To All the White Allies Seeking to Become Co-Conspirators, Here Are Things to Think About

George Floyd, gasping for air, uttered a desperate final plea that was heard around the world: “I can’t breathe.” The image of a black man dying under the knee of a white cop is horrific — and symbolic of the racism embedded in every institution in America. Pre-K-12 education is no exception. The white-dominant education system is suffocating black students.

No universal pre-K. Inequitable school funding. Dilapidated buildings. Police brutality in schools. Unqualified teachers. Crumbling textbooks. No heat or air-conditioning. No Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment courses. Academic tracking of students. White teacher bias. High rate of school suspensions. Lack of teachers of color. White family flight. Redlining resulting in a decreased tax base. Fear of black male students. Black children’s behaviors labeled as inappropriate. Restrictions on black hairstyles. Bias in selective-admission schools. Parent meetings held during the workday. Lack of special education supports. Low levels of rigor. Devalued cultural identity. Biased standardized tests. “No excuses” models.

The results of these inequities are consistently recited as facts: Black students lack proficiency in math and reading. Black students are not college-ready. Black students experience significant learning disabilities.

The real fact is that the education system is failing black students.

On May 31, after watching the news with tears running down my face, I tweeted: I’m worn out. In search of white education co-conspirators who are ready, willing and able to work and fight for the oppressed … unapologetically and fearlessly because that’s what it’s gonna take. Full stop. 

As a black woman working in education, I know the system cannot be changed solely by black leaders or educators. The system is centered in whiteness, which is why the needs of black students are not prioritized. System transformation resides in the privilege afforded to white leaders, from policymakers to nonprofit executives to superintendents who may have the best intentions but rarely achieve equitable results. Hence, the need for co-conspirators.

In an interview, Dr. Bettina Love, author of We Want to Do More Than Survive, spoke to the role of a co-conspirator as originally defined by community organizer groups: “A co-conspirator says, ‘I know the terms; I know what white privilege and white supremacy mean; now, what risks am I willing to take?’ It’s saying, ‘I’m going to put my privilege on the line for somebody.’”

In essence, white education co-conspirators must be unapologetically anti-racist, committed to listening and learning, willing to cede power while using privilege to invite others to lead, uncompromising in providing high-quality education for black children and prepared to take political risks to advance their needs.

And here is the key: The work must be done in full and equitable partnership with black leaders if we are to shape the pillars of an education institution that values and celebrates black students.

These people exist. I have seen indicators of co-conspiracy in my Aspen Pahara Fellowship cohort-mates Stacey Childress, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, and Mike Magee of Chiefs for Change; in Karen Cator’s support of my work at Digital Promise; and in League of Innovative Schools leaders such as Susan Enfield of Highline Public Schools and Steve Webb of Vancouver Public Schools, both in the state of Washington. But a few is not enough to enact the level of change needed.

I seek to identify a national coalition of white education co-conspirators willing to use their privilege to catalyze anti-racist actions in partnership with, advocacy of and support of black leaders, with the goal of creating the conditions for black students to thrive. If becoming an education co-conspirator is a call that speaks to your heart and mind, please join us to learn more.

We must work together to cure the racist epidemic that has ravaged pre-K-12 education and impacted the lives of millions of students.

Kimberly A. Smith is executive director of The League of Innovative Schools at Digital Promise. Ms Smith’s blog was originally posted on The 74 Million’s website.

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