Can We Ask Inelegant Questions about Antiracism©? (Pt.3 of 7)
Updated: Jun 24
Equity is the condition of fairness of opportunity as measured by outcomes.
Author's note: The is the third post in a 7-part series in which I respond to questions raised about Antiracism© written in an opinion piece by Robert Pondiscio and published by the Fordham Institute titled: I believe “antiracism” is misguided. Can I still teach Black children? My goal in composing this series of opinion essays is to flesh out my own thinking. My goal in posting this series of opinion essays is to encourage others to push past any constraints they may be encountering to also consider issues thoughtfully and with the dutiful embrace of nuance. If you are interested in answering these questions, you are invited to do so by recording your thoughts on a survey which can be accessed at bit.ly/InelegantQuestions.
Mr. Pondiscio asks:
"If I define 'equity' as working toward an America where race no longer describes or limits us; if I reject the idea expressed by White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo and others that to be White is to be inherently racist and a beneficiary of unearned privileges; if I hold to a definition of racism that is manifested in behavior, not an immutable characteristic of my race over which I have no control, am I no longer fit to teach Black and Brown children?"
I am an antiracist with concerns about Antiracism©, and my response to Mr. Pondiscio's question is a question: What do we mean by Equity? And I suppose, relatedly, What do we mean by racism? Unfortunately, I believe that many who use the term Equity are either misinformed or disingenuous. It is also true that the original idea of Equity has experienced some measure of "concept creep," which warrants, from my perspective, a good-faith clarification of a concept that has been carefully cultivated through thoughtful consideration for more than a half-century.
I am fully aware that I do not have answers to all the questions currently being asked about Equity and/or racial justice. In fact, I have found that my work as an Equity-focused professional development provider is greatly enhanced when I enter into coaching, planning, co-teaching, and reflecting spaces with a learner's mindset. For me, that means I remind myself that I am not married to ideology over the promotion of practices that center and empower students to pursue their goals with the necessary tools to navigate society. I engage, of course, with core beliefs, but the questions of Equity in Education are answered only in part by theory. In Education generally and classroom teaching more specifically, we have a rubber-meets-the-road measure for the efficacy of our ideas. We can ask ourselves if our practices are creating improved opportunities for our students to learn. That which yields rich and meaningful opportunities for our most vulnerable learners to engage are those that will close Equity gaps.
I am an antiracist who espouses to improve the outcomes for students from traditionally underserved and marginalized communities by dismantling racist and inequitable practices that marginalize the vulnerable. Outcomes are the measure of efficacy which do not require a particular idealogical alignment. My adherence to any ideological perspective is secondary to the demonstrated ability to serve the historically underserved. In fact, the limitations of ideology are often exposed when implemented in classroom practice; and if/when I prioritize ideology, I am likely limiting my view of the nuance and context that is necessarily required in working toward the goals of Equity.
There is an inherent misnomer in Mr. Pondiscio's question which is a misrepresentation of the antiracist premise that privileged (adj) groups are the beneficiaries in systems that privilege (v) particular identities to the disadvantage of others. The idea of unearned privilege given one's racial positioning in a society that has historically and systemically advantaged some relative to others is a central tenet of antiracism and pivotal in the sense that it allows everyone to see that we cannot (or rather, should not) view ourselves as indifferent bystanders in larger racialized, societal injustices. All of us are either benefited or harmed by oppressive systems. This is merely a starting point in our antiracist understandings. There is nuance necessary in order to build further from this understanding the implications for the task(s) of classroom-based teaching and learning. Antiracism© (and not antiracism), however, takes this premise one step further by proclaiming all privileged individuals in a privileged racial group (in this case, White people) to be racists. I find this to be too brutish and blunt an assessment to be taken seriously. What’s more, even if this were true, in a society in which being called a racist is akin to being called a pedophile—some profoundly uncivil and untoward thing—one would expect a certain kind of recoil at such a charge. The fact that the expected defensiveness is dismissed under Antiracism© as evidence of "White fragility" is so willfully obtuse that is raises the question of the intention behind such a sentiment. It certainly doesn't prioritize understanding; rather, it seems designed to stoke a kind of emotional reaction, or compliance, or even outright division amongst those whom it proposes (ostensibly) to support toward a greater awareness for the ultimate benefit of racial- and ethnic-minority students. (In the Antiracism© way of thinking, the previous sentence is called "accommodationist" thinking which is dismissed as a kind of passive and naive approach to the larger problems of racial inequity at hand.)
But I digress. What do we mean by Equity? In short, Equity is the condition of fairness of opportunity as measured by outcomes. The investigation of Equity requires the isolation of race (among other factors) in the study of outcomes because this country has a particularly racist history in that at the time of the drafting of the United States Constitution and the founding of the three branches of federal government—an executive, judicial, and legislative system designed to protect the freedoms of its citizens—millions of human beings of African descent lived in bondage, their freedom denied as a function of the state. This contradiction, justified by the evil rationalizations of racism, made it a duty of the American experiment to maintain the racial caste system. After chattel slavery, there was Jim Crow, and Black codes, and redlining and a litany of other offenses played out in the structural, institutional, and interpersonal spheres of American life. When I think about Equity, I am not minimizing the effects of racism; rather, I'm looking to see how race fits into a complex meta-analysis of the story of American opportunity—one that includes multiple systems and interwoven threads.
