Who You Calling “Minority”?—The Imperative to Improve Educational Opportunity for the Nation’s Emerging Majority

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By Thomas Rudd,

Historic and persistent gaps in educational opportunity for all of our Nation’s citizens are no longer a matter of debate, analysis, and political posturing. Racialized barriers to opportunity in educational attainment have placed millions of American children at risk. These students are disproportionately Black and Brown. Without a strong educational foundation, these children—our children—cannot emerge into adulthood as fully engaged participants in the social, economic, cultural, and civic life of their families, their communities, their states, and our nation. If we continue on the present path of disparity, inequality, segregation, racial isolation and diminished hope, the consequences—the lost potential—will be incalculable.  As the U.S. population becomes less White and more Black and Brown, the “minority status” of educational inequality will be significantly elevated. Four years ago 38% of public high school graduates nationwide were nonwhite. Six years from now that figure will jump to 45%.  In some states—California, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia—public high school graduating classes have already reached “majority-minority” status. Demographic projections show that five additional states will make this shift in the next six years.

At the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, we understand that the causes of racialized educational disparities operate through two distinct but connected mechanisms. On one side, structural barriers to opportunity create disinvestment in our central cities, segregated low-opportunity communities, inadequate health care, inadequate affordable housing, high incarceration rates for non-violent crime, high unemployment, underprepared teachers, a lack of college preparatory classes, underfunded schools and distorted conceptualizations of merit in the college admissions process. Collectively and independently these “structural” conditions have a negative impact on educational opportunity for students across the country who are presently labeled as “minority.” In our structural analysis of opportunity we understand that education is a “gateway opportunity domain.” This means that success or failure in education is directly connected to outcomes in other critical opportunity domains including housing, health, civic engagement, employment and wealth building.

We are also looking at the dynamic interaction of race and cognition in the creation and perpetuation of racialized barriers to opportunity. Our research in this area strongly suggests that implicit—unconscious—racial bias, a cognitive barrier to opportunity, is implicated in many of the most serious issues that influence educational outcomes for African American and other students of color in the United States today. These issues include diminished teacher expectations, “cultural deficit thinking,” and racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline and assignment to special education. Research also tells us that students who attend schools in racially isolated low opportunity communities very often experience “toxic stress” and other forms of trauma caused by repeated exposure to violence, unstable home environments, unemployment in the household, family illness, peer pressure,  poor physical health, and the perception that their teachers and other adults do not appreciate and respect them. This stress can have significant negative consequences on the learning process.

The nation cannot afford to stand idle in the face of these forces that threaten the well-being of so many of our children.  A strong productive participatory democracy requires an educated citizenry. Creativity, innovation, progress, sustainability, security, global competitiveness, representative government, justice, prosperity, freedom, inclusion—all these conditions require a resilient population that is capable of understanding the cultural, political and economic dynamics of a modern democratic society, how to maintain stability in the society and how to regain equilibrium when any of these systems are out of balance. Research shows that problem solving is more effective when the problem solvers represent a diversity of opinion, philosophy, and strategy. At the individual level, education is central to our ability to understand and participate in the world around us, to control many of the elements that determine our life trajectory, to achieve a reasonable level of comfort and satisfaction, to connect with people outside our own social borders, and to live a life—as Amartya Sen says—“that we have reason to value.”

Groups that we have conveniently—and sometimes pejoratively—referenced as “minorities” are growing substantially in number. In the not-so-distant future, the demographic profile of these non-White groups will be elevated to majority status in many places. Without dramatic improvements in our public education system, millions of these citizens will be stranded in a landscape of low opportunity and hopelessness.  If educational opportunity continues to tilt away from citizens of color, how can we ever fulfill the promise of a nation “indivisible with liberty and justice for all”?

Various remedies have been proposed and implemented to improve educational outcomes in our nation’s schools and reduce the substantial achievement gap between White students and students of color. Many of these initiatives, including some that are federally funded, have been unsuccessful or only marginally successful. Ohio’s Governor recently released a new plan to improve educational outcomes in the state. Several of the provisions in this plan appear to have strong potential for success; these include separate equity funding for poor districts, new funding for tutorial and other support services for students reading below grade level, and district grants to improve teaching and learning.  The ultimate success of these provisions will depend not just on funding, but on the support and commitment of all of the State’s education stakeholders—just about everybody.

Impediments to this commitment in Ohio and throughout the country include, first, long standing racial discrimination and implicit racial bias that have left  far too many Americans in a space where they do not feel compassion for and a connection to people of color who are most impacted by our failing educational system; and secondly,  the failure of politicians, social scientists, economists, and the media to  fashion a strong effective narrative to convince the American people that  the  crisis in education, and especially the under-education of emerging majority groups, poses a threat to our democracy and our national security. How can we sustain a viable democracy and a strong economy if growing numbers of our citizens are transitioning into adulthood without the benefit of a solid preK-16 education that equips them not only with the resources needed to build a life they have reason to value, but also to emerge as fully engaged citizens, leaders, visionaries and change agents on the pathway to the future. The simple answer is that we cannot…

Tom joined the staff of the Kirwan Institute in 2004. In his current capacity as Director of Education and Emerging Research, he is responsible for expanding the Institute’s research agenda on issues related to educational opportunity and envisioning and energizing new research in criminal justice, implicit bias and health/health care with a focus on the social determinants of health. Tom received a Bachelor of Science in sociology and a Master of Science in higher education, student affairs from Iowa State University. He has pursued doctoral study in educational policy and leadership at The Ohio State University. Prior to joining the staff at the Institute, Tom served on the professional staff of the Ohio Board of Regents where he directed the Department of State Grants and Scholarships and then served as Director of Student Financial Access in the division of educational linkages and access. Tom has worked extensively on issues related to strategies for improving access to higher education and the quality of preK-12 education. He recently completed a funded project aimed at broadening awareness of the ways in which traditional approaches to merit in the college admissions process have created barriers to educational opportunity, limited racial and ethnic diversity and obscured the democratic mission of the academy. Tom is originally from White Plains, New York. He is married to Dr. Nancy Rudd, a professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Oho State. He has three adult children. His youngest son is currently enrolled in a combined masters/doctoral program in biomedical engineering at Ohio State. Tom is an avid amateur photographer. Research interests: Structural and cognitive barriers to opportunity; education; criminal justice; health care; democratic merit; the meaning of race; racial discourse; race and cognition; implicit racial bias.