The recent uproar around racist comments by members on the Los Angeles City Council has reverberations that goes far beyond politics. Recent comments by former Los Angeles City Council president Nury Martinez speaks to an issue that plays out in the wider society and in education—the prevalence of anti-Blackness. For those unfamiliar with the context, Martinez offered up some vile comments that were recorded without her knowledge with several other L.A. city council members. Among some of the comments made by Martinez was that one of her colleagues 3-year-old Black son looked “like a monkey,” that he demonstrated behaviors that required “a beatdown” and she referred to Oaxacans as “little short dark people” and” tan feos” or “they’re ugly.” These comments are vile and reprehensible and have no place for anyone in public service.
What is important to note is that Martinez at one time served on the Los Angeles Unified School District board. One can only imagine how a person with such anti-Black beliefs acted in her role as a board member. How did such beliefs affect how she led on the board of the second largest school district in the nation? How did she see Black children? What did she think of Black families? What were her perceptions of Black communities? What policies did Martinez support or thwart that were harmful to Black students? These questions are all fair game now. One can only wonder.
What is certain is that Martinez is probably not the only person involved in governing schools who hold anti-Black beliefs. Anti-Black racism are beliefs, thoughts and actions that any person, regardless of race, can have towards Black or dark-skinned people. So yes, Latinos can and do hold anti-Black beliefs. The idea of Black-Brown unity has been lauded as a way for the nation’s two largest minority group to recognize that they share more in common than they have differences. Yet, what is unspoken is that beneath the surface there is a minority of Latinos who share ideas similar to Martinez, and this conversation needs to be had. It is the silent dialogue that needs to be had immediately.
The UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools released a report in 2018 called “Beyond the Schoolhouse,” in which they documented the declining presence of Black families in Los Angeles County. In short, the report documents that critical mass matters, and the declining numbers of Black students has resulted in intense exclusion, hostility and disproportionate punishment of Black youth in schools. It is important to note that one of the important tenets of anti-Blackness is the embracing or upholding of whiteness. I have worked with numerous school districts across the country, and have often been criticized when I talk about the need to challenge whiteness in schools. To be clear, I make the distinction, whiteness is not the same as white people. Whiteness is an embodiment of the belief that white people are superior to non-whites, and those that are non-white are undesirable, unattractive and deserving of inferior support, services and treatment. And to be clear, people of color can and do subscribe to tenets of whiteness. Council person Martinez’ comments make that point loud and clear. Any references to Black children as monkeys and references to people of indigenous Mexican lineage with darker hues as “ugly” lifts up the ugliness of whiteness.
And what does this mean for schools? Needless to say, Black children and other darker-skinned children are subjected to anti-Black racism daily in school yards and classrooms from adults and peers. What can and should schools do?
Believe Black Children
Many Black children have shared accounts of how they are vilified, excluded, made to feel less than or frequently referred to as the N-word by peers; yet, there are no ramifications for the perpetrators. Some of my own research with Black students has revealed jaw dropping accounts of what they are subjected to at school by peers and adults. Administrators and teachers have a professional obligation to make sure that all students have a safe please to learn. Verbal assaults and insults are not safe ways to learn. Dark-skinned children cannot learn equitably when they are deemed as being inferior to anyone. Thus, accounts of anti-Blackness cannot be dismissed, ignored or overlooked. Education professors Luke Wood and Frank Harris refer to the concept of race lighting, wherein individuals point out and explain issues of racism, but are often told by others that these things really did not happen.
Upstanders Are Needed
One of the most common concepts in the literature on bullying is to ask children who are privy or a witness to bullying to speak up, and to stand up to the harmful behavior of others. Children are asked to do this, but frequently adults do not. The disappointing aspect of Council member Martinez's comments were that other leaders were present and co-signed. For educators who hear colleagues make incendiary comments about Black students, the hope is that they will speak up, stand up and be the upstanders that we ask students to be. It is important to note that silence in the presence of racist language and behavior is a form of complicity.
Anti-Bias Training Is Not Enough
In many districts across the country, the response to acts of racism or discrimination is to engage in a single session of “diversity training.” Such trainings have become quite popular for many districts, and most rarely never change adult behaviors. Schools need to commit to ongoing professional learning about how to unlearn anti-Black racism. School and district leaders have to initiative and sustain these dialogues. Moreover, equity audits are needed to see how anti-Blackness is prevalent in curriculum, teacher-student interactions, access to opportunities and perception of parents and caregivers.
Anti-Blackness has no place in our politics, our schools and society at-large. The ugliness with the L.A. City Council this week has opened an opportunity. An opportunity for all of us to talk about how certain students are deemed undesirable, inhumane and worthy of violent behavior. Such thoughts and actions need to be stopped. Our students deserve better.
Tyrone C. Howard is professor of education at UCLA. He is the president-elect of the American Educational Research Association.