Spotlight Exclusives

Reflections of a Father: Overcoming Racism in American Schools

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I am an African American educator and the father of a 17-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter. For me, the Trayvon Martin case strikes too close to home. Our president recently said that “if I had a son,” he would “look like Trayvon.” My son does look like Trayvon.

Trayvon۪s tragic death holds a mirror up to my life by reminding me of the racism my son and daughter have experienced at times in schools and on playing fields.

My fear never leaves me because examples of racism are all aroundespecially in our schools. As an educator and advocate, I have come to believe that it is our schools that must take the lead role in addressing the vestiges of racism and its impact on economic opportunity. 

Poorer public schools are being re-segregated. At least 70 percent of white students attend schools where at least 75 percent of the student body is white, and more than half of all black students attend schools where over 90 percent are members of “minority” groups.

This is only one of several troubling trends. Black children make up 17 percent of the student population, but account for 33 percent of students in special education. Black students are also more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white peers.

Given these examples, no one should be surprised that minority children are deeply challenged by the ravages of poverty, and raised to question not only the quality of their futures, but also their very survival.

Yet while schools are a big part of the problem, they also have a major role to play in helping to turn this tide

Working in schools across the country, and collaborating with teachers and administrators, I have been struck by the lack of overt racism I have seen in teachers.

That۪s the good news. The bad news is I have also noticed something subtlerteachers who give up on children they consider disruptive or lacking sufficient intelligence to succeed academically. Rather than raise expectations for all schoolchildren, these teachers lower them for a demographic they feel unable to reach for whatever reason, including socioeconomic status or cultural differences.

Fortunately, I have also seen the reverse. In my work, I have witnessed teachers who address issues of racism, stereotyping, bullying, and teasing because of economic and cultural differences in the classroom. These differences are respected and used to foster problem solving, good decision making, creativity, and improved life trajectories for all students.

Examples of this often are found in school districts that have voluntarily engaged in desegregation initiatives. One good example is the West Metro Education Program (WMEP) working in partnership with Minneapolis. In these collaborating 12 school districts, they don۪t keep matters of racism and discrimination hidden through colorblindness. Instead, educators guide students in questioning stereotyping and many commonly held over-generalizations about minorities.

Yet this alone will not lead to progressive social policy. Educators like myself must continue to work in partnerships to rid our schools of the academic “tracking” of children based on perceived ability. Tracking can lead to inappropriate placement in special education or in academic classes that lack rigor or challenge. Often, the result of these measures is that students drop out, ending their dreams of breaking their families’ cycles of poverty.

This is a problem, but it۪s not destiny. One school district I۪ve worked with in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, has experienced two standard deviations of improvement for children of color, without lowering the standards for all students. Additionally, achievement gaps have been narrowed by 50 percent, which translates into achievement trajectories for black and brown students that are similar to the wealthiest students in the nation.

Through these efforts, schools can fill a lead role in addressing inequality and the vestiges of racism that continue to challenge our society, education system, and the economic well being of our nation. Given the rapidly shifting demographics in our country, school is where diversity must be embraced.

As I think about Trayvon and racism that could harm me or my family, this is what gives me hope, and should give hope to those who embrace American values such as family, equal opportunity, achievement, security, freedom, and success. 
To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Eric J. Cooper is president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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