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Anti-Racism and Color-Evasiveness in a Neoliberal Context: An Introduction

In May 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonpartisan civil rights organization that has been operating for almost 50 years and is dedicated to fighting hate, seeking justice, and teaching tolerance, released a special report entitled Hate at School, which documents the rise of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry occurring in schools across the United States. Specifically, the report notes that while the SPLC identified 821 hate-related incidents in schools that were reported in the media in all of 2018, the nearly 2,800 educators who participated in the SPLC’s survey stated that over 3,000 of these types of incidents occurred in just the fall of 2018. Further, most of the incidents were driven by racism and were not addressed by school leaders (Costello & Dillard, 2019).

These figures should be alarming to all of us. However, given what is currently happening in the larger U.S. sociopolitical context, sadly, we should not be surprised when we hear about the latest incident in which white male students are proudly giving the Nazi salute or when a Latinx student is told that she does not belong in the country and should “go home.” Indeed, schools are not impervious to what is occurring every day in the larger society. Yet, they can be critical sites where such issues are addressed, making it increasingly important that we work to better equip those leading our schools with the tools necessary to confront such acts of hate and racism as well as the racial disparities that continue to pervade our public schools.

Racial inequities in educational opportunities largely continue to exist because district and school communities often try to address these inequities through technical fixes that are color-evasive and largely ignore the role that institutional and structural racism play in creating these gaps in opportunity (Castagno, 2014; Milner, 2012; Welton, Diem, & Holme, 2015). Unfortunately, these catchall solutions to racial differences in student achievement end up blaming students from low-income families and students of color for school failure, rather than the system charged with serving them (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Leonardo, 2007; Milner, 2012). Moreover, even when educational leaders do attempt to ideologically promote racial equity and diversity, they face faculty, staff, and community members who push back and even resist these efforts to shift norms and values. As a result, if educational leaders capitulate to any resistance to supporting racial equity, district and school level deficit attitudes and mindsets about students of color and their families will most likely go relatively unaddressed and the racial status quo may remain unchanged (Castagno, 2014; Lewis & Diamond, 2015; Welton et al., 2015).

Ultimately, what has been found in the research on districts and schools that engage in strategic improvement processes to achieve racial equity is that their good intentions often never really lead to full systemic and ongoing action to redress the inequities that exist (Castagno, 2014; Lewis & Diamond, 2015; Welton et al., 2015). Consequently, we need anti-racist educational leaders who are trained and prepared to face the political complexity and uncertainty that will undoubtedly occur when they advance racial equity in their district and school communities. It is only when educational leaders establish a common language for why discussing issues of race is indeed important, and model how to do so, that the rest of the district and/or school community will feel they have the space, buy-in, and sense of urgency to do the same. Thus, to actively be anti-racist in both their values and practices, educational leaders need to understand the system of racism, its influence on society, and purposefully act to confront issues pertaining to race and racism in their districts and school communities (Brooks, 2012; Diem & Carpenter, 2013; Gooden & Dantley, 2012; Gooden & O’Doherty, 2015; Young & Laible, 2000).

Educational leaders are responsible for articulating to their staff why racial equity is important and also lead their staff in the district/ school improvement planning processes that are critical to achieving racial equity. This is particularly important as research shows that a school’s academic performance and achievement is largely determined by the quality and effectiveness of the school administration’s leadership, especially their leadership in supporting teachers’ instruction and fostering a positive school-wide culture (Kellough & Hill, 2015; Wallace Foundation, 2013). Ultimately, expanding research on anti-racist leadership will give educational leaders the practical tools needed to guide their district/school communities through change processes that are important to racial equity work.

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