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Sunday / May 19

Students in Mostly White Schools Need to Focus on Racial Justice the Most

Far too many believe that students in mostly white schools do not have a need to focus on racial justice. This notion is especially present in schools where there are very few students (and adults) of color. However, families, parents, community members, educators and students in predominantly white schools and communities need to focus on racial justice even more than those in more racially and ethnically diverse spaces. That these young people in particular are not experiencing learning opportunities that allow and expect them to interrogate, make sense of, and build knowledge about racial justice is deeply problematic and must be addressed in deliberate ways if we have a fighting chance at building a more racially just society. Although there are others, below, I share four interrelated issues and perspectives that schools with mostly white students should consider: 

  1. Meritocracy is a Myth: Many white people believe that they have earned their positions, material wealth, and status inside and outside of education. However, white students need to understand that their perceived success and status is not solely (or even mostly) a function of their own merit or hard work but is instead a function of their white privilege. They need to understand that they benefit from structural racism and a history oppressing Minoritized communities and that their privileges have been passed down to them from their family. 
  2. Individuals make Systems: White students (and their families) may be well-intentioned, have non-white friends, and engage in community service. However, they may not understand that racial injustice and structural discrimination is a function of how the overwhelming number of white decisionmakers are white in, for instance, institutions, positions, and structures that are at the foundation of structural oppression that leads to inequitable hiring practices, lending patterns, school/district funding and zoning, and so forth.  
  3. Colorblindness contributes to Injustice: White students need to understand that adopting a colorblind orientation – where they claim to only see people and not race– contribute to inequitable systems. In order to recognize racial injustice, we must “see color/race.” 
  4. Neutrality is a disposition of Injustice: White students should be shepherded into understanding how their neutrality, apathy, and indifference is a position of injustice. Either they are working towards racial (and other forms) of justice or they are working against it.  

Rather than placing the onus of creating a more racially just world on Black and other Minoritized communities, white students need to understand how they can improve the world. Our beliefs, ideologies, mindsets, and worldviews about meritocracy, the role of individuals, colorblindness, and neutrality inform what we do and why we do it. Thus, the time has passed where mostly white schools go about their curriculum, instructional and overall decision making without explicit attention to providing young people with tools to think about and address racial injustice in society.

Written by

Richard Milner IV (also known as Rich) is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His research, teaching and policy interests include urban teacher education, African American literature, and the social context of education. In particular, Dr. Milner’s research examines policies and practices that support teacher success in urban schools. His research has been recognized by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s 2012 Outstanding Book Award and the American Education Studies Association’s Critic’s Choice Book Award for the widely-read book, Start where you are but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2010). He is author of Rac(e)ing to class: Confronting poverty and race in schools and classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015)co-editor of the Handbook of Urban Education (Routledge Press, 2014) and co-author of best-selling “These Kids Are Out of Control” Why We Must Reimagine “Classroom Management” for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018). 

Latest comments

  • Excellent and on point! I don’t like students also need to learn accurate, non-deficit information about the histories and cultures of people of color.

  • Excellent and on target!

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