The debate around racism in the Worcester Public Schools has reached absurd proportions. Those who speak out for what’s right, most especially School Committee member Dante Comparetto, are being villiefied. On the other side are those, for example the dinosaur-like John Monfredo, who seek to preserve the status quo, hearing but not listening to the stories of students of color and looking at statistics showing glaring disparities between whites and nonwhite students, and then telling the public: “There’s nothing to see here.”
As the newly-formed Worcester Coalition for Education Equity notes in a recent statement, “It is our professional, ethical, and moral obligation to establish and maintain a public education system in Worcester that reflects, values and honors the success of all students. Unfortunately, as a community, we have failed to meet that obligation.”
The weapon of the status quo-mongers isn’t reasoned debate, but playing around with the definition of the word “racism.” When Comparetto sent out an email, forwarded on by the progressive Greater Worcester Our Revolution, using the phrase “crazy amount of racism in our schools,” people like Monfredo and his allies pounced: Comparetto, they said, are accusing the teachers of racism.
Of course, Comparetto, who more than any other school committee member has supported the needs of the teachers, was saying nothing of the sort. His email, not aimed at the general public, but at progressives who have a deep and theoretical understanding of what the term “racism” means. This racism isn’t about individual attitudes, but about systems, built over the course of decades or even centuries, that perpetuate the inequality and oppression of nonwhite people – regardless of the intentions of any one individual or group.
While it would be absurd to claim that all or most or even a sizable minority of white teachers are racists in the conventional sense, it would also be absurd to claim that there are no conventional racists, and that there haven’t been. Monfredo, though, claims exactly this. Earlier, on the Hank Stoltz Talk of the Commonwealth radio show, he said, “I’ve been in education for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen racism as an issue in the Worcester Public Schools.”
It’s 2019. Forty years ago, it was 1979. The Boston bus crisis, which resulted in riots by white parents who didn’t want their kids attending school with African Americans, started in 1975 and went on well past 1979. Even then, was there no overt racism in the Worcester Public Schools? Did this city, with all of its cultural similarities to South Boston, somehow magically escape the huge issue that roiled Boston for years? Not likely. Monfredo just didn’t recognize it then
For someone who claims such knowledge, it shouldn’t have been so hard to notice then. In the 1990s, when I attended North High School, I noticed that there were teachers who were overtly racist: one of them, for example, often mentioned how he didn’t trust the Vietnamese students, because he’d “been in the war.” Even in junior high, at East Middle, it wasn’t hard to hear the complaints of the African American and Puerto Rican students who felt that they were treated unfairly.
Despite the above, the overwhelming majority of my teachers were not racists, and would have been horrified at the idea of treating non-white students differently. They were working people who cared deeply about all their students, spending their money and going above and beyond to try to give the best education they could to kids caught in a crumbling, underfunded, and poorly-performing school system.
Times have changed. The schools are certainly better than they were, and I would argue, based on my own anecdotal experience, that the bad apples are fewer and further between. I’ve heard horror stories from students, and I absolutely believe them, but those stories come from interactions with a small percentage of teachers. I’ve also heard students of color talk in glowing terms of other white teachers.
But racism persists. [See the statement from the Worcester Coalition for Educational Equity here.] As Rev. Jose Encarnacion-Perez calls it, there is “entrenched disparity.”
Huge improvements have been made in terms of overt racism, but not so much in terms of the structural.This racism is even more pernicious than the overt racism of a few bad actors, because, at least for most white people, it is invisible, only discerned in statistics. In Worcester (similar to school systems across the country), students of color are about twice as likely to be disciplined with something like a suspension as white students. Unless we’re ready to say that students of color are 200 percent worse than white students, we have to agree that there is a problem of systemic racism. The fact that reports show that non-white students receive harsher penalties than white students only adds further justification for this view.
So if this racism doesn’t come through bad intentions, what does it come through? One of the problems is demographic: having a 90-percent white faculty teaching a nearly 80-percent nonwhite student body perpetuates a system in which students of color achieve less than their white counterparts – the definition of institutional racism.
This really shouldn’t be a difficult concept. Cultural differences can lead to big misunderstandings, for example: in some cultures, looking people in the eyes is a sign of honesty, while in others it is a sign of disrespect. “Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you!” becomes an admonition fraught with racial and cultural overtones.
Putting police in the schools is another issue to take note of. While the Worcester Police Department is obviously much better at working with people of color than, say, the Chicago Police Department, it is still the job of a police officer to catch criminals. When we assign them to public schools – overwhelmingly nonwhite – but not to private schools that are almost all white, how are students of color supposed to feel? One can argue that the school administration has no control over what happens at the private schools, but, again, systemic racism isn’t about intentions.
These are just a few examples. Systemic racism is expressed in everything from traditional hiring practices to dress codes to unequal discipline to a lack of adequate funding for the school systems with the highest proportions of students of color (systemic racism is not in any way unique to our school system or our city; it’s everywhere).
That this issue affects our schools shouldn’t be something we shamefully hide from. We should, as a city, combat it and take pride in doing so, making Worcester into a model city for others to follow. But if we want to do that, we need to support those who want to do so, like Comparetto, and remove from office those who don’t want to do so, like Monfredo.
With people of goodwill, like Mayor Joe Petty, we need to have frank conversations. Despite the recent flare-up in tensions between him and Comparetto, I think that they have more in common than either of them might presently think, despite generational and stylistic differences. After all, Petty proudly led a rally in defense of our undocumented brothers and sisters, and has recently come out to oppose assigning a police officer to Claremont Academy.
So, yes, there is a “crazy amount of racism” in our schools. It’s “crazy” that nonwhite students are twice as likely as white students to be suspended for similar offenses as nonwhites. It’s “crazy” that the demographics of the teaching pool are so out of whack with the student body. It’s “crazy” that there is not a single person of color on the school committee. It’s “crazy” that we can’t afford a crossing guard at one of the schools, but want to assign a police officer there.
None of the issues that Comparetto, communities of color, and progressives are raising should be a surprise, and should be relatively uncontroversial. Were it not for confusion around the word “racism,” in large part a result of dishonest rhetoric from the right-wing bloc around Monfredo, it’s likely that the path forward would be clear to almost everyone. As it stands now, it’s the task of people of goodwill to help illuminate that path.