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Monday, July 27, 2015

"Despite the Best Intentions" (Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond)

TITLE: Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools (Transgressing Boundaries: Studies in Black Politics and Black Communities)
AUTHOR: Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, (272 pages).

All people are created equal. So with equal opportunity and equal rights for all, they should all do well academically right? This is the assumption that is behind Riverview High School. As a suburban school, it is highly resourced, well-funded, and thoughtfully designed to give the black community a leg up. In 2006-7, the school spent above $18000 per student, double that of the national average. More than 80% of the teachers hold a masters degree. There are spanking new facilities with children coming largely from middle class families. There is a thriving commercial community. It is located in a progressive and liberal city. Unfortunately, segregation and forced integration of the different races do not prevent the same kind of statistics, that blacks generally do poorly in the academic realm. Despite the help given, 90% of students in the AP classes are white. About 80% of all the Honours students are white. The majority of the blacks, two-thirds of them are still stuck in basic level classes. Consistently, the Whites and the Asians are at least a grade point higher than the average black student. Why? This is an interesting question posed to educators and especially the authors Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond. Amanda Lewis is Professor of Sociology and African-American studies at the University of Illinois while John Diamond is Professor of Education at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. Both are concerned with the area of addressing racial inequality in schools and achievements. In a five year quantitative and qualitative research, they look at public policy that tries to bring about greater parity among the races in education. They focus on Riverview High School as a test case for providing whatever resources necessary to help all races excel in their studies. In spite of the efforts, there still remains a troubling "racial achievement gap." The conclusion made by the authors is interesting. While they believe that race is "a social and political category," it cannot be the cause of differing SAT scores. Why then the disparity in achievements? In a startling conclusion, the authors assert that race matters. Race plays a key role in academic achievements. The problem lies in our assumptions when we try to social engineer the integrative process.

We may try to superimpose our assumptions of equality and democracy. That does not eradicate the link between racial history and racial narrative. The way schools are inherited are definitely not something designed with our modern racial mix in mind. There are wider cultural beliefs at play. Historically, whites and blacks were segregated. Now, despite the equal opportunity given, there are still "opportunity gaps" and "curriculum gaps" that integrated schools find it hard to make sense of. According to the authors, these are the results of 1) "structural inequalities"; 2) "institutional practices"; and 3) "racial ideologies." Plus, these factors reinforce one another. By "structural inequalities," the author point to the overarching political, economic, and social strata that are often race aligned. For Riverview, the planners, the administrators, and many of the major decision makers are all white. By "institutional practices," the actual implementation of school programmes, practices, and policies all go to accelerate racial differences and achievement gaps between the whites and the blacks. For schools, the very design of structures and institutions already favour the whites. For "racial ideologies," even the sorting and selection criteria are already racially motivated knowingly or unknowingly. Coupled with social mindsets like whites doing better already programmes people to think that way. There is a "stereotype threat" that needs to be dealt with at its core. Daily school practices do not explicitly reflect the core values of the school. The book constantly poses the question: Why?

  • Is it about "oppositional culture" where blacks don't do well because they think school is more or less a "white" thing?
  • Is it because of unequal discipline manners? Why are blacks and latinos punished differently than whites, not just in type but in amount? 
  • Is it because of racial dynamics playing out in the organizational practices? 
  • Is it because good intentions do not go deep enough to break the underlying educational and institutional structures that are left unchanged? 

These questions are dealt with in detail in this very fascinating study that dares to ask the important questions about our assumptions of race and education. From the authors' detailed studies, they manage to debunk "oppositional culture" so that they can bark up the right tree. While non-blacks tend to pursue educational progress in terms of learning and self-accomplishments, black students have other motives: those who want to do well often see educational performance as a way to "challenge discrimination." They probe the reasons why people attempt to "understand" whites while they "discipline" the blacks. The rules may be the same, but the implementation differs from race to race. In other words, discipline is more discretionary. Although Riverview is a diverse high school, it seems like there are two different high schools on the same ground. Outwardly they are integrated, but inwardly they remain segregated. Little things that happen in school terms add up. Little differentials in treatment of various racial groups will affect their eventual performances. Many of these are invisible and covert. Some are even done unknowingly or subconsciously.

So What?

Racial inequality exists even in modern day America. The recent racially motivated killings at a Church in Charleston, South Carolina highlights the plight of black communities living with other races, especially the whites. Many have pointed out at the white extremist groups in America that continue to thrive in modern day America under the Confederate flag which has recently been removed from prominent state grounds to a less noticeable place in the city. Despite the many calls for racial equality and tolerance among all, racial problems are real and very much alive. Just like it takes a shooting tragedy to remind us that there are still racial tensions, it takes racial achievement differentials to remind us that there are still structural inequalities in our society today. Such inequalities are not easily eradicated with money, opportunities or facilities. Good intentions are great. Wrong assumptions make the results all terrible.

We need to avoid asking questions like, "What happened to all the bright black kids?" or "Why are the white children doing so well?" Instead, we need to ask more questions about our social hierarchies, our institutional structures, school practices and different levels of discipline, and the general social perceptions of race. If we want schools to be colour-blind in terms of opportunities and achievements, change must happen right from the top. Change must grow from the inside out. Change must begin with new assumptions.
  • Ask about parents' motivations in sending their kids to school;
  • Ask about the commitment of the hierarchies not only to implement change on the school, but also to be willing to change or be changed themselves;
  • Ask about not just surface level integration but systemic wide integration
  • Acknowledge that no matter what race is a factor not to be swept under the carpet under the guise of equal rights
  • Focus not on verbatim statements of equal treatment for all, but to deal directly with institutional factors. 
Good intentions are not enough. It is not the placement of diversity and racially diverse students but the PRACTICES of values honoured by the institution that is more important. It is not the equal opportunities provided but also the equal treatment discharged at the hierarchy, the institution, the politics, and the social level.

Determination must begin at all levels otherwise the roots and results of discrimination will appear in a matter of time, if not initially then eventually.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Oxford University Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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