Racial Mismatch in Public Schools

While discussing a photography essay by photographer Chris Buck titled “Let’s Talk About Race” featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, the girls at Brogden Middle School began to both question and recognize manifestations of racial inequality, such as the imbalance of minority teachers at Brogden compared to the majority-minority student body. Indeed, one of the Latina young women, who aspires to become a teacher, explained that she was bothered by the fact that she has never had a Latina teacher.

Although I found this young woman’s observation troubling, with 34% of educators from minority backgrounds, the Durham Public School (DPS) system certainly fares better, in terms of inclusivity, compared to the national average of less than 20%. Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the school principals in the DPS system are African American.  A majority white teaching staff, however, still does not accurately reflect the overwhelmingly majority-minority student body in traditional DPS schools.  At Brogden, nearly 45% of the students are African American and 34% are Latino.

The disproportionality between the racial composition of the student body and the teaching staff in schools is problematic because it may engender poor academic performance. A recent Johns Hopkins University study suggests that the implicit bias white teachers carry may contribute to low academic performance.   Indeed, it found that “when a white teacher and a black teacher consider the same black student, the white teacher is nearly 40 percent less likely to think that the black students will graduate from high school.” Shockingly, with only 36.2% of students at Brogden managing to pass all state-wide assessments, perhaps a more diversified teaching staff could encourage greater academic success.  Moreover, this bias may discourage minority students from taking certain courses and affect a student’s future career.  As Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University, states, “when minority students see someone at the blackboard that looks like you, it helps you reconceive what’s possible for you.” Similar to the message captured in “Let’s Talk about Race”, few diverse teachers at the front of the classroom may imply that minority students should not pursue careers in education.

Unfortunately, since public school systems have trouble retaining minority teachers, it may be difficult for DPS to remedy this lack of diversity.  According to Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, minority teachers are “disproportionately assigned to schools with large populations of children from low-income families, and are subjected to student discipline problems and lack of resources and lower salaries, with often more top-down and scripted curricula.”

As a white woman leading a group of Latina and African American women, I have recognized the potentially problematic dynamic that my race could create. Both by soliciting program suggestions from the group participants and by inviting diverse women to lead workshops, I have attempted to diffuse the power that my race presents. Mrs. Solorio, the Latina eighth-grade teacher who is supervising the group, however, mentioned that my presence compliments the goals of the program and conveys that white women can be allies in issues of intersectional feminism.