What do we mean by Equity?
The concept of Equity is comprised of three pillared principles. Here I will only briefly outline them though I am currently composing a full-length manuscript which includes a more detailed discussion of the points I present here:
(1) Equity is not equality—in terms of sameness of inputs. Equality assumes that fair means sameness. Equity, however, posits that equality isn’t necessarily fair because the social, economic, historical, and political contexts in which students learn impact how they perceive and are able to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them in school.
Though Equity is not the same as equality, they are, of course, related concepts. In its earliest iterations, what we now refer to as Equity was first termed as "Equal Educational Opportunity" (Tesconi, 1974), a concept which justifies differential treatment in the interest of fairness in opportunity. Equity takes into consideration that social and environmental conditions in which people live and grow affect readiness for learning. We know that our systems have created and sustained racially inequitable social realities that directly impact school outcomes, systems and social realities like racially segregated neighborhoods (often with concentrated affluence/poverty) that reinforce both privilege and disadvantage. Further, students have historically attended racially segregated schools that codify and formalize students' social status so that it is argued that the underserved are disadvantaged because they deserve to be so. Equity requires the consideration of the context which influences not only the offerings available to students in school but also the likelihood that students will perceive school opportunities as worthwhile of their effort.
Given that schools function in systems that are aligned and cooperate with institutions and other societal systems, Equity must entail more than merely the work to improve school-based pedagogy. It requires the consideration of the larger societal context or it may otherwise result in the competing among underserved populations for resources and social status without challenging the inequities that serve the inequitable status quo. This context is critical because without it, underserved populations may be blamed for the injustices they endure, or they may be inclined to fight amongst themselves for improved opportunities by contending for the claim of most aggrieved. This would require a jockeying for position that, Equity argues, risks denying the humanity of other groups, which is short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive.
(2) Equity does not mean that everyone must reach the same level of achievement (outputs). It means that the range of achievement and the distribution within that range should be comparable for each social group.
Think about the bell curve, a graphic representation of the range and relationship of individual instances inside of a total data set. When calculating the standard deviation within the various sub-groups of our total student population, we should see a more-or-less comparable distribution of achievement (i.e. similar bell curves). If there isn't a commensurate distribution among the subgroups, it's because of either one of three reasons:
a) groups are inherently inferior/superior relative to another (i.e. the eugenics' claim);
b) groups are culturally handicapped relative to another (i.e. the cultural deficit claim);
c) groups are advantaged/disadvantaged by the practices and policy environment of the school (i.e. school itself is contributing to achievement gaps).
The concept of Equity rejects the eugenics' claim of racial superiority/inferiority because it has been proven that race is a social construct with no biological merit; and thus, there can be no racial explanation for achievement because there is no essential, irreducible, and immutable characteristic of race. The cultural deficit claim falls short in any rigorous investigation because: (i) one's cultural lens creates biases in the interpretation of other groups’ cultures; (ii) there is no such thing as a culturally neutral space to measure or substantiate the claim of cultural deficit; and (iii) the belief in the cultural deficit of students is in itself a limiting factor in students’ achievement. In short, the investigation of the claim of cultural deficit as an explanation for underperformance is methodologically doomed by human bias, impossible to measure empirically, and ultimately underscored by attitudes we know to be harmful to vulnerable student populations as a prerequisite for consideration.
(3) The goal of Equity in education is to remove educational disparities as a hindrance to the American ethos of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We will know that we have achieved Equity when neither race, nor class, nor income, nor gender, nor language background, nor physical (dis)ability—when no social disparity or measure of identity—is a barrier to or predictor of educational achievement.
Equity is measured by outcomes, but it is engineered through opportunity. Equity is not served by merely enhancing for BIPOC students the traditional school opportunities that typically serve White and affluent student populations. Rather, Equity says that fairness is the differentiating process through which opportunities are designed. In terms of Equity, the work of school-based instruction requires that we consider the social and environment factors to tailor the opportunities for students without compromising the integrity of the learning targets.
One rather remedial framing of Equity goes that the students who are furthest behind—most often low-income students and students of color—require more of those same resources available to privileged groups to catch up, succeed, and eventually, close the achievement gap. This argument says that giving students from disadvantaged groups who come to school lagging academically the exact same resources as students in more privileged, higher income schools alone will not close the achievement gap, but making sure that underserved students have access to those resources in greater quantity will provide them with the kind of high-quality education they need to succeed which will, in turn, narrow the gaps we see currently.
I say this is a remedial perception of the Equity problems we face because this assumes that the policies, models, and pedagogical practices currently utilized in schools are equally effective in teaching all students—a claim I find to be wrong-headed and overlooking the complexity of context and considerations necessary for supporting all students and especially those most vulnerable to underperformance. Equity requires a careful consideration of the social, cultural, historical, and pedagogical context in which students learn so as to be effective in quantitatively and qualitatively calibrating the inputs and opportunities afforded to students.
