In the last four months, we have seen racist incidents occur in public high schools or middle schools located across seven communities near Boston[1].  These towns are predominantly white.  Note the percentages of whites in these towns: 65.5%, 77.4%, 90.6%, 93.96%, 94%, 95%, 97.7%.

Obviously, the town officials and the school administrators dread such events.  Such incidents require a public response, and that response has its own risk factors.  Leaders realize that their response can easily offend or alienate various constituencies (parents, different racial groups, real estate firms, the business sector) within the community.  A poorly-handled response can also damage the reputation of the entire community.  In one case among these seven mentioned above,  the response from local leaders was so poorly handled that the state Attorney General’s office is now investigating.

Each of these incidents brought attention to the racial climate within the local school and community.  In these predominantly white communities, race is seldom discussed.  Most whites in these communities who were born before 1980, have grown up in segregated neighborhoods and they continue to live in heavily segregated communities.  Due to this background, they are primarily mono-cultural – they only know the white/Anglo style of communication, conflict management and socializing.  While they might work alongside BIPOC people in the workplace, they do not socialize outside the workplace or worship in settings that are not white culturally.  Their implicit approach to race is to ignore the topic, feeling that they have a “live and let live approach that is fair and acceptable.

Children, who grow up in households with these kinds of white parents, are exposed to their parents’ approach to race.  Some may find avenues where they mix with BIPOC peers, but they do not see their white elders doing the same.  The culture of the schools in these communities is very white.  For one thing, the teaching staff are overwhelmingly white: 86% 89%, 92%, 92.8%, 96.5%,  97.1%, 97.96%.    Without a firm commitment to teach in ways that are not solely culturally white, the students only experience interacting within a white cultural context.  While that may be familiar and comfortable for the white students, it is an imposition for BIPOC students because they are required to conform to one cultural set of norms at school, while they use a different set of cultural norms and behaviors at home, and in their own neighborhoods.  In short, BIPOC students have to assimilate to white culture in the schools and white students are not been exposed to cultural norms that differ from those they experience at home.

This context tends to circumscribe the kinds of responses that school administrators are likely to use.  They are accustomed to an environment where issues of race and racial differences are seldom, if ever, raised or addressed.  It is likely that they have assumed until now that any racial tensions are minor since  BIPOC students or parents have not made a public issue of them.  Along with this assumption, there is another common assumption that exists among whites.  It is the assumption that, until proven otherwise,  other whites are fair-minded and not overtly prejudiced.  This mindset reassures whites that all is well in terms of racial equity.

A clear example of this mindset was displayed in a community near mine.  In response to  a racial incident in the middle school,[2] one school official publicly stated: “We had some seventh-graders who went rogue.”  This quote implies that the norm in the school is actually one of racial equity, and that equity was disturbed by a few students who deviated from the norm.  The effect of this statement is to reassure the public that the incident reflects nothing more than the abberant behavior of a few students.  I know from speaking with parents of BIPOC  students in the school that this response undermined the credibility of school leaders with such parents.  It also exacerbated the frustration that they already have with the town and its leaders who continue to ignore racial issues in the community.

In any situation like this,  school leaders have to address multitude audiences.  These include: BIPOC parents, BIPOC students, BIPOC community members, white parents, white students, white community members, funders and regulators (if pertinent), the media, municipal officials (including police) and the business community.  One can argue that different audiences are listening for different messages.  For instance, some audiences want to be reassured that the leadership is not going to do things that keep race and/or racism as a continuing topic.  Real estate firms may see any publicity about race or racial issues as a deterrent to potential wealthy white home buyers.  BIPOC residents will want to know what the leadership is going to do to lessen the institutional racism that BIPOC people experience in the community.  Whites who discount the existence of institutional racism, and whites who embrace white supremacy, do not want to see the organization acknowledge racism or take steps to address it.

Since different audiences have different priorities, some of these audiences have priorities that are in conflict with each other.  Moreover, it is likely impossible to please all of these audiences.  In many cases, school administrators choose to reassure key white audiences and write off BIPOC concerns, rather than rile powerful white interests in town.  I have watched this happened for more than twenty-five years in my own community.  Even when several BIPOC people were elected to the School Committee, the schools have continued to handle racial incidents in ways that ignored the concerns of BIPOC parents, BIPOC students and those whites who are aligned with them.  In addition , those BIPOC school board members have been publicly vilified, and they were not re-elected when their terms expired.

All of this speaks to the strength of sentiment among the majority of white leaders that racist incidents must be smoothed over or ignored, rather than risk alienating white segments in town that do not want to see any steps taken to examine just how race is being handled in the schools.  The actions of these white leaders reflect a commitment to avoid subjecting the white community to a process that would deviate from the long-held approach of ignoring racial issues.

What has to change in order for white leaders to move in a different direction?  The composition of the school committee has to change.  For this to occur, the dominant sentiment in the white community has to change. 

There will have to be enough whites who want to see the schools deal with race in a new way.  Only when this bloc of whites is large enough, can they elect white and BIPOC candidates who are prepared to set a new course for the schools.  There has to be enough white voters who want to see change, and who will continue to elect BIPOC and white candidates over time.  Doing so over time is especially important, because it will take several years to transition from the status quo to a new way of handling racial differences in the schools.  It will likely require the appointment of new school administrators who bring with them the experience and skills needed to operate in a multi-cultural and a racial equity school environment.  Those administrators will need time to train teachers and put in place a system for holding teachers accountable for dealing directly with racial issues.  In addition, teachers will need to know that administrators will definitely support them in dealing with difficult parents, who object to the new way of handling race.

Until then, any minority bloc of school committee members, either white or BIPOC, will be outvoted.  Being politically astute, school administrators will abide by the dominant white sentiment in the town, until that sentiment clearly changes.  Even then, some administrators will seek to maintain the current status quo of ignoring racial justice in the schools.  The school superintendent will have to have enough backing from the school committee to remove or demote administrators who refuse to support the commitment to racial equity.  Once the teaching staff see that occur, their level of cooperation will change.  The change process really gains traction when all school staff see that teachers who strongly model and endorse the new approach receive unambiguous support from the school leadership.  When that occurs, those teachers who characteristically avoid change or avoid risk, will decide that this is a change that they have no other choice but support.

In summary, the climate of public schools reflects the desires of the white voters in town.  School administrators are very aware of that fact and act accordingly.  The predominant sentiment among white residents is that delving into racial conflict serves no purpose, and they do not want their children to be subjected to any process that involves doing that.  We can therefore expect to see racial incidents in suburban schools continue until the majority of whites in those communities demand a new approach.  That requires a change in sentiment that has yet to occur.

[1] Braintree, Danvers, Milton, Newton, Plymouth, Quincy, Woburn

[2] Deerfield