When I taught high school students in the early 2000s, I once asked a new teacher how things were going. Her responses remain etched in my mind even now. She said the school was much better than she had been told at the school district’s orientation meeting. Asked what she had been told, she replied, “They told me this was a ‘ghetto black school.’” Wow.
While the school was certainly more diverse than when I first arrived, it was definitely neither black nor “ghetto.” In fact, it was about 75 percent white, with Latino students being the second largest group at about 15 percent. Clearly, the approximately 10 percent of students who were black did not define the racial make-up of the school. Moreover, the socioeconomic level of most students, regardless of race or ethnicity, was solidly middle to upper-middle class. Yet, unbeknownst to me, the school had somehow acquired a pejorative label based on race and class. How does that happen?
Stereotypes, implicit bias and outright racism are how it happens. Studies show that the way one defines “diversity” or “integration” is largely determined by one’s own race, with whites deeming diversity to have been achieved when the non-white population reaches 10 percent. People of color, on the other hand, don’t perceive diversity to have been achieved until that percentage is 30. While neither viewpoint is wrong, the area of disparity is where the negativity grows, where the disparaging labels arise and the discriminatory treatment of students of color is born.
The assumption that black and poor are synonymous, for example, is commonplace—wrong, but commonplace. From that misconception, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this poverty is not merely economic but also includes a poverty of character, intelligence and even integrity. That’s a huge jump, but it’s deftly made simply because “different” is viewed as negative and threatening. That’s why a school that is only 10 percent black, and not largely of a low socioeconomic level, can be deemed to be “ghetto” and “black” without evaluating the validity of the assumptions.
Even now, in 2019, the vast majority of schools in the United States are not diverse. Neither the student population nor the teachers reflect diversity by any definition. Indeed, when there is even a modicum of diversity, it’s at about that 10 percent level. More than that, and white flight frequently ensues, all based on the stereotypes, implicit bias and racism that place a negative connotation on any place—not just a school—that moves toward equal levels of diversity.
Think, for a moment, of the impact all of this has on students of color. Painted with a broad brush, these “ghetto” students are viewed as inferior on every level, and, by extension, not worthy of equity in their education, including the quality of teachers and resources. That’s why a teacher would be warned against working at a “ghetto black school.”
Now consider how seeing all this affects white students. Sensing an undercurrent of negativity attached to their peers of color, and perhaps even hearing outright statements to that effect, they can begin to acquire similar attitudes. Is there any wonder that they would repeat the patterns set before them?
For all these reasons, real diversity, going beyond minimum levels, is essential. And making diversity a priority is only part of it. Equally important is developing a school culture and even a district culture that celebrates cultural pluralism and seeks to learn about and from all the cultures in the school. And, yes, diversity training may be needed on an ongoing basis to redirect biases among the adults.
Teachers, in turn, can foster students’ critical thinking about their own biases and encourage their viewing of differences from culturally relative perspectives that respect each culture’s differences. The overriding goal is to provide real insight and to instill an appreciation for the richness diversity offers. Ultimately, everyone involved then begins to see increased diversity as an asset rather than a disadvantage.
The fact is that everyone gains from diversity, gaining a broader perspective on life in the long term and the potential for new, rich interactions in the short term. These alone make diversity worth any effort.