Ending Racism Requires Systems Change

Recently, Rev. Alex Gee, wrote an incredible personal story about his Justified Anger about racism in Madison.  The story’s publication on the front page of the Capital Times has sparked many fruitful conversations about how to end enduring racism in a city where most would expect that such problems would be minimal.  After I read his compelling story (and I strongly recommend that you read it as well), I reached out to Rev. Gee to meet him and discuss how we might work together to transform the important conversation his article has started into enduring systemic change.


We met for coffee the day before Christmas, which I am sure must be a very busy time for any Pastor preparing for his church’s most important holiday.  But his commitment to ending racism in his life long town inspired him to take an hour out of his day to meet me and start what we both hope will be a fruitful relationship.

Of course, neither of us is naive enough to think that ending racism in Madison is an easily accomplished task.  After all, given its liberal, progressive history, if it were easy to end racism in Madison, it would have been done long ago.

Sadly, however, the markers of racism pervade our bastion of liberalism.  An examination of the available data tells the story only too well.  Whether it is the gigantic gap in our schools, with Black students graduating over 30 percentage points lower (55%) than White students (86.7%), or the juvenile arrest rates with Black juveniles being arrested at a shocking rate of 46.9% compared to the White arrest rate of 7.7%.

While some might jump to the conclusion that these horrific statistics are evidence of internal problems in the African-American community, Rev. Gee’s article reveals that the problems of racism are deeply rooted in systemic attitudes and perceptions about people of color.  Indeed, Rev. Gee himself has been a victim of racial profiling, as the Madison police dared to question him in his own car in his own church’s parking lot, investigating what he was doing there!  On another occasion, when he was questioned by the police while at a local bank, Rev. Gee asked why he was stopped.  A police officer told this honorable man of the cloth that it was because he fit a drug dealer profile!  It does not take a deep understanding of racism to understand that the only reason Rev. Gee fits a drug dealer profile, is that this well dressed professional happens to be black.

Thus, without enduring systemic change in the multiple layers of our society: schools, police, courts, housing, employment, and health care, the problem of racism is simply not going to go away.  The task is not easy, but if our nation can elect a Black President, surely we can bring the legacy of racism to an end in a liberal college town.

As I have written previously, systems change requires persistence.  It must start with how we treat our youth in school as generational change begins with the newest generation.  That means we must put an end to the schools to prison pipeline, which starts by ending the practice of routinely suspending students for mere disruptive behavior. Of course, if we do not resist the racism of low expectations, we will be doomed to stay mired in this painful cycle of low achievement rooted in racism.

After my meeting with Rev. Gee, we exchanged messages about how we both hope to work together on this important issue.  I felt truly blessed when Rev. Gee said that he “was inspired” by our meeting.  Indeed, Systems Change Requires Inspiring Action.  

In the coming weeks, I hope to work with Rev. Gee to bring together key community leaders to take his inspirational article from starting many important conversations to truly ending racism through systemic change.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.


Combating the Racism of Low Expectations Once Again

Sadly, the battle to combat the racism of low expectations in our schools is pervasive.  I previously wrote about this issue in the context of the decade old class action I fought against Milwaukee Public Schools and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Now, I am confronting this issue in rural northern Wisconsin, on behalf of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (LDF Tribe).

While many of the members of the LDF Tribe live on their reservation in northern Wisconsin, just west of Woodruff, their children attend the Lac du Flaubeau Public School, a K-8 school which feeds into the Lakeland Union High School (LUHS), along with the primary schools from Arbor Vitae, Minocqua, and Manitowish Waters.

The LDF Tribe’s Education Director asked me to meet with and train parents on their children’s rights in school because they are experiencing many problems ranging from physical and verbal abuse, failure to comply with special education laws, excessive discipline and low academic performance leading to low graduation rates, and blatant discrimination, even in homework assignments, such as the “What Happened After Chief Shortcake Died?” math assignment which rightfully outraged the LDF Tribe, garnered an apology from the teacher, and attracted media attention, just a little over a year ago.


