Alejandra is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who speak little English and hold down jobs cleaning houses and working in a hotel. Last year, she graduated from a high school in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the student population is roughly half poor Latino and half affluent white.
Their worlds rarely intersect, with most white students taking high-level courses and most Latinos enrolled in the general-ed classes. But during her high school years, Alejandra was the exception.
She was the only Latino student with immigrant parents enrolled in a college-level program known as International Baccalaureate studies. Many of the fellow students came from the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, one of the wealthiest enclaves in the nation (Oprah Winfrey has a home there). It was often an uncomfortable experience.
Alejandra finished high school with a 3.3 GPA — no small feat given her background and the rigorous program from which she graduated.
Nonetheless, when it came time to talk to her guidance counselor about future plans, the counselor dissuaded Alejandra from pursuing her dream to attend a four-year university. The counselor instead advised her to go to the local community college. Alejandra complied, and today is a student at Santa Barbara City College.
The experience, she said, filled her with self-doubt.
“I thought, maybe I’m not as good as I think I am,” she told Miller-McCune.com.
Battling Subtle Messages
Though racism in the public education system no longer takes the overt form of segregated schools, white students spitting on black students with impunity or National Guardsmen with rifles blocking the entrance to a school, several nonprofit organizations around the country focusing on racial justice in public schools say it’s still ubiquitous.
Although the counselor no doubt had Alejandra’s best interests in mind, the decision to steer her away from a four-year university was a classic example of unintentional racism, said Jarrod Schwartz, executive director of Just Communities Central Coast, a nonprofit based in Santa Barbara and dedicated to dismantling institutional racism in schools. (The group was founded in 2001 as The National Conference for Community and Justice of California’s Central Coast, which in turn had its roots in the venerable National Conference of Christians and Jews.)
“Most of the racism in schools today is not born out of intense hate and does not come from this place of wanting the worst for students of color,” he said. “It’s subtle.”
The organization spends much of its time informing educators about the everyday red flags that may be invisible to them, but glaringly obvious to many minority students and teachers of color.
A well-meaning high school counselor, for instance, may learn the names of all her white students, but barely any of her Latino pupils. A white teacher may call on students of color only for the easy questions. A teacher may embarrass a student of Korean descent by assuming the student knows how to pronounce a word in Vietnamese.
In May 2000, on the 40th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark case that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional — the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of California that brought the essence of institutionalized racism into sharp focus. Filed on behalf of 100 students in San Francisco, the case was named after Eliezer Williams, then a seventh-grader at Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco.
At Williams’ school, the textbooks were so scarce, students could not take them home; they were so old they still did not recognize the collapse of the Soviet Union. At certain times during the school day, there were no bathrooms; attorneys said students had urinated or defecated on themselves for lack of a restroom. The school was infested with vermin.
The suit argued that the state was failing to provide thousands of California students with the basic necessities for a decent education. Most of the students in question were poor minorities. In 2004, the case was settled, with the state setting aside $138 million for improving the textbooks and facilities of underserved student populations across California.
In a paper, Terry Keleher and Tammy Johnson of the Applied Research Center — a racial justice think tank — argued that the Williams case shows that institutionalized racism is alive and well in the 21st century.
“Institutional racism is frequently subtle, unintentional and invisible, but always potent,” they wrote. “Often, institutional racism involves complex and cumulative factors; for example, when many students of color, year after year, do not have access to fully credentialed teachers, high-quality curriculum materials and advanced courses.” (see rest of article at above link)