Richmond Schools: Changing Names, Acting White, and Serving Hispanics

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-DispatchThere 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.

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16 responses to “Richmond Schools: Changing Names, Acting White, and Serving Hispanics”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Sending black kids to schools named for slave owners ironically indicative of the problem… it demonstrates Virginia’s long-standing treatment of black people whose families were broken up and sold like livestock … and we have white folks doing commentary on school names while they ding them for the generations of poverty that resulted from slavery.

    Here’s something positive I was hoping to see reported on here:

    Hopewell gets state funding to take school system year-round

    The state on Monday announced that Hopewell would receive a $1.5 million grant the system needed to move all five city schools to a year-round schedule. The School Board approved the plan earlier this year.

    Hopewell schools chief Melody Hackney said Monday that she was grateful for the state funding.

    Bellwood Elementary and Falling Creek Elementary in Chesterfield County, for example, both operate year-round already. The county school system received $473,600 to continue that calendar, part of roughly $8 million in grants the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam announced Monday.

    “Extended school year programs offer more engagement, more quality instruction and more opportunities to succeed for students who require additional or individualized attention to meet the commonwealth’s expectations for student performance,” Northam said in a statement.”

    Oh wait.. that’s just Northam cynically trying to make up for his blackface history right?

    Is all-year school a potential good thing for at-risk kids?

    teachers tell me one of the biggest problems for low-performing at-risk kids is that they lose so much of what they gained – during the summer that they’re already behind again at the start of the next school year.

    1. Small-scale experiments are good. Let’s just make sure we treat this as the experiment it is, publicize our predicted results, and then compare those results to reality. The worst thing in the world is to conduct a social-engineering experiment and fail to learn anything from it.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Sadly, just more evidence that the failure is often the homes, not the schools. Not saying don’t do it, but recognize why it must be done. The idea has been tried from time to time around the state, for decades now, usually does not last because “kids need their summer” or some such nonsense, and you’ve got to adjust the teacher and staff compensation for that 12-months contract. For the good students, summer is a great time for various enrichment programs – music camp, or even (imagine) summer jobs! Personally, not a fan of year-round school.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      The problem IS the homes – anytime you have parents who do not have a decent education and in turn live in dire economic circumstances, the kids are “at risk” and really -they are pretty much doomed if they are in a neighborhood school that has a majority of similar at-risk kids.

      One solution is to have the kids spend MORE TIME with teachers and de-factor parental surrogates who can inspire and motivate them to learn the basics – reading, writing and math – to form a foundation for them to succeed in middle and high school.

      I’m not a “fan” of year-round school but if this is one path that works – then we should do it – because at this point – we don’t have many other things that do work.

      Kids who live in poverty – do not have good things to do in the summer – they often fall into bad company and their parents are too busy with their own problems…

      If summer is good for “enrichment” for kids who are well off economically – it sounds terrible to say it’s good for them but not good for kids who live in poverty…

  3. Perhaps when the schools are named for educated black people, like Obama, students will accept that they have a broader role in society. Obama has brains and street cred. I’m hopeful that a few students will see him more of a role model than the kids bullying them into staying stupid.

    BTW, social justice warriors can place blame on black students when it is warranted. We can change school names while tackling (with varying degrees of success) a whole host of other social ills…like the fact that it’s “uncool” to be “White acting” for much of the black student population. Showcasing successful black people (a la black history month) is a step in the right direction. The rest needs to come from barbers, fathers, uncles, brothers and pastors in the black community. There is already a lot of this (I’m thinking about the Urban Hang Suite on Broad Street). It’s a coffee shop that has empowerment workshops with an entrepreneurial focus (among other community building events).

    1. Good point. Showcasing successful black people (successful because of their education) in the name of the school is a way of creating a positive role model. Again, I don’t see it doing any harm. If you’re right, it might even do some good.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Spenser’s approach is vitally important key to the solution if one is to be found. The follow on question is how do we far better expand, strengthen, and institutionalize these types of cultural support systems, among those other already out there.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    spencer. Agree obama has brains and street cred. Unlike current president

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Having black kids in the 21st century STILL go to schools names for slave owners and racists – right now today – is a real commentary on how white folks think about race and whether it is a problem…. especially when they have nothing else to offer to address the issues other than to ding them as a race ………..

  6. warrenhollowbooks Avatar

    “Having black kids in the 21st century STILL go to schools names for slave owners and racists – right now today – is a real commentary on how white folks think about race and whether it is a problem….

    So as long as anything in Virginia is named after, say George Washington, this show the Commonwealth’s lack of commitment to good public schools. . . or did this “white folk” read you wrong?

  7. warrenhollowbooks Avatar

    Being so obsessed with trivialities such as school names that you believe it represents some great existential commentary on the failures of your local schools show a complete lack of seriousness on the topic of modern education.
    But then that is where modern Marxist Critical Pedagogy leads

    1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
      Peter Galuszka

      So adolph hitler high is just okay?

      1. Peter, I’m not sure where you are going with this comment. Are you equating George Washington with Adolph Hitler?

        Follow-up question: Should we change the name of Washington, D.C.? If the Russkies could change Leningrad back to St. Petersburg, perhaps that’s something we should consider!

  8. djrippert Avatar

    We’re going to need a lot of name changes. The currency is pretty much shot once we eliminate Washington, Jefferson, Grant (yes, he owned slaves) and all the others. Maybe we can just put Obama’s picture on everything. Then, Wilson was a major league racist, Harry F Byrd was the architect of massive resistance, etc.

    Schools should be given names by the people who pay for the schools. In other words, there should be a referendum in NoVa to decide the names of the City of Richmond’s schools. Don Beyer Elementary (The Volvos)? Mark Herring Middle School (the ministrals)? Gerry Connolly High (The Con Men)? Bob McDonnell Vo-Tech (The Pocket Stuffers)?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      But Obama, on his mother’s side, has links to slaveowners in Maryland through the Mareen Duvall family. Did this ownership somehow provide him with some advantage he would not have had but for the family link? When does virtue signaling become counterproductive?

  9. warrenhollowbooks Avatar

    Well they are already tearing down statues of people like William McKinley in California and calling for the removal of Theodore Roosevelt’s in New York.

    First it was Confederates, then it evolved into those who opposed integration, now it has become slave owners and in other parts of the country as I reference above it has become anyone who falls afoul of ANY victim group.
    (Modern Democrats, meaning apparently all those who were in office after 1900 get a break)

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