Superintendent Earnest Winston kicked off this school year with a message about the quest to combat structural racism in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
"We are at the fork in the road," he said. "We are choosing to actively fight against racism."
His approach – and his recommended reading list – have sparked both praise and anger.
When CMS teachers returned to their schools last week, they watched a 25-minute video message from Winston. About five minutes in, Winston begins to talk about the pain of seeing George Floyd killed by police this summer.
"In many ways, this summer was an awakening," Winston says. "An awakening of disparities, an awakening of consciousness, an awakening of the impact of this country’s original sin: Racism."
For the rest of the video, Winston talks about how systems of oppression created the well-documented racial disparities in academic achievement and discipline that have plagued students of color, especially Black males.
Last year, Black students made up about 36% of CMS enrollment, with white and Hispanic students accounting for 27% each.
Winston says CMS is moving past its focus on cultural competence into a phase where everyone must examine their own roles in systems of oppression and be accountable for how that affects students.
"And it is important to be clear about your own personal beliefs, bias, and how they show up in your relationships with students," he says.
In the video Winston displays five books being offered to employees to spark discussion. He said he encouraged principals to read and discuss two books over the summer: Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist” and Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.”
"This is the beginning of the journey of examining your own beliefs," Winston says.
Lawrence Brinson, a teacher at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, is president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. He welcomed Winston’s message.
"I look at this as him naming the issues with our school system and what we are doing to address this and how everybody can help make that change," Brinson said this week.
Brinson, who is Black, says it’s good to ask educators to examine their own biases – and to name broader issues like police brutality and systemic racism.
"These are just things that our students see, our students ask about," he said. "And again, if you don’t address the elephant in the room, then it’ll just continue and you won’t be able to break the link."
'A Racist Rant'
Judy Henion, a retired CMS teacher, is president of another teachers’ group, Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina. She says she immediately heard from at least a dozen members upset about Winston’s message.
"It was their outrage that sparked mine," she said.
Henion, who is white, posted a link to Winston’s video on social media and sent it to elected officials.
"It was supposed to be a 'welcome back to school' message to teachers, and yet it was a racist rant by the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools," Henion said.
Henion says it was inappropriate and inflammatory to use images from Floyd’s killing, which sparked protests across the nation. She didn’t offer a more detailed critique, but she said that Winston’s message fits a pattern that’s creating controversy across the country.
Experts Are Split, Too
Progressives have tended to embrace the anti-racism agenda reflected by authors such as Kendi and DiAngelo, while conservatives have critiqued it.
Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute, which describes itself as a conservative free-market think tank, researches education policy, including the anti-racism movement. He watched the CMS video and sides with Henion.
Winston’s message and reading list emphasize the idea that everyone is complicit in systems of oppression. Eden says that sends the wrong message.
"That is the superintendent of public schools in Charlotte accusing all his teachers of being racists," Eden said this week.
Eden says this kind of anti-racism agenda can erode teachers’ authority over students and their relationship with administrators.
"Something I hear from teachers very frequently is that once students kind of get this memo, they realize that they have a trump card to play if something doesn’t go their way in the classroom -- which is to accuse their teacher of racism," he said.
The concept of white fragility is that white people tend to focus on their own feelings and seek reassurance that they’re not racist, rather than focusing on the people who are harmed by racism and changing their own destructive behaviors. Eden says that can set up a can’t-win dynamic where dissent is squelched.
"If you agree with me that you’re a racist, well, then you’re obviously a racist," he said. "And if you don’t respond, that’s part of your white fragility and it shows that you’re a racist. And if you say that you’re not a racist, then that’s definitely your white fragility and it’s definitely proof that you’re a racist."
Eden says that approach is demeaning to teachers, but he says there’s no research on whether it actually motivates them to leave their jobs. And he doubts CMS will get any clear data this year "because COVID becomes such a confounding factor."
Poking The Hornet's Nest
Tracey Benson of UNC Charlotte, author of a book titled “Unconscious Bias in Schools,” says he has personal experience that suggests some teachers will leave. As a former principal who did anti-racism work in Massachusetts, Benson says some teachers aren’t willing to confront their own unconscious biases and admit they could be part of the problem.
"And so if teachers don’t want to understand those dynamics, how they work out in society and also in schools but also in themselves, they don’t need to work in Black and brown schools," he said.
Benson, who is Black, also watched Winston’s message.
"I think he did a great job," Benson said. "And, you know, the road to anti-racism is rocky and it’s rough, and so I applaud him for taking that first step."
Benson notes that this kind of controversy isn’t new in Charlotte. In 2012, then-Superintendent Heath Morrison tried to bring in a consultant to confront racism in CMS. He also got intense pushback, and eventually dropped plans to work with that consultant.
"When you touch the concept of racism in CMS," Benson said, "you’re poking the hornet’s nest."
Benson says the typical Charlotte response to the discomfort of talking about racism is to form a task force, write a report … and do nothing. He says Winston has taken a bold step, but the next steps are crucial.
"It’s going to be very uncomfortable for a very long time, and there are going to have to be some tangible moves where he can connect anti-racism work to the better conditions of Black and brown students," he said.
Necessary, But Not Easy Or Ideal
Winston said Thursday there will be professional development on the anti-racism theme, though the details aren’t set yet. And he says he’s aware of the controversy.
"These are not easy conversations, and as expected, it hasn’t been received well by all," Winston said.
He’s also aware that the social distancing makes tough conversations even tougher. "The ideal situation is to have those conversations, to have that dialogue, in person," he admitted.
But Winston says the need to confront injustice is too urgent to wait until things get easier.
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