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Exploring the Impact of Race on Public Education

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Opening a conversation about racism in education, Christine Gutierrez discusses how she dealt with the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict in her classroom. Gym focuses on the racism prevalent in school administrations and how this blocks activism and reform. Goodman plays a bit of a speech from a recent conference, opening up a discussion among the three guests about the importance of confronting racist speech in the classroom. Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses current research on stereotype vulnerability and how it affects student testing outcomes.

Segment Subjects (keywords for the segment): racism, education, public schools.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Education, race and racism. That’s our topic today, as it was the subject of this national meeting put together by the Public Education Network, that assists these local education groups in building high-quality education. I got a chance to speak to three of the people who attended the conference after their plenary session. Christine Gutierrez is a teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Helen Gym is an elementary school teacher from Philadelphia, who’s also co-president of Asian Americans United. Later in the show, we’ll be joined by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a professor of education at Mount Holyoke College who specializes in the psychology of race. Wow! What a group!

OK, let’s begin with Christine Gutierrez. Can you tell us how you dealt with what happened after the Rodney King verdict came down?

CHRISTINE GUTIERREZ: After the Rodney King verdict in ’92, the students were very sensitive to the issues, the police brutality and such. As we all know, the riots occurred, and my school was immediately shut. So, from Thursday in ’92 May ’til Monday, we were not talking with the students directly, except by phone, phone to make sure that they were OK, to make sure that we would be there for them if they had any fears. So, first, the way we dealt with it was to make a personal contact, had nothing to do with race.

AMY GOODMAN: How old were the kids?

CHRISTINE GUTIERREZ: My students are about 15 to 18, depending on the grade level that I’m working with.

AMY GOODMAN: And their ethnic background? Their racial background?

CHRISTINE GUTIERREZ: Predominantly the classes are 90% Latino, which means a mixture of Mexican American, about 50%, and then a smattering of Guatemalan, El Salvadorian, etc. Then there’s 9% African American and about 1% Asian American, which is usually Cambodian.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened when you finally got the kids back, when you finally got your students back together again?

CHRISTINE GUTIERREZ: We brought two of the classes together. My team at that time was 11th grade-oriented, so we brought the two groups of 11th graders together, about 70 students, and we sat down and started to just debrief what had gone on for them personally. Many of their homes had not had electrical power for a while, or water was cut off, with all the fires that were burning. Many of them, in fact, went out in the neighborhoods and helped put out other fires and helped bring their community together. Many, unfortunately — not many, but some — were actually caught up in the looting.

So we were talking about what were the dimensions of both their experiences and the reasons that they had done what they did. Very much our work is about not just understanding academics — in my case, social studies and English — but also what difference does that knowledge make for their personal behavior and the way that they will make connections between the work in the classroom and the work in their daily lives outside. So, in looking at the effect of the riots on them, it was about helping them to ask the tough questions, helping them to face why had a couple been looting at a certain time, and not the — many of them were not addressing this admission in public. The issue was brought out in public. And ironically, it was brought out because one of them had come to me and said, “So-and-so is making a joke about me having looted, and I’m feeling really bad now, because I didn’t, and it’s gotten out of hand.” But that raised the issue then of where looting had occurred and to what extent was their understanding of it a rejection of the injustices, not just in terms of police brutality, but white powers that may be affecting their achievement or the poverty or whatever, and how much of it was a personal decision to just go wild when many others were.

So, for me, it was a direct test of the kind of work that I try to do daily with my teams, and that means to ask the tough questions about what do we learn about American society and American history. It’s very “easy,” quote-unquote, to talk about slavery 150 years ago, but when it’s staring us in the face, and we have to make a personal decision of how we will operate within a different set of conditions that we don’t normally expect ourselves to maybe not be the best person, all of a sudden the historical understanding was deepened. So, I had to deal with it head on in the classroom. It was very discomforting for some of my other colleagues. They felt, “Move on. Let’s go to the work the kids have to do, i.e. book learning.” And that’s very important, but I can’t separate the two. So, to that end, I think it was a provocative, a very powerful learning experience for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, Helen, were you teaching at the time?

HELEN GYM: No, I wasn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us a story about your own experiences dealing with race and racism in the classroom?

HELEN GYM: I guess the story that I have is that I’m a teacher, but I also work at the community organization Asian Americans United, and it does deal with issues that are beyond the classroom setting, things like anti-Asian violence, police abuse and parent organizing. So, the incident came to me through my work in the community, and I see that as fundamental to what — how I view what happens in my classroom.

