Why Do We Need Another Book on Courageous Conversations About Race?
I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.
IT’S (STILL) A QUESTION OF WILL!
In December 2005, at the National Staff Development Council’s annual conference in Philadelphia, I felt a kind of excitement and joy such as I had never experienced before. I was back in the city where I had struggled through many courses, and occasionally fallen into doubt about my graduation possibilities, while attending the University of Pennsylvania. Despite those early challenges, I also experienced accomplishment there, completing the first of a series of college degrees that would lead me further and more deeply into my chosen field of education. Now I was there again, pen in hand, books stacked neatly around me, sitting proudly beside a bright and beautiful orange poster of
the cover of Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.
I had invited friends and family to join me at what would become the first of many signings and discussions about a book that would later define a small movement in education. I must admit that I was a bit overwhelmed that afternoon in Philadelphia by the attention Courageous Conversations was getting. More and more, the book was appearing in the hands of and generating discussion among my professional development colleagues, many of whom had gathered from around the country for updates on professional learning communities, responses to intervention, and positive behavior intervention and support efforts. Although “Beyond Diversity,” the international face-to-face and online training program on which the book was modeled, had been (and remains) extremely popular and successful, I never imagined that Courageous Conversations would become an award winner, let alone a bestseller for my publisher, Corwin.
I felt that way especially because the book was being introduced into a society that categorically denied the very presence of racism at the same time it was calling out, with some urgency, for a protocol to examine and address the myriad manifestations of racism evident in its schools. I certainly was not anticipating such mass approval for a work stemming from two simple premises. The first of these is that to address racial achievement disparities in schools, educators must first gain permission from their institutional leadership to engage in conversations about race. The second is that educators must develop the will, skill, knowledge, and capacity to sustain and deepen the dialogue about the impact of race on leadership, learning and teaching, and family/community empowerment. Still, educators by the thousands had purchased the book by then, and scores had spoken about the importance of the Four Agreements, Six Conditions, and specialized Compass introduced in its pages to assist educators in navigating and negotiating issues related to race in their professional as well as their personal lives.
I was then and remain truly humbled by the entire author experience. Even today, given my comparatively modest writing experience, I am simply amazed how authors such as Michael Fullan and Linda Darling-Hammond (or heck, even Danielle Steele!) can produce so many books in a single lifetime. This second book was, for me, a 2-year effort, and it took nearly everything out of me that the first book left behind. It also often depleted the patience of my family and friends and the members of my staff at Pacific Educational Group (PEG), Inc. The latter often had to cover for me when I would just disappear to Tahoe National Forest or Hawaii’s Big Island to unplug, concentrate, and compose this narrative, which is designed to provoke, inspire, challenge, and support the growing band of school leaders striving for racial equity. I am grateful to all for their love and support, and I remain committed to accompanying my courageous colleagues around the world on a journey to discover ways to make the so-called “achievement gap”—or what I now refer to as “racial achievement disparities in education”—a thing of the past.
I learned in crafting my first book that writing about race for a U.S. audience requires that I first state exactly what must be said to enlist the confidence of and maintain my credibility among racially conscious people of color. It next demands that I craft a revision that does not overwhelm or alienate my majority White readership. This is because, alongside my critical and targeted audiences, there exists a powerful and largely White body of critics who will indiscriminately challenge any attempt I make, meaningful or otherwise, to elevate the conversation and consciousness about race and racism in this country to a higher and more urgent level. As a result, in my writing, I spend much of my time and energy defending my right to examine and discuss the intersection of race and schooling. I strive also to carefully illustrate the importance of that investigation while simultaneously pointing out the racism of my potential detractors. Striking this peculiar balance of language and tone, while ensuring that I continue to convey my personal and deep feelings of pride, authenticity, and integrity—chapter after chapter—is both a litmus test and a goal.
WRITING IN DIFFICULT TIMES
This second book, More Courageous Conversations About Race, was a much harder project for me to complete because I wrote it in what I would define as a far more racially pernicious time. As you will see over the course of this book, while the election of the nation’s first president of color seemed to signal a positive moment in the history of U.S. race relations, his term in office has nevertheless left educators of today confronting racial issues more compatible with the era of segregation and outright oppression. As an author, I have struggled long and hard with the content and tone of this book to avoid being labeled angry or negative about race relations in the United States. At the heart of this struggle was the challenge I faced of expressing, in an explicit and unapologetic way, my opinion on this matter—which is that our nation has taken, as far as I am concerned, the figurative two steps forward and three steps back.
Of course, all of this has taken place amid a deafening silence about the issue of race itself. Who would have thought, for example, that education officials would ever find themselves in a quandary over whether their students should or should not be allowed to watch a televised message delivered by the president of the United States about the importance of studying hard and staying in school? And yet, when arrangements were made so that classrooms across the nation could tune in via the White House website to the president’s speech at an Arlington, Virginia, high school, there was an enormous outcry from conservative pundits, Republican leaders, and White parents, even in some of the most equity-focused school districts. The gist of the complaint was that Obama was attempting to indoctrinate students with his political—read socialist—viewpoints. I do not believe, however, that such resistance to the president and his message was just politics, when other recent presidents—of both political parties but only one color—have addressed the nation’s school-age children without a similar furor.
Bigotry aside, the mere fact that some of the nation’s lowest-performing students, Black males, were prevented from this most important moment in education because of
adult cowardice is one of several realities that fueled me to press on and complete this book. Those students especially desperately needed to absorb the president’s message and see themselves reflected in his image in the highest position of authority in the land.
In the past three years, corresponding with the bulk of Barack Obama’s first term as president, this nation has fallen backward with regard to race relations and its willingness and ability to challenge racism. Some people simply cannot believe a Black man is president and refuse to accept his worthiness, intelligence, or leadership. Former President Jimmy Carter was right on point when he spoke out against this type of racist resistance in a television interview on September 15, 2009. According to Carter:
When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds. I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American. It’s a racist attitude … based on the fact that he is a black man.2
That the White House issued a statement disagreeing with Carter shortly after his interview was not surprising, given the first president of color’s inability or strategic unwillingness to address race head-on, much less to call out racism and survive in his leadership. Unfortunately, President Obama’s statement served only to exacerbate the national confusion around the topic. Conversely, the statement offered by the African American leader of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, was not at all confusing. Steele rose in quick defense of his constituencies, many of whom were the subject of President Carter’s conjectures about racism.
Equally confounding is the growing number of people in schools and society today who believe that we as a nation have somehow entered an era of post-racialism. That era, in their view, is highlighted by the election of our first Black president. It is further “colored” by his appointment of the first Brown American woman to the Supreme Court (Sonia Maria Sotomayor); by his selection of Eric Holder, another Black man, to be the nation’s attorney general; and by his appointment of other officials of color to high positions of government authority.
Not surprisingly, however, despite this growing perception that both race and racism are behind us, hardly a day goes by in which some politician, media pundit, or everyday American fails to express publicly some racially insensitive remark that other supposedly more racially conscious citizens fail to point out or oppose. The outcome of this scenario is a racially dangerous one in which the Obamas, our nation’s First Family, appear to lead gracefully while suffering unprecedented personal attacks and in which increasing numbers of onlookers interpret the bigoted encroachments against them as nonracist in character. Worse still, those onlookers typically characterize the civil deportment of the Obamas as appropriate and somehow “normal.”
I realize that it would be political suicide for the President, Justice Sotomayor, Attorney General Holder, and others of color in such high positions to launch into a lesson on racism at every turn or slight as a means of defending themselves, their perspectives,
or their actions in office or of challenging the characters, perspectives, or actions of others. Nevertheless, to move the Courageous Conversations approach from theory to practice, racial equity leaders must be aware of, acknowledge, and address the racism displayed by those otherwise well-meaning people who incorrectly posit that we in this nation have evolved beyond our own individual and collective racial struggles in the span of a single national election cycle.
No matter how one perceives or spins what is occurring in our nation today, the election of Barack Obama clearly represents the most racially significant event in modern times. Regardless of how one may feel about President Obama’s politics or party affiliation, however, his era as leader of the free world presents either our nation’s greatest opportunity or simply a missed opportunity to deepen its educators’ understanding of and ability to talk about race. For that reason, this book will delve into the Obama presidency multiple times.
In the minds of our children, the inability of our nation’s educators to recognize and grab hold of the increased opportunities to engage in courageous conversations about race further cements the idea that racism no longer represents a battle that they will need knowledge and skills to wage. Often, those who believe that we in this country have overcome our racial struggles cite the success of Barack Obama (or of me, for that matter) as evidence enough that we are living in a brave, new, racially just society and world. The vast difference in perspective among various racial groups regarding our so-called national post-racialism is cause for discussion—one that I will join in a later chapter.
For now, as I set you, the readers of this book, off on a course of moving Courageous Conversations from theory to practice, let it suffice to say that I believe nothing is more dangerous, especially for children of color, than to be taught that racism no longer exists. This is especially dangerous when, in fact, racism continues to be the most devastating factor contributing to the inability of those same children to achieve at their highest levels.
Now I certainly do not wish to be perceived as overlooking or downplaying the many and obvious advancements that have taken place with regard to race relations in America in recent years. However, the modicum of racial progress realized is, to me, largely a nuanced one. It is also one that has given rise to newfound racial conflicts as well the ugly specter of the nation’s unfortunate racial history. Both still mar our overall progress, and those of us who are progressive educators and racial equity leaders may be fooling ourselves by asserting that the United States is much further along in addressing either than it actually is.
So much of the school reform literature, theory, and corresponding frameworks have focused on how to change our schools. Yet when focusing on how to achieve racial equity, educational researchers, theorists, policymakers, and practitioners have, for the most part, limited themselves to describing the pathologies of an ill-functioning system and offering strategies for surmounting them rather than getting at the root causes of those challenges.
In some ways, the Courageous Conversations
field guide followed this formula. In it, my coauthor Curtis Linton and I suggested that the nation’s public education system,
suffering as it does from institutional racism, plays an instrumental role in preserving and perpetuating racial achievement disparities. We offered a compelling case for the argument that the American school system was designed, from the very beginning, to exclude, then marginalize, and then under-educate children of color while simultaneously mis-educating all
children of all
races. Contemporary data, we contended, indicates that this design has proved itself effective and has achieved its intended results.
Throughout the book you now hold in your hands, I will share multiple sources of contemporary data that reveal and reconfirm my point that our current school system fails to meet the needs of the growing number of students of color within it. Our educators’ collective failure to do little more than recognize this condition—and specifically their refusal to directly speak to the plight of Black, Brown, and American Indian students, much less work toward discovering solutions to their challenges—is the most compelling evidence of systemic racism. Ironically, as those educators fail under-served student of color populations at escalating rates, historically higher-performing White students increasingly are also achieving at lower levels. Later in this book, I will review current and critical achievement data that substantiate my claims that the racial disparities in education outcomes persist in all types of school systems.
BUILDING ON THE FIELD GUIDE
To counteract the fundamental intentions of the early framers, the first Courageous Conversations book focused on assisting educators of all colors to develop their ability and capacity simply to begin talking about racial matters. The result of this interracial discourse, my coauthor and I postulated, would be a more racially conscious, and thus racially knowledgeable, cadre of teaching professionals. Such teachers, we asserted, could, in turn, have a greater impact on the educational outcomes of the growing populations of children of color in America. They could also influence and elevate the social and intellectual development of White American students.
Although the specifics of our philosophy and of the protocols described in the field guide may be unique to the field, perhaps even groundbreaking, clearly our conjecture that race matters and that we educators need to talk about ...