The Equity Backlash Is Real. Resist It.

Nov 26, 2019 12:00:00 AM


A Movement, a Buzzword, but not a Fad.

For all its problems, No Child Left Behind illustrated a whole lot of problems that we still haven’t fixed. The hard data that came back showed some of the failures in education that bell hooks and Paulo Freire had been talking about forever. In large part, we have those numbers to thank for the increased focus and funding that led to the rise of the modern educational equity movement.

While district leaders and edu-fave speakers have tried their hardest to swallow up equity into something that could be mandated and implemented without having to pause to understand, the movement within classrooms and outside the walls of schools has given rise to a wave of leaders who have, through a decade or more of challenging the status quo, shifted the conversation and shaped “The Work.” 

Communities of leaders like EduColor, Clear the Air and Disrupt Texts aren’t just treading water, they are continuing to push this work forward. They started talking about race when it was wildly unpopular and unsafe to do so, and kept talking about it until “equity” became the buzzword everyone was using, and “anti-racist” was established as the real work that needed doing. They’ve done far more to activate teachers and transform practice than a great part of the educational non-profit sector can claim.

And yet, the wish from some that the equity movement would, like most education fads, go away in a year or two (which indicates a belief that education shouldn’t evolve along with the world or ever try new things at all, but whatever) somewhat came true. Equity transitioned to be a goal in and of itself in many places, and every district included the “and equity” tag at the end of every goal without ever honestly addressing what that meant. 

This year, I’ve seen resistance to equity and anti-racism grow and become more organized. It has adopted a smile, polite language and blue checkmarks. It is comfortable work that erases race, that protects the status quo. It is “Make Classrooms Great Again” and “I don’t see color, I see data.”

Upholding White supremacy does not always mean being a White supremacist. It doesn’t have to mean rallies and hoods and Nazi salutes (though we shouldn’t discount the influence and danger of newly emboldened hate groups around the country). It can mean a protection of systems that serve and value White people and White ideas more than others, it can mean disrupting, erasing or ignoring the work that’s been done, saying we’ve done enough—and [pullquote]this year, there’s been a whole lot of people who are very happy to say, “Does it always have to be about race?”[/pullquote]

The ‘Intellectuals’ Who Don’t See Race 

My first experience with this crew was when James Lindsay (a prodigious Twitter nonsense factory, and author of a book that appears to teach how to start arguments with social justice advocates and “win” by exhausting them) retweeted a piece of mine from much earlier in the year. He posted it to mock its stance on race and identity, and invited his many followers to do the same. My notifications were a mess of pseudo-intellectual nonsense. 

I’ve seen this crew, before and since, just about everywhere that meaningful conversations about race (or gender) are happening. The conversations tend to go like this:

“Intellectual”: I have some questions about the way you’ve talked about race.

Person: Ok, what’s up?

“Intellectual”: Well, the basic tenets of critical race theory (CRT) are deeply flawed and if you read _____ or _____ you will see that the paradigm of power with regards to intercultural relationships is in fact balanced when adjusted to include the existence of internal motivators.

Person: Are you saying that racism doesn’t exist, and PoC are just acting like victims?

“Intellectual”: Ugh, of course you would resort to gross simplification of my points while ignoring the underlying scholarship. You CRT cultists are all the same and committed to an unprovable assertion of privilege and race when in fact here is a link to a story about a black man who is wealthy.

Person: Yeah, I think we’re done here. You aren’t here to listen.

“Intellectual”: I”m disappointed that you so-called “woke” educators are unwilling to approach this with an open mind because you are so scared of my very good ideas.

This crew, and there are many of them, and they are nearly all 30-50-year-old White men, believe their personal perspective is the only logical one, are very very tired of hearing that White guys are doing something wrong. They dismiss emotion and personal experience and replace it with emotion and personal experience (but with bigger words).

Though they pretend to anchor their worldview in reasoned debate, they seem to only show up when straight, White, male privilege needs protecting. Showing great intellectual bravery, they always land on the side of a status quo that ignores the experiences and ideas of people of color, of the LGBTQIA+ community, of the existence of systemic racism and oppression.

Their White supremacism is an intellectual one, wrapped in GRE vocabulary words, but betraying a desire that all this race and gender stuff just go away so they can be treated like special boys again.

Because the Research Says

I should say first that I’m not anti-research … at least not overtly. I have my worries about how much research can truly capture the number of variables at play in a classroom, in a school building, over the course of a year, but it’s important we look seriously at what works and what doesn’t in schools. 

I’m also not necessarily against the research community that is (or appears to me anyway) rapidly growing online. But there’s a sub-group in there, some that are in the research crowd and some in the school choice crowd, though mostly all mixed together (and includes a few regular writers for Education Post, if I’m honest) that is just tired of talking about race, that is unwilling to call out anyone on their choice or research “team” who says something problematic, or whose work ignores any equity implications. 

Maybe some of this is my own pettiness from when folks in this crowd publicly said I shouldn't be a classroom teacher after reading something I wrote about White boys. Many in this crowd are loud, almost exclusively White, male voices who go largely unchecked by their larger communities because when they aren’t being problematic about race they champion school choice and the research ed community.

They want to dismiss any thinker they see trying for “wokeness.” They build beautiful straw men arguments that some educators believe we should sit in restorative justice circles all day petting copies of “The Hate U Give” and call it good teaching, as if all the strategies and culture work and relationships that come from good anti-racist work are not developed with academic achievement in mind.

They dismiss White privilege entirely, or understand it only as the privilege not to be hassled by the police. They don’t want to talk about White privilege in classrooms, because White lives matter too.

One of the biggest problems with this group is the erasure of the work of people of color. Reading through, say, the #ResearchEd hashtag, you may find some really good ideas, lots of people talking about how to make instruction better, but you’re also not going to find a lot of work based off the understandings that have been built over the last three decades about how race and education intersect. You may find a few people openly arguing that they do not, and you may find that those people don’t get challenged from within their community.

But mainly, they’re just tired of talking about race all the time, tired that everything needs to be about race all the time, want to address equity by making all teaching better because the research tells us how to, and sure, it mostly sounds like all the ways we were trying to teach before the equity movement, but it will work, of course, this time. They are selling the dangerous message that it’s OK to stop trying with all this equity stuff.

The Push, The Push Back

Education needs to continue to evolve, but we cannot pretend that the equity movement has accomplished its goals, or that it has done nothing to protect and educate the students in our rooms. It is hard work that is not done.

We, White teachers, are being sold a dangerous message that we can stop caring.

We, White teachers, who were never super comfortable talking about race as much as we did, were never happy to acknowledge what it meant to have so many kids of color taught by so many White people. We, White teachers, were mostly happy for any excuse to move on, to do the next thing, to wait for this buzzy thing to be replaced by some shiny thing. 

We can evolve. [pullquote]We can question and critique and we can try to measure what works and replicate it.[/pullquote] Equity never asked us to stop being thoughtful practitioners or professionals. Equity is about inequities, about recognizing and working to undo them. It is hard work that is not done.

We, White teachers, have to understand that this year we have been pushed, been welcomed away, been distracted from continuing to work on making schools a safer, better, more equitable place for our kids of color. Our job next year is to push back. We are not done.

Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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