by James A. Bacon
There’s a lot of blue-on-blue happening in Virginia’s schools these days as race consciousness in the educational system reaches a fever pitch. Even well-meaning teachers and administrators desirous of promoting inclusivity and diversity are subject to criticism and/or disciplinary action. Two interesting case studies drove home that point over the weekend.
Virginia Beach. Last year a Virginia Beach teacher, Deborah Aho Smith, was fired for producing a poster for an assignment in which students wrote down negative racial and ethnic stereotypes. The moral, of course, was that such stereotypes are bad. But a photo of the poster was circulated on social media and the parent of a black student who wasn’t in the class took offense and complained. The school administration panicked, and Smith was fired.
“Man, that could have been me,” the Virginian-Pilot quotes Kelly Walker, a 28-year teaching veteran and president of the Virginia Beach Education Association, as saying. Teachers are increasingly wary about leading classes on topics such as race, discrimination and stereotypes, Walker said.
Virginia Beach administrators had described the poster as “offensive” and “unacceptable.” The lesson “digressed” into the use of offensive racial slurs, and Smith “failed to protect these students when [she] did not step in an address issues when [she] became aware of them.”
Teachers in Hampton Roads have learned their lesson: Say something that offends the wrong person, and your career is toast. All it takes is one student or parent to get upset, said Thomas Calhoun, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers. “It’s a mine field.” He would discourage teachers from discussing race in the classroom, he said. “My concern is not about fixing society in the classroom. My concern is about those teachers not losing their jobs.”
Arlington. Arlington County, arguably the most politically progressive locality in Virginia, spends $20,500 per student, is hiring a chief diversity officer, has bolstered cultural competency training, and began a program called the Black Parent Alliance, which provides workshops and other resources for parents. The school system even commissioned a study to assess diversity in the school system, although that study found that the values of diversity, inclusion and equity are “inconsistently prioritized and valued.”
Now members of the Black Parents of Arlington say the school system needs to do more, reports the Washington Post. Black students lag white students in passing math Standards of Learning by 71% to 95%. Black and Hispanic students are suspended at higher rates than whites, and they are subject to microaggressions and implicit bias.
“Arlington is more progressive, probably, than anyplace else in the state. But that doesn’t make it good enough, and it doesn’t make it as progressive as it wants to be,” Whytni Kernodle, vice president of Black Parents of Arlington. “What we are trying to do is force a group of progressive people to put their money where their mouth is.”
Bacon’s bottom line: “There’s a lot of fear out there that no one really wants to talk substantively about racial inequity. It makes everyone uncomfortable,” one black parent in Arlington told the WaPo.
Maybe that’s because a lot of people are worried that if they say the wrong thing, no matter how well meaning, they will be tarred, feathered, publicly ridiculed, or even fired.