Of course, one racist assignment does not make a whole school, but one look at the LUHS School Report Card reveals that LDF children are not receiving the education they need to succeed as adults.  While the graduation rate of White students at LUHS is almost 97%, the graduation rate of Native American students is only 57.9%.  This is not terribly surprising when one finds that 41% of LUHS Native American are reading below a basic level, and almost 54% of LUHS Native American students are performing math below a basic level.

There are many reasons for this, many of which have deep roots in American history, but a few comments from my session last night spoke volumes about why such poor academic performance is tolerated by the LUHS.

  • Apparently, the LUHS administration is protesting the low Native American graduation rate on its school report card,  because it does not want to count drop outs!  Fortunately, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, has refused to accept the LUHS position on this issue.
  • LDF members have been told by school officials that their children have a high rate of Speech & Language special education needs because their parents do not read to their children, rather than understanding the genetic issues of a high proportion of LDF children who develop middle-ear infections causing Speech & Language delays.
  • When confronted with bullying issues, school officials have simply responded by stating that, “boys will be boys,” rather than instituting anti-bullying programs and policies which protect children and support victims.

Fortunately, the LDF Tribe’s Education Department has seen enough and while it wants to work collaboratively with the public schools to improve their children’s educational outcomes, it is also prepared to bring in additional advocacy resources to help them achieve this goal.  I look forward to empowering LDF parents and children to combat the racism of low expectations and improve their children’s educational performance.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Combating the Racism of Low Expectations

In the current education reform wars, poverty is often used as a rationale for poor student performance.  Indeed, as discussed in the NY Times:

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

But the conversation simply cannot end there and serve as an excuse not to provide an appropriate education to children who are impoverished.  Excuses based on poverty are easily translated into excuses for failing to properly educate racial minorities given the much higher rates of poverty which African-Americans and Latinos suffer from as compared to whites.

A quick look at the data reveals shocking disparities between state level achievement and the achievement of minority groups, especially those concentrated in urban districts.  In Milwaukee, for example, the 10th grade reading performance data shows that only 8.8% of African-American students in Milwaukee were reading beyond the basic level, as compared to 44.1 % of white students who read at that level statewide. Other large districts in Wisconsin, with high minority populations, reveal academic achievement disparities as well.

In addition to academic achievement disparities, there are also discipline disparities. Indeed, the disparities are so bad in Seattle that the US Dept. of Justice launched an investigation of the suspension and expulsion rates there, which are 3 times higher for African-American students compared to white students.

Graduation rates are similarly disturbing.  While Milwaukee has shown some improvement, its latest data shows only 66.2% of its high school students graduating, compared to an 87.5% statewide graduation rate.

This racism of low expectations revealed itself during the class action trial in Jamie S. v. Milwaukee Public Schools, which helped to create some of the recent progress in MPS. Among the methods the school district used to try to defend itself was to try to show that the students we claimed were harmed, MPS suggested had succeeded.  Indeed, one of the plaintiffs graduated and MPS trumpeted that fact.

On cross examination, however, my co-counsel, Monica Murphy, pressed the point with his educators that he graduated with only an 6th grade reading level.  The educators simply did not understand her concern.  In fact, what became crystal clear was that the mere fact that this student had graduated made him a success in his educators’ minds, regardless of his inability to read sufficiently well to succeed in his adult life.  When Monica finished her cross examination, I whispered to her,

You have just elicited testimony on the racism of low expectations.

As long as educators and policy makers believe that graduating an African-American student with an 8th grade reading level is a success, then we will never get beyond the current achievement gap between the races in this country.  Regardless of which side of the education reform debate one supports, everyone should agree that while poverty, and therefore race, may impact on a child’s performance, the answer is not to accept those horrible results.  The answer is to work harder to change them, as has been done in Union City, New Jersey.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.