I’ve been on the move in the last months listening to and dialoguing with communities across the country about STEM education and the forces that influence it. The more I see, the more the story is the same.
Black and Brown students are suffering from educational assault and isolation. Poor students of all stripes are withering on the vine. The STEM education effort is important, but it remains in the margin of the primary national narrative.
Race tension and segregation are the central text.
Those two forces determine the height and width of the margin. They are the primary factors that constrain our collective effort to democratize STEM education specifically and education generally. I cannot escape this reality.
American tribalism is real. White people choose segregation, to be among themselves. That is a different charge than saying they choose to keep Black and Brown people at a distance. The later is heavy with racist intent, while the former is tribal comfort merely laced with racist mistrust. In America, we’re all born with at least that. The outcome, however, is the same. When people of color get close or cross a certain percentage, whether in schools, or neighborhoods or coffee shops or college campuses, White people’s instinct is to call the police, or change the policy, or craft legislation, or redraw the school zone, or secede from the urban core, or claim reverse racism – to create distance, to keep to themselves.
The problem with that in urban and suburban education is that where there are concentrations of White students, there is a concentration of institutional care, nurturing, concern and high expectations. Where there are concentrations of Black and Brown students, there is a concentration of institutional threat, punitive instincts, incessant experimentation and fuzzy expectations.
I recognize that there is a difference between an individual and a group. Black people know that better than most. As individuals, we’ve been battling forever against the collective national caricature of us born in the American slave-nigger-narrative. It is the residue of that very conception that is leading White people to call the police on us while waiting for our friends at Starbucks or studying at Yale or enjoying urban parks in Oakland.
No indictment or description of a group of people fits all the individuals within the group. Such is the fallacy of stereotypes. But patterns matter. From places as far flung as Bessemer, Alabama to Seattle, Washington the story is precisely the same. Through a confluence of quiet decisions that connect International Baccalaureate Programs, Gifted designation, math placement, school boundaries, seceded cities within urban centers and the specious argument for the value of school choice, Black and Brown students are systematically kept at a distance. They are systematically kept out of the tracks of education that lead to elite levels of American life – or rather, the path that leads to elite American life is smoothly paved for White children and pocked and potholed for Black and Brown children. Sadly, there is nothing profound in that observation. It is just remarkably consistent.
The counter argument is always the same too – that I am blaming White people for the difficulties of our people. I am not. I am saying that the national call for diversity and inclusion and democratized education cannot be realized if individual White people choose to cloister their children while feigning concern for the suffering of the rest of us on the other side.
There are several choices we have to make as America is reborn into a nation of a White minority. For White people, choosing to be among the rest of us is one of them.