“We only hire the best and the brightest. And when it comes to people of color, they’ve been neither.” – My former boss
A decade has passed since the superintendent of schools (at the time, my direct superior) spoke these vile words at a meeting about our bussing program’s budget. Time won’t let me forget that dark, yet illuminating day. Stated with such callous indifference, these words now make me wonder: How many times have they been said before? And to whom? The pronouncement confirmed the existence of a biased mindset—an ideology, when applied to hiring and retention, that consistently affirmed white supremacy.
These are not places where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) thrive or survive. He, the superintendent, was a career educator in one of the most affluent, liberal, and respected communities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It was considered an idyllic place to work—for White people.
Oh, the Hypocrisy
Would it shock you to know this same school system, in a tiny Massachusetts town, is often acclaimed as the inaugural member of one of the nation’s longest-running desegregation programs? It shouldn’t, because school districts, school committees, leaders, and teachers alike are never required to submit evidence of their commitment to becoming unshackled from the evils of systemic racism.
I have come to terms with the reality that this superintendent’s horrific statement reflects the mindset of many White educational leaders, many of whom have begrudgingly accepted the charge to develop and execute plans to racially diversify their educator workforce. But successful diversity hiring, and even more particularly, retention, is inherently dependent upon the genuine commitment of school leaders, who must not be content with the racist status quo.
It is in predominantly White communities where dedicated educators ignore the prejudicial and harmful language and actions of their colleagues, supervisors, and students. They set low expectations for Black and Brown children, look to White and Asian students as models of all things excellent, refer to undocumented students as “illegal,” disproportionately suspend and expel students of color, stand firm on their belief that Black parents don’t value education, and hold Black educators to a higher standard than their White peers. Sound familiar?
To this day, I feel convulsions when I think about, write, or repeat the words of my former boss. Because, in doing so, I am forced to recognize the depth and breadth of White supremacy in the school, district, community, and the White “allies” that I had once greatly respected. In reflection, I realize that this district is no different than the schools I attended, the schools I worked in, the schools where my children now attend, and, if nothing changes, the schools my grandchildren will attend in the future. This has to change!
Silence Is Complicity
I will never forget the experience of bearing witness to the complicity of White school committee members whom I had once considered to be “allies” as they dutifully flanked the superintendent as he proudly spoke such vitriol. Their silence was deadly and would later prove to be symbolic of the smile, the wink, the quiet nod of approval inherent to “White solidarity.” There was no public rebuke, sounding alarm, or even basic humanity.
The deafening silence of my White “allies” pierced my heart. Would they publicly say anything? Nope. Wrench that dagger to the right. Was I going to be the only person in the room to speak up and challenge this racist statement? Yes! Plunge that dagger deeper. What am I to conclude but that White supremacy runs deep and wide? That White silence in the face of racism is sheer violence?
The hatred hidden behind the superintendent’s remarks on that cold winter evening was even more significant given that they were delivered at the historic Twelfth Baptist Church located in Roxbury: the epicenter of Boston’s Black community. This can’t be a coincidence.
Best, Brightest, and BLACK
For about two centuries, Twelfth Baptist Church has been lauded for its fight for racial justice. What makes the superintendent’s “best and brightest” proclamation especially significant is that this same church has, in fact, groomed the world’s best and brightest—unapologetically Black teachers, preachers, abolitionists, and leaders. For instance, Rev. Leonard A. Grimes, an abolitionist, served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Rev. George Washington Williams was a soldier in the American Civil War, a lawyer, a journalist, a politician, and a writer.
Frederick Douglass frequented this church. He is one of the best and brightest minds and leaders, who used his many talents to try to end slavery. After escaping slavery himself, he became a writer, abolitionist, and one of the greatest orators of all time. He was the gifted author of three autobiographies, which depicted the horrors of slavery. He also founded the North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper.
Dr. King—an assistant pastor at the church—was a civil rights leader, international human rights hero, and anti-war advocate. He was the brilliant and humble recipient of many accolades. At the age of 35, he was the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He graced the cover of Time Magazine with the coveted title of “Man of the Year.” His I Have a Dream speech is arguably the most famous in history. Dr. King led the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which eventually became the impetus for the Supreme Court’s decision that ruled segregated buses and all other public accommodations are unconstitutional.
Rev. Dr. Haynes, a friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a respected politician, minister, renowned speaker, and civil rights activist. He was a Massachusetts State Representative, as well as member of the State Parole Board. His list of accomplishments include many firsts: the first Black person invited to serve on the Berkshire Christian College Board; the first Black person to address the Evangelistic Association and New England Annual Conference; and the first Black American elected as a full delegate to the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization.
Can you get any better or brighter?
Despite their accomplishments, Rev. Leonard A. Grimes, Rev. George Washington Williams, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Dr. Haynes lived during times when Whites believed Blacks to be intellectually inferior. In fact, I am sure many of their White contemporaries believed that despite the success and impact of these black leaders—despite their educations, skills, recognitions, literary successes, and aspirations to improve the plight of Blacks—these five Black men were neither the best nor the brightest. That’s White supremacy rearing its evil head. Its legacy lives on today.
No More Waiting for Change
It’s been 10 years since the superintendent made his vile remarks, and not much has changed. The challenges of racially diversifying the educator workforce persist. In 2019, Education Policy Analysis Archives reported the minority turnover rate from 1980-2013 was consistently higher than that of their white peers. I know the obstacles educators of color face, and I empathize with why they feel compelled to leave.
The challenges are the same: reporting to administrators who show racial animus; being subjected to school policies and practices that are biased; being expected to teach and discipline all students of color; having to moderate tone in order to not be perceived as angry or threatening; and facing the barrage of microaggressions from colleagues and parents. I have countless experiences with these and other challenges I have chosen to omit. They all evoke feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anger.
It’s time for change. This may mean shelving your perfunctory diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops. It may mean recognizing your mandated implicit bias training has not changed negative behaviors. Try challenging the imbalances of power and privilege with these strategies:
- Hold everyone (including yourself) accountable for responding to and interrupting implicit and explicit prejudicial and harmful language or actions when they occur.
- Work collaboratively with the school and broader community in developing and implementing an equity policy or statement, as well as systems of accountability.
- Work to repair relationships and rebuild trust when members of the school community have been impacted by racism.
- Implement hiring and retention practices that are deliberately focused on increasing racial diversity.
- Provide, require, and participate in ongoing anti-racism and anti-bias training.
My experience was dehumanizing, but it ignited my resolve to be a vessel in the fight for dismantling White supremacy. If you are sincere about racially diversifying your educator workforce, I ask you to join me in this fight. This will require the moral fortitude and conviction to actively cast out the darkness of white power and white privilege—even, and perhaps especially, if it lives within you. To a lesser or greater extent, it lives within us all.