About Ruben Brosbe

Ruben Brosbe is a fourth grade teacher in Harlem, New York City. He is passionate about social justice oriented project based learning, and finds that young people make the best activists. When he is not teaching Ruben likes to explore new neighborhoods in NYC or cook.

On May 29th, Starbucks will close 8,000 of its stores for racial bias training. This is a response to the arrest of two Black men who were waiting to meet a friend at a location in Philadelphia. It made me wonder, what would it take to close public schools for a similar effort? If an incident of racial bias is the prerequisite, U.S. schools have too many to count.

What Schools Can Learn from Starbucks

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson explained the decision this way (emphasis mine), “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

If a corporation that sells coffee and Rufus Wainwright CDs can describe its work this way, what will it take for schools to step up? Educators know our work is a “journey that requires dedication.” Unfortunately, not enough schools understand the importance of partnerships with our local communities.

If a corporation that sells coffee and Rufus Wainwright CDs can describe its work this way, what will it take for schools to step up? Click To Tweet

White Teachers as Gentrifiers

While schools might learn from Kevin Johnson, unfortunately, they are too similar to Starbucks in other ways. Some have commented that the Starbucks arrests are a perfect example of the dangers of gentrification. In other words, white people move into predominantly Black and brown communities. When they do, they bring their racist biases (implicit or otherwise). This same dynamic plays out in urban schools across the United States.

In 2014, the number of Black, Latino, Native American and Asian American students surpassed the number of white students in U.S. public schools. At the same time, the K-12 teacher workforce remains overwhelmingly white (82%).

The gap remains when you look at cities in particular. In Philadelphia in 2012,  3 of 4 students were Black or Latino, while only 1 of 4 teachers were. In New York City, according to a report from Education Trust-New York, “A full 88 schools (6 percent) have no Latino teachers, 144 schools (9 percent) lack a single black teacher, and 327 schools (21 percent) have zero Asian teachers on staff.”

When white teachers move into communities of color, we bring the same racial biases as Starbucks customers (in this case the Venn diagram of these groups may be more like two overlapping circles, but I digress).  We all carry implicit biases, and cultural competency is not a given.

I know this from firsthand experience. I came to New York City and began teaching in the Bronx. My first four years of teaching I did not teach a single white student.

My first four years of teaching I did not teach a single white student. Click To Tweet

I don’t have any clear memories of racially-biased incidents in my classroom, but I’m almost certain that they occurred. How could they not? I grew up in a mostly white community. I attended mostly white schools. My friend groups from pre-K through college were almost exclusively white. This is not an experience that prepares one to serve kids of color living in the Bronx.

It’s Not Just Teachers

However, it goes beyond teachers. It’s the entire education system.

Starbucks won’t be able to fix its racism problem through racial bias training alone either. Starbucks is a corporation in the United States of America. That means it will have to do work examining its company policies. It will have to examine its company leadership and management pipeline. It will have to look at where it chooses to build stores, and how those stores affect the communities they enter.

Similarly, to fix racial bias in classrooms we need to look at the way our schools interact (or don’t) with the communities we serve. We need more principals of color. We need more textbook publishers of color. We need a whole scale effort to decolonize our curriculum.

This is a huge undertaking. It will take courage and empathy from white educators. We will fail and we will fail again. But we’re already failing in a much more dangerous way!

If you doubt this, Google “racist teacher” or “teacher uses n-word.” And while you’ll find pages and pages of Google results, you won’t find any instances of schools shutting down for racial bias training. Which should cause all teachers to ask-what are we waiting for?

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