Discussing the persistent academic achievement gap in our schools, a friend remarked, “ I think we’re up against the ‘excellence’ versus ‘equity’ way of thinking.”
Explaining, she said that many in our community, especially well-educated white parents, believe that a focus on equity means less attention and fewer resources available for advanced educational opportunities for (their) high-achieving students. Others believe similarly that equity is a zero-sum game: if some students are better served by the district, other students will be less so, and our district’s highly touted reputation for test scores will suffer and tilt toward mediocrity.
Yet there is a growing number of equity advocates in our area that strongly believe this is not an either/or situation. We believe that excellence and equity necessarily march hand in hand.
We’ve all heard folks say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” In our racial equity workshops, we suggest that the reverse is also true. The history of humankind is one of seeing with our beliefs.
So what are our beliefs about equity and excellence?
Let’s start with how we see equity. Fifty years after civil rights legislation that mandated an end to whites-only access to the nation’s economic, political, social and institutional resources, many Americans believe that every person, regardless of race, has an equal opportunity to succeed. They believe that institutions now provide equitable access and that the persistent inequitable outcomes observed by race are due in some way to the deficits and shortcomings of people of color. This fits nicely into a historical national belief system that “white” is a superior race destined to superior outcomes, a belief system that we used to justify 350 years of allowing whites-only access to land, economic opportunity and public institutions, along with the necessary exploitation, oppression, exclusion and terrorizing of people not deemed white.
With this prevailing belief system, we have attempted to achieve equity by addressing the perceived deficits of black and brown children and their families with countless programs to help bring them up to speed, ignoring the fact that tracking, labeling and sorting children into advanced and compensatory programs further entrenches patterns of power and privilege as well as stereotypes related to achievement. This also ignores the shameful historical roots of inequity and the legacy that structures opportunity today. Unless we still believe in the white superiority paradigm that was openly and legally espoused for 88 percent of our national history, we have to find the current inequitable outcomes to be unacceptable – outrageous, in fact. We have to believe that we can have equity if we are willing to recognize and confront the belief systems that convince us that true equity is not possible or even desirable.
What does this have to do with the excellence versus equity debate? Many parents of color whose children are not succeeding in our schools by the standard measures of success are aware of our district’s reputation for excellent schools and feel privileged to be part of such a highly touted school system. Sometimes this translates to ascribing their children’s lack of school success to their children’s or their own individual failings. How could they not blame themselves given our deep socialization around race? Our society still has a very strong unconscious positive bias toward white people. (Remember the Clark Doll Study? Which doll is the prettiest? The smartest? The nicest? The results have not changed in 50 years).
Our white dominant society also highly values individual achievement, competition, and prosperity. We are set up for comparisons and to value those who achieve the most. Most see excellence in schools as the highest grades, test scores, gifted or advanced placement, and admission to the best colleges. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools are perceived as excellent because of how well we do on these indicators, but this is hardly surprising given the demographics of our college town.
What is also not surprising, but should be, is that success on these indicators is predicted by race. At the same time, our persistent wide achievement gaps indicate that excellence is lacking for certain segments of our population and these results are also predicted by race. Mind you, we look no different from almost any other school system in the country in terms of racialized outcomes. These outcomes are built into systemic structures, opportunities, cultural norms and expectations across all institutions and the interactions of these systems. They are partly, but not entirely, determined by poverty, which also has racism at its roots.
As a nation that has consistently espoused, but failed to live up to, democratic ideals, our integrity, our future, and our national “excellence” depend on our willingness and resolve to confront and correct the glaring racial inequities in our schools and other institutions. We are not going to be able to do this without confronting our history of racism and how it still lives in us today. This is not just a school problem. It’s a societal problem. For Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, for America, there will be no excellence without equity.
Wanda Hunter works with the Racial Equity Institute.