The recent revelations about blackface and Klan robes have caused immense pain in Virginia. These abhorrent symbols of racism must be unequivocally rejected. But if all that comes from these events is the disavowal of expressions of hate, we will have tragically failed.
We must also directly attack “institutional” racism: the laws, regulations, and habits — at both the state and local level — that preserve racial inequity in every part of our society.
As superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, I have seen how institutional racism plays out in Virginia’s education landscape. Let’s begin with funding. According to the National Center on Education Statistics, Virginia’s highest poverty school divisions — which serve large percentages of children of color — receive 8.3 percent less in per-pupil funding than the state’s wealthiest districts. Put plainly: The students who should be getting more are actually getting less. Is this about race? Of course it is. If all the children in our poorest school divisions were white, I am certain the commonwealth would have found a way to fix its convoluted and unjust funding policies so that our lowest-income communities received more.
Institutionalized racism in our schools extends beyond funding. Take, for example, how Virginia handles student discipline. According to the Virginia Department of Education, in 2015, African-American students received 60 percent of all long-term suspensions but they made up only 23 percent of the commonwealth’s schools. Some have suggested this is due to differences in students’ behavior. But a 2012 investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education found that wasn’t the case. As reported in The New York Times, the study noted: “Our investigation identified examples where African American students engaging in virtually identical behavior to white students were punished more harshly than white students (who had the same or worse disciplinary history).”
Finally, institutional racism manifests itself by quietly — but devastatingly — denying students of color access to all sorts of educational opportunities. Sadly, I can share one example from my own school division. When I arrived in Richmond a year ago, I found that many of our comprehensive high schools — which serve over 90 percent students of color — only offered a handful of advanced classes. Thus, the students at these schools didn’t have the opportunity to earn the types of credits that would boost their GPAs and make them competitive in the college admissions process. We’ve begun to correct this inequity by ensuring that all of our high schools offer, at a minimum, AP calculus, AP language and composition, AP biology, and AP Spanish. Of course, there’s much more we have to do — and will do — to ensure that all of our young people have access to a full array of advanced learning opportunities. I fundamentally believe that when we, the adults, do right by our students, they will show the world what they and their families already know: that there’s literally nothing they can’t achieve.
Overt racism is repugnant. It causes enormous personal pain and tears at our community’s soul. As we work together to eliminate it, let’s commit to fighting the deeply entrenched, and often hidden, institutional racism that has so effectively preserved injustice in the commonwealth. First step? Call your Assembly members right now and tell them to increase the “at-risk” add-on in the education budget. And tell them this is about more than money; it’s about fighting racism in Virginia.