Our society faces many concurrent challenges in addition to the COVID-19 outbreak. Anti-Black racism, the threat of financial collapse, and the frequency of environmental disasters often co-exist. Taken together, these four crises have a devastating effect on the nation’s young people of color who confront a variety of daily fears, including eviction, poor air and water quality, racism, and food insecurity.
That was the message conveyed by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D., during her virtual lecture, “Developing Asset-Based Approaches to Address Racial Trauma in K–12 Schools.” The lecture, sponsored by The School of Education, primarily sought to define how institutions and individuals can adopt the tenets of antiracism. Dr. Ladson-Billings is the former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and faculty affiliate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
She noted that diversity is celebrated in nature, yet it is something with which humanity has always had a problematic relationship. “Systemic racism and implicit bias continue to help deny African Americans the same opportunities as their white peers,” she said.
Dr. Ladson-Billings added that the concept of race is to rank, or create, hierarchy. “It’s an organizing principle for distributing benefits.” She noted that more African American and Latinx individuals have succumbed to COVID-19 because of less access to adequate medical care.
Schools play directly into the racial narrative, Dr. Ladson-Billings stressed, through the use of tracking and ability grouping, special education referral, suspension and expulsion rates, and lack of access to enrichment programs. In order for this to change, teachers, administrators, and policy makers have to take deliberate and affirmative actions.
“We have to get in front of this problem,” she said.
Race does not biologically exist, Dr. Ladson-Billings emphasized. “Yet, how we identify with race is so powerful that it influences our experiences and shapes our lives.” She added that in a society that privileges whiteness, racist ideas are considered normal throughout our culture, and racist views justify the unfair treatment of people of color.
Dr. Ladson-Billings said that racism is not only about individual mindsets and actions; racist policies contribute to our polarization and threaten the equity in our systems and the fairness of our institutions. “To create an equal society, we must commit to making unbiased choices and being antiracist in all aspects of our lives.”
Dr. Ladson-Billings noted that people who do not speak up for Black and Latinx people, do not socialize with them, and do not advocate on their behalf, cannot attest to being antiracist.
“No one is born racist or antiracist,” she explained. “These result from the choices we make. Being antiracist results from making a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, and equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life.” In the absence of making these choices, people perpetuate white supremacism.
Dr. Ladson-Billings promotes the notion of culturally relevant pedagogy, which is comprised of three important elements: student learning, cultural competence, and socio-political or critical consciousness. “At its heart, it’s about social transformation, not about getting more aid or more services,” she stressed.
After the lecture, David L. Bell, Ed.D., Dean, The School of Education, stressed the need for these ongoing conversations. “It is about more than just K–12. Higher education also needs to look at trauma and the challenges with the curriculum. We need to ask, ‘how do we see teaching and learning through the eyes of students?’”