Discussing segregation that still exists within the American education system, University of California Riverside (UCR) alongside the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Civil Rights Project explored the potential role of schools in addressing racial inequalities and advancing racial justice through education. Published on Sept. 27, 2023, “The Racial Reckoning and the Role of Schooling: Exploring the Potential of Integrated Classrooms and Liberatory Pedagogies,” this report was spearheaded by UCR assistant professor for the School of Education, Suneal Kolluri, alongside his colleagues Liane I. Hypolite, assistant professor of Educational Leadership at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, Alexis Patterson Williams, associate professor of Education at the University of California, Davis and Kimberly Young, a teacher and Social Science department co-chair at Culver City High School.
Professor Kolluri stated that following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, “there was at least a moment of sort of centering issues of racial injustice in the United States.” This centering of race was coined in the research paper as a “racial reconciliation … We have seen progress, especially here in California where we mandated ethnic studies for all students who are going to graduate by 2030.”
According to Professor Kolluri, “we’re so often concerned about education for the purpose of social mobility, making sure that our students get good grades, go to college and get good jobs that sometimes we forget to think about education in terms of its impact on democracy. What this paper does is try to look at all the different aspects of schooling, teaching pedagogy curriculum, and really tries to emphasize the ways in which these different levels of schooling work together to produce, or perhaps hopefully challenge, racial inequality.”
Research from the report suggests that integrating schools can significantly reduce racial prejudice and promote meaningful interactions between different racial groups. According to Professor Kolluri, “it starts with ensuring that there are spaces where kids from different racial backgrounds can engage together in schools and learn from each other and build connections, build relationships. I do think that sort of allowing space for different students to connect in meaningful ways, particularly for white students, to learn from the experiences of folks who are not like them, I think it’s essential. I think it is important.” Based on the report’s findings, students ranging from elementary school to college who develop close ties outside their race tend to exhibit less racial bias and vote in favor of policies promoting racial reconciliation.
Although the report outlines integration as a necessary step to racial reconciliation, it also outlines many barriers that often obstruct the integration process. Professor Kolluri elaborates on this, stating “we have a lot of teachers who are legally banned from speaking about race. They aren’t comfortable doing it. They don’t know how to do it. They are not prepared to do it. I think, even in California it’s making teachers feel confident and comfortable delivering into these complicated topics of race … But we can develop movements that push and challenge and resists and encourage teachers to be courageous and build community and movements of educators who refuse to be silent and are able to talk about these things in ways that their jobs remain protected, but they are engaging students in these meaningful conversations, because they’re essential to teaching.”
Despite these challenges, the report advocated that schools can be crucial in creating lasting change through integration and equitable policy change. Researchers suggested that “integrated schools attuned to equitable policies and practices provide an essential foundation for democratic schooling towards racial justice. We believe these schools are possible, and they are essential to movements for racial justice.”
The Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 started the process of integration in schools when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional. According to the report, white and Latinx students remain highly segregated, and the segregation of Black students has progressed significantly over the past several decades. Growing attitudes of “pervasive anti-Blackness and institutional racism constrain efforts to integrate schools.”
Professor Kolluri states “At the school level, we got to make sure we’re integrating students to connect together in this classroom level, make sure different students have access to the most interesting engaging classes in the school and connect together and then make sure that every student in each classroom feels like, regardless of who they are, or their strengths or where they come from, that they have a voice in the room.”
The report argues that racial segregation is promoted through test scores. Professor Kolluri elaborates on this point, stating, “I think a lot of research has been done to demonstrate there’s racial biases in how we identify gifted students. I think the gifted label is very much racialized in a lot of ways. Advanced Placement (AP) classes are certainly spaces where Black and Latino students are underrepresented. And Native students are underrepresented.”
The research suggests that “given the racialized and class-based foundations and correlations of these assessments,” students from white, middle-class serving schools tend to outperform other students on standardized tests, “cementing race and class-based segregation across the district.”
Professor Kolluri emphasized that desegregation alone is insufficient to address racial inequalities, stating “when you provide culturally relevant learning experiences for students in places like advanced placement, a lot of marginalized students can show up, succeed and excel in these spaces. But we don’t always allow, in these advanced spaces, culturally relevant learning opportunities for students, the curriculum is very race evasive and doesn’t consider students from non-dominant cultural backgrounds.”
The report emphasized the importance of discussing race in classroom settings. Professor Kolluri stated “We have to have conversations with students that engage these important questions about racial inequities that allows them to sort through the difficulties and challenges of race in America and allows them and trust them to have these conversations because they’re capable of having them.”
Professor Kolluri states that his hope in publishing this report is that “people see how essential it is to think across multiple levels of education, to consider race, racism and racial inequities. I want teachers to see this and think, Hmm, what am I doing in my classroom to ensure that I have equal opportunities for my most marginalized students? How can I think about including conversations about race and racism? Whether I’m an English teacher, a social studies teacher, or a math teacher, how can I incorporate these types of essential conversations in our classrooms, because they’re so central to our democracy?”
The report demonstrates that early exposure to conversations around race and ethnicity in educational environments can positively impact young children’s perceptions of race. The report stands firm that despite this nation’s setbacks in American education, the foundation for racial reconciliation is the classroom.
Professor Kolluri emphasized his optimism in the youth as spearheads for racial change, stating, “I teach college at UC Riverside, and I think young people recognize the injustices that exists in our society. They recognize that there’s something that’s unfair, and helping them and guiding them to understand or at least analyze that unfairness is going to be essential to our ability to function as a democracy, and create a world that is fair and just for everybody and lives up to the principles of our country.”