by James A. Bacon
Look, there’s nothing wrong with re-naming public schools. I take no issue with the Richmond Public Schools changing the name of one of its predominantly black schools from J.E.B. Stuart Elementary to Barack Obama Elementary. And if Richmond school officials want to swap out the name of slave-owner George Mason for an African-American hero, that’s up to them. Personally, I feel that Mason’s positive contributions warrant recognition, but inherently local decisions should reflect community values.
“Mr. Mason obviously made many contributions to the country, but I think it is time to move beyond naming schools for individuals who were slave owners,” Superintendent Jason Kamras told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. There are five city schools named for slave owners and three for Confederates.
It’s good to know that Kamras is fearlessly tackling the big issues that afflict Richmond Public Schools, one of the worst-performing school districts in Virginia even after adjusting for the large disadvantaged student body. OK, I was being sarcastic there. But at least renaming schools does no harm, you say. That’s true. When social justice progressives are diverted by purely symbolic issues from actively undermining the educational system, one can argue that is a good thing.
Still, there are many other problems that the school board could be dealing with. We could start with issues raised in separate op-eds and news articles published today.
Like a bias among black students against “acting white.” That’s a real thing, not a phenomenon invented by fusty white conservatives like me. The RTD’s liberal, African-American columnist Michael Paul Williams discusses the issue in a profile of Jeffrey Blount, an African-American native of Smithfield who now lives in Washington, D.C. Blount’s book, set in a small Virginia town in the late 1960s and early ’70s, argues that the prejudice against acting white was rooted in systemic racism in which blacks competed for the few academic slots available to them. The self-defense mechanism was born of a desire of blacks to protect themselves from white rejection.
Regardless of the phenomenon’s origins, 2019 is a different era, and the practice of shaming and bullying black students who show academic aptitude is no longer an adaptive behavior (if it ever was). In a study that correlated popularity and grade point average among students between 1995 and 2002, Roland Fryer and Paul Torelli makes it clear that the problem is still real (or was in 2002):
“The relationship between social status and achievement is categorically different between racial groups. … At a GPA of roughly 2.5, racial differences begin to emerge, and Hispanic students lose popularity rapidly. Popularity peaks at a GPA of about 3.5 for black students. Whites continue to gain popularity as their grades increase. The social cost of “acting white” is more severe for black males than for black females. It is larger for blacks in public schools, but nonexistent for blacks in private schools, “a finding that may partially explain why black kids in private schools do especially well.” Finally, the burden imposed for “acting white” is greater for students with more interracial contact. Blacks in more segregated schools “incur less of a tradeoff between popularity and achievement.” The toll for “acting white” is “particularly salient among high achievers and those in schools with more interracial contact.”
Those conclusions have interesting implications for Kamras’ plan to spread the relatively small number of white students between more schools. The initiative could result in more black kids worried about “acting white.” Also, the study highlights the surprising finding that “acting white” is a bigger issue among Hispanics than blacks — not what you’d expect if the behavior originated in the aftermath of Jim Crow segregation. Regardless, that brings us to the second article worthy of note.
Hispanics now comprise 75% or more of the student body in 10 Virginia high schools. Nine of the ten are in Northern Virginia. But E.S.H. Greene Elementary in the City of Richmond has the highest concentration of Hispanic students — 86%, according to the Virginia Mercury.
Over and above the problems normally associated with poverty, majority-Hispanic students grapple with English-language proficiency. But the Richmond school system is not attentive to the special needs of Hispanic students, some Hispanics say. The Virginia Mercury quotes Jimmy Trujillo, a former PTA president:
Trujillo, who moved to the United States 21 years ago from Colombia, said it’s hard to get the Richmond school system to listen to Latino families. He’s become a de facto representative for most of Richmond’s Latino and Hispanic families because many don’t know English or worry that a school official will report them to federal authorities because of their immigration status, Trujillo said.
“My community doesn’t have a voice. They don’t listen to us. We don’t get nothing. Nothing. My fight isn’t only for Greene, it’s for Boushall, it’s for Reid, it’s for Wythe,” Trujillo said, listing Richmond schools that have large concentrations of Hispanic students.
Counter-intuitively, Hispanics may not believe that integration is the answer. Integrating Latino students in school districts requires careful consideration, says Patricia Gandara, a researcher at UCLA’s Civil Rights Center who has studied school segregation in Virginia.
School leaders may want to keep a “critical mass” of Latino and Hispanic students in one school to respect natural communities and make sure short-staffed districts can get an appropriate number of specialized teachers assigned to students, Gandara said.
“Research isn’t totally clear on this … but in places where you have more of these children, the districts are able to serve the kids better if they have a limited number of bilingual teachers or people trained for English-learners,” she said.
It’s understandable that Hispanics feel like they have little say in the Richmond school system, even though Kamras and others have been vocal about social and racial equity. Hispanic students in the 2018-19 school year comprised 14% of the school population, yet not a single Hispanic serves on Richmond’s nine-person school board. Whites comprise 14% of the student body, but four school board members are white. The seven most senior members of RPS management are either white or black. (At least the principal of E.S.H. Greene Elementary is Hispanic.)
As the school board convenes today to discuss the re-naming of Richmond schools, perhaps they should give a thought to the special needs of the city’s Hispanic students.There are currently no comments highlighted.