Three years ago, a young boy came to our organization and discussed an incident which had happened at his school with his principal. And the incident was, was that the Asian boys in the school were being regularly harassed and actually being jumped and beaten up. And so, at this time, after umpteen number of times of their having this happen to them, several of them went to the principal to complain about this and to see what could be done about it. The principal did not see them in his office, and instead kind of attacked why they were here, questioned them — “What are you doing? What’s the whole point?” — and then, in the middle of the staff office, with staff present, kind of made a joke out of it and said, “See? These people only speak English when they want to pick up a welfare check,” at which point the young boy jumped up in anger at what the principal had said, and then the principal moved to expel him — I mean, suspend him immediately at that point and then threatened to expel him. And the young boy eventually dropped out.

The incident came to us, and we were obviously appalled by what had happened, but the difficult part was that there was very little that we could do, mostly because when this was brought up at a district meeting with top school officials, nothing was ever done about it. The principal, in fact, took a sick leave, then a leave of absence and then resigned, which was possibly an admission of guilt, but, on the other hand, the district never made a public statement about what had happened, why it had happened. It was even in the media of Philadelphia as an issue, and an African American parent, in fact, who was so outraged by what happened, corroborated the story for the boy. And even in the light of that, there was nothing made at the district level. At the same time, incidents like that are supported by a system where the school itself had had massive problems with anti-Asian violence. You know, a girl had had her fingers broken, a boy had been stabbed, since 1983, a young boy had had his neck broken in the third-floor hallway at 10 a.m., broad daylight, and that these incidents were not only never pursued, but that the anti-Asian violence nature of the incidents were never raised with the staff, so that over a period of 15 or so years this idea of violence towards these children was allowed to be systematized, institutionalized, to the point where a principal could feel comfortable about saying a remark like that with impunity.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the makeup of your classroom?

HELEN GYM: My classrooms are predominantly, I would say, about 40 — our school, and often the makeup of our classroom, is 40% African American, 30% Asian American, 18% Latino, 12% white. And so, it’s a highly diverse area. It’s a diverse community. And so, issues of race, you know, are always at — are always at hand.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! Our guests, Helen Gym, an elementary school teacher from Philadelphia; Christine Gutierrez of Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles. We’ll be back in 60 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Our guests, Helen Gym, an elementary school teacher from Philadelphia; Christine Gutierrez, a teacher from Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles. And we’re now joined by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum of Mount Holyoke College. I wanted to play for our listeners a comment that Craig Gerald, a teacher from Long Beach, California, shared at the conference about one of his first experiences as a teacher and how he dealt with the issue of race.

CRAIG GERALD: We were studying about the ancient Olympics, and we were contrasting the ancient Olympics to modern sporting events. And the students were very interested in this, you can imagine. We were talking about the long jump, javelin, sports that they knew very little about, and talking about the team sports that predominate today — basketball, football. At one point during the conversation, a student raised his hand and said, out of the blue, “Mr. Gerald, my brother tells me that Black people play basketball better because they can run and they can jump better. You know, they’re from the jungle.” And he didn’t say “Black people.” Of course, immediately, the entire classroom fell silent. It was a very, very difficult moment for me, one of many my first year teaching, probably the most difficult.

So I took the student aside, and I said to him, “Kevin, why in the world would you say that? I know your best friend is John. And John is African American.” And he said to me, “You know, Mr. Gerald, John is not a Black person.” And again he used the word that is a synonym for “Black person.” And I realized that everything that I had thought about race and about students’ perceptions of race and how it plays into their lives and into the classroom was just completely oversimplified and that this was a much more complex issue than I had ever imagined. And it would take a lot more understanding on my part to be able to do something about it. So I left this incident with very little hope that I would be able to have an effect.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Beverly Tatum, what did you think about how Craig dealt with this, taking the kid aside, asking him why he used the word “nigger” when his best fried was African American?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, I had a couple of responses. You know, certainly I thought he was to be commended for wanting to speak to the student about it and recognizing it as a problem. I think that one of my responses was, “Well, what about the other kids who heard the comment?” that, you know, by addressing that student individually, they didn’t have an opportunity to witness how do you interrupt somebody’s racist language, how do you talk about these issues. And, you know, maybe they were aware that he had had this conversation with that student privately, but maybe they weren’t. And so I think there needed to be some public discussion.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you have taken on this issue of a kid in class talking about “niggers” and Black people coming from the jungle?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: I think we could have talked about it in terms of, you know, a concept that I like to talk about with adults as well as with children, and that’s the notion of a cycle of oppression. And what I mean by that is that we all get misinformation about people different from ourselves, and that some of that misinformation comes from people we know, love and trust, including, in this case, maybe parents, including friends, including, you know, television sources. But at the same time, you know, let’s look at the fact that there is some misinformation here, you know, and where did that thinking come from, and to talk about where might these ideas have come from. And I’m imagining a kid might have said — let’s say the teacher called him on the use of the N-word, you know, the use of that language — might have said, “Well, they use it with — you know, the Black kids call each other 'nigger' all the time. What’s wrong with that? You know, why is that a problem?” And then we might have talked about that dimension, about, well, what does it mean when a group uses a word amongst itself, and then when it’s used by somebody outside that group.


