Western students aspire to be change agents for justice

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 28, 2013 

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington allows us pause for reflection on the strength of our nation's people to take a stand against racism and other forms of injustice in America. It also serves as a barometer for measuring where we were then and where we are now. The marches and protests of the 1960s made an immense impact on dismantling unjust laws of segregation. These changes enabled multiple achievements such as the election of the first African American president, first Latina member of the Supreme Court and the increased presence of ethnic minority students on university campuses.

However, many scholars and community activists would attest today that we have moved from an old Jim Crow form of segregation and second-class citizenship to the new Jim Crow that now includes a school-to-prison pipeline.

Racial disparities continue to exist within systems of employment, housing, health care, government, justice and education. Within our schools today students continue to experience individual bigotry, lowered expectations, biased curriculum and instruction, ability tracking, disproportionate punishment for in-school infractions such as juvenile justice referrals, suspensions and expulsions, and other forms of harsh sanctions due to their racial ethnicity.

The 1960s mantra of "equal rights and justice for all" appears silenced on the doorsteps of 21st century education.

The education reform movement that followed the civil rights strides of the '60s helped to birth anti-racist education, which was the parent for what many embrace today as multicultural education. Anti-racist education grew out of a realization that simply focusing on cultural diversity did not ensure that more subtle forms of racism, particularly at the institutional level, would be addressed. Central to the concept of anti-racist education is the need to deal directly with racial discrimination and to develop a more critical approach to how we "do schooling."

Anti-racist education remains an integral component of multicultural education, and has demonstrated the ability to broaden awareness, as well as change racist beliefs and behavior. Yet, anti-racist and multicultural education are not fully embraced or implemented within United States schools. This is partly due to the denial that racism still exists in America. Many choose to believe that racism and discrimination ended with the 1960s civil rights movement and that isolated incidents occasionally occur. However, all Americans suffer directly or indirectly due to this belief.

While administering a racism climate survey with 2,000 8th- and 11th-graders, findings indicated that 88 percent of student respondents perceived racism in their schools. Furthermore, studies with students of color and white students demonstrated the traumatic impact of racism in some of the following ways: belittled self-esteem, causing diminished interest in school; heightened perceptions by students to overachieve academically to disprove stereotypes; and guilt and embarrassment at seeing other students victimized. Students from this body of research frequently asked that work be done with teachers and administrators to change racist behavior.

However, in a follow-up study with 512 teachers in four regions of the United States, many educators were in a state of denial. For instance, they often made comments in the study about the non-existence of racism, i.e., students "embellish the truth" and are "making a mountain out of a molehill," or that "racism does not exist at their school," that "we've only had isolated incidents" and "academic learning should be the focus at school and race issues should be taught at home." Some teachers even claimed that they "do not see color.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington it is imperative to begin to acknowledge, understand and then address the debilitating realities of racial injustice in our schools and beyond.

The march on Washington is an example of how a critical mass of citizens can serve to change injustice. It also teaches us that without steadfast commitment to those efforts we will not continually progress.

Recognizing the importance of this imperative, students at Western Washington University learn about the new Jim Crow, school-to-prison pipeline, racism as trauma, and so forth. Additionally, the university has adopted a social justice in education minor with its first classes being offered this fall.

Western prides itself on being an international leader in active learning, critical thinking and societal problem solving. Just as citizens acted as change agents during the civil rights movement, our students aspire to be change agents for justice worldwide. What better way to honor our 50th anniversary of the march on Washington.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karen B. McLean Dade is associate dean of Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University.

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