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“Crazy amounts” of posturing on racism, emails, Worcester Public Schools

Picture of a hand holding marker writing the word racism

It seems like someone is out to get Dante Comparetto, a member of the Worcester School Committee, and, by extension, anyone who seeks to address the issue of racism in the Worcester Public Schools. A March 19 article in the online news source This Week in Worcester described an email sent by Comparetto to friends and supporters, then forwarded on by Greater Worcester Our Revolution [Disclaimer: I am the chair of GWOR]. In the message, Comparetto urged Worcester residents to come to an upcoming school committee meeting to show support for actions to address what he labeled “a crazy amount” of racism in the city’s school system.

Why does Comparetto’s email merit a news story?

It is hard to determine why Comparetto urging followers to support what he deemed an important agenda item is more newsworthy than the actual statements addressing racism made by Worcester residents, and Comparetto himself,  at the most recent school committee meeting, which didn’t even merit a mention on the site. Obviously, there is nothing strange about an elected official rallying people to come out to support a fight he or she believes in. Mayor Joe Petty did that when he and others called on Worcester residents to come to City Hall to support a resolution on immigrant rights. On the other side of the spectrum, it is common knowledge that a couple of right-wing council members recently worked with Mary Mullaney (mother of Aiden Kearney, who ran the now-defunct Turtleboy Sports blog), the Massachusetts Family Institute, and Catholic and other religious groups to mobilize a crowd opposed to real sex education.

Political motive?

With elections coming up, a political motive seems likely. Comparetto, more than any other school committee member, has supported teachers and their fight for a fair contract. Even the picture accompanying the TWIW article shows Comparetto marching in solidarity with demonstrating instructional assistants. Before that, in the 2017 elections, he received the endorsement of the Educational Association of Worcester, the local teachers’ union. It’s unlikely that Comparetto sent an email out to anyone on the staff of TWIW, and no one on the staff of that publication is on the mailing list of Greater Worcester Our Revolution. Someone obviously forwarded the email to TWIW. Perhaps whoever did that is trying to push the notion that Comparetto thinks Worcester’s teachers are racists. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that, but this sentiment is exactly what school committee member John Monfredo says in the article: that Comparetto is accusing all teachers and administrators of racism. Of course, Comparetto’s support for teachers in their contract struggles proves this not to be the case, but during election season, what matters to those looking more for votes than truth is what people will believe.

The definition of racism

The problem with the article is that the letter was taken out of context. It was written as a mobilizing call, but it was addressed to a group of people who have been part of an ongoing discussion about racism in the public school system. Anyone who has been part of this conversation – which is part of a broader conversation among progressives across the country – would understand exactly what Comparetto meant: he was referring to structural racism. There is an important difference between structural racism and individual racism. Structural racism isn’t about individuals’ ideas, but is about systems – like educational systems – that reinforce and reproduce the unequal treatment and living conditions of non-white people. These systems aren’t the fault of some people with bad ideas or attitudes, but of hundreds of years of history, including important economic factors. Actually, any bad ideas, attitudes, or biases are more likely to be caused by these factors than the other way around. While “crazy amount” is something of a subjective term to describe how much structural racism there is, I would argue it is accurate. This racism is expressed not just within the public schools, but onto them: the fact that this majority non-white school system, just like other majority non-white school systems across the state, are short-shrifted by the state funding formula is symptomatic of structural racism. The fact that the mostly Black and brown kids in our public schools are often not even afforded enough books that they can take them home to study, while suburban high school students bask in all the extra-curricular activities they want, is a form of racism. The list goes on.

There is racism in the public school system, and everyone knows it

And this racism exists within the Worcester school system, too. One doesn’t have to be an extreme leftist to get this: even Superintendent Maureen Binienda, part of the political center, attended a meeting of SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice) to talk about and answer questions about racism in the public schools, and what she might do to help fight against it. (To be clear: she also did not accuse teachers of being racists.)

The numbers prove it

Oddly enough, the article on Comparetto’s email proves his point by quoting school suspension statistics from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The message addressed discipline disparities between white students and students of color – and the DESE numbers demonstrate them perfectly. As the article notes, overall suspensions are down, but the disparities have gone up. During the 2016-2017 school year, the percentage of students of color suspended rose slightly from 9.6 percent to 9.7 percent, while suspensions of white students decreased during the same period from 5.3 percent to 5.1 percent. This means that the disparity rose from 4.3 percentage points to 4.6. While this might seem like a small rise, the numbers show that non-white kids are suspended nearly twice as often as white students. (This is not a problem limited to Worcester; it is a nationwide issue.) Above it was mentioned that systemic racism actively reproduces the unequal living conditions of non-white people. Such is the case with suspensions. A 2018 study done by researchers at Columbia University found that “suspended students had weaker attendance, course completion rates, and standardized test scores; were more likely to drop out; and were less likely to graduate within 4, 5, or 6 years.” Of course, these are factors that will influence the life of a student for however long he or she lives. Therefore, if suspensions are applied more to non-white students, this means that non-white students are caused to be that much more likely to, for example, drop out of school.

No one’s saying all teachers are racists

Again, this understanding of racism doesn’t mean that all teachers are racists, or that there is an old white man wearing a top hat and monocle purposely oppressing students of color. Unfortunately, though, it does mean that the racism is that much more insidious: it comes from decades of institutionalized processes, ingrained and unconscious biases, the generational economic effects of racism, and other factors as well. Of course, it is vitally important to do whatever is necessary to recruit teachers of color. As things stand now, many youth in the 70-percent non-white Worcester Public Schools have never had a teacher who looks like them. However good a teacher may be –  and we are fortunate to have many hundreds of good teachers – a message is being sent to Black and brown kids. (See this link from the Education Policy Institute for an overview of the benefits teachers of color provide to students.) Generally, though, addressing the structural racism prevalent in Worcester Public Schools and public schools across the nation will be a long struggle and will require deep discussions. This is why it is so unfortunate when certain school committee members respond in – to put it bluntly – ridiculous ways. One, John Monfredo, was quoted in the article as saying, “We do a disservice to the dedicated teachers and administrators in the Worcester Public Schools by stating they are racist.” It is terribly unfortunate that a man who’s been on the school committee for nearly 15 years, who was a principal and teacher for decades before that, and whose main notoriety is currently due to his work championing reading, could actually read Comparetto’s email and come to the conclusion that it was calling each teacher and administrator racist.

Racism shouldn’t be a surprise; let’s fight it

What’s clear – from the data – is that there is a “crazy amount” of structural racism in the Worcester Public School system. That’s unsurprising, because it is a fact of life in virtually all American cities and public school systems across the country. Some have simply done a better job of tackling the problem that history handed us – and handed most heavily to Black and brown students. Denying the problem or, worse, using an email out of context to score cheap political points will not make the problem go away. Image: Racism by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images _______________ Disclaimer: As noted, I am currently the chair of Greater Worcester Our Revolution, the organization that decided to forward Comparetto’s email to its members. Despite what the article says, no one has reached out to me for a comment. CORRECTION 4/1/19: They did reach out for comment, but the email was somehow lost.

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