While I’m sure there are other factors I could discuss, I’m going to finish my series on ways that white bias gets institutionalized in literature studies by looking at some of the data about public schools today.
Let’s start by looking at teachers.
According the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the premier source of data about education at the federal level, in fall 2019, we had about 3.2 million teacher in public school. The breakdown of teachers by race in 2017-18 (the latest information I could find from NCES) in traditional public schools was:
This charts shows that teachers are EXTREMELY predominantly white, with the remaining 20% being first primarily Hispanic, next black, and then Native American and Asian.
Here is the NCES breakdown of teachers by race in public charter schools in 2017-18:
In public charter schools, the teachers are still predominantly white, but there is a greater diversity among teachers. Many charter schools are based in minority communities as alternatives to the standard public schools, and often heralding that community’s heritage, so it is not surprising that they have a higher number of racially diverse teachers.
How do the teacher racial demographics compare to the population in general? According the to US Census, this is the racial/ethnic breakdown of the entire US population in 2019:
This chart shows that even in charter schools, the teachers are more predominantly white–and much more so in conventional public schools–and people of color are underrepresented except for Native Americans. (The Native American situation might be a little different because many Native American reservations have schools for their own people, often taught by their own people, so those statistics may not reflect the typical school situation.)
These charts show there is a discrepancy between statistics about public school teachers and the public at large. But what if we looked at the demographics of the current public school students? Here is what NCES said was the breakdown of the 50.8 million students in public schools in Fall 2019:
This is the NCES projection for 2028:
I picked the stock photo for this post shown above because it depicts what many of us think is the reality of today’s schools. However, that just isn’t how it is. The teacher is accurate; public school teachers today are overwhelmingly white and overwhelming female. However, the class composition is wrong. Overall, there are now more students of color than students of Caucasian descent in our public schools…and there have been since 2014. Moving forward, the Caucasian percentage of students will continue to decline, and the biggest growth will be among Hispanic/Latinx populations, according to current NCES and US Census data.
Sooooo….there is a pretty big mismatch between our school’s teachers demographics and our school’s students. Statistically, the percentage of white teachers working at conventional public schools is 170% of the percentage of white students. On the other hand, black, Hispanic, and Asian teachers are approximately .50% of their conventional public school students–meaning the percentages of teachers from those racial groups are only half of the percentages of students from those same groups.
I want to point out that, as my Southern husband would say, we would be “in a world of hurt” if we didn’t have all these white people, mostly women, willing to do all the work involved in teaching at a salary, at least in North Carolina, that doesn’t recognize the invaluable need for their service. I am grateful to their contributions to our community’s children, especially because from my friends in the public schools, I know how many hours of overtime they often put in. So this post is not meant as a criticism of them.
Still, teachers can only teach what they know, and what they know is influenced by their community. I will use myself as an example. I’m not denying the possibility, but I don’t remember a single non-white teacher in my high school, undergraduate, or graduate school education (other than my Spanish language teachers); if I had one, it was in some class that wasn’t central to my academic interests. In college and even graduate school, it was rare that I had a female professor, even in the School of Education when K-12 education is so predominantly female.
This is not to say that we all only read or teach books within our racial or ethnic community. Still, my foundational literature studies, taught by white teachers, were primarily–honestly, pretty exclusively– white. So when I started developing my own classes in high school American Literature, the first thing I did was think about the classes I read myself in American Lit in high school. I made lots of changes, and my books list is more modern and diverse than my old high school class. Still, that’s where I started. Plus, what I learned about interpreting books has been taught from a white perspective, at least in terms of my formal education.
While I’ve searched out and taught a lot of books by diverse authors, I haven’t tried joining a more diverse literary community. So that’s a step I want to take after having reflected on this current situation.
But enough about me. My message is that white bias gets institutionalized into literature studies simply by the demographics, particularly the difference between the racial percentages of teachers and students…and the difference between what we THINK student demographics and what they really are. Having teachers that better reflect the demographics of their students, which I think is probably better reflected in charter schools than in general public schools, is probably the best way to address this problem. In the meantime, we white teachers need to expand beyond what we know from our own community and become better educated about the literary gems and perspectives of our students’ more diverse cultures.
Tomorrow I will wrap up this series with some thoughts about the future.