How White Bias Gets Institutionalized in Literature Classes Conclusion: A Change Is Gonna Come

I believe that one of the major reasons for the current political conflict and strife is this chart above. As I explained in yesterday’s post, this shows projections by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) that in 2028, only 44% of public school students will be white.

That white students are now a minority in the public schools is not new news; that has been the case since 2014. However, this is not the chart of ALL US students, because it does not include students from private schools and from homeschooling, which continue to be predominantly white. So, for example, while yesterday’s chart showed that 47% of public school students are white, if you added the 5.8 million private school students, 67% of whom are white, and the 2.5 million homeschool students, of whom 85% are white, you still have a total student population that is 52% white.

However, when I add in “guesstimates” for 2028 private school and homeschool students, by 2028 I think we will be at a place where the white population of ALL students is, at best, around 50%. But for each year after that, the percentage will probably drop, based on current birth statistics.

School statistics are important because they are a snapshot of the future. In, say, 2030, when students of color will be the majority of US students, the country overall will still be predominantly white because of the older populations. But those populations (of which I am a part) will die off, and the country as a whole will look more and more like the student demographics.

The US Census predicts that by 2045, we will be a “majority minority” country, with the following racial breakdown:

Here, for comparison, are the current racial demographics:

This issue here is how do you react to these charts, especially if you are white. For a lot of our white population, it provokes fear. That fear can play out in lots of ways, including:

  • anti-immigration policies (“Build a wall,” “Send them back,” deportation of immigrants who entered the country illegally, lack of support for the so-called “Dreamers,” or children born in the US from illegal immigrants, etc.)
  • veneration of the “good old days” when white people were the most numerous of the US population, even though other racial groups were experiencing oppression
  • opposition to programs such as affirmative action, which seeks to “level the playing ground” by giving advantages to racial groups that have historically been disadvantaged
  • criticism to educational programs that teach about the ways that minority groups have been mistreated or oppressed
  • challenging books from different racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural perspectives

However, more than we may realize, the white population being a minority is “business as usual” in many of our urban centers. Washington DC has been a predominantly black city since the 1950s, although in 2011 the percentage of black residents dropped below 50% due to growing numbers of Asians and Hispanics (but still larger than the white population). After the 2010 census, data showed that white people were a minority in 22 of the 100 largest urban areas, including such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, and San Jose. I’m not saying that there haven’t been, and continue to be, issues. However, people in these areas are living, usually fairly peacefully, in this environment where white people are not the majority in number.

I grew up in the DC area, and I loved the diverse culture of that vibrant city. So this big transition in our country doesn’t scare me. But this is a huge issue for many people, and is one of the reasons we see such a political divide between our urban and rural communities.

However, love it or loathe it, fear it or embrace it, a change is going to come. School statistics show us the people in the pipeline who are going to become the adults in the decades to come, and they are less and less white and more and more people of color. Absent some dramatic event (such as mass immigration of people from Scandinavia), non-Hispanic white people will no longer be the major of the US population.

Most public school teachers know this. Most of them see it happening in their classrooms every year.

So I’ve spent the past week writing about all the ways that white bias gets institutionalized in the classroom. It may have seemed like all these factors towards institutionalized bias are so great that things won’t change. But that’s not what I believe.

I remember learning in graduate school that the K-12 education (very different than college education) is basically a conservative profession; it is the job of K-12 teachers to teach the knowledge, perspective, and values of the community to the next generation. It is, in effect, transferring the learning and beliefs from the past to the young people who are our future.

So K-12 teachers tend not to be radicals. They tend to be patient and to believe in incremental change. They know too well that facts quickly acquired can be forgotten just as quickly. They practice the process of true education, which is that facts and data, over time, become knowledge, which over time, becomes wisdom.

Plus, most teachers are optimists, if not dreamers. Who else would go into a classroom with up to 30 totally different young learners believing, or at least hoping, to make a difference in each one of their lives?

Teachers are overwhelmed right now. They are being asked to figure out how to reconfigure schools so that children can be socially distant and practice regular cleansing and wear masks all day long and still learn, or else how to conduct learning effectively at home via technology. I personally believe that the news industry has not sufficiently covered how the coronavirus has added additional burden to the already overworked school teacher.

Now, on top of all that, we are asking them to also address the institutional issues that have supported white bias in the curriculum.

Despite it all, I think teachers will answer that call. I know I keep coming back to this poem, but I think W.B. Yeats just captured this time so well in his 1920 poem, “The Second Coming” (which was written in response to World War I, but also to the 1918 flu pandemic that almost killed his pregnant wife):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

That is to say, as long as “business as normal” is not a possibility, why not go ahead and try something different in the curriculum as well? I am sure lots of teachers are supportive of the protests right now for a more equal and just society. I think the way we can support that in our jobs is teaching some more diverse books. I’m not suggesting changing everything, but what if each high school literature class substituted just one book by a person of color for one of the “classics?”

(Side note: There are actually quite a few I could suggest eliminating. One of my friends who works at an elementary school and I were talking about why, in our own high school classes in the 1970s, we had to read books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or The Lottery, and hoping they weren’t inflicted upon today’s students. Even as a white person, I think Heart of Darkness is a terribly racist and imperialistic book….and yet, at least a decade ago, that was the book that was referenced most often in the AP English Literature exams.)

Anyway, the point is…life is crazy right now, particularly in education, where teachers are trying to figure out how to teach students and keep them and themselves safe. But they know what is going on in society as well. I think we’re going to find a lot more teachers who are willing to include a new book by a black or other person of color author in their class reading list.

Changing one book may seem like a small thing. But a small thing, done by teacher after teacher, school after school, state after state, can make a big difference.

But that’s what teachers do. We prepare our students for the future. And like it or not, the future is going to look more non-white.

I’ll close with this wonderful performance by Lizzo of a classic song, which was presented as part of the At Home Together concert:

Click here to see my Introduction to this series, see How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: An Introduction.

Click here to see How White Bias Gets Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 1 – Testing

Click here to see How White Bias Gets Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 2 – Teacher Work Load

Click here to see How White Bias Gets Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 3 – Appropriateness

Click here to see How White Bias Gets Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 4 – Let’s Look at Some Numbers

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