-12 by 2012 were white, 4 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. Citing a 2011 study, “Racial Diversity” suggests that the low numbers of black and Hispanic certiﬁcations may reﬂect licensure exam performance; teachers of color, on average, score lower on licensure tests and pass at lower rates than white colleagues. Nonetheless, the authors note, “the racial composition of new teachers entering the teaching profession is more diverse than the racial composition of all teachers,” hinting that, once teachers of color embark upon a teaching career, retention becomes the greatest challenge.
Teacher retention data follows a familiar pattern: there are more white teachers in the same position from one school year to the next than teachers of color. There are many reasons why this is the case, with “Through Our Eyes” data suggesting teacher burnout, lack of administrative support and understanding, unrealistic expectations (from administrators, colleagues, even students), and more. In addition, “Racial Diversity” notes that most black and Hispanic teachers work in urban schools, which tend to be high-stress, high-turnover environments.
The reasons go beyond high-need students. The lack of diversity among teachers and administrators increases the likelihood that teachers of color work alongside white colleagues and bosses. At best, this situation can enrich the work environment for everyone. According to “Through Our Eyes,” however, “best” is not the typical black teacher’s experience.
“[Black teachers] face racial discrimination and stereotyping that leave them feeling alienated and restricted from participating in the school community, impacting their ability to be effective and ultimately their desire to remain in the profession,” the report says. “Despite their feelings of alienation, they take on extra responsibilities and are often assigned additional duties because of their unique strengths, leaving them burdened and taxed. These same abilities and attributes can often leave black teachers stuck in such rigid positions as the school disciplinarian. These unyielding categorizations often limit their opportunities, advancement, and abilities to hone their craft.”
The report concludes, “The issues that stifle the development and empowerment of black teachers are so deep-seated that it will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes in order for school and district leaders to develop the trust, support, and collegial working environments needed to recruit and retain teachers of color.”
No Easy Fix
Neither study is intended to be prescriptive or to recommend practical steps to move past “deep-seated” issues. “Racial Diversity,” though, highlights three diversity program success stories from across the country. Developed independently, these programs take similar approaches, fostering future educators from within the community.
- In Boston Public Schools (BPS), 37 percent of teachers are nonwhite, with black teachers representing 25 percent of new hires in 2015-2016. The district’s commitment to improving diversity is bolstered by the BPS “High School to Teacher” program, which identifies city high-school students with teaching potential, provides mentors and college prep courses, pays half of students’ college tuition, and, if they are successful, funnels them into teaching jobs. Eighty-seven percent of program participants are black or Hispanic or both.
- The Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative, sponsored by Clemson University in South Carolina, is expanding the pool of teachers in the state with local initiatives, drawing from among the state’s underserved and at-risk communities. The program provides tuition assistance, a support system, and help with job placement.
- The Teach Tomorrow in Oakland program in Oakland, California, also recruits from the community. It seeks out Oakland Unified School District alumni, community members, middle- and high-school students, paraprofessionals, out-of-industry professionals, and student teachers. It then provides educational and financial support, including training, tutoring, interning opportunities, and classroom resources.
These efforts are creating change, but they remain the exception. According to the “Racial Diversity” study, “All stakeholders must do more to support teachers of color throughout the teacher pipeline. From getting more students of color into postsecondary education, to ensuring teachers of color are placed and supported in their roles in the classroom, improving each step in the process can help capitalize on the diversity of our nation.”
There is no one, decisive moment when the demographics of the classroom suddenly break down and a diverse student body is no longer reflected by a relatively homogenous group of teachers. The fact is, the “Racial Diversity” study finds, “diversity diminishes at each point along the way to becoming a certified teacher.”
Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist.