“A Nation of Cowards:”
Education and the Perpetuation of Racism
by Gilda L. Ochoa
“I thought this was going to be about students, and instead all you’ve done is presented us with cases of discrimination and sob stories.” After a five hour training with high school teachers on Race, Class, Gender, and Education, these concluding comments by a White male teacher and one of the most vocal in the group did not surprise me. It simply summarized what I had come to understand over the course of the day. It also affirms U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments that the U.S. in many ways is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to acknowledging and discussing racism.
Some of the teachers who claimed that they wanted to “learn more about their students” – who are nearly 90% Latina/o at their school -- did not want to discuss the history of racism and classism that has plagued the U.S. school system. To them, the patterns of de jure and de facto segregation and the biological and cultural deficiency ideologies that have sustained exclusionary practices were irrelevant, as was the history of U.S. economic, political, and military domination in Latin America. They were uninterested and unaware of the role of U.S. politicians and corporations in fueling migration and sustaining a system of power and inequality in Latin America and within the U.S. The racialized and classed system of curriculum tracking that differentially places students into honors/advanced placement, college-preparatory, and vocational courses was unquestioned. After all, “it has always existed” and was believed to be necessary to funnel students into a stratified workforce. The underlying sentiment was “Why was I focusing so much on racism and class inequality? If parents knew the importance of education and students worked harder and would leave their neighborhoods for college, they too could achieve the American Dream.”
Rather than listen, learn, and discuss the factors influencing the lives of Latinas/os and critically reflect on their own privileges, assumptions, and impacts on student learning, most of the teachers wanted a clear-cut, sanitized, pre-packaged list itemizing all that they needed to know about Latina/o students, parents, and culture. Maybe they wanted to be told that Latinas/os may not look one in the eye, that we are family oriented, or that we are from collectivist cultures. As a school administrator reminded me, this is what happened at many teacher training workshops on diversity in the 1980s. Such discussions of supposed cultural differences are palatable for some precisely because they do not implicate U.S. structures, institutions, ideologies, and school officials, but they also do not provide opportunities for change. Instead, they place all of the blame on students and their families.
However, I refused to present static categorizations of students and Latinas/os that simply reinforce stereotyped assumptions of a heterogeneous group. Students are not disembodied from history, school policies, and communities and cannot be characterized in facile ways. Individuals who assume otherwise and ignore the history of schooling, immigration, and socio-political-economic contexts are failing students. They are denying critical opportunities to learn, discuss, and deconstruct the legacy of discrimination that permeates schools and the nation.
There were fundamental differences in how the White teachers and teachers of color in the workshop understood and discussed racism. The few teachers of color in the group were not willing to deny the salience of racism in hindering lives and communities. As sociologist Robert Blauner has described with Blacks and Whites during discussions of racism, the two groups of teachers were “talking past each other.” While the teachers of color understood racism as historical, contemporary, and structural – not rooted simply in individual attitudes and actions, the vocal White teachers adamantly denied the persistence of racism and the ways that they are privileged by white supremacy.
With such deep-seated differences in understanding, half day workshops such as the one I led are insufficient, and there are too few spaces in schools and society to expose the many manifestations and ramifications of racism. The structure of schooling with its obsessive emphasis on standards-based learning and testing under No Child Left Behind provides few opportunities for discussions of racism and other form of discrimination and inequality. Too many teacher education programs, staff development sessions, and faculty meetings are devoted to quantitative measurements of student learning, thus replicating old ways of thinking and squelching opportunities for expanding knowledge. As one teacher in the workshop who excused himself for not knowing about the histories and experiences of communities of color explained, “I don’t know that information. Basically I’m just teaching what I was taught. I’m reproducing the same things in my classroom that I was provided.” Later he announced that he did not have time to read some of the books I had recommended but that he would be interested in receiving a list of videos. While such a lack of desire to continue learning and improving classroom teaching may stem from many factors including the dismissing of racism, the devaluing of students and Chicanas/o-Latina/o studies, it may also suggest a lack of curiosity and passion for learning arising in the era of packaged, scripted, and regurgitated schooling.
While I understand that the vocal teachers at this workshop do not represent all teachers, their comments and lack of willingness to engage the realities of racism, classism, and sexism are frightening. Their comments suggest the importance of a national discussion on the structures of power and inequality in the U.S. As a society, we must not allow simplistic conceptualizations to dictate what is known. We also need to advocate for the implementation of required undergraduate, teacher education, and professional development courses that disrupt traditional schooling and dominant thought by presenting excluded histories, offering structural analyses, and encouraging the development of critical thinking and informed individuals who are committed to learning, teaching, and social justice. Such courses and the critical consciousness that often emerges with them can help to open up discussions on systemic and institutional injustices that have the potential to usher in real change. If those of us in the classroom really want to learn more about students, we must be willing to confront the brutalities of U.S. racism and all of its contemporary manifestations. To do otherwise, is to risk reproducing another generation of individuals who do not know about the deep legacy of racism and are unwilling to change.
Gilda L. Ochoa is Associate Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pomona College. She is the author of Learning from Latino Teachers (2007) and Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community (2004) and co-editor with Enrique C. Ochoa of Latino Los Angeles (2005).