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The racism around us

Reshaping class discussion on race and culture


Part three in a series.

The New York State Education Department launched a new statewide curriculum in May intended to root out implicit bias and racism in all its forms in the schools while affirming students’ “racial, linguistic and cultural identities.”

The SED calls it the Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education curriculum, and it all begins with frank classroom discussions rather than heated debates. The idea behind the new curriculum, state education officials said, is to include students of color, rather than isolate them, and to encourage all students to think deeply about race and culture.

“Students are having these conversations anyway,” said Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based nonprofit advocacy group that is raising awareness about the importance of the new initiative. “Having them in an unstructured environment can be more harmful. It’s important to have educators who are properly trained to lead discussion.”

Where learning begins

The new curriculum is needed, its supporters say, because institutional racism remains an obstacle, keeping students of color from realizing equality with their white peers. At the Five Towns Early Learning Center in Inwood, which educates children from 18 months to 5½ years old, Executive Director Pepper Robinson said prejudice begins at home.

“I notice that young children pick up the attitudes of their parents. We hear it, see it and observe it,” Robinson said. “We are very aware of it . . . We work hard to form a relationship change that crosses racial lines. As the children form relationships with the teachers, the parent, who might have a prejudice, is forced to form a relationship with the teacher.”

The new state curriculum addresses teachers, students and parents, said Sage Gladstone, 15, of Syosset, who is advocating for the initiative with ERASE Racism’s Student Task Force. The group has met with educators and others across Long Island to brainstorm ideas for eliminating bias and racism in schools, and hosted workshops to discuss teaching methods to do so.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out new approaches to have students and teachers understand,” said Gladstone, a Syosset High School sophomore. “When something happens in our world, we should be able to talk about it, not tiptoe around it.”

Lawrence School District Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen, a former kindergarten teacher, said research shows that children do not see skin color at the earliest ages, but become aware of racial differences by the time they enter kindergarten. “My experiences at the youngest levels is that children were far more likely to tell me who did something by describing the type of paper they were drawing on than the color of their skin,” Pedersen said. “Very, very rarely did they bring up skin color.”

Robinson said that the 4- and 5-year-olds at her center occasionally say they do not like a person of a different color, and this is where the learning needs to begin.

Overcoming obstacles

Julian McBride, a forensic anthropologist at the United Nations who grew up in Inwood, is the director of the non-governmental organization the Reflection of War. McBride, 27, of Freeport, graduated from Lawrence High School in 2009, served in the Marines for four years and earned an anthropology degree from Adelphi University in 2017.

As a child, he said, he didn’t notice the systemic racism around him. As an adult, he began to see the many forms of implicit bias, particularly in the area of employment opportunities.

Gross noted that with education comes a deeper understanding of why structural racism exists. Students, she said, should understand the societal structures that affect their lives. When they think deeply about systemic racism, she noted, students begin to see struggles “not as an individual failure of people of color, but [they] begin to be able to discern false narratives and to create a framework that allows for factual discussion.”

Terrence Batts, Lawrence High School’s orchestra director, who is African-American, remembers the battles his mother and father fought to have him placed in Honors classes in the 1960s and ’70s. “As an elementary school student, my parents had to make frequent trips to teachers’ and administrators’ offices in efforts to have me placed in the A track, or Honors classes,” Batts, 61, recalled. “Despite their efforts, I was systemically and defiantly kept in the B track.”

Batts recounted how his grades suffered in B track middle school classes, because teachers’ expectations of students were lower. “My African-American science teacher, however, having seen my work over a period of time, was stunned that I wasn’t in Honors, and he had me transferred” into the Honors class, he said. The scenario was repeated in social studies, he added.

Now, Batts said, he is taken aback and disappointed when he learns that one of his orchestra students of color, imbued with what he called “unmistakable intellectual heft,” is not in Honors classes.

Changing perceptions, however, is difficult. Gladstone, who is white, said, “If the lesson doesn’t have diversity to draw from, [teachers] want to teach what they know and don’t want any controversies. They want to keep it as surface as possible. There’s a lot of fear behind not knowing how to address it. Society says, ‘We don’t talk about that at school,’ and that’s been the mentality for so long.”

Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education, Gladstone said, “needs to happen.” As part of ERASE Racism’s Student Task Force, she has demonstrated English lessons, including on the book “Dear Martin,” about a teen who must overcome police brutality and racial profiling.

Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education helps “not only people of color, but all students function in a diverse world, and to not be uncomfortable with other cultures,” Gross said. “I fear people will think, ‘Oh, we’ll do something during Black History Month, and that’ll be fine.’ It’s not an add-on. We need to make it clear to people that the systems need to change. That’s what we’re aiming for.”