HELEN GYM: The most striking thing about the story is not just what was said, but really the lack of his ability to be able to prepare for it, and his shock that this is something that I need to face, and that one of the most disturbing parts about teacher education these days is that antiracism and dealing with racism in a classroom, when it’s so fundamentally real for so many of the kids in which we teach, in myself as a public school teacher, that this is not considered a legitimate area of study, of preparing teachers to become antiracist.

AMY GOODMAN: And Christine Gutierrez?

CHRISTINE GUTIERREZ: Teacher education, even our professional development, is so often focused on teaching and learning as rarefied issues and not as parts of both social dimensions and human development. And to the extent that we separate those two, it creates a very, very difficult chasm to leap. But ironically, it also undermines what the purpose of public education is supposed to be, which is for the public good of the democracy. And in our teacher education, in our professional development, we have forgotten not to [inaudible] the public good. We have forged ahead on private achievement vis-à-vis an individual student or even a group of students, and not asked ourselves, “What’s the end of that achievement?”

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Tatum, how can teachers best be trained to take on issues like these?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, as has already been mentioned by Helen and Chris, I think it really needs to be made very central to the teacher education process to put race on the table. There’s often an active avoidance of talking about these issues. People will say, “Well, children are color blind,” or “I’m color blind. We don’t need to talk about it,” or we only want to talk about it when there’s a crisis. But the fact of the matter is that messages about race and racism are central to the way schools are structured, central to the way pedagogy is delivered, and we need to look at how to address this. My own thinking about this and experience in terms of working with teachers in what I think have been successful professional development opportunities has been that they need to be ongoing, they can’t be just one-shot workshops with no follow-up, but they need to be systematically structured so that there’s an opportunity for teachers to engage in their own personal reflection about who they are as racial beings and — you look like you want to ask a question.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. I was interested when you said, during the program, that someone was quite disturbed when they heard someone that you trained say, “I am no longer color blind,” and that that was actually a terrible thing to make a teacher no longer color blind. What’s your response to that?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, my response to that person was that, in fact, we do need to be aware of racial differences, cultural differences. When a teacher says, “I’m color blind,” what she often means, or he often means, is “I treat all my kids the same.” And then, my question is, “The same as what? You know, are you saying that they’re the same as the white children in your room, that they’re the same as you are in terms of your experience?” That there may be some similarities, but there may be also some important differences, which we need to recognize and acknowledge if we’re going to adequately respond to their educational needs.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think a white teacher is more likely to make a comment like that than a person of color?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Absolutely. I think that, you know, not to say that there aren’t people of color who might also agree with that statement, but I think that if you are a person of color, you know from your personal experience that your racial group membership makes a difference in your life. You know, so when I said to her — I said, “I hope you will see me as African American, because it makes a difference in my life. It’s an important part of my experience.” I have students in my psychology of racism classes, and I have teachers, white teachers, who make similar kinds of comments in that they don’t see themselves as racial beings. So, they say — you know, I had a white student in my class describe herself ethnically once by saying, “I’m just normal.” Well, you know, if you think of yourself as just the norm, then you assume that, well, of course, everybody should be like me. I’m just the norm. I should treat them as though they’re just the norm. But the fact of the matter is, as Cornel West said, race matters, you know, and so we should note it, not in a way that we’re going to discriminate against people, but to acknowledge the reality of their experience.


HELEN GYM: The other thing is — and Beverly has mentioned this before — that oftentimes we look at racism in terms of its dehumanization of people of color. And it allows the conversation to kind of be focused and allow people to shove off blame off of themselves and just say, “Oh, yeah, these are terrible things that are happening,” whereas I think that Peggy McIntosh says that we need to take a look at racism in terms of its dehumanization of white people.

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s Peggy McIntosh?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Peggy McIntosh is a professor at Wellesley College. She is affiliated with the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College and a leader in curriculum development around women’s studies, and has written a very well-known paper on examining white privilege.

HELEN GYM: So, Peggy McIntosh often says that it’s not only dehumanization of people of color that needs to be taken a look at, but the dehumanization of whites who need to have this sense that it’s a very disturbing and sick feeling to feel that you can assert superiority over other people, and that what we need to take a look at is not only how some people are oppressed, but, surely, how some people are enhanced by racism, just as sexism denies privileges to women, but, surely, just as well, accords privilege to men, and so that if we don’t take a look at racism in terms of those aspects, you know, sometimes it allows some people to shove off blame or say, “Oh, those are horrible things, that happens.”

AMY GOODMAN: I’m very interested in your research that you do on testing of kids and also, I suppose, of teachers. Can you talk a little about how the kinds of questions that are asked affects outcome on an exam?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, to clarify, earlier I was talking about the research that had been done by Claude Steele, who is a social psychologist at Stanford University. And he has looked at the impact of what he calls stereotype vulnerability on the performance of African American students. He’s also actually also looked at it in terms of the problem of stereotype vulnerability on women as it relates to math assessment.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “stereotype vulnerability”?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: By that, he means, is that certain groups are stereotyped in particular ways. And when you are aware of what the stereotype is for your group, you are vulnerable to anxiety about fulfilling that stereotype. So, for example, it’s widely known that there’s a stereotype that African Americans are less intelligent than white people. And even if you don’t believe that stereotype yourself, you’re aware that it’s out there in the public domain. So, when you’re in a testing situation as an African American, part of your anxiety may be, “I want to do well on this test not only because it’s important to me, but also because I don’t want to prove the stereotype that I am somehow less academically talented than somebody else,” in the same way a woman might feel like, “I want to do well on this test of math achievement, because I don’t want to succumb to the stereotype that women aren’t good at math, etc. So that’s what stereotype vulnerability is.

In his studies, one of the things he looked at was, if you manipulate how much stereotype vulnerability a person experiences before they take the test, it will impact their test performance. So, there were a variety of ways that he did this. But in one experiment, it was as simple as asking Black students to check off a racial identification box before taking the test. What he found was that students — Black students who were asked to take this test and didn’t check off the box did better than Black students who were asked to take the test but were asked to check off their racial designation before they took the test. In the case where the students were checking off the box and were compared to white students, who also checked off a box, the Black students did less well than the white students. But in the case where nobody checked off any racial designation, the Black students’ performance was equal to that of the white students. In this particular example, it seemed quite clear that this very small act, what would seem to be a small act, indicating that someone is paying attention to your racial group membership before you take the test, was enough to activate that stereotype vulnerability. This particular experiment has been done in a variety of different versions using different strategies to see how is this stereotype vulnerability activated. But in all cases, when it was present, the performance of the African American students was less than when it wasn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Gutierrez, you were talking about the tests that teachers take. And in California, there’s now a lawsuit on the part of minority teachers, teachers of color, who are asserting that the tests are racist because African American teachers do worse on them than other teachers and end up being disqualified. They end up not being able to teach. What is your feeling about this?

CHRISTINE GUTIERREZ: I wish that the dilemmas faced around the CBEST, California’s Basic Educational Test, I think, which is required of all teachers to be credentialed — I wish that the issues around them would be better framed, because it is not a question of — perhaps there is bias, no doubt that there have been in the past, but it’s not that issue alone that should be questioned. The very folks who are not doing well on the test should be trying to look at it with others who have done well on what are the dimensions, such as stereotype vulnerability or anything else, that are playing into it. But even more so, we should be asking, “Why is that the test that is being used to ask if someone can teach?” That is a basic skills test. Now, that should be one indication of what one can do in terms of mathematical, logical understanding or writing, because the test is verbal and math, but that is not, by any means, a good indicator of whether a person is going to make a decent, let alone a very good to exemplary, teacher.

AMY GOODMAN: I was very interested in the man who spoke after your plenary session, who said that they tricked teachers here in Washington, D.C., who had to take a standard test, because they knew that African Americans tended to do worse. And he, as an African American teacher and, I guess, trainer, said, “We wrote the test.” And the “we” referred to a group of African Americans. And suddenly, when they tested these exams, there were 92% of the teachers who passed, instead of a far smaller percentage. Just the teachers thinking that the test was written by African Americans made an enormous difference. Does that surprise you, Dr. Tatum?

DR. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, I think it’s very consistent with this research that Claude Steele is doing, in the sense that it lowered their performance anxiety. There was a sense that, you know, this test was constructed by African Americans; perhaps there’s going to be less cultural bias; perhaps I’m going to do better on it. You know, there’s less anxiety; your performance is better. So, I think it’s very consistent with what we’ve been talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum of Mount Holyoke College, a specialist in the psychology of race; also Helen Gym, elementary school teacher from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Christine Gutierrez of Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles.

And that concludes this edition of Democracy Now!, this special on education and race. And it came from a conference that I attended a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., that was put together by the Public Education Network. And if you’d like to find out more about it, find out about local groups in your community that are supporting public education — maybe you’re a part of one — the number of the Public Education Network is (202) 628-7460. That’s (202) 628-7460.

Democracy Now! is produced by Julie Drizin. Our engineer has been Errol Maitland. Labi Siffre will take us out with “School Days.” And I’d like to end with a thought of Margaret Mead that’s on the cover of the Public Education Network packet. She says, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of thoughtful individuals to change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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