In terms of Equity, we are asked to give thought to a range of issues which may contribute to the disparities in the offerings of schools including but not limited to:
· environmental circumstances which shape growth and development;
· the financial ability of communities to complement the funding and support of their schools;
· racial mix in the schools;
· the socioeconomic background of the student population;
· social class mix in the classroom;
· achievement across racial and social sub-groups;
· tracking and ability grouping;
· teacher expectations and collective teacher efficacy;
· diversity of educational programs; and
· curricular inputs reflecting the social/historical/political context of the diversity within the American experience;
Again, Equity is measured by outputs. We can confirm our progress toward Equity when neither race, nor class, nor income, nor gender, nor language background, nor physical (dis)ability—when no social disparity or measure of identity—is a barrier to or predictor of educational achievement.
Equity is a broader concept under which antiracism serves to identify and close gaps that persist across racial categories. Equity is an inclusive (and not a segregating) concept. It should expand rather than limit our perception of opportunity. Equity doesn't direct us to stereotype or pigeonhole students based on identity; rather it requires us to identify and challenge racism as an inhibiting factor in the opportunities of students. Equity espouses that fairness is achieved through the differentiating process of designing meaningful and context-considering opportunities that leverage the experiences, assets, and identities of students and their communities.
This cannot be said enough: Equity is not accomplished through some kind of gerrymandering of outputs. Equity is not a function of manipulating outcomes. The problems of Equity are served by the design of improved opportunities—the kinds that build on students’ assets and identities in ways that allow for everyone to see school as a space for learning that offers fair, relevant, and meaningful opportunities to learn. In this way, students can be successful not in spite of their background but because of it. (This is a core idea in what I think of as Culturally Responsive Education).
What is racism?
Mr. Pondiscio asks: "If I hold to a definition of racism that is manifested in behavior, not an immutable characteristic of my race over which I have no control, am I no longer fit to teach Black and Brown children?"
Whether or not one might agree or disagree with Mr. Pondiscio's representation of how racism is defined in Antiracism© trainings doesn't prevent the answering of his question. While it is essential, in my view, that all teachers recognize the ways in which race and racism (of the interpersonal, institutional, and structural variety) have historically and presently shaped the American landscape of educational opportunity, the view that all White people are inherently racist as a result of an immutable characteristic is an unmerited, slippery-slope argument that lacks rigor and worse, in turn gives permission to justify racist beliefs about members of non-White groups.
I see the notion of "White fragility" as poorly conceptualized because it fails to consider several plausible alternate explanations for the reluctance of White teachers to accept the Antiracism© premise that any resistance to the premise that all White people are racists is either evidence of internalized racism or the unconscious inclination to protect whiteness. There are many other potential explanations for a resistance to the Antiracism© claims of White fragility. The way Antiracism© is often promoted in schools leaves little room for the individual redemption of teachers considering the stain of racism is proposed to be a function of immutable characteristics. I would argue that this isn't an effective methodological approach to actually redress racism in schools. It is a speculative theoretical precept that more often than not alienates many teachers who might otherwise be willing to enter into the very conversations about race and racism that can yield actionable insights that will benefit BIPOC students.
My response to Mr. Pondiscio's question would be that the recognition of race and racism is a requirement of all teachers, as well as is the effort to develop one's own racial consciousness given that our identities are complex, fluid, and developed in the racialized social context of America. In the classroom, however, teachers don't work with populations but rather individual students; and this requires that teachers are deeply aware of how their own behaviors contribute to and/or detract from the quality of the educational opportunities available to their students. This is the most important quality of an antiracist teacher. The antiracist teacher is unwilling to exacerbate the racialized opportunity gaps because of their own blind spots and poorly considered behaviors.
The work of the antiracist teacher requires that we put our own ideas and practices to the test. Thankfully, we have a bottom-line that serves as our conclusive Equity measure and that is the performance and achievement of our students. The ideologies we bring to bear are less significant than the evidence we can point to which confirms or disconfirms that our students are receiving the kinds of opportunities that they can perceive as responsive to their needs and identities. The efforts of antiracism under the conceptual umbrella of Equity should center students. As an antiracist educator, I object to any methods that distract from the ultimate goal of Equity of removing obstacles that stand in the way of the opportunities for our most vulnerable learners.
Equity is defined by working towards the outcomes where race and identity no longer limit educational opportunities which is different than eliminating the discussion of race and racism. The work of antiracism requires the isolation and investigation of racism in all forms, but it is unnecessary and unproductive to embed personal accusations of fragility when human beings may understandably resist being labeled as racist without the consideration of their own unique life story and individual track record. The idea that all White people are by definition racists requires a fundamental redefinition of what we understand racism to mean which serves as a diversion. The Antiracism© re-definition potentially renders the term ‘racism’ devoid of any meaningful power in its description and analysis at the level of the individual where teaching and learning occurs.
Tesconi, Charles. Education for Whom: The Question of Equal Educational Opportunity